When first we seek to control

Generic management practices run rife in many schools, and we’re beginning to wake up to how pervasive and damaging they can be. Flight paths appear to be the latest target for disdain.

I’m all for rooting out the rot. However, we also need to understand how the rot set in, else it will happen again, in another guise. How do misguided ideas such as flight paths take hold? Why do intelligent, well-intentioned people come to believe  they are a reasonable thing to adopt?

Firstly, let me explain what I mean by generic management practices in schools. This is where school leaders adopt an approach (a way of achieving a goal, often involving a system or agreed set of management behaviours) which is simple, uniform and routinely applied, and has logical consistency from the leaders perspective in trying to perform the functions required of them, but which fails to account for the complexity, nuance and substance of the context in which the approach is applied.

More pithily, it is “an attempt to make one size fit all, with the result that one size fits nothing”.

To understand why such practices flourish, and to avoid laying blame at the door of well meaning school leaders, we should consider why they appear to have ‘logical consistency’ to the school leader.

It seems to me that generic approaches, such as flight paths, arise from the question “how do we control this?”. Consider how sensible generic management approaches look when posed as an answer to this question.

In a secondary school, we know that students start in one academic place (as indicated by their SATs results) and end up either here, here or here (the ‘here’ being a set of GCSE results which are somewhere on the 9 to 1 continuum). Obviously, as school leaders charged with maximising outcomes, we can’t leave it to chance as to what grades the students will get. Now we know their start point and possible end points we can map their journey between these two places and install checkpoints along the way. We can man these checkpoints, like supervisors on a Duke of Edinburgh award expedition, making sure students aren’t lost and are running to time.

Our management logic is that we should act to ensure that no-one falls behind, and that each competitor achieves their personal best. We can control this. It is our job to do so.

These convenient ‘journey’ metaphors hide inconvenient truths. The start and end places are not points on the same map; one is a measure of English and maths competency, the other an assessment of a variety of domains of knowledge, which varies from student to student according to their subject choices. There is no straight path between these points. Even if there were, we could not apply the coordinates of the destination to chart progress towards it. None of it makes sense.

I shall let others do the detailed critique of flightpaths, but suffice to say it doesn’t take much to pick it apart.

So why do these ideas have such power over us? So great is the allure of the flight path that when National Curriculum levels were scrapped we invested immense time and energy reinventing them rather than take the hint that the whole endeavour was unsound. Where once we waited until the end of KS3 to clumsily translate levels in to predicted GCSE grades, the whole enterprise now frequently takes place at the end of KS2 as we load students aboard the GCSE train in Y7, designing meaningless assessment systems which attempt to equate every test result to a grade which students may, or may not, one day achieve.

To dismantle flight paths is to admit that we, as leaders, cannot control. We must confront the limits of our influence; the reality of our impotence. We are forced to accept that we asked the wrong question. Rather than seeking to control, we should have asked “how can we nurture this?”.

Many generic management practices have grown up around the notion of control in our schools. Dismantling these will not be easy. The greatest barrier is fear; fear that results will drop, fear that Ofsted will deem us weak, or the middle of the night fear that we can’t solve this by working even harder… we might just need to trust the intelligence and commitment of others.

These are real fears and every school leader holds them.

More practical barriers exist too. Think of all the practices we would have to reimagine. Assessment systems, reports, tracking, target setting, performance management.  And what about the people whose job it is to manage these systems? What becomes of the data manager, the AHT in charge of tracking and intervention, or the progress co-ordinator?

And once we’ve rooted out all this genericism, we must then re-educate ourselves about how students actually learn, and remember what it feels like to trust teachers to know when they are not, and to do something about it. Trust is the main casualty of our comforting genericism. It is time to restore it. No more flight paths, please.


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