It’s Just One Effing Thing After Another

Posted on March 26, 2013

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The title of this post, impishly supplied by @LearningSpy, is a quote from Alan Bennett’s wonderful The History Boys that seems like a perfect summary of my bonkers life in the last week. It has been a week that has drawn me into the orbit of four key policy makers past and present to hear their take on the education system now and in the future. It has been a week that has seen me present at two very well organised and attended Teachmeets, and lurk enthusiastically at another practitioner-led Saturday conference. It has been a week when Twitter showed its best, icon-bashing side as well as its worst, false dichotomising side. And it is a week when my personal circumstances have change beyond all recognition; the very cliche-ridden week of chapters closing and fresh starts and all that jazz.

It has, in short, been a week of one effing thing after another and I want to try and capture all of the historic elements of this week under the umbrella of this Bennett quote. I want the theme of this post to be about the importance of holding on to what you feel is right, even if others around you think that it is wrong. And I want it to be about the double-edged sword that intuition can be (cutting both ways with a snicker-snack that threatens everyone), but also about how a world lived without intuition is a blunted instrument in our hands, lacking the voracity we need to hack away at the jungle of our existence. It’s an ambitious post, so forgive me if it falls flat on some part of its anatomy. Lets face it, a glorious failure is still glorious even as it is a failure.

Part the First: The Top-Down National Context

The first of the two conferences I attended last week was a very small Hays bash called ‘Taking Control of the Education Agenda’ rather incongruously hosted by a Barnet Sixth Form College (although the building itself was congruously old and grand for these kind of bashes). First up was Estelle Morris who was, I felt, pretty damn good in her summarising of the sweep of education policy in the last 25 years since the watershed 1988 Education Reform Act, which was brilliant given that I am going to be teaching it in Sociology after half term. Her rhetorical arrival at the current era was also spot on, but I didn’t feel that she offered us much of a way forward given the grandiloquent title of the day.

In short her summary of the past was relatively optimistic. She rightly pointed out that “schools delivered on better standards for girls way before society did” and asserted that the same thing is happening for a number of minority ethnic groups too. But she also acknowledged that the political class generally, and New Labour specifically, had grown too accustomed to an instinctive “frantic wish to find ways to deliver” improvements at school level and that they became too top-down and interfering. She used the analogy that where the 1988 ERA brought politicians into the playground from the school gates the Labour administration, via the National Strategies post-2001 brought politicians into the classroom from the playground.

By contrast she asserted that Michael Gove, contrary to popular opinion, was seeking not to control the classroom any more but was genuine in his desire to roll back the politicos from the classroom and perhaps even from the playground, making them interested spectators once again. She went on to add that he is using three levers around national education policy: the autonomy/innovation lever, the market forces lever and the accountability mechanisms lever. The net result for school leaders is, she insisted, a system with “so many inbuilt contradictions at the moment” that she would be worried as a Headteacher in the current environment. On the one hand there has never been more freedom to run a school how you wish it to be run, including in ways that are diametrically opposed to national policy if you so wish, but that the ever-tightening net of accountability means that such an approach has to yield tangible outcomes for students or else! Or else what? Well, or else the market forces will come to play their part given that the current government policy is, in her view, deliberately building surplus places into the system via Free Schools, expansion of ‘successful’ schools and other means because surplus capacity is “the only way a market works”.

If Estelle was the bad cop then the well-rehearsed presentation done many times (interesting when paid speakers at sponsored SLT Conferences bemoan a market approach to education, isn’t it?) had ex-ASCL leader John Dunford as the good cop, full of ideas about how school leaders can grasp the reins of the new educational agenda to make sure that the Govean levers work for them. He talked particularly of the need for headteachers to move from being ‘constrained’ to ‘confident’ in this brave new world and was emphatic that we “must never lose focus on the core work of teaching and learning”. In order to do this he warned that we need to “use your autonomy or lose it” and that instead of conceptualising the current reforms as freedoms from the interference of politicians we need to work out what it is freedom for: what we want to use the freedom to do.

He acknowledged the inbuilt difficulties in this approach and stressed that there are some blindspots in the generation about to take hold of the leadership of schools, saying that “everybody under the age of 45 has spent their careers looking up” to governments for guidance, blessing and heaven knows what when right now we need to be “looking out” and creating professional partnerships that will work for mutual benefit. Whether these be for innovation, support, interventions or purchasing power these ‘tribes’ (as David Hargreaves calls them) are an integral part of the new education landscape whether we want them or not, and if we don’t belong to any or many then we leave ourselves vulnerable.

The second of my conferences was Charlie Taylor’s inaugural soirée as head of the newly merged NCSL and Teaching Agency, still to be named and have its remit identified even though it is only apparently weeks from its launch. Worryingly I suspect that this event, “for outstanding headteachers” (note: not headteachers of outstanding schools!!), was meant to be the very public launch of the new agency but instead ended up a bit of fluff that gave no real answers about what lay ahead, only hints. And by the way I have no idea how I managed to get on the guest list either.

