The Curse of the Non-Negotiable

Gmork and his infinite wisdom
“Because people have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams. So the Nothing grows stronger.”

Aside from the lyrical tones of Limahl singing the title track of the 1984 film ‘the Neverending Story‘, one of the memorable parts of the film is the villain: Gmork. This evil wolf fiend is allied to the mysterious ‘Nothing’ that is sweeping the land and threatening to destroy all of idyllic Fantasia.

Watching it recently, I was struck by something Gmork says as he reveals his evil intentions (as all decent villains do) towards the end of the movie.

Because people who have no hopes are easy to control; and whoever has the control… has the power!

 – Gmork, The NeverEnding Story, 1984

Non-negotiables are the Gmork of the education world.

They start off with all the best intentions…

Let’s have a whole school policy for homework. We’ll include some non-negotiables that everyone ‘must’ do. That way we’ll have a bottom line for the minimum amount of work each teacher will have to mark.

Hang on.

We need some non-negotiables for how we introduce lessons, otherwise children will be confused by different teachers.

We definitely need one for marking. Let’s all mark in green. We must write two positive comments and one improvement comment.

What about how we communicate with parents? Teachers must definitely update their class’ webpage every week.

And so it goes on.

There are many problems with this approach, not least the effort needed to monitor and manage all the non-negotiables that have been assigned to staff. But I think the biggest problem is that they dehumanise teachers. They reduces educators to a set of parameters and commands defined by senior management, when each teacher can bring so much more to their classroom.

Of course the corollary to Gmork’s assertion is that when you lose control, you lose hope. And surely a hope for the future is one of the main reasons to work in education.

Non-negotiables are one of the causes behind education becoming ‘frantic‘ – the theme for my current run of blog posts. Of course there’s a reason for school leadership teams to overdo their non-negotiables. But that’s another story, to be told another time.

4 thoughts on “The Curse of the Non-Negotiable”

  1. Agree with you in the main. Trouble is, so-called ‘non-negotiables’ are really only a symptom of the bigger/biggest problem: an education system which has been well & truly hijacked by the ‘measurement community’. This paradigm, with its thirst for accountability, has spawned a managerialist attitude within schools, which is largely bureaucratic and concerned with creating what Hattie rightly calls ‘visible proxies’. It’s a heinously reductive approach to take towards processes as complex (& fascinating) as learning (& teaching) but it has its own logic. Things which are easy to see are easier to measure. Make them ‘non-negotiables’ and you can hold the teacher ‘accountable’ if he or she is not ‘evidencing’ them. I’m not sure managers do see the monitoring of them as a problem – it has become their raison d’etre. Sure they create work but, hey, it’s not actually teaching is it?

    1. Thanks for this. It’s really helpful to step back and see the bigger picture. It’s interesting to see the effect that ‘marketplace’ management has had on teaching, which, in the state sector certainly, is not a true market.

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