The fall and rise of educational orthodoxy – 2018 revisited

Galled by my own predictable slavishness to the Gregorian calendar, I find myself reflecting on the year gone by. The whole New Year shebang is mawkish and overblown in my opinion. If we are going to celebrate new beginnings, let’s make it Spring when the world is truly re-born and we can literally and figuratively put the dark days behind us. None-the-less, my mind is drawn back and my hopes stretch ahead as 31st December approaches, so I will indulge myself briefly in the moment of review and renew.

The thread that runs through my year is the feeling that orthodoxies are being overturned across this country’s school system. Generally, I think this is a good thing. The revolution began underground through Twitter, was amplified by movements such as ResearchEd and the growing army of teacher bloggers, and hit print with a plethora of informed and readable texts which, in combination, has felt like a Renaissance in thinking about education. Finally, this year the bubble has exploded into the national policy arena in the form of significant shifts in Ofsted’s inspection framework and the DfEs position on teacher workload. Evidence-informed educationalists have seized the agenda and given meaning to the term ‘system leadership’ in a way that multi-academy trusts have failed to do.

All of the above has coincided with one of the darkest times I can remember for schools, when the chinese-burn of austerity crossed the threshold from feeling the heat to squealing in pain.

To simultaneously feel such hope and despair.

Government, like the iconic Lord Vader himself, offers a paternalistic hand to reach for whilst holding you in a death grip with the other, as Lord Agnew cackles from beneath his hood in the background. “I am your Father” echoes with the promise of protection, whilst dripping with the menace of abusive authority.

I can’t honestly say it is a golden age in which to be a school leader. I am thankful to the network of intelligent people whom I am able to connect with through social media who raise the discourse above cost-cutting, accountability and ill-informed policy. Without the combined efforts of these educationalists my own thinking about schools would largely remain unchallenged. Instead, I find my beliefs and understanding constantly shift as I am exposed to diverse views, informed debates and the direct experiences of practitioners. It is, therefore, perhaps a golden-era for educational thinking, and one can only hope that this richness continues to influence the national agenda.

It can feel very uncomfortable to lead a school in a period when past practices are under so much scrutiny. I expressed my views on this here, but have since found a similar sentiment described far more eloquently by Ian Frost here. Ian’s poetic take on the shifting sands of school leadership reminds us how quickly many of the accepted practices in schools are overturned and, in retrospect, soon appear absurd. Orthodoxy is a comforting hand-hold until the rock begins to break away in our grasp.

Since the start of this year, I have shifted my position on a number of matters relating to education. I have a new-found respect for subjects, and a new language to describe the ‘domains’ of knowledge which neatly divide the curriculum, thanks to the work of writers such as Christine Counsell and Mary Myatt. A deeper understanding of curriculum brings with it humility as a senior leader, and a healthy wariness of homogeneous systems and practices which we have tended to force on teachers with little respect for the disciplinary traditions and pedagogical logic. An emerging goal for my own practice is to better understand the subjects which combine to form the ‘matter’ of learning and to ensure that the discussions I have with subject leaders and teachers are grounded in their subject, not watered down through abstraction. The shift in perspective engendered through a serious consideration of curriculum is profound. I had often heard phrases such as ‘the curriculum is the model of progress’, and understood at a surface level that this implied valuing knowledge and rejecting notions of generic skill development, but the deeper I venture in to understanding curriculum, the more the layers of such phrases peel away to reveal some essential truths about learning, progress, disciplinary thinking and inter-disciplinary thinking. Threshold concepts abound in this field, and once you have passed through this doorway, there is no return. I can never again accept level descriptors, flight paths, progress ladders or many of the imposed teaching approaches (plenaries, Bloom, thinking skills) which have littered our practice for the corrupt era we have just lived through.

