Category Archives: Culture

Schools Are Not Businesses. A Message to Lord Nash.

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Lord Nash, speaking at the Challenge Partnership national conference, titled his talk: ‘what is relevant in business to education?’ According to the TES, he said that:

“…too often teachers have confused their individuality with their professionalism… Being a professional means embracing accountability, standardisation and consistency, although of course we want our teachers to be inspiring.”

He went on to talk about how: ‘using standardised content would allow teachers to focus on delivery and differentiation, and would reduce workload.’

Adding it was impossible to: “run an organisation of any size and any diversity, efficiently and effectively if you haven’t got consistent procedures… The content has to be provided by the MAT based on evidence-based best practice across the group.”

Perhaps it is inevitable with the introduction of MATs that business issues and practices would soon come to the fore. A local school that had its own identity serving the local area would not have had to consider ‘standardisation and consistency’ to any great extent. Games staff would teach games and the physics teacher would teach physics. When you have a MAT the temptation is to have a consistent brand, in which all the teachers teach their subjects in the same ‘branded’ way. It might also be a revenue stream, selling branded curricula, lesson plans, scripts and powerpoint slides to other schools and maybe even provide ‘MOOCs’ for those who home educate or live in places where schools are difficult to access. With a standardised brand consistency might be considered key.

McDonalds, at first glance as standardised a company as you can get, soon realised that the problem with standardisation is it’s lack of adaptability.  They developed a: “…consistent customer experience and branding while still allowing for locally relevant menu and service variations in segments across the globe…”

This tension between standardisation and adaptability is an interesting one. The ‘brand’ thrives if it can sell itself as a consistent experience, when I go for a Costa coffee or buy some Marmite, I am responding to this consistency. I prefer not to take too many risks when spending my cash. And, thankfully, I like Marmite. Imagine what would happen if Marmite tried to change in order to appeal to those who dislike it, they would lose my custom, the very reason that I like Marmite might be the thing they have to change to bring in customers who don’t like the bitter taste. Adaptability can be problematic.

It is interesting that Lord Nash feels standardisation rather than adaptability is the business model that schools should adopt. He suggests standardisation would require staff to be less individualistic and more professional. I question whether this is the dichotomy here. I think the role of teachers would change, but instead of being more professional, their profession changes. They become more like a sales staff. They are provided with the product, the ‘standardised content’, and then they are required to sell this product ‘differentially’ to different consumers. As someone who worked in sales for a period of time one of the adages was that a good salesperson must believe in their product. A period of training (ITT?) would be required to sell the the product to the workforce, to convince them of its efficacy and then train them with the techniques of teaching about and selling the product to the customers, in this case pupils and their parents.

Success rates of staff could be compared, figures shared, and each teacher would then be responsible for making it work, competitively, showing they could ‘sell’ the product through ‘delivery, differentiation and inspiration’ as Nash would have it.

This ‘differentiation’ that Nash talks of is, not ‘adaptability’ of product. The sales-teacher would be expected to deliver in the classroom. The teacher will try to sell marmite to all. Actually that is not quite fair, the ‘product’ will be far more varied than a jar of marmite can ever be, and maybe ‘adaptability’ can be provided by breadth of curriculum and content.

But whether we go to a McDonalds in Beijing, Berlin or Nairobi we still feel the corporate imprint. This standardisation is its strength and its weakness. Lovers of artisanal burgers, home made or made on an organic farm, believe McDonalds is decidedly second rate to the best of these burgers. McDonalds might need to entice you in with the promise of toys for your kids to make up for the mundanity of the product. Imagine the happy meal transposed to the classroom. Happy learning. Free toy with each maths exercise completed.

Are staff working within a standardised business really more professional than those who have more control over what they do? Being paid for doing a task that is imposed upon you is different to one which you have designed for yourself. As Cicero put it:

“vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labour, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery” Cicero: On Obligations

Although it is possible to enjoy your work when you work in this way it is a very different relationship with the school than teachers have been traditionally used to. This might be no bad thing, because if the school staff is made up of those with little artistic skill it is better to replace them with hired hands. Yet, there might be another way to achieve some form of consistency, to be true to the tradition of teaching, be adaptable and envisage teachers to be rather more professional than Nash’s view would seem to be.

When schools deliberately ape businesses, problems can occur. The Business Academy,  Bexley  opened to great fanfare in 2002:

…the concept of openness extends to the physical layout of the school, which is based around flexible, open areas, rather than corridors and classrooms…

Classrooms look more like hi-tech offices, with clusters of flat-screen display computers and lessons taught using touch-screen whiteboards.

