Who tells your story?

This isn’t a post about Brexit… but it starts there. As we lurch towards the distinct possibility of a no-deal, you would be right to be concerned about what happens next. Whichever side of the debate you are on, no-one should be taking this possibility lightly. It is a problem we should all care about as it has the potential to affect all our lives, perhaps significantly.

But it wasn’t always this way: that is, the matter of the UK’s membership of the EU wasn’t always something people cared much about.

According to surveys by MORI, as recently as 2016, relatively few people considered the UK’s membership of the EU to be an important issue.

https://qz.com/1725402/only-5-percent-of-brits-cared-about-the-eu-before-brexit/

The referendum on 23 June 2016 magnified EU membership in the minds of the UK population such that, three years later, those considering it an important issue multiplied 6 or 7 times over. At the end of 2015, just 1% cited EU membership as the most important issue facing the UK. By 2019, this peaked at 59%. In the intervening years, the advantages and disadvantages of EU membership had barely changed, but people’s minds had. What had once been a concern for a few political radicals and off-centre economists is now a mainstream issue that everyone seems to have a strong opinion about.

When is a problem not a problem?

The story of the UK’s departure from the EU illustrates the role that perception plays in creating, defining and amplifying real-world problems. If enough noise is made about an issue, the space this problem takes up in the consciousness of individuals expands. Once the common perception is that there is a problem which demands our attention, this perception can have real-world consequences. In this example, the problem existed before many people cared much about it, but when we were pushed to form an opinion on it, we created a momentum that would translate our opinions back into tangible consequences.

Whilst not at this scale, leaders amplify problems all the time. They take matters which are of moderate interest to a few people (often themselves) and set out to convince others to care as much as they do (the art of persuasion). This can be constructive or destructive in real terms.

In the school system, we saw a Brexit-like problematisation in relation to local authority control over schools. Until the late 1990s, very few people inside or outside of the education world questioned the status quo in relation to the structure of the school system. Local authorities were no doubt an irritant to central government increasingly intent on controlling the education system from the centre, but the radical idea of removing state schools from local authority control only gained traction when the New Labour government took steps, justified in moral terms, to do something about ‘sink schools’ which local authorities had persistently failed to turn around.

Once the dam sprung a leak, it was only a matter of time before it burst. Academisation became ‘a thing’, which became a policy objective, which became a matter most would develop a strong opinion about. There is a debate to be had about whether politicians poked a hole in this dam (and the EU one), or whether the stress fractures of a structure which had withstood too much pressure for too long were already beginning to form. Perhaps all a leader ever does is look for the cracks and help them become a flood? I suspect this is true. Systems only reform when they are ready to do so, and apparently powerful leaders are really not that powerful at all: they just work away at the cracks in the dam.

On a yet smaller scale, we see problematisation in relation to the daily operations of schools too. Until very recently, personalised comments on children’s books were not considered a problem (a hassle perhaps, but something you had to just get on with as a teacher), but we now have a mini-industry growing up around ways to avoid having to mark books. Similarly, forgetting stuff has been problematised. Ofcourse, children have always forgotten most of what they had been taught, and teachers move on to the next topic knowing that some children will remember more of what had been taught than others. In some subjects at KS3, forgetting most of the taught content was almost assumed, certainly tolerated as long as pupils had improved their generic skills along the way. What did it matter if little was remembered about the Battle of Britain, as long as pupils improved their ability to interpret historical sources? However, such an attitude now is considered almost negligent, and any teacher failing to employ a variety of retrieval practice methods would be deemed failing in the same way they would have been criticised until recently for not showing that every child makes progress in every lesson.

As you read these examples, your interpretation of my argument will be influenced by whether each of the above changes is desirable: your position on Brexit, views on academies, strength of feeling towards the efficacy of marking, or attitude towards knowledge-rich curricular. However, whether these shifts in perception of what problems need tackling constitute progress or not is of no concern to me. I present them as examples of the way in which problems come to prominence, demand our attention, and influence our actions. All of these problems are ‘real’ in the sense that they impact on people, and we may be right to bring them to the fore and imbue them with greater importance. What interests me is why these particular problems, and how does this process of problem prioritsation and definition occur?

Who gets to define the problem?

At school level, leaders rarely get to select which problems will come to the fore. In this respect, they are very much subject to systemic forces. Problematisation often happens at a wider system level, driven by national policy (e.g. academisation), social changes (e.g. changes in levels of poverty), political movements (e.g. marketisation), grass-roots initiatives (e.g. ResearchED), or global issues (e.g. pandemics!). At a local level, schools are thrust towards a problem by a new school opening, changing demographics, or an Ofsted judgement.

The way problems are defined is also often not within the control of school leaders. The Pupil Premium policy brought with it a whole new language – closing the gap, educational disadvantage, Ever-6, catch-up – which changed the way those in education thought about social disadvantage and the role of schools in alleviating this. Teachers and school leaders internalise such narratives, whether they are aware of this or not, to the extent that their very belief systems are altered. It is rare to find a school leader who will claim to be anything other than passionate about eliminating the effects of social and economic disadvantage on pupils. You may say it was always thus, but that isn’t so. Attitudes to the role of schools in society have changed considerably. A few decades ago, the ‘problem’ of low achievement at school was placed firmly with the child and their family, and much less as a duty on the school to resolve. Arguably, we have seen the pendulum swing too far towards schools, rather than wider society, being the solution to problems of social inequality.

