The covid-19 pandemic has exposed the way in which incrementalism and focus on exam results has driven out initiative and leadership from the system. We all know that it’s only when things get tough & when there are surprises that anyone or anything is really tested, and weaknesses identified.
All systems are good and bad
The human instinct, when thinking about planning for the future is to look back to last year, and then extrapolate a plan. This is the essence of incrementalism. Though it has a place, it’s inherently a system that sets in stone some essential elements of itself, which is a recipe for eventual self-destruction. It’s now brought us to an ever-increasing tightening of the Ofsted noose around schools, not because Ofsted are not doing their job (they are implementing the law), but because each little step has seemed sensible at the time. Max Weber, the first sociologist to study bureaucracy, saw it both positively as an efficient means of organising society, but also as a force that destroys individual freedom (both behaviour and thought).
By squeezing out individual thought, diversity and innovation are stifled. Free thinking ideas never see the light of day, as the pressure to standardise reduces the very diversity on which progress is based. The system no longer has the capacity to adapt to technology & societal changes. Failure is no longer tolerated, and we end up with one monstrous top down system disconnected from the reality experienced by those very people the system is expected to serve.
Share paintbrushes but not pencils
This is the process that has led us to a situation in which central government in the form of the Department for Education (DfE) felt the need to produce a 156 page document to explain to schools how they should go about re-opening in September 2020. It is surely not the role of the DfE to tell a head teacher that pencils may not be shared between pupils, but paintbrushes may indeed be shared, in order to reduce the risk of transmission of the coronavirus. This is the moment we need to step back and realise that our system needs change. The bureaucracy is self-destructing, and children are the victims, today and for the rest of their lives.
LEAs had their weaknesses and were clearly in need of change. MATs have been suggested as a solution, but once again this is an example of tinkering – moving the administration around does not change the actual product or service that is delivered (whether by a school, a company or an individual). The bureaucratic noose is the idea that a single national curriculum policed by a single body is a good idea. It’s not. We know that monopolies are bad, we know that the great 20th century experiment with communism failed. So too any single approach is bound to fail eventually. People change, the needs change, society changes, technology advances, but the bureaucracy just keeps on squeezing and tinkering incrementally.
Our system has driven out independent leadership by making schools subservient to central government diktat, which has focused on metrics that measure a narrow range of exam skills. Those metrics serve the politicians, but not the people for whom they are designed. So we now have learning objectives, rather than education. Schools are driven to a dependency culture, and headteachers are no longer measured by their ability to educate children, but by ensuring that the system is satisfied with exam results (and the implementation of audit trails that confirm adherence to risk reduction and other safety measures). Failure will not be tolerated!
To be clear, this is not a question of the people in the system – the teachers, the education professionals, those working to prepare our children for life. The education profession is staffed by highly committed people who are invariably motivated and dedicated to doing a great job – but they are constrained by the system. They are stuck in their little paddling boat on a creek when they need to get out onto the high sea to get the freedom they need.
Those who have seen how independent schools switched seamlessly to teaching online as lockdown bolted us indoors will know what independence can do. Within 2 weeks they had learnt how to deliver the full curriculum online and spent the Easter holidays making adaptations from their learnings (note I didn’t say failures). They then delivered a full term of education to their pupils and students. Everything from art, to maths to PE and sports.
PE and Sports during lockdown?
Yes, as we know from Joe Wicks and others, keeping physically active is entirely possible in lockdown. When I asked a teachers and heads about continuing to deliver their curriculum online, the best response I had was, “I’d not thought we could do that, we’ve not had any guidance”, and the worst was, “but some of my students don’t have computers or internet access”.
Those same educators also told me proudly that the school had a large number (I forget exactly the number) of computers in school – presumably not being used. Could these, maybe, just maybe, have been sent home with those children who did not have access to a computer, with a USB SIM card to give them internet access? Central government guidelines were not produced for that particular idea, so those stuck in the system would naturally prefer to avoid taking any unnecessary risks.
So what’s the answer?
In my next blog I’ll examine ideas for how the system could be changed. Ideas are cheap; the work in identifying things that actually work in practice. Questions we might ask are,
• “Why do we need a national curriculum when exams are the test?” Surely it’s the (expert) teacher who is best able figure out the curriculum for their particular pupils and local culture & needs so that pupils are ready for the test.
• “Why do we need GCSEs? When O-levels were invented, 93% of students left school at 16. Now 93% stay on in education. So what’s the point?”
• “How are exam results compatible with creating a “growth mindset”? The very essence of a growth mindset is focus on effort and the process, not the outcome. Yet we measure outcome.
• “What are the alternatives to a Victorian classroom setting that will facilitate and speed up education and learning?”. We know physical activity is essential to building a well balanced brain, yet 80% of children don’t do the minimum to stave off inactivity related diseases.
• “How might we allow real diversity in schools and between schools?”. This means accepting different metrics for success. We know that setting minimum standards has a tendency to reduce overall standards, so what’s the alternative?
The answers are available. Let’s explore them, and redesign the system before it breaks us.