…gushed the BBC, reflecting the cargo cult nature of the philosophy behind the school. Get Norman Foster to expensively design a school, which looks and runs like a business then all the positive aspects of business practice will imbue every individual who passes through. This proved to be a fallacious argument.

To many teachers it would have been obvious that problems might occur by doing away with corridors and classrooms. Experienced teachers’ professional expertise might be a useful rejoinder to the inevitable hubris of those who believe they have the right answers and reason on their side and are determined to use a top down model to impose this onto a workforce.

A school is not a business and should not be run as one. This is not to say it should be run badly or operate with a balance sheet in the red, but it should be run along different lines, it should be recognised that schools far from being merely rational places that can be measured with a simple ‘bottom-line’, they can be inconsistent, inefficient and completely devoid of standardisation and yet still be places in which good teaching takes place.

A school is not a business, it is an institution.

An institution, is a place of shared knowledge, grounded in emotions and feelings which then shape reason. This was essential to Edmund Burke’s idea in which we come ‘to love the little platoon we belong to…’ we inherit the wisdom of practices that are passed down to us. Far from being individuals, we are social animals, and rather than responding kindly to being fed from the top down for our manual labour, teaching has always been a collegiate activity within which teachers express their ‘artistry’, within the traditions of their school, subject and society.

A good school has a strong ethos through which all the differences can coexist, giving out a semblance of unity of purpose. Far from being imposed through a time and motion top down management model this comes about through various traditions coalescing in the institution.

A school is not the result of some grand plan or project, made up in some grand thinker’s study or laboratory, a school is a social institution, made stronger by man’s many interactions over the years. If one rides roughshod over all this sui generis history with the imposition of alien practices which have been proven to work in another domain one might lose the very heart of what kept the institution alive in the first place.

The making of a new school is not a soulless act of efficiencies and customer pleasing activities, it is about setting in place the means by which a school can grow into an institution. In this case the need for partnership is more, yes take notice of the ever evolving ideas of how to run a school but don’t base your school on current conventions,  base it on the tried and true ideas of centuries past that is embodied in the expertise of teachers, the history of subject teaching and the great teaching tradition. This could be MAT wide, it could form the basis of ‘product’ but it would be the product of an institutional, organic approach and not the business approach that threatens to de-professionalise the workforce.

Some sort of rights and liberties should be given to teachers to be creative in their classrooms. This is adaptability. But Nash is right about the dangers of individuality, a purely anarchic approach in which every teacher is a lone figure delivering curriculum in their own eccentric style will not help the progress of a child, if from year to year she has to relearn or learn stuff that was not rooted in previous learning or is at odds with it. The teacher is not a Grand Panjandrum but needs to work professionally as part of a team of teachers designing and reviewing their curriculum collectively responding in an agile way to the changing needs of society, represented mostly by the children who attend the school, their subject knowledge and by continually refreshing their professional expertise. They don’t become professional by being denied the need to be curriculum experts.

This relies on the teacher being ‘what they ought to be’, the professional, given the responsibility in which she can grow into that role. Teachers have, for centuries, developed habits, rules, and together have created subject disciplines, various canons, books, ways of teaching, tests, terms, without resorting to imposing a blueprint from above to improve their work. The risk might be that what is imposed from above, might be worse than what they already do. And, being imposed from above, its ability to adapt might be too slow.

Evidence-based practice across a group is an excellent idea but it requires flexibility in approach. A standardised approach does not have flexibility. Adaptability when decreed from the centre can only take its expertise from outside of the group, it devalues the professionals within the group even more by always having to bring in ideas from beyond. Innovation needs to come from within too, therefore anti-fragile adaptability needs to be part of the ethos of a MAT. It can achieve this by realising that schools are not businesses, they are institutions.

Don’t Educate the Working Class

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Not all working-class children want to be middle or upper class.

says Garth Stahl, the author of Identity, Neoliberalism and Aspiration… emphasising that education is about changing people and not everyone wants to change. We are defined by where we are in the rat race and that is where we feel most secure. This fear that education might change people, who they are at their very core, is something that eats away at some people’s fears about schooling. ‘Shakespeare is not for our kids,’ might be the cry of some secure in the knowledge that teaching Macbeth to the oiks might see them rise up to Upper Middle Class rectitude and result in them indulging in dark arts at the golf club or even, God forbid, in the Labour Party.

