Deficit or Surplus? You Decide!

Posted on October 30, 2013


One of the problems facing the teaching profession today is that we have become accustomed to looking for deficits in our work. This blogpost is about where I think this ‘deficit model’ approach comes from, how I think it has gained traction, why I think it is a wrong-headed model to take at present and what I think school leaders (of the middle and senior leader variety) could and should do to reframe the paradigm in order to ensure that we see the surpluses in our teachers and schools, rather than the deficits.

deficit (n.)
1782, from French déficit (late 17c.), from Latin deficit “it is wanting,” indicative of deficere “to be deficient”.

deficient (adj.)
1580s, from Latin deficientem (nominative deficiens), present participle of deficere “to desert, revolt, fail,” from de- “down, away” (see de-) + facere “to do, perform”.

The etymology of the noun ‘deficit’ is much as you would expect it to be, but it is the link to the adjective ‘deficient’ that most interests me as a school leader. The notions of deserting, revolting and failing are powerful ones when applied to teachers in the schools we lead, but what if the ‘deficit model’ that I believe exists in far too many of our schools is a reflection on us as school leaders, rather than a portrait of the teachers for whom we have responsibility? Isn’t it then we who are deserting the classroom practitioners? Isn’t it then we who are causing them to revolt against us? Isn’t it then we who are failing them?

The Deficiency of the ‘National Strategies’

A quick trawl of the now-archived ‘National Strategies’ threw up this shudderfest almost immediately. It is taken from a (I kid you not) 12 page long audit for subject leaders at middle schools of their KS2 and KS3 provision.

Click to access 24d4566f25b6662dc64ccaa01e0cba51.pdf

The following extract shows how the ‘deficit model’ was the core driver of the ‘National Strategies’ under the Blair-Brown governments of the late-1990s and throughout the first decade of the 21st century.

This booklet is to help a subject department to decide on priorities for strengthening its work and to identify a number of action points to improve standards in the subject. It can be used to supplement the whole-school development plan.

There is a hint at the notion of a ‘surplus model’ here with the phrase “strengthening its work”, but the essence of the audit (to my mind) is contained in the more powerful and technocratic phrase “number of action points to improve standards”. There is always the assumption that standards are improveable and that it will take “a number” of changes in order to do so.

The booklet then suggests how, once the deficits have been identified, the subject area can move forward….

Once the possible points for action…have been determined, the head of department can incorporate these into the department’s action plan. Senior managers and departmental staff will then have a clear view of the overall developments that are needed and how best to use the professional support of a Key Stage 2 and/or Key Stage 3 consultant.

The notion that senior managers’ needs comes before those of departmental staff is intoxicating for school leaders, but utterly wrong, and the idea that developments “are needed” becomes an end of the audit process itself. As for the assumption that a consultant is required to address these deficiencies, rather than building upon the strengths of the subject teachers, well the less said the better.

Rather scarily, the introduction then goes on to say that the audit (which should take up two days of a subject leader’s time) should be conducted “usually on an annual basis.”

Imagine it in any other aspect of your life: a full-on audit taking two days to conduct, focused on what you’re doing wrong, leading to a number of action points for necessary changes that you have to conduct each and every year at a set point in the year! It would be simply unfathomable. So how come we have let it happen in our schools?

An Aside About Audits

In case anyone hasn’t worked it out yet, I’m not a big fan of audits as a starting point for staff or school improvement. And yet it could be oh so different.

audit (n.)
early 15c., from Latin auditus “a hearing,” past participle of audire “hear”. Official examination of accounts, which originally was an oral procedure.

audience (n.)
late 14c., “the action of hearing,” from Old French audience, from Latin audentia “a hearing, listening,” from audientum (nominative audiens), present participle of audire “to hear,” from PIE compound *au-dh- “to perceive physically, grasp,” from root *au- “to perceive” (cf. Greek aisthanesthai “to feel;” Sanskrit avih, Avestan avish “openly, evidently;” Old Church Slavonic javiti “to reveal”).

Compare the audit for the ‘National Strategies’ via the hyperlink above with the original meaning of audit as a ‘hearing’. Are we really listening to the heartbeat of our schools using a 12-page tickbox? Do we hear what we should be hearing using a technocratic process such as this?

And if anyone doubts me about the perceptional nature of what an audit should be, look again at its close cousin, the word ‘audience’. Are we grasping the true nature of our classrooms and staffroom through our deeply embedded ‘deficit model’? Are we feeling when we are wearing such cumbersome self-inspection gloves? Are we revealing anything of interest or use to us by playing a game of educational ‘Spot the Ball’, where all we perceive is the nothingness of the spaces in between?


We need to reclaim the original and true meaning of the word ‘audit’, redolent of such tangible verbs as hearing, perceiving, grasping, feeling and revealing.

Instead of a multiplicity of tickboxes, designed to… well… tick boxes, we need to be confident in being an audience for teachers and school leaders to reveal what it is they are doing and let us hear, grasp and feel what works for them in their contexts. We need to help them become audiences for their peers and those they have line management responsibility for so that these people too can reveal and be heard.

