MAT CEO: Socrates, due to your recent Ofsted inspection, your joining our trust has been mandated by the Department for Education. The aim of this meeting is to enable you to learn a bit about the process but, most importantly, about us.
Socrates: Thank you. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. I hope you save me from the depths of “inadequacy”.
MAT CEO: No need to worry, Socrates. We can help. We’re robust and successful here at Sparta Trust, and if you follow our principles, you too will be successful.
Socrates: That’s the dream. Don’t leave me in suspense, what are the secrets of success?
MAT CEO: We’ve found that successful academy trusts are those with a clear vision, and here all our schools follow the same set of underlying principles, called the six pillars: excellent teaching, high expectations, exemplary behaviour, depth before breadth, more time for learning and knowing every child.
Socrates: Forgive me, but it would seem strange if a school founded itself upon a rubbish teaching.
What is a 'better education'?
MAT CEO: Ha, I understand that. No school is boasting about having low expectations, or poor behaviour. The difference is that we have a very specific understanding of what “excellent teaching” means.
Socrates: Please, explain.
MAT CEO: The features of “high expectations” are things like “No Opt Out”, which ensures that children don’t have the option not to answer questions, or “Right Is Right”, which defends a high standard of correctness.
Socrates: I’ll be honest, I don’t have a clue what you’re on about. It’s like I’ve gate-crashed a Dungeons and Dragons convention. I’m sure you’re having a great time, but why should I play along?
MAT CEO: This isn’t a game – it’s about transforming lives.
Socrates: I’d transform lives if I ran someone down in a car. That hardly makes anything clearer.
MAT CEO: Listen, it’s only fair to warn you: the more successful MATs tend to be at the more controlling end of the spectrum. We do expect that you do as you’re told.
Socrates: Why should I play your game? Other than your political power, what’s the logical authority for these pillars?
MAT CEO: These are principles of a successful school. If you develop these qualities, you too will become a successful teacher.
Socrates: I see. These six pillars are like the virtues of teaching?
MAT CEO: If you want to understand it like that, then fine, call them virtues.
Socrates: But virtues are qualities required to fulfil a function well. For example, the function of a pen is to write, and for a pen to write, ink needs to flow. So correct ink-flow is a virtue of a good pen. Virtues are not vacuous if they’re tied to a function.
MAT CEO: Exactly! “Excellent teaching” is a quality needed for a school to fulfil their function of “educating children”. It’s obvious.
Socrates: Obvious? The function of a pen is to write and I can see whether a pen writes or not. How do I know whether a child has been educated?
MAT CEO: A child has been educated if they can go to university or have real choices in life.
Socrates: A terminally-ill child cannot be considered educated?
MAT CEO: Let’s look at this another way – although the academy system is young, we can see that our approach has had a real impact. Our Progress 8 performance is well above average.
Socrates: It’s all a bit Dungeons and Dragons, though. Progress 8 is only success within your weird gamified version of education. It’s well above average, so what?
MAT CEO: So, our children are getting a better education than in many other schools.
Socrates: So you’d say, “If our Progress 8 performance is well above average, then our children are getting a better education than in most other schools”?
MAT CEO: Yes.
Socrates: But it’d also be true to say that “if more of our children are getting a better education, then our Progress 8 will be better”?
MAT CEO: I suppose.
Socrates: But that’s circular! Are you suggesting that the function of your MAT is the Progress 8 score, or that more children get a better education?
MAT CEO: Better education, obviously. The Progress 8 score is just one indication of that.
Socrates: So you’re just inferring that the children are getting a better education?
MAT CEO: Well all the indicators seem to suggest that.
Socrates: Not really. It sounds like you don’t really know what “a better education” means. How can you know that Progress 8 is an indicator of better education, if the only way of knowing about better education is Progress 8?
MAT CEO: We’ve other indicators: reading and maths scores.
Socrates: But what are they indicators of? It’s like a game where you’re blind-folded and you have to guess the object by touch alone. But the object mysteriously appears when you close your eyes and disappears when you open them again. How can you ever establish whether you are correct?
MAT CEO: OK. “Better education” is hard to define.
Socrates: According to your definitions, impossible.
MAT CEO: But there’s an established correlation between a lack of qualifications and poverty. Can’t that be the function? That’s measurable!
Socrates: So, our jobs aren’t to educate but to make people richer? If one of my students is rich but uneducated, I’ve succeeded; poor and educated, and I’ve failed?
MAT CEO: Look, I don’t know what the problem is.
Socrates: You’re trying to persuade me that your six pillars are justified because they lead to better education, but you’ve no idea what "better education" means. Your six pillars are nonsense; you have no logical authority.
Bernard Andrews is a secondary school philosophy teacher