It all comes back to RoboCop. Educated men and women used to share a cultural lingua franca based on Classics, the Bible and Shakespeare. But in these barren, splintered times, pop culture has displaced these monoliths as the reach-for cultural notes in salon discourse. If you don't believe me, tell me what you think when you read the word Homer.
So, RoboCop, Paul Verhoeven's dystopian uber-copper from the mononymous movie. Our hero, mangled by violence, is rebuilt as half-man, half-machine. And Omni Consumer Products, his heartless corporate masters, have programmed him with three Prime Directives: to uphold the law; to protect the innocent; and to serve the public trust. He's a walking Fury, a modern Nemesis.
When I walk into a school, I want to know what their prime directives are. What do they think they're doing? What are they aiming towards? What do they stand for? What good do they do? The purpose of education is one of the most important debates an educator will have. Is it to produce industry-appropriate cogs? To babysit? To convey the best of what has been learned? To disseminate a cultural inheritance? To help build a human?
What, too, are the core functions of the school? What should they be doing before anything else? What are the non-negotiables in terms of the managerial mission? What is diamond and what is blancmange? What is Gary Barlow and what Jason Orange?
Fans of Ladybird fairy tales will be familiar with the goose that lays the golden eggs. Unsatisfied with mere golden eggs, the farmer rummages in the poor bird's entrails looking for greater treasures, only to find no gold but considerable amounts of dinner. Some schools do this. In pursuit of fabulous unicorns, they forget what they already have.
Prime directives can be lost when it is assumed they will always be achieved. The school that enjoys good behaviour must never take it for granted, because there's probably a reason within the school system that makes that behaviour occur. If exam results are good every year it's easy to believe that the fairies have blessed your school with charmed desks, and stop doing what created the good results in the first place.
I suppose my main concern here is that every school reflect thoroughly on its reason for existing. And that isn't the same as having a vision that sounds lovely, because there are many equally lovely visions that, made flesh, actually pull in different directions.
Once the vision has been aired, what are the non-negotiables? I'd suggest socialised behaviours that lead to other gains such as learning, or the stability that allows altruism and initiative to thrive. I've seen schools forget about behaviour and focus on mindset, or learning styles workshops, or revision classes, while Rome burned around them. Never assume success is assumed.
Sometimes, it's time to reprogram your prime directives. What are we actually here to do? And what are we doing right, before we stop doing it to do something wrong?
Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London and director of the ResearchED conference