Navbar button The Headteacher

“We’re Obsessed with Seeds, but Ignore the Soil”

July 16, 2019, 9:07 GMT+1
Read in about 8 minutes
  • England’s accountability system obsessively monitors our seeds of learning, while ignoring the soil that sustains them, says Jeremy Hannay...
“We’re Obsessed with Seeds, but Ignore the Soil”

I have a confession. It might sound crazy, but it’s true – I don’t own a landline phone, and I don’t know my home phone number.

I have one … I think? But I’ve not owned a landline handset in years. There are holes in the wall intended to enable this form of telecommunication from my home to yours, but I’ve never used them. Though I have considered swapping out the panel for one with USB slots.

If I’d said this 25 years ago, it wouldn’t compute. No one would believe that life was possible, safe, or even practical without a home phone. It was the most convenient way to communicate. In the 1990s, landline phones were items that every home had, and likely couldn’t have lived without.

Enter the homes of people under 30 today, and most of them won’t have one either. How is this possible? How could something so integral, so impactful and so necessary become obsolete? The reality is that items become functionally obsolete when they can no longer adequately perform the function for which they were created. Rewind 25 to 30 years, back to the peak of the landline phone, and you’ll discover that at around the same time we saw the invention and initiation of another antiquated idea – high stakes inspection branded as school improvement.

Lack of agency

England’s education system has been a leader in the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM), which seeks the improvement of educational outcomes for all children and is often characterised by good intentions. However, these are ultimately let down by an over-reliance on narrow performance data, prescriptive control and compliance measures, and a dependence on high stakes enforcement – namely corporate-flavoured support programmes, capability procedures and job insecurity.

Schools themselves now enact similar programmes of quality assurance. Witness the constant observation, monitoring and scrutiny of teachers.

Their marking, planning and professional work, combined with inflexible accountabilities to pupil performance data. The education headlines read, ‘Teachers unhappy about excessive workload,’ but they obscure the fact that these workload demands and problems with wellbeing are merely symptoms of much deeper problems that stem from overwhelming lack of trust, support, development and professional agency.

Those are the real killers.

The literature examining professional performance over the last three decades is absolutely clear. Fear and anxiety, micromanagement, over-engineering, distrust and unpredictability amount to a recipe for disaster in any organisation. The system designed to improve our schools and provide assurances to the public is precisely what’s holding us back.

Real collaboration

#IncredibleSchools will discuss education more organically, and see their role as being to both nurture the seed and provide the richest soil. They’ll focus their energies on ensuring that the wider profession is nurtured and helped to grow and develop, rather than on consistent and constant measuring.

Professional Learning Communities and small school clusters in Canada. Finland’s national network of innovation. Large-scale lesson study, open lessons and teacher research groups in Singapore. These countries understand something deeper about educational change; nothing that raises results today but destroys the potential of its people tomorrow is relevant.

In England, we’ve become obsessed with the seeds. We monitor them, measure them, weigh them, inspect them, and have managed to over-engineer them at the expense of the soil. Successful nations – successful schools – support their seeds by taking care of the soil. We need to be soil people.

The idea that schools will only improve if they’re monitored and inspected is obsolete, and the same applies to teachers. The greatest systems in the world focus on bringing schools together, and so do the greatest schools.

Skilfully supported collaborative endeavours are often at the heart of sustainable system and school improvement. Real collaboration is about harnessing that innate desire for all children to succeed by linking struggling schools with more successful ones, and providing the same opportunities for our teachers – without judgement.

This isn’t blue sky thinking. Entire systems use this approach without any inspectorate, any league tables, any scrutiny, monitoring or constant observation. And they do better.

Global lessons

There are different models used by systems and schools around the globe in top performing jurisdictions. In Canada, the Spirals of Enquiry model has demonstrated impressive sustainable school improvement results. In Asia, lesson study is used as a regular model of collaborative work, investigating learners and learning, while refining practice from the middle. At school level, this involves co-constructing pedagogy and practice between school leaders and teachers, with an emphasis on collaborative approaches to refining, reviewing and improving practice.

Top performing systems and schools don’t manage the performance of their staff, but rather nurture it. There’s a strong evidence base that supports self-directed teacher learning through projects like the Teacher Learning and Leadership Programme. Via this approach, schools support teachers in developing lines of enquiry about the development of the school and their own practice. They have professional growth partners, are connected to research and practice and are provided with opportunities to reflect and discuss their learning, its impact on them and their pupils.

Schools are complex. Leaders and teachers must regularly make complex decisions with an almost infinite number of variables, and sometimes things will go wrong. The very best systems will support their schools and educators, providing them with extensive and intentional programmes and pathways for development. They will then give those schools and educators agency, decisional capital and time to decide.

There’s no prescription – only trust.

Team focus

Great systems and schools won’t fixate on the bottom and top performers, but rather concentrate on the entire group. In a culture of trust you’ll see teachers supporting, enquiring with, developing and challenging one another, and schools doing the same.

Great systems and schools are interested in everyone improving, together, because excellence in education ultimately comes from a system of great schools and a series of great teachers. The landline telephone was an incredible invention. It changed the way our world connected. It brought us closer together. And now it’s obsolete.

The culture of schools inspection as schools improvement was a solution to problems of the past. The decision isn’t between the way it is now and the way it was before – the world has changed.

The decision we have now is do we awkwardly continue to rub sticks together in an attempt to make fire, petulantly shouting at onlookers when ‘it works’ as they awkwardly put their lighters back in their pockets? Or do we put our sticks down, stand up, brush ourselves off, and humbly ask for help? A better way is possible.

Jeremy Hannay is the headteacher of Three Bridges Primary School and currently devising a new model of system- driven accountability and collaborative networking for schools; for more details, search #IncredibleSchools on Twitter or follow @HannayJeremy.