Surely we're shoved more than nudged

21st January 2011 at 00:00

I once asked an A-level English class to nominate the ugliest words in the language. The results - in ascending order - were "plop", "onus" (I think that's what they said) and "gusset".

I was impressed that they knew gusset, a term associated in my memory with ladies' underwear and aunts in Wales. Nevertheless, gusset was the undisputed winner.

If I were updating our collection with phrases of unblemished ugliness, I would nominate "choice architecture". I first came across this term in summer 2009 when, sensing a whiff of political change, I decided to read the book everyone said was informing Conservative thinking on education, social policy, and everything. By American academics Richard H Thaler and Cass R Sunstein, the book was called Nudge and described something called, unhappily, "choice architecture".

Put crudely, it's how to get people to do things without them realising what you're up to. Instead of government passing laws to make people behave in certain ways, you subtly change the culture so that people choose to exercise more, drink less or donate more money to charity.

Thus officials in Charlotte, North Carolina, found that more poor parents would actively choose a school for their children (something better-off parents do routinely) if they were given more information about how their local schools perform - a simple "fact sheet" comparing school performance. Students in San Marcos, Texas, were more likely to go to college if informed about the benefits (official and unofficial) by fellow students rather than teachers.

Much more significantly, managers at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam found that spillage from airport urinals was reduced by 80 per cent when they etched a black image of a housefly on to the back of the porcelain.

Nudging implies subtlety. From where I'm sitting, it feels as if we are being less nudged and more shoved.

First, there's all that myth-making about passing decision-making to school leaders. Much of it is nonsense. When something like the School Sport Partnership will see its funding cease this year, it's disingenuous to declare that headteachers can keep them going if only they prioritise properly. That's not a nudge, it's passing the buck. If we can't afford to pay the staff from a dedicated pot, it's misleading to pretend that we can rustle up resources from somewhere else.

It is the same with last week's performance tables, and the sudden appearance of the English Baccalaureate scores. The English Bac (a late entry into my "ugliest phrase in English" contest) proves to be not a nudge but a tripwire. In the spirit of choice architecture, many schools will hastily re-engineer their options systems to funnel more students into history, geography and languages, knowing that to do otherwise may actually disadvantage pupils and brand their school as unacademic. Notice how the curriculum starts to change without the need for a minister's edict. That's a nudge.

Then there's the use of Ofsted "outstanding" gradings as a gateway to the promised land. The first phases of academy freedoms were for schools deemed outstanding. It now looks as though the designation of the bizarrely named "teaching schools" may be the same (bizarre since most parents probably assumed that all schools contained teaching).

To say that the schools eligible must have the Ofsted imprimatur of "outstanding" will strike the layman as sensible. The concept is presumably designed to nudge those of us leading schools not officially deemed outstanding to claw our way more urgently into the educational premier league. What's to argue with?

Like much of the nudge conspiracy, it's based on a false assumption. Few of us in education believe that if a school is judged outstanding, it is automatically because of the teaching. Until recently, teaching was hardly looked at during inspection. It still feels as if many Ofsted reports are phoned in from the lead inspector's home based on the performance data. Some schools may even be outstanding as a result of their feeder schools doing badly.

So why assume that this is where high-quality professional development should begin? If we want the best workforce possible, we need people who have worked in the widest range of schools, whatever badges the institution has earned officially. This recognises stunning teachers doing incredible work, day in, day out. They deserve the tributes of their peers. Because it's something an Ofsted team, performance tables and those fixated on a narrow view of academic education may never state publicly. Even with a hefty nudge.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds.

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