Beating the bogeyman

25th April 2014 at 01:00

"Eat your vegetables or the bogeyman will get you" was a chant offered up by many a frustrated parent, invoking the spirit of a threatening presence to motivate children to eat their greens.

Of course, such a strategy was no more successful in changing children's attitudes than any other external attempt to strong-arm people into altering their views. As a society, we use extrinsic motivation as a force for ensuring order and stability. The consequences of breaking our society's laws - loss of our liberty, our jobs, our driving licences - can prevent us from doing bad things, but such laws do not motivate us to do good things.

Similar strategies are regularly used in the world of education. Just as parents threaten their children with the bogeyman, school leaders use the educational equivalent, the inspector, to "motivate" teachers to comply with their wishes. The implication is that terrible things will happen if the laws are not followed to the letter.

What is remarkable here is that the reality is very different. I used to spend time visiting schools and speaking to teachers about their practice as part of my job. I lost count of the number who said that they couldn't experiment with their classes because the local authority would not allow any variation from the "rules".

Even when I explained that, as the director of education, I did not uphold such a ruling, they refused to believe me, so deeply entrenched was the belief that someone would come and get them if they didn't comply with these imaginary instructions.

The fear of the men in suits is a very powerful and restrictive force in Scottish education. Unfortunately, school leaders who resort to the cheap motivational tool of threatening their colleagues in this way reinforce a negative outlook towards external inspections.

The unintended consequences are even more disturbing. This behaviour sets up a barrier between the teaching force and those charged with inspecting the quality of education on behalf of the government. This pushes both groups - schools and inspectors - into learned roles and does not lead to the desired outcome of improving education for young people.

It also leads local authorities and the inspectorate to resort to the tried-and-tested notion of "support and challenge" - although the challenge often comes before support.

Over the past nine months, I have developed a business with colleagues. We are not accountable to any external body for the quality of our work, nor has anyone provided us with challenge or support. But do you know what? I have never worked in a more quality-conscious, values-based, high-performing organisation in my entire career. And there's not a bogeyman in sight. Go figure.

Don Ledingham is director of innovation leadership at Drummond International, and honorary professor of leadership at Queen Margaret University

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