'Improvement requires no plan and no targets'

13th August 2010 at 01:00
School leaders are encouraged to take on inspectors and do what suits their workplaces' needs

Targets and plans are pointless - so ignore the powers-that-be and have it out with your visiting HM inspector instead.

That was the message delivered to a conference run by the Scottish Government last week, although organisers of the leadership summer school have a track record of inviting provocative speakers.

That role fell this year to John Seddon, an authority on change in organisations, who told an audience largely comprising headteachers: "Radical improvement requires no plan and no targets".

An occupational psychologist and visiting professor at Cardiff and Derby universities, he said: "The only plan should be to get knowledge".

It was pointless examining how other businesses and organisations did things well: "Everything you need to know to improve your system is in your system." Managers in any sector had to get out among their own staff.

Everyone who had followed this advice in the public sector was "at a level of performance you never would have put in a plan," added Professor Seddon, who said his ideas had been greeted enthusiastically by advisers to Prime Minister David Cameron.

Tradesmen would get freedom to stick with jobs until they were done properly, rather than be allocated a set time for a task by management - an approach that ensured "you're meeting all your targets, but the service is crap".

A formerly failing IT helpdesk at Stockport Council now operated at 17 per cent less cost after following his advice, whereas "when managers manage costs, costs go up". Professor Seddon also rubbished the idea of economies of scale, insisting "local is cheaper and more sensitive to demand".

He was not very familiar with Scottish education, but saw enough to damn the government's failure to implement the 2007 Crerar Review's calls for less reliance on central control in the public sector: "You missed an opportunity".

He was also unconvinced by Curriculum for Excellence, vaunted as a break from past strictures, but which nevertheless used the language of target- setting, such as "indicators of progress".

"If this is true, then you're going to be in trouble," he warned.

Professor Seddon called on delegates to do what suited their own workplaces' needs, regardless of targets and guidelines. "Have the argument when the inspector comes," he advised.

The visiting fellow at Hull University Business School was disdainful about the value of exams - "As a psychologist, I know that testing takes the value out of learning" - and explicitly linking classroom learning to the needs of business.

"Businesses need people who can learn - rather than equipping people to learn business," he said.

There was a largely enthusiastic response to Professor Seddon from the floor. One delegate complained the Government's class-size targets were a "huge waste" of effort that were not meeting children's needs, and said "educationalists could make much more sensible decisions".

Another backed his call for less centralised control, but thought Curriculum for Excellence was a move in the right direction.

Another took issue with his scepticism about exams, arguing that good results were a "passport for the future - I don't see how you can get away from that".

Speaking on the theme of innovation, independent consultant Laurie O'Donnell said Scottish education had been well funded since devolution and had high-quality teachers.

But the former director of learning and technology at Learning and Teaching Scotland was concerned about the "glacial pace" of overall improvement.

Scotland was "totally brilliant" at "sustaining innovation", he said, meaning improvements to the existing system. But education needed "disruptive innovation" - a radical break from the past.

Annette Bruton, Aberdeen City Council's director of education, culture and sport, agreed: "I think we're terrible at innovation," she said. What often passed for innovation in Scotland would not "change the nature of how things happen".

henry.hepburn@tes.co.uk.

  • Original headline: Heads are told: `Improvement requires no plan and no targets'

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