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.

Frantic

Frantic: distraught with fear, anxiety, or other emotion.State education in the UK is frantic.

Frantic. Look at its synonyms: panic-stricken, panic-struck, panicky, beside oneself, at one’s wits’ end, berserk, distraught, overwrought, worked up, agitated, distressed.

It is a description of an emotional state that everyone experiences. Sometimes life, or work, becomes so intense that the frantic feeling is unavoidable. But to have such an extreme word characterising day-to-day life in an education system cannot be a good thing.

I left the state education system a term ago. After 19 years in it, I moved over to the ‘darkside’ – the independent sector. From that new vantage point I could look back and see how frantic I had become responding to the ever more frantic requirements of the system. Since then I’ve had a few interactions with the state system that have confirmed my diagnosis. Some of these interactions have been with former colleagues and some with teachers from the schools my children attend.

I see it in the eyes. They are too wide. Or too sleepy. Or full of tears.

And people have seen the change in me. “You look really well,” and “the weight has gone from your shoulders,” are both comments I have received on more than one occasion in recent weeks.

I think there are a range of reasons for this collective emotional state of ‘frantic’, which I hope to explore over future posts. And if you’re feeling ‘distraught with fear or anxiety’ over our Education system or your role in it, I hope to point to some solutions.