Listen out for that horse!

3rd February 2006 at 00:00
The great northern comic Frank Randle did part of his act sitting behind a drum-kit. Suddenly, he would break off from his monologue and tap out a steady rhythm on the woodblocks.

"A horse, walking," he would announce, in a deliberately affected tone.

Then he would do it again, but with the sticks stopping just above the blocks so that there was only silence.

"A horse, walking in the snow," he would intone in the same faux posh voice. The audience would break up and he would cackle delightedly at the thought of once again getting away with such nonsense.

Can you imagine another comedian doing that? Jack Dee? Ricky Gervais? Of course not. And yet they're all effective at making people laugh. Suppose a busybody manager were to say to Jack Dee, "Look, Jack, I've got this drum-kit. I'd like you to sit behind it and do this. It worked for Frank Randle..." And yet, aren't we in danger of doing that to our teachers when we fence them in with highly prescriptive strategies, lesson plans, schemes of work?

The danger of making everyone stick to guidelines - even "proven"

guidelines - is that you'll clip some people's wings and end up with mediocrity. It's a theme that Marcus Buckingham develops in his excellent book on management, The One Thing You Need To Know (Simon and Schuster, Pounds 17.99). He takes as an example a successful retail store in which workers with special - sometimes quirky - individual skills are encouraged and directed to appropriate tasks. What you always hope for, he suggests, is that when someone challenges the orthodoxy coming from above, then those doing the handing down will stop and think about what they're asking.

"Thus challenged (leaders) will, or should, become more inquisitive, more intelligent, more vital, and more able to duck and weave into the future."

Do you see that happening in education? Do ministers, education officers, inspectors, school leaders show signs of listening to creative people working at the sharp end, learning from them how to "duck and weave into the future"?

No, neither do I. The hand of central direction rests heavily on the service at every level, making life for unorthodox and challenging teachers and heads more difficult than is good for the nation.

So, leader, whoever you are, look up from your desk for a moment today.

Cock your ear and listen for the sound of a horse walking in the snow.

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