Quick fixes can result in a sterile school environment

27th July 2018 at 00:00
The uncritical adoption of ‘successful’ schools’ policies may lead to a situation in which children are controlled rather than taught to self-regulate, writes Jarlath O'Brien

In Professor Gert Biesta’s paper, Why “What Works” Still Won’t Work: from evidence-based education to value-based education (2010), he critically examines the practice, whether deliberate or subconscious, of complexity reduction in education.

Of course, schools are full of attempts at reducing complexity: they couldn’t function effectively otherwise. We organise children into classes; we have discrete subjects and curricula; we insist, mostly, on uniforms. But do we take it too far sometimes? I think so, and I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Biesta cites Bruno Latour’s The Pasteurization of France as an example of how the world is forced to change to bring itself closer to the conditions under which something will work: “Pasteur’s technique could only work because significant dimensions of French farms were first transformed to get them closer to the laboratory conditions under which the technique was developed.”

I am concerned that we sometimes unwittingly adopt this approach to behaviour in schools. There is no more emotive a subject and, when things go wrong, the pressure for swift, decisive action is overwhelming, especially for leaders. I remember what it was like leading a school that was, rightly, judged to require improvement because of behaviour. In such circumstances, the temptation to uncritically adopt ideas or policies from other schools is strong.

Self-regulation that lasts for life

With that in mind, I can see how complexity reduction is a seductive approach. I see, for example, increasing popularity in policies that require children to walk in silence between lessons, sometimes in single file. I instinctively don’t like this, but have to defend against accusations that I must therefore be OK with pupils being bullied and jostled between lessons.

Obviously, I am not OK with those things, but if lesson changeovers are problematic, then there is much that I, as a school leader, can – and must – do to ensure such times are safe for all and that children get to their lessons without delay. However, I am not OK sending the message that students are incapable of managing changeover safely without such conditions being imposed. They clearly are, and do so hourly in countless schools across the land.

To return to Latour, if the laboratory conditions are seen as necessary for success, we can be led down a road of removing anything that may prevent us achieving those conditions. I regard behaviour as both an input and as an output, to borrow Terry Wrigley’s phrase, so that one of the aims of behaviour must be an output that is self-regulation that lasts for life.

I worry that so-called quick fixes and uncritical adoption of policies from schools regarded as “successful” (insert your definition of successful here) mean an erosion of agency for children and, as such, we risk being left with something rather sterile.

Jarlath O’Brien is director for schools at the Eden Academy

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