When we wear new spectacles to view one aspect of our world in a different way, it is not surprising that we turn around and see something else from a new perspective too. So it has been with my take on leadership. The literature on leadership describes the traits required to excel in this role. Models abound which bring together the characteristics of great leaders, with the promise that you too can achieve greatness. And yet, the more I have experienced and observed leadership in schools, the more I have come to believe that effective leaders know a great deal, and it is this knowledge that makes them effective rather than a set of generic traits or hollow-skills. An epiphany is too strong a term, but there was definitely a moment this year when I made the intuitive leap that leadership requires the acting agent to possess a deep well of knowledge to draw upon; knowledge of the social context within which they lead; declarative knowledge relating to the particular circumstance; procedural knowledge (like a road-map drawn from experience of similar situations). I wrote about it here and here. None of this is to say that leaders don’t have to execute things well. Neither am I arguing that knowledge is sufficient in itself. Leaders need to be driven by values, be emotionally stable, act consistently, have charisma and hold their nerve. These are all great traits for a leader to possess, but without a deep knowledge of the domain in which they operate these traits will lead to poor decisions, low impact and unintended consequences. My shifting perspective on leadership means that I am far more likely to encourage others to be more learned in their field, to listen more intently, to take the time to gather information, to read, to digest; to become more knowledgeable. Greater knowledge begets more effective leadership.

Inevitably, negative personal experiences change our perspectives too. I can’t let the year pass without comment about the damage I have seen done in the name of accountability in schools. I leave 2018 a little wiser and a tad more bitter about the state of our school system. Whilst I am optimistic about the direction in which Ofsted move, there remain deep flaws in the model of school inspection. One such flaw is the over-reach of Ofsted in casting judgement on aspects of school effectiveness which they cannot possibly hope to reliably make judgments on. Another is the shameful and simplistic labeling of schools which traps them in a cycle of failure. But Ofsted are part of a wider problem in England’s education system which blames schools for society’s ills, has no proven strategy for raising standards and views the education of young people as a cost rather than an investment. The BBC’s #Schools programme brings home just how desperate and immoral things are in parts of our system. What I have learnt this year is that when you are at your lowest, there will be someone ready to put the boot in.

One of the voices of reason which rings out in 2018 is Prof Becky Allen’s. Becky’s work as part of the DfE’s Workload Advisory Group, as a driving force behind @TeacherTapp and through some killer blogs on Pupil Premium and data in schools has informed and inspired many of us trying to create a more sane approaching to running a school. Having spent ages dismantling the nonsensical systems in my school, I was struggling to imagine what might be a better way to ensure that students make good progress. Becky’s work has been invaluable in helping to re-engineer our approach whilst reducing teacher workload. Daisy Christodoulou deserves a special mention here too as without her we would be stuck in the assessment dark ages. It strikes me again that the greatest leaders in education today are those who seek to change the system from within, and from the ground up, through reason, rational argument and evidence; through intellectual authority rather than positional authority. The model of system improvement has truly become democratised. The vacuum of formal leadership in our fragmented system has been wonderfully filled.

What is truly transformative is when the above contributions to educational discourse come together. The towers of educational orthodoxy are crumbling to the ground. In their place it feels we might be building a consensus around what Amanda Spielman has called the ‘substance of education’. At the foundations of this project is the curriculum and the bricks are solid knowledge, all held together by the mortar of rigorous assessment. However, this time we need these buildings to house communities, not hierarchies. Let’s be sure to set the rules for how this new orthodoxy is run. We don’t need no education landlord (to bastardise Pink Floyd). I’m no anarchist, but I’m equally no lapdog. If we are to keep teachers in the profession and make their working lives fulfilling, if we are to meaningfully raise standards and close attainment gaps, and if we are to leave a legacy of love for learning in every young person touched by our schools, we need to seize the agenda and demand an end to misguided policy and destructive cuts to our budgets. I end the year in a triumphant mood, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. There is an army of educationalists storming the barricades as we speak. Who’s up for a revolt in 2019?

4 thoughts on “The fall and rise of educational orthodoxy – 2018 revisited

  1. Interesting read and full of thoughtful observations – my worry is that the new wave of experts who you highlight may also prove to be false prophets. Don’t we need to drill outwards, not inwards, and look at the whole idea of education again rather than accepting we have to operate within the same paradigm?

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    1. One thing we know is that we are probably wrong and therefore will change our minds again and again, so all we can do is attempt to establish the best we know and think about this rationally and comprehensively. I’m interested in anyone pushing boundaries and disinterested by lazy thinkers.

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