First up was the boss himself and this day, unlike the more plebeian London Festival of Education, found him on the fine charming-but-shallow form for which he is renowned. His theme was ‘Heroes and Hero-Worshippers’ and, having duly oiled the wheels by citing Taylor and school leaders as heroes he was off and running. Beneath the banter – he followed up his hegemonic incorporation of Gramsci with a reference to FDR as another hero and went all mea culpa when chastised for name-checking no female heroes – his message was remarkably consistent with that of Morris and Dunford from the day before. Having stated his wish to be doing less and interfering less he talked about not wanting “to impoverish those who should be leading”, something any of us who remember the Blunkett years may wish to reflect on.

He talked about reducing the size, scope and reach of the DfE but more precisely talked about wishing to eliminate the “false dichotomy” of collaboration and competition (remember the Blairite Third Way anyone?). Of course his definition of competition, striving for excellence, omitted more than it included but he did embellish it somewhat later by talking of the need for school leaders to take ownership of their own agendas and “encourage innovation” in the classroom, pointedly stating again that there is no perfect lesson and no ideal for him or for HMCI Wilshaw.

He finished his talk with a double reference to himself as Govey which, if he’s since read the Urban Dictionary definition, he may want to steer clear of in future.

One who goes to a party as a guest, and intentionally spends his night touching, feeling and/or poking, the host’s pets.

But it was in the middle of this self-deprecating humour (and boy had he become the master of this particular form of persuasion/manipulation) that he made his most pertinent point for me, saying “actions speak louder than words, Govey”. It was a theme taken up by Taylor in his afternoon address when he said that, with regard to promised autonomy, school leaders needed to “Hold his [Gove’s] feet to the fire. hold him to account for it”.

Other than this Taylor said relatively little of note, which was very disappointing. He said that the new agency would be “a mouthpiece for schools”, that School Direct would be given a great deal more money to expand further and that school-to-school support would be a key driver in the future because the system as a whole needed to “rely less on experts coming in from outside and telling us what to do”. All pretty bland.

The only hint of something interesting about the structure and remit of the new agency, from Taylor and rather guardedly from DfE/NCSL official during small-group work was that the new agency might have significant overlaps with Ofsted. He talked about “regional teams within the new agency” that very much dovetails with Oftsed’s new regional structures and, more worryingly, talked about “a single effective field force” for supporting schools. Time will tell if this comes to pass, but a hook up of this new agency with Ofsted and Teaching Schools at a regional level would give the Secretary of State significant leverage over how to improve so-called failing schools. The architecture is almost in place.

Part the Second: The Bottom-Up Local Context

All of which brings me to the emergence of a tribal community of teachers attending weekend and weeknight conferences and teachmeets with a focus on mutual sharing of pedagogy that works for them in their contexts. This frequently bottom-up, Trojan Mouse phenomena has emerged in recent years as a very welcome antidote to the consultant-led, overpaid, cover-generating, low-impact CPD that came to dominate over the early part of the century. I attended three very different events last week, from the relatively slick TLA Berkhamsted conference to the more earthy (and, in my mind, wonderful) regular TMEssex and TMBrum, both holding their second event of its kind, so not altogether earthy. The overriding memory of this aspect of my ‘one effing thing after another’ week was the variation in the Teachmeet formula that is starting to be seen and which means no two events are alike.

Take TLA Berkhamsted for instance. Not really a Teachmeet at all (they had one the previous evening that was pushing it even in this week of weeks) this was more of a traditional conference. They had three keynotes given by pedagurus speaking for almost an hour apiece and three breakout sessions hosted by regular teachers. Of these formal activities during the day by far the most successful, in my mind at least, were the practitioner-led sessions. I love to hear Alistair Smith speak and he had some new things to say which resonated well (Ofsted-whisperers gained good traction on twitter) but lately I keep coming back to the fact that he isn’t a teacher. Bill Lucas was very disappointing and received a number of raspberries on twitter but again isn’t a teacher. Bill Rankin was a fabulous presence with a wonderful diagnosis of many of the issues we face in education, but with a rather weak prescription that felt like a recommendation to use all curriculum time to deliver Citizenship coursework projects. But again he isn’t a teacher.

Instead the highlights of the day were in the formal presentation of practitioner-led pedagogy from James Michie, Tait Coles and David Fawcett, three classroom teachers whose combined work kept ringing the same bells of student co-construction of learning that is engaging in the most meaningful and effective sense of that word and effective through its theoretical roots. The only shame is that they were the ones squeezed into the day and that there wasn’t the opportunity to miss one of the non-practitioner sessions to attend one more of these.

The other highlight of the day was the informal tribe-building over delicious bacon sarnies at the start of the day, coffees at regular intervals, chilli at the halfway point (and all for only £40) and, for a select band of brothers and sisters, beers and rugby at the end of the day. At a proper conference during school time this would be apologetically (or pompously) referred to as networking, but in the Teachmeet era I seem not to hear that word thankfully. If I ever do then I know that’s when it’s time to stop. But this socialising with friends (real and virtual and a combination of both) is a vital part of what John Dunford was talking about, but is happening on a grassroots level. I sometimes wonder if headteachers and SLT members have any idea of how successful their teachers have been at forging these connections for sharing effective practice. I rather fear that they haven’t.

