Take it slow with Brown

4th November 2005 at 00:00
Blair's high-speed chase of targets is not the way to achieve sustainable success in schools, write Andy Hargreaves and Dean Fink.

Everything is going faster. People drive faster. Television and video clips are shorter and sharper. The Prime Minister proposes to push us onwards and upwards at a dizzying pace. Even the cricket has speeded up. We live in a fast and frantic nation; an ADHD society. We want it all, and we want it now.

Much of this change is invigorating. But Prince Charles is right when he says that sometimes we need to slow down a bit - to have sustained conversations and not just instant messaging; to ruminate and reflect instead of cranking out quick answers; and to learn in ways that last far beyond the examination sell-by date.

The UK has become a fast-school nation. The Government assails us with short-term targets. Struggling schools are told to sort themselves out in only one year. Half the heads of the first city academies left because they could not bear the pressure. The standards and targets escalator is moving faster and faster and the top is not a plateau but a cliff.

Of course, closing the achievement gap does demand a sense of urgency. But imposed, short-term achievement targets are based on the poor economic models and bad business practices of Enron and Worldcom which elevated quarterly returns above long-term profitability and sold their shareholders and the public down the river when creative accountability turned into outright corporate fraud.

We need an educational reform strategy that is no longer hooked on the short-term: caught between fast and forced reforms on the one hand, and fashionable flurries of innovation on the other (the latest example being the Government's new white paper). If we are to develop real learning that has breadth and depth, we need something more solid and sustainable than short-term targets and initiatives overload.

Our educational strategy needs to look a little more like our economic strategy - a slow and steady record of relentless improvement. It needs to be a little less Blair and a little more Brown.

After investigating 30 years of educational change in eight secondary schools, and working in more than 40 educational systems around the world, we are convinced that schools must address seven principles of sustainable leadership if they are to bring about improvements that matter, spread and last.

1. Depth. Sustainable policies address things that matter - quality teaching and depth of learning. Short-term targets push most schools to focus on testing before learning. They give priority only to learning that is easily measured.

2. Length. Sustainable policies last. They do not shift with every change of minister. And at all levels, they take succession seriously, stretching from one leader to the next.

3. Breadth. Sustainable policies are a shared responsibility. No one individual, party or nation can control everything without help. Targets shared in a school or profession create commitment and even provoke a little healthy guilt when people fall short; but imposed targets provoke only fear in which people do anything to come up with the right numbers.

4. Justice. Sustainable policies are just. They do no harm to and actually improve the surrounding environment. Target-driven forms of accountability create disincentives for neighbouring schools to share their expertise.

Improvement networks encourage schools to help partners at a distance but they also need to help their immediate neighbours - sharing staff development, taking their fair share of demanding pupils.

5. Diversity. Sustainable policies promote creative diversity not top-down standardisation. Strong school systems are like strong ecosystems. They don't just grow one single standardised crop, one way to teach or learn, that cannot survive changes in the students or other aspects of the environment. They value networks and bring together different levels of teaching excellence. They replace alignment with cohesion.

6. Resourcefulness. Sustainable policies develop and do not deplete human and material resources. They conserve and renew people's energy instead of draining it dry. Yet high-speed implementation driven by innovation overload and short-term targets use excessive energy, leave no time for renewal and make teachers and leaders run out of gas.

7. Conservation. Sustainable policies honour and learn from the best of the past to create a better future. Yet imposed targets and innovation overload force us to think only in the present and in the future. Their obsession with all that is new obliterates the wisdom and memory of what we know already. Auditing past policies for precedents, treating local knowledge as an asset, and involving those who doubt change in the early stages, build improvement on the solid foundation of conservation rather than the shifting sands of change for its own sake.

Sustainability is a meal, not a menu. You have to eat all your greens.

Imposed targets and innovation overload are the antithesis of sustainability. We now need to put learning before testing, to pay proper attention to leadership succession by including succession plans in all improvement plans; to get our teachers and leaders working more collaboratively; to look after our neighbours as well as ourselves; and to pursue improvement at a pace and in a way that does not burn people out.

The future of educational reform, in other words, should be neither red nor blue, but solidly, determinedly and sustainably Brown.

Andy Hargreaves is the Thomas More Brennan chair in education at Boston college in the United States, and also serves in an advisory capacity for the National College for School Leadership and the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. Dean Fink is an international education consultant, based in Ontario. Their book, Sustainable Leadership, is published by Wiley

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