The process-refining philosophy of total quality management has worked wonders for industry - could schools share the benefits? Gerald Haigh finds out. Even though the name of management guru W Edwards Deming, the father of total quality management, is becoming more familiar to heads and teachers, it is still more likely than not to provoke a "who he?" response.
But the words of educational consultant John Marsh may nudge educators into finding out more. "Dr Deming's teachings make a nonsense of grading, league tables, performance related pay, etc," he says. This is not a knee-jerk ideological response, because, says Mr Marsh, Dr Deming "deduces this from a technical point of view, not a political one". His point is not that league tables and the rest are immoral, or sociologically unsound, or unfair, or right-wing, but that they simply do not work.
Deming, who was born in 1902 and was still hard at work until just before he died in 1993 at the age of 93, developed his principles from a deep understanding of statistics, and honed them on 40 years of experience as an internationally successful management consultant. He is given credit for the post-war revival of Japanese industry and since then his ideas have gradually gained ground in the West. His supporters would say that this progress has happened in line with the demonstrable failure of more aggressive, "scientific" management methods.
Marsh's description of Deming's approach is quoted in Malcolm Greenwood and Helen Gaunt's Total Quality Management for Schools. Although educators have for some years taken an interest in Deming's work, this book represents what is probably the first published description of how Deming principles - originally devised to tackle inadequate manufacturing performance - can work in UK schools.
The strength of the TQM philosophy comes from the rigour of its statistical foundation. Briefly, Deming says that in any system there will be a range of differences of performance. Some of these differences (which Deming calls "variance") are due to identifiable special causes (illness, perhaps). Deming used statistical analysis to differentiate between special causes and common causes. The common causes are what you are left with after special causes have been tackled individually.
Common causes are endemic in the system, so the people in charge cannot get rid of them by by inspecting the product and then rewarding or penalising individuals or groups accordingly. Instead, they must enlist the support of the workers in improving the system. Two of the "14 Points" that are central to TQM are: "Cease dependence on mass inspection" and "Remove barriers to pride of workmanship".
As Greenwood and Gaunt go on to explain, "(Deming's) controversial emphasis on the undesirability of performance targets and worker appraisal, which is highly relevant to our educational context, stems from here."
Deming supporters in education would say that you cannot improve schools by inspection, reward and punishment. The only way forward is to enlist the people who work in schools in improving them, and remove barriers to professional pride. The same analysis can apply at individual school, department and classroom levels.
Greenwood and Gaunt make a powerful set of connections between the TQM principles and school life, cutting through teachers' natural doubts about the perceived contrasts between business and education. "All work is a process. Managing quality is about refining processes. School processes can be measured. The aim is to get things right first time - that is, cut out inspection. This is achieved by refining operating procedures. Techniques for doing so are readily available."
Supporting this last point, the authors go into considerable detail on the statistical analysis of marks and examination data, showing how it can be productively used and summarised to show trends and levels of variance, and to suggest improvements.
Much of what they say will be familiar enough: "Our aim must be to enable and empower students to take control of their own learning." TQM, they suggest, "involves a significant change in the relationship between teachers and students."
If your inclinations are already in this sort of direction then, the authors add, "at least you now have a systematic justification for what you have always felt instinctively to be the right approach."
That the Deming approach provides intellectual support for ideas already held, sometimes in half-formed ways, was confirmed by Steven Bacon, deputy head of Matthew Moss High School in Rochdale, where Greenwood and Gaunt's book has been in circulation for some time. "I was doing an MA, and part of the course was on Deming. When I described it to Andy Raymer (the head) we realised that was the way the school was set up. Straightaway it gave us the security that we were not alone and that this was something that worked on an international scale. "
Deming's insistence on "pride in workmanship" is very important to Andy Raymer. "I had always assumed that people come to work wanting to do a good job, and I thought it was because I'm an optimist," he said. "Deming says it's much more than that."
The validation of the Deming philosophy enables the Matthew Moss head to deal with the notion that people need to be watched, checked and penalised into working properly. "The assumption that people don't want to do a good job is deeply insulting and de-motivating, but it's also clearly wrong."
An example of Deming in action at Matthew Moss is the school's Boys are Bright project, which is intended to raise the aspirations of under-achieving key stage 3 boys through a series of curriculum- and industry-linked initiatives. Mr Raymer says that in many cases where such potential failure is identified, "The temptation is to blame someone - it's idleness and stupidity. Or it's poverty, or the teachers, or the England cricket team. A traditional answer would be to lean on them, get tough, work them harder, give them extra homework. But what kids need to do well is self-respect and some organisational skills."
The link between this anecdote and Deming's ideas on reducing variance through improving the system rather than through exhortation or leaning on individuals is obvious.
There is no doubt that Matthew Moss can hit conventional targets, as a recent good Office for Standards in Education report testifies. The quality of student learning was found to be "satisfactory or better" in nearly 90 per cent of lessons, and inspectors commented that: "Pupils show high levels of confidence and articulateness (sic). They respond positively to opportunities given to them in lessons to undertake a high degree of responsibility for their own learning."
All the same, the inspectors did have difficulty in making some Matthew Moss methods fit the criteria. For instance, the school has no job descriptions because what matters to the Deming-based institution is continuous improvement, and this means that meeting a fixed specification is a limiting concept.
"The inspectors wondered, 'How do people know what they are supposed to do if it's not written down?'," Mr Raymer recalls. "We suggested they ask them, and they found that staff actually do understand."
Staff used the inspectors' comments on behaviour and good manners to reinforce this point. "All teachers take responsibility for this. It's not the stuff of a job description," Mr Raymer said.
Voicing the thoughts of many heads, He explained that, "OFSTED works on the assumption that it's a quick fix. It is not about a process of continuous improvement." For him, Deming offers a viable alternative view.
"If anyone wants convincing I suggest they go through an OFSTED inspection and then read Deming - not the other way round, because that would be depressing. "
Above all, perhaps, Andy Raymer feels that Matthew Moss is now well equipped to meet change. Any idea that there is going to be a "breathing space" post-Dearing is mistaken, he believes.
He contrasts, "the belief that things will return to some notion of normality" with "the absolute certainty that things will continue to move".
Now, he says, "We can move faster than anything the Government can throw at us."
* Total Quality Management for Schools by Malcolm Greenwood and Helen Gaunt. Cassell. Pounds 40 hbk, Pounds 14.99 pbk.