In short, we need to reclaim the lost art of making time to talk, face-to-face, about the things we do that make a difference and cast aside the deficient efficiency of extended emails and the pernicious proficiency of pathological proformas.

The Deficiency of Retaining a ‘Deficit Model’

And yet, we still seem wedded to the notion of auditing our deficits instead. We still look to consultancy firms to tell us what we are doing wrong and parachute in some one-size-fits-all ‘Strategies-lite’ CPD. Take, for example, this one to-remain-nameless organisation that sells itself in the following way…

Through long term partnerships with local authorities, individual schools, groups of schools, academies, businesses and communities we share expertise to deliver efficient, effective school improvement and support services which are tailored to the needs of each client.

For ‘long-term partnerships’ read ex-LA, ex-Strategies perhaps? On their website they offer a range of paid-for school improvement services and also some free resources which are freely (and openly) derived from the bank of resources created by the ‘National Strategies’. I clicked on their internal search engine and entered the word audit. This is what I got back…


Yep! You read right!!! FIFTY-NINE audit documents for school leaders to download and use.

And herein lies the problem for school leaders and, more importantly, for the schools and staff they lead. Most of us grew into our leadership roles under the ‘National Strategies’ and were at some point responsible for their roll-out (what an awful phrase, now superseded by the not-much-better ‘scaling-up’). We gained our professional ‘success’ and consequent promotions by buying into the ‘deficit model’ and, as senior leaders, have had that model validated for us by professional qualifications (e.g. NPQH) and accountability mechanisms (i.e. Ofsted) over the years.

What’s more we forged relationships with those consultants as they abandoned the classroom for the lure of system improvement (to be kind) and child-free local authority Teacher Centres (to be cruel). They became our School Improvement Partners and even Ofsted inspectors as time went by and they ticked our boxes for ticking their boxes.

But times have changed massively in education since the start of the Cameron-Clegg coalition administration. This seismic shift has, as its epicentre, Michael Gove’s twin tectonic plates of ‘autonomy’ and ‘accountability’. Whilst the focus for much indignation has (often rightly) been on the latter of these two concepts, it is the former which I believe holds much more hope for teachers and school leaders in constructing an alternative to the ‘deficit model’.

Towards a ‘Surplus Model’ for Education?

The auditory audit process discussed above is only one strand of what I call the ‘surplus model’, and as school leaders we need to go further and faster down this path of ’empowered autonomy’ for ‘authentic accountability’ (two concepts Hélène Galdin-O’Shea and I discussed at length in this blogpost about our presentation to TeachMeet Labour).

What such a process will look like will depend upon the specific context of each school and, by logical extension, each department and each classroom. What it might involve could include some of the following.

The abandonment of proformas for departmental self-evaluations that are remotely completed once a year, and their replacement with on-going face-to-face line management that starts with the question “what’s working well for you at the moment?” before progressing (if necessary) to the question “and what would you like to do differently?”

Whole school review processes that are shaped by the teachers and teams within the school for genuine areas of enquiry, rather than conducted by senior leaders for the process of scrutiny.

School improvement planning processes that emerge from the priorities of individual classroom practitioners and shape the perceived needs of the school, rather than ones that work from the top-down.

Lesson observation schedules that are rooted in self-observation and peer-observation, for developmental feedback on changes to practice, rather than ones that encourage risk-averse behaviours because of the performativity orientation.

Practitioner-led, choice-rich INSET programmes that aim to connect what works in some classrooms with self-perceived areas of need in others, rather than ones that aim to train all in response to the needs of some.

There are so many other things I could suggest that would help a school to move from a ‘deficit model’ to a ‘surplus model’ but that would rather be defeating the point of this post, wouldn’t it? That point is that YOU have surplus in yourself and in your schools. Don’t be beaten down by the audit-heavy, deficiency-expectant ways of the past, and don’t pass it down to those who work in a nominally inferior role to you in your school.

Because above all else the move to a ‘surplus model’ for school leaders is a paradigm shift within the mind, and it takes all of the growth mindset capacity you have to make it happen. To get there you have to shift the ingrained myths that have been inculcated throughout your career.

You have to shift the “Ofsted wants this or that” mentality. You have to put “off the bus” machismo off the bus. You have to stop talking about fellow professionals and human beings as ‘radiators’ or ‘drains’. You have to stop believing that a top-down, trickle-down “walking the talk” SLT-as-lead-practitioner approach will ever work better than a bottom-up, trickle-up lead-practitioner-as-lead-practitioner approach.

Most of all though, you have to believe that most (if not all) of the answers to most (if not all) of the questions you are asking yourself about school improvement are right under your nose, if only you’d see the surpluses within your staff and not their deficits.

surplus (n.)
late 14c., from Old French surplus, from Medieval Latin superplus “excess, surplus,” from Latin super “over” super + plus “more”.