“I wish to register a complaint.”
Thus begins the famous “Dead Parrot” sketch from the Monty Python team. Well, I wish to take up the complaint because, like John Cleese’s Mr Praline character in the sketch, I feel like someone keeps trying to sell me (and the education system generally) a dead parrot.
In this instance the dead parrot in question is the suite of government-mandated, government-written and government-forcefed National Strategies that lived a relatively short or relatively long (dependent on which way you look at it) life of twelve years. I know, because I checked the dates on the gravestone which read 1998-2010. The problem is that whilst looking at the gravestone I couldn’t help but notice that someone had dug through two yards of soil, ransacked the coffin and disinterred the corpse. Either that or the National Strategies had been buried too soon and, Lazurus-like, had miraculously risen from the dead. I know which of these two eventualities I believe in, and yet there are others who seem determined to imbue the good old National Strategies with mystical reverence of the kind that generally befits the religiously devout.
“I wish to complain about this parrot what I purchased not half an hour ago from this very boutique.”
“Look matey, I know a dead parrot when I see one, and I’m looking at one right now.”
But, I’m running away with myself here. Before I get into the metaphysical and theological elements of my complaint, let me address the more corporeal and substantial factors that are causing me to return the said dead parrot.
In short, they are these. Everywhere I look, and from people who perhaps should know better, I am seeing the revived, reformatted, repackaged and reconstituted cadaver of the National Strategies. Leadership courses, pedagogy packages, literacy and numeracy workbooks, coaching methods, curriculum plans, even nationally funded research projects and a whole gamut of ghastly (nay ghoulish) reincarnations of once-free, now marketised and marketed, materials are being sold (either literally for big bucks or figuratively for insidious influence) to schools.
Not a week goes by when I don’t receive a number of emails or mailshots advertising such materials, packages or courses (corpses?). Phrases that stand out a mile – like the prominent birthmarks of the National Strategies – include anything with the word “outstanding” on it, references to “coaching/difficult conversations” or “managing challenging staff”, anything about “knowing your leadership style” and the like. The whiff of the wasting away, the reek of the rotten and the stench of the still-decomposing assail my nostrils each time I read one of these Strategies-lite marketing missives.
“Remarkable bird, the Norwegian Blue, innit? Beautiful plumage.”
“The plumage don’t enter into it. It’s stone dead.”
And yet there was I (back in the late-90s and early noughties) as a still-young but rapidly-ageing teacher who, having started my career at the very back-end of the previous Conservative administration, welcomed the much-needed and much-vaunted influx of resources into education that came in the form of the National Strategies. Almost overnight, we went from being pedagogues in penury and became practitioners with plenty as millions of pounds were thrown willy-nilly at the creation, roll-out and implementation of the National Strategies.
Thus the not-yet-dead-parrot did indeed appear to have beautiful plumage. For a profession emerging from famine, the feast of the National Strategies was a sight and a taste to behold. Also, of course, for the first time they gave us a government-backed set of strategies (with a small s) for managing the still-young entities of Ofsted and League Tables. Like a snake eating itself, school leaders were quick to cotton on to the fact that if the government said “here’s how you do it” and you did it that way, the government could hardly let you fail in terms of either exam performance or inspection outcomes. It was a win-win for schools and the system.
Except perhaps for the fact that it may not have been in the long-term best interests of either staff of students. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Either way, the game changed in 2010 and the National Strategies became obsolete. The parrot died. To be fair, it had been ill for some time (it really was “shagged out following a prolonged squawk” in which not a month passed without a new National Strategy being foisted upon us – a true case of diminishing returns) and not many of us mourned its passing.
“There, he moved!”
“No, he didn’t. That was you hitting the cage!”
I say “not many of us mourned its passing” but, naturally, some did. There were plenty of school leaders, local authority consultants, educational organisations who won massive contracts to deliver the deliverables and former ministers, for whom the National Strategies era was a golden age, myself included (I worked my way up the leadership ranks from a junior department role to Deputy Head in this time in three schools that did very well under the New Labour regime). For these people the plumage can still look beautiful, even though the maggots that lie beneath the plumage have eaten away all that was or may have been life-giving for the parrot.
And it is, without doubt, some of these people (myself excluded) who are behind the oft-attempted revival of the Norwegian Blue. On countless occasions in the last five years I have heard people bemoaning the government’s mission to mothball the myriad of materials by archiving the National Strategies and the almost-unbelievable Teachers’ TV (yes, young folks, there really was a Teachers’ TV channel, inconveniently tucked away by Sky right next to the porn channels).
