Economical with classroom actualite

27th June 1997 at 01:00
A few months ago a British conference organiser, hoping to arrange a great national conference on efficiency in business, telephoned an American who was reputed to be the world's leading expert on these matters. Would this transatlantic mega-genius be able to come to Britain to address an eager British business community?

"My fee will be Pounds 40,000 plus expenses", said the great man. The British organiser gulped and contemplated his modest budget. "I'm sorry, but I'm afraid we couldn't possibly afford that," he replied, "but just to satisfy my curiosity, can you tell me briefly what the gist of your message would have been on how we could improve our efficiency?" There was a pause. Then the global guru uttered just two words. (Normally these would retail at Pounds 20,000 each, but you can have them for nothing). "Trust people," he said, and with that he put down the phone.

I found this true story irksome and cheering. I was a teeny bit narked, as I, like others, have been saying precisely the same thing for the past few years without being regarded as the world's leading guru on business efficiency. However, it was gratifying (a) that he mentioned people, rather than systems, and (b) that he advocated trusting them to use their intelligence, rather than accusing them of being incompetent, malevolent, or both.

When money is short, there are few options. One is to make better use of what actually costs money, such as people's time. The previous government's deep suspicion of the professions led to teachers, doctors, police officers and others being buried under mountains of paper. They were shackled instead of liberated. Bureaucracy replaced trust.

In my new role as world efficiency guru, I offer Pounds 40,000 tip number one. It is this. Buy (Pounds 10,000) yourself (Pounds 10,000) a (Pounds 10,000) shredder (Pounds 10,000). A shredder not only cuts useless paper into thin strips, but you can send it off to be recycled. Keep your shredder next to the mail rack. All junk mail and useless correspondence can be put straight back into circulation, without touching the digestive system of the reader.

The next step is to take a close look at all mission statements, written policies, school development plans, and de-bullshit them. This would reduce many to a few paragraphs. It is here that lack of trust is at its sharpest. Deep suspicion of teachers means they are not trusted to do the job, unless they have written down that they want to "raise standards" or "deliver high kwality education". It suggests a loaded Kalashnikov and sheets full of tick boxes are needed to secure commitment.

Of which school is this the mission statement? "Our aim is to offer a first-class education to every child. As the 21st century approaches, we are committed to raising the standards of all our pupils, so that they can face the rigours of an uncertain blah blah, glob glob, oodle noodle, flannel flannel, hot air, well-meaning empty tosh, kwality kwality all the way, there's more of that where this came from, we're the Spice Girls and this is what we really, really want ...

All schools write that they want the best. Are there any schools whose ambition is to lower standards? If so, shut them down. If you asked the lousiest school in the land to write a mission statement, would it not produce precisely the same pap as everyone else, whatever the reality? There is the language of mission statements and there is the actuality of classroom life, and sometimes the two are poles apart.

Be honest. Can you remember vast chunks of any written policy statement you have ever subscribed to? For 10 points, no conferring, could you explain how your 1993 plan differed from your l995 and 1997 plan? I have a good memory and I cannot even remember the ones I have written. The reality in schools is what people do, not what they write. Writing should be kept to a minimum.

My third world efficiency guru tip is this. Take (Pounds 8,000) a (Pounds 8,000) scythe (Pounds 8,000) to (Pounds 8,000) meetings (Pounds 8,000). Halve the number of meetings, halve the time of each one. Replace talk with action. Lack of trust by the last government led to an enormous increase in time spent on futile talk, as teachers tried to persuade real and imaginary snoops, and each other, that they were satisfying requirements.

There were fat meetings and thin ones; long meetings and, less often, short ones; angry, silly, jolly, funny, hilarious, anarchic, pompous and earnest meetings; planning, analysing, justifying, disputing, evaluating meetings; pre-inspection, during inspection and post-inspection meetings; therapeutic, repetitive, let-it-all-hang-out, sobbing, sodding meetings. There were too many and they drained away precious energy from classroom work.

Just as writing should be confined to essential target setting, record keeping and evaluating, so meetings should be limited to analysing, planning, inspiring and enthusing.

Windbags should agree to be gagged. Therapy seekers should take up yoga. Seasoned obstructionists should agree to number their comments, so they could just call out the numbers, instead ofboring everyone into a coma: "There's no call for it" (2a); "That's the first I've heard of it" (4c); "We did that in 1986" (7a); "And it didn't work then" (7b).

Trust is a two-way bargain. The price we pay for being trusted is that no one must break the trust. Those who unwittingly do so should be offered help and support. If that is spurned, then retribution will follow. It is actually a small price to pay for being trusted. The vast majority are allowed to get on with their teaching, not treated as potential criminals and buried under bureaucracy.

That is what efficiency is - maximising the time spent on what is important, minimising the distractions. In summary: action, not words.

"So caper the paper and walk the talk." That would have cost Pounds 5, 000 a word from the American guru. Cheap at the price.

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