And so on (you’ll be getting a sense of my week by now) to the contrasting Teachmeets of Essex and Brum. In the former they stuck firmly to the traditional format, whilst in the latter they played around with it beautifully by introducing a keynote speaker (yours truly, so no bias there) and a much-needed breakout small-group discussion session. In both cases there were hits and misses, but that is what I love most about Teachmeets. Both included new contributors and new participants in the TM format, widening ever further the reach of this type of CPD which is vital if it isn’t going to become overrun by the same people every time (and I do cast a glance inwardly at this point). And both overran, which isn’t ideal as it made for a late finish and walkouts at one and the curtailment and disappointment of presenters at another, but which is a rather delightful and welcome change from the “I know your school has paid for you to be here till 4pm but let’s all slope off at 3.30pm instead” of more traditional courses. Give me real teachers over consultants and pedagurus any day, no matter any lack of polish that ensues.

Part the Third: The All-Around Virtual Context

And then there was twitter. What a week we all had on twitter. Two things stand out for me as showing the contrasting faces of this beautiful social network: Ben Goldacre’s RCTs and the Teachmeet backlash.

The Goldacre Report is an interesting one and I am still very much figuring out in my own mind whether or not it is a welcome necessity, a pointless distraction or something in between (a welcome distraction or a pointless necessity?). Thankfully I have twitter to help me and this is the twitterati at their finest. I decided to tweet my unformed thoughts one afternoon as I was reading the report and was met with the full spectrum of opinion (much of it informed and much of it intuitive, but equally interesting) about RCTs in education, the comparability of medicine and education, the reliability and validity of different methodologies, the relevance of Goldacre himself out of context and the likely outcomes from this report as government policy or school practice. It was heart-warming to see the level of mature, reflective and focused debate that afternoon (it was only the next morning when I faced someone whose views were fixed and aggressively framed). At moments like these I love the power of twitter as a reflective tool despite the 140 character limit.

I was less convinced by the kickback against Teachmeets that occupied twitter at the time and that was, to some extent, fuelled by my brilliant colleague Iesha Small in a her puckish blog on the subject. The other fuel to this particular fire was the decision by a corporate firm to try and make some bucks out of the TM phenomenon. Within hours I was seeing other posts on the subject suggesting that TMs had become corporate and irrelevant and therefore we needed to move on from them (I’m perhaps being glib here, but you take my point). I’ve seen the same thing many times about things like SOLO and project-based learning and any number of things and I really don’t like it for two reasons.

Firstly it betrays our bubble-like mentality here on twitter. As a number of people have pointed out there are only as many as 5% of teachers in this bubble and we forget at our peril that there are still huge numbers of teachers that have never heard of Teachmeets who are likely to be as optimistic about them as we here on twitter once were and still should be. In fact, our job is to keep them relevant by getting more people to them, widening participation and not seeing TMs as a by-product of twitter but as something for all teachers. By proclaiming the death of Teachmeets we are in danger of killing them ourselves, and I’d rather think of TMs as the successors to Mark Twain in this respect.

Secondly, I disliked the twitter backlash because it seemed so very like the thing that so many of us here hate from our school leadership teams: the faddish, magpie-like approach to innovation. We are in danger, with our 140-character concentration span, of flitting from one idea to the next before we have had a chance to see the outcomes of each thing: the very antithesis of Goldacre’s RCTs. We should rightly be very wary of dismissing things here in the quest for twitter-immortality (which lasts the blink of an eye by the way) and instead seek to nourish ideas, blending them or allowing them to sit alongside one another in our classrooms or staffrooms. By dismissing these great ideas out of hand we diminish the next great idea that comes along and we need to be way more holistic than that for our own sakes as teachers let alone for our students who suffer faddishness if it is allowed to go unchecked.

Part the Final: The Personal Context

Don’t worry. This has been a mighty post as it is so I won’t strain courtesy much further. But in this week of weeks, in this historic week, in this week of one effing thing after another, I find myself at a pause in more ways than one. And pauses are always the ideal time for reflection, for extracting personal lessons out of non-personal experiences.

From the national context I have learnt that autonomy is scary because the wrong decisions play themselves only in the fulness of time, but that the right decisions can result in changes that make things better for all. I have also learnt that sometimes we can’t control the situation we find ourselves in, even when we seem to be the ones in control, but that we have to control what we can as best we can.

From the local context I have learnt that when things don’t go to plan you can respond in different ways and that each way has its benefits and its drawbacks, but if you do it with as much of a smile on your face as you can muster you’re more likely to be happy with the outcome. And I’ve also realised that its not about the gloss and the polish on the surface, but about what lies beneath. These two lessons learnt seem to be contradictory and, if so, forgive me but they make sense to me.

Finally, from the virtual context, I’ve learnt that friends new and old will respond very differently to the same thing, that their reactions will vary considerably and that they’ll all be right to a greater or lesser extent even of you don’t like what they have to say. From this context I’ve also learnt that where you make big changes you have to align them with what has gone before as best you can, and that you have to have patience, work hard and be eternally hopeful to ensure that they work out as positively as you know they can.

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