The argument of these people runs that there were so many good things created during the National Strategies era that has now been lost forever to future generations of teachers and schools because they have become more difficult to find. Quite often the lament is heard and it quickly emerges that the author of these woes was also the author of these materials. The point that often escapes them is twofold: that the quality materials were hard to find (like needles in haystacks) even when they were live, and that genuinely high quality outcomes from the National Strategies ought to have stood the test of time and the test of mothballing because teachers and school leaders see enough in them to keep them going in practice.
To go back to the metaphor, if the Norwegian Blue was meant to live forever it needed to reproduce healthy and hearty offspring. By and large it didn’t. Survival of the fittest is as much a cultural as a biological phenomenon, and no amount of cage-rattling will convince teachers that there is life in the old dog, or parrot, or National Strategies. No amount of nailing the parrot to the perch will convince teachers that the caged bird can sing, or talk, or improve the quality of their lessons.
“He’s probably pining for the fjords.”
“If I hadn’t nailed that bird down it would have nuzzled up to those bars, bent them apart with its beak and VOOM!”
Of course, I’m writing this at a time when the kickback against the National Strategies is in full swing. Perhaps I am even a part of this kickback. Maybe the pendulum will swing back at some point in the future and we will all see that the parrot was indeed simply stunned and that we will all start pining for the fjords. But I very much doubt it. I’m rather more inclined to believe Mr. Praline when he says “this bird wouldn’t VOOM if you put four million volts through it.”
Instead, it is my belief that the life of the Norwegian Blue National Strategies needs to be fondly remembered for what it was and roundly condemned for what it failed to be or become. Yes, it brought a huge amount of resource into education, but it failed to deliver a lasting quality impact even on its own terms, let alone those of a healthy education system. The fact that we keep revisiting literacy and numeracy, assessment for learning and many other of the individual strategies means that, for all the money welcomed and spent, they did not do what we were told that they would do.
Yes, it brought a huge amount of training and development for senior leaders, middle leaders and classroom teachers, but in doing so it created a top-down culture of educational innovation that stifled, suffocated and slit the throat of the expert practitioner as a standard of our schools. As has been frequently said in recent years “one size fits none” and the National Strategies excelled at exactly this approach. Ministerial munificence was at the expense of practitioner professionalism and we are only now, in hesitant footsteps, beginning to feel our way to a more eclectic, energetic and effective practitioner-led system in which variety is indeed the spice of life. We should give that up for no-one.
Yes, it brought schools together and did so by enhancing the role of local authorities as key players within the school improvement ecosystem, but the second string to Blair’s ‘Education, Education, Education’ bow, that of academisation, has proven the one that produced the longest lasting note (longer even than the “prolonged squawk” of the Norwegian Blue). Local authority provision for school improvement is now as dead as the parrot and, whilst some may mourn this and try to resuscitate it along with the National Strategies, its particular blue hue gives rise in other quarters to few boohoos.
As for me, I’ll go back to where I started this post and avoid the theological and metaphysical elements of the debate (or rather let the post speak for itself in this regard). Instead I’d rather empathise with the substantive complaints of Mr. Praline, who doesn’t give two hoots about the relative merits or demerits of the Norwegian Blue when it was alive. He simply doesn’t want a dead one being passed off and sold on to him as if it were living and breathing.
“He’s bleeding demised. He’s passed on. This parrot is no more. He has ceased to be. He’s expired and gone up to meet his maker. He’s a stiff. Bereft of life, he rests in peace. If you hadn’t nailed him to the perch, he’d be pushing up the daisies! His metabolic processes are now history. He’s off the twig. He’s kicked the bucket. He’s shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible!! This is an ex-parrot!!!”
All that said, I would offer a word of caution to those ostentatiously celebrating the ideologicide of the Strategies. Once John Cleese finally convinces the shop attendant that the parrot is indeed dead, he is hardly overwhelmed by the proffered alternative.
“Well I’d better replace it, then. I got a slug.”
“Pray, does it talk?”
“Well it’s hardly a bleeding replacement, is it!?!?!?”
Perhaps we don’t need a “bleeding replacement” anyway. Or perhaps we need to have the vision, courage and patience to construct one ourselves, from the bottom-up or inside-out. Some would have us look to Norway again whilst others would suggest that Blue very much is the colour de jour and that we ought to emphasise that in our strategizing. As for me, I’m beginning there just might be something in the slow, steady and slimy (if utterly unmarketable) slug that is worth thinking about.