Genius solutions are not quick fixes

2nd January 2009 at 00:00
Schools, like elite musicians and athletes, are improved through hard work, not short-term initiatives

In his new book, Malcolm Gladwell pulls off his now familiar trick of showing us just how blindingly obvious the blindingly obvious is. He demonstrates that genius may not be as unattainable as we had assumed. The super-talented - those we think of as geniuses - have in their past an unexpected hinterland of painstaking practice.*

By means of simple calculations, Gladwell arrives at the magic number of 10,000 hours. Students who will become "merely good" musicians will have done 8,000 hours by the time they are 20, he says. Future music teachers - who he presumes are less talented - will have done 4,000. By the age of 20, the elite musical performers, sportsmen or academic gurus, on the other hand, will have put in 10,000 hours of practice. So there - practice does make perfect.

This diverting bit of Christmas holiday reading seems relevant when we think back over the educational landscape of the past year. Was it just me or did we feel the tectonic plates shifting in a way that wasn't entirely welcome, a lowering of trust placed in schools? Unless I'm being paranoid, 2008 marked the tightening of a central grip, a desire for schools to know their place.

To make sense of this, we should look back to the heady dawn of Labour's education reforms. Michael Barber's compelling and still cogent The Learning Game (Methuen) set out the manifesto in 1997. The underpinning rationale was that more of the same wouldn't work. Literacy standards had stagnated half a century earlier, the teaching profession was suffering low public and self-esteem, and in many areas there was a haemorrhaging of middle-class pupils - either to a handful of good local schools or into the independent sector. Things had to change.

And they did. The employment of what Barber grandly called "para-professionals" - support staff to enable teachers to focus centrally on planning, teaching and assessing - was enshrined in the groundbreaking workforce remodelling initiative.

The National College for School Leadership and the headship qualification were established to raise the quality and status of school leadership. (Remember the early symbolism of Tony Blair being at that first graduation ceremony?) They also showed our role in system leadership.

There was choice and diversity through an acceleration of the specialist schools programme and Leading Edge partnerships, incentives for schools to raise standards and to work in partnership with other schools. The "training school" concept brought more relevant training of the profession's new recruits, spinning off into the TeachFirst programme to lure bright young things into the classroom and circumvent old-fangled university-based PGCE training.

And while there were targets and strategies and other blunt instruments of accountability, the philosophy was that schools, their teachers and leaders should be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

So what's changed and how is it relevant to Gladwell's thesis on genius? If Gladwell teaches us anything, it is that there is no magic solution. Genius isn't quite the mystical act of God we might have assumed: a lot of it can be explained by practice. Similarly, if schools are to keep improving in this country, it won't be by quick fixes.

Take last year's educational low point - the cack-handed announcement of the National Challenge. It was the greatest opportunity to demonstrate where all the reforms of the New Labour years had been leading, to get a handful of headteachers with the Secretary of State and to say: "Together, let's make our schools better." Instead, there was the finger-wagging naming and shaming, lamely blamed on the media. Then, more insidiously, came the assumption that the answer for these schools in challenging circumstances lay not in powerful partnerships with other schools but in labyrinthine action plans and countless visits from advisers and consultants.

Then there is the mad notion that schools with training school status will lose that role unless they are deemed "high performing". Do we believe that our future teachers should train only in schools exceeding the threshold of 65 per cent of pupils achieving five GCSE passes? Don't we need precisely the opposite - training rooted in our most challenging but brilliantly led schools so that we build our expert practitioners and leaders of the future while also giving status to such schools?

There is the school improvement partner scheme - originally, school leaders holding school leaders to account for raising standards - which some see as a shift to heavy-duty local authority monitoring. And - wackiest wheeze of 2008 - there was the announcement that an army of business leaders would be deployed by the National Council for Excellence in Education to help schools to improve. Some of us may feel they have a rather more important task on their plate in salvaging our wrecked economy.

All of which speaks of a Government that has lost the courage of its earliest convictions, which feels it can no longer trust the profession to take responsibility for raising standards. Just as there is no simple formula for exceptional talent, there is no simple one for making schools better. But there is certainly a simple formula for demotivating the profession: by withdrawing trust.

You don't have to be a genius to know that.

'Outliers: The Story of Success' by Malcolm Gladwell is published by Allen Lane

Geoff Barton, Headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

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