But is the school leader entirely impotent in selecting and defining which problems deserve attention? Clearly they are not. Leaders have a role to play in re-framing the systemic problems, helping to determine the sense-making of those within the school around their role, their influence, and the value of their work. They also act as interpreters of events within their own school, using their influence to bring to the fore the problems they believe are worth most attention and frame these problems in ways which resonate with those who may do something about them.

Organisations are meaning-making systems (Bushe & Marshak, 2016, P2). The way those within schools talk about their work (which is partly determined, and in turn determines, how they think about their work) matters. It matters because the way reality is perceived is being written and re-written every day. School leaders can nudge the narrative and influence the dominant perspective, but doing so isn’t easy. They may use metaphors and imagery to steer the mental models employed by those they lead when they think about the problems in hand.

Some years ago, I recall a staff meeting I led shortly after an Ofsted inspection which had not gone well. It was evident to me that a cultural shift was needed if we were to make the changes necessary to address the criticisms made in our report. Teachers had been used to a high degree of autonomy in their classrooms and valued this autonomy greatly. However, to achieve the required change, some of that autonomy would need to be conceded. In the scheme of things, the concessions I would ask teachers to make would not erode greatly their overall agency, but I knew they would feel differently, and potentially resist any call for greater consistency and intrusion. In the meeting, I used an image of a shaded blue square within a larger white square. The blue square was comparatively small against the white background. I explained that the blue square represented the aspect of their work which they did not have full control over – where consistency was prioritised over autonomy and diversity. We talked about how big this blue square should be, how it might increase and decrease in size over time, and what we might place in the blue square.

For some time, the blue square became a way we thought about professional autonomy. Years later, it would still be used as short-hand terminology. It entered the language and our consciousness. It changed the way we thought about power, control, and the collective good. On its own, this image was never going to lever the changes we needed to make, but it did provide a way of framing the problem and the debate. Changing the way people think about problems is perhaps the greatest thing a leader can hope for.

Owning problems

The story we tell about problems must specify location: in other words, where is the problem situated?

Problems are often situated incorrectly. There are two questions we should ask about problem situation:

  1. From where does the problem originate?
  2. Where should the resolution be situated?

Let’s take the problem of inequality in GCSE outcomes between boys and girls. A gap exists both nationally and within most schools whereby girls, on average and in most subjects, do better than boys at GCSE. Given this problem extends beyond our school, where is the problem arising from? On the one hand, we might argue that the national assessment system introduces bias, or that gender stereotypes in the home pre-determine the self-image of boys and girls in relation to formal education. On the other hand, we may perceive our school as contributing to inequality in the different expectations we have of girls and boys, and therefore in how we treat them. We must take a view on the roots of the problem and in doing so decide to what extent we define this as ‘ours’. Schools have a tendency to own too much of a problem because they want to do all they can for the children in their care. That is not to say they shouldn’t work hard to mitigate the problem, rather that they should recognise the extent to which the solution is within their remit, scope and power. This is the question of where the solution is best located? It may be that a problem arising completely outside of the school is best addressed entirely by the school. However, sometimes the solution is not within a school’s gift and would be better addressed by another agency or at a different level in the system. As secondary schools scramble to set up rapid testing facilities, the question of what is the proper role of schools has never been more pertinent or urgent.

This dilemma also manifests in relation to the behaviour of pupils. Undoubtedly, some children arrive at school more ‘able to behave’ than others, but this is not a problem that can be ignored by schools simply because the problem originates elsewhere. It is also the case that the school environment contributes to behaviour problems (what do we expect when we place hundreds of children together and ask them to do something most would probably rather not do?). Schools generally take ownership of this problem, but where within the organisation is the resolution situated? For some, responsibility sits squarely with the leadership team, for others with the classroom teachers. Either/or answers to this question are likely to create dissonance. Where there are conflicting beliefs about where a resolution is situated between leaders and teachers, each work to a different narrative and as a result nobody owns the problem.

Reaching some consensus on the origins of problems and their resolutions is important. A dialogic approach between leaders and teachers is needed to achieve this consensus. Either party may be persuaded by the other to view a problem in a particular way, but this persuasion is not the preserve of management or a unique quality of leadership. The buck ultimately stops with the leader, but the process of sense-making is not unilateral. Indeed, there are grave risks in presuming that the leaders’ helicopter view privileges their insights.

Who tells our story?

For those of you working in schools, pause for a moment to reflect on the real and imagined problems which dominate your thinking and time. Why these problems? Who defined them? Where have they been situated? Who is expected to solve them?

Our perspective is dominated by the here and now. It is difficult to break free of the present and of the prevailing narrative, within which we play a role. However, the things that are important to us now were once less dominant in our minds, and will be so again one day. We have been delivered to this place, but we are not without agency. We have a say in how this story is told and how it plays out.

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