Focus on where you are going, not what you’re doing.

The rather narrow Edgbaston Tunnel
The rather narrow Edgbaston Tunnel

This is the Edgbaston Tunnel. It’s on my cycle route to work. The distance between the fence and the wall isn’t very large and on my rather clunky bike there are only a few centimetres to spare on either side. It would be easy to hit the wall or the fence as I ride through it.

I’ve found that if I keep focused on the end of the tunnel – if I keep my attention straight ahead it’s fine – I can get through with no problem. However, should I look down at my hands to see how far I am from crashing into the fence, I have to screech to a halt as my bike starts to wobble. Focusing on what I’m doing does not actually help me with what I’m doing. Strange that.

In teaching it’s easy to get distracted with the mechanics of the job. Will my lesson plan cut it? Is my voice control good enough? Have I thought about every nuance of classroom management to ensure that the lesson runs as smoothly as possible?

But actually it’s more healthy to keep the focus on where you are going – where do you want the children to be by the end of the lesson / week / term / year?

Of course practice is important. If I hadn’t practised riding my bike on wide paths I wouldn’t be able to ride through the narrow path that is Edgbaston Tunnel. But now I have sufficient skill to do it, focusing on my practice doesn’t help me as much as focusing on where I’m going.

One of the great things about my new job is that there is an implicit trust that I have the skills of teaching sufficient to do the job well. Now I can focus on where I am going with the children. I think too many schools try to refocus their teachers on the minutiae of their teaching when actually their teaching would be better served by focusing on the big picture of where they are going with their students.

And for that the key question is set by the ambition of the school – do we want our students to:

  • have great individual lessons in which progress can be demonstrated by the end of them?
  • have great units of work?
  • make great progress over an academic year?
  • do really well in a test?
  • become great citizens who can contribute to society?

Teachers who then are released into seeing the big picture will only by limited by which of the above questions is closest to the ethos of their school.

What I’m enjoying about my new school is that it is definitely the kind of school where the big picture is closest to how can we make our students great citizens who can contribute to society.

TEAM: Together Everybody Achieves Mediocrity

‘There’s no I in TEAM’.

‘Together Everybody Achieves More’

These are phrases that are thrown about to justify why we need good teams in schools. However these are phrases that initially came from building effective teams in the business environment. And as I suggested in my previous post, not everything is the same between schools and business.

The essential difference is that most teachers spend most of their time working with their students, assessing (by themselves) and planning, which is often done alone, although sometimes with others. Teachers spend very little of their working day with their colleagues, which is something I suspect is different from most other work environments.

In short, while there is no I in TEAM, there is an I in TEACHING.

But to develop the picture, I think that many school leaders make the mistake of trying to over-conform their teachers to a single model of what a good teacher looks like. They set too many ‘non-negotiables’ some of which are important and some of which aren’t, but the net result is that many teachers are denied from working to their strengths because they spend so much time trying to fit the picture set out by their leaders. It’s like the Pareto Principle in reverse – trying to work so hard on the 20% that will make them into the ideal teacher, but then losing the focus on the 80% which they are actually good at.

Schools are strong when teachers are individuals. Of course, there needs to be a bottom line. But when we’ve all agreed that we need to raise standards for our students in a safe and healthy way, do we really need to mark in pink, write a post for the class webpage or ask at least 3 open-ended questions in our plenaries (those of us who do plenaries)?

And it’s true that there are educational systems where teamwork is highly valued and effective. Take Shanghai, where the maths teachers teach 3 forty minute lessons a day and have time to plan with their colleagues every day, and meet with other schools on a regular basis. There teamwork is built into the timetable. The resources are already there in the system.

In our system teachers have far more contact time with students, so there is far less time to ‘be team’. That’s why we need independent, unique and sometimes quirky individuals to be teachers. And there’s a strength in that, so long as we remember not to dumb down our teachers to the mediocre by enforcing a range of meaningless non-negotiables.

Education has gone to the dogs

'Dogs' Lyrics
Lyrics from ‘Dogs’ by Pink Floyd

When a friend who is a headteacher uttered these words a few months ago, I was in the midst of my angst about whether I should resign or not. Mired in my own personal work trauma, I hadn’t realised at the time how true her words are.

UK Education has gone to the ‘dogs’.  And by ‘dogs’ I’m using a technical term as defined by Pink Floyd’s 1977 album ‘Animals’, in which a section of the lyrics from the 17-minute long song ‘Dogs’ goes:

You have to be trusted by the people you lie to,

So that when they turn their backs on you,

You’ll get the chance to put the knife in.

The song is about business people. That’s who state education has gone to.

Somehow, somewhere we’ve got the idea that education can be run like a marketplace. So we’ve got businesses involved in it. Companies that run academy chains and companies that market resources for a curriculum that’s only a skeleton and so is ripe for fleshing out with expensive products.

But the marketplace is all wrong. In a normal market, companies compete for the business available. Some succeed and some fail, but in competing the idea is that the consumer gets a better deal. Companies make profit and the whole thing is based on money.

But the education market is a kind of half-way house between socialism and capitalism. Every school gets roughly the same amount of money per child (pupil premium excepted) regardless of how well they are doing. Schools are then judged on student performance, evaluated by Ofsted and put into league tables based on test results. There’s very little financial reward or penalty for performance in the education market.

The very best schools can become teaching schools which can then effectively take over other schools. The very worst schools are said to be failing and then struggle to recruit teachers and take on families who want the very best academically for their children. These schools can be closed, or turned into an academy or taken over by a teaching school. However while these schools are failing, their students are suffering. Those students will never get their wasted education back. What can happen during this time is that the school becomes another province in the burgeoning empire of an executive headteacher, therefore justifying a higher salary. Or the school could become part of an expanding academy chain, creaming off more money from state education into private business.

A virtuous cycle is set up for those who are part of it. The teaching school headteachers and academy chains all know the HMI inspectors. They form a powerful network that other schools can’t easily join. They set about making their own bit of state education the very best it can be, ignoring the effect that a poor-education-for-some has on our overall society.

And sometimes they stoop to anything to make sure this happens. Before I resigned from my previous post I was lied to by those in charge. And just as it says in the song, when I tried to get on with my work having been told one thing to my face, other things where being said behind my back which had the metaphorical effect of putting the knife in.

Headteachers of teaching schools are the very people who should be standing up to the DfE and fighting for the rights of all children to have a great education. But instead they have stood by while the DfE have handed over much of the system to business, because the system has suited their growing empires.

Since moving to the independent sector, I’ve been impressed by the honesty of those who teach and work within it. It’s quite simple – you’ve got to do your job well or parents will stop paying the money to keep the place going. Everyone is clear – the school is a business. It provides education but the bottom line is money.

By contrast the half-way house that exists in the state sector blurs the lines between finance and standards. And when lines get blurry, those without moral purpose can prosper.

So what’s the fix?

First of all, ignore the distractions that the DfE come up with, such as that one about Grammar schools.

Secondly, either education should be a great socialist venture into making education great for all or it should completely go over to the market (based entirely on money: actual hard cash). The current half-way house is disastrous for everyone, except for those dogs creaming money off the state sector.