Stahl might have a point, imagine an education that sets out to change Upper Class people into Working Class toilers… What would the timetable consist of? The school lunch menu would be relatively simple: KFC. The lessons could comprise the subjects of gambling, tabloid reading, beer swilling, football (playing as well as the pride and prejudice), Brexit fear of foreigners and all sorts of other such stereotypical nonsense. How would the Upper Class like that?! Do we really think that the working class are a morass of people who indulge in such behaviours that define who they are and if they are subjected to opera, fine dining and JMW Turner their entire world view is shattered and they are left bereft?

This is the problem with the model of education that purely celebrates identity. Firstly we rely on the idea that there is a broad ‘type’ of people defined by their job, or lack of it, their gender, fluid or not, their race, culture and creed. This is useful for Marxist sociologists, snobs , advertisers and algorithm designers – and, indeed, it becomes ever so sophisticated as we are all seen as ABC1s D2s and CD borderlines… but do we really fear teaching and learning things that are of human value beyond our algorithmic echo chambers? If we want education to worship at the altar of our own identities then we will never learn to look beyond.

Rather than change people education refines our understanding of who we are as human beings, it adds to our knowledge not through social engineering; neither meritocratic or anti- aspirational, a good education should expand the self. If education is about the rat race then rats are the only ones who will benefit. If education is a personalised, Narcissistic look at trying to make ourselves feel better about who we are or have chosen to be then it will never be about who we truly are. We don’t have to change who we are, but in order to find out, we might have to take a broader view than the one we think justifies our personal proclivities. An education in ‘high culture’ is for all, not just a supposed elite. Shakespeare is for everyone, whether they like it or not.

Teachers Should Pass Knowledge On

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To avoid misunderstanding: it seems to me that conservatism, in the sense of conservation, is of the essence of the educational activity

Hannah Arendt

According to the sleeve notes of their new album, Blue and Lonesome, Rolling Stones’ guitarist, Keith Richards, wants written on his gravestone:

He passed it on

The gnarled rockers’ latest album returns to their roots, echoing their first LP, it is a homage, a love story, a dedicated exploration of the blues. With each of the twelve bars and harmonica blow the Stones pass it on and if they hadn’t ever bothered what would our musical culture be like now?

It is not for us, it is not for them, it is for the love of the music itself that they pass it on. From Muddy Waters to Chuck Berry the Stones helped introduce these guys to our shores. Nowadays some may complain about cultural appropriation, I prefer to call it cultural education, conserving and adding to our culture. From the swamps of the Mississippi and Can’t be Satisfied to Satisfaction (I Can’t Get No) and the Thames Estuary, the flow of time and the Hoochie Coochie would bring the bluesmen together, it is the music that they are servants to.

As Hannah Arendt said, education must be conservative, in the sense of conservation and this is an important part of the job. Pass it on, from oral, to written, to online; we have a duty to conserve the things that matter and even some of the things that don’t just in case that, one day, they might.

As Hector says in The History Boys:

Pass the parcel. That’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys. That’s the game I want you to learn. Pass it on.

The late great Alexis Korner the ‘father’ of British Blues said of the time just after the war:

In those days, between the ages of 12 and 18 you meant nothing. You were the extra place at the side table if someone came to dinner. You were too big to be petted or fondled or thought pretty and you were too small to work and you were of no interest to anyone, and you had a chance to learn—this is what’s missed today

In many of the arguments about what to teach many talk about what might be good for the child, what might be useful, accessible, engaging, fewer talk about what might be for the good of the subject itself. Maybe if the ‘needs’ of the child were to become less of a concern, instead of worrying about their destinations and putting their every piece of work under scrutiny, we could rebalance things. Teach what is good for the survival of the subject, one day it might make a difference to someone.

Teach Shakespeare’s plays for the intrinsic gift of the plays themselves. And play the Blues, because of the intrinsic gift of the blues. The chance encounter between Richards and Jagger on platform two at Dartford railway station, found the old school chums brought together by a mutual love of the blues, a band formed with the need to pass that love on, to add to it, and, now, on their latest album back to their roots again as they go full circle back to the tradition.

Teachers pass on the stories of their subjects, not because it is intrinsically good for the child, for the job market or for the betterment of humanity, but because they have to. This is the gift the teacher gives, every day. This is why what you pass on has to be qualitatively superior, as it is for the good of the art, and those arts, in turn, survive because they are the saviour of someone, somewhere, sometime, even though the charges in front of you in a lesson don’t get it, one day a child of a child of a pupil in front of you might, and that’s why you keep going.

Muddy Waters had no idea the satisfaction his music would create for two teenagers in Dartford, but thankfully he just passed it on. Changed it and passed it on.