The School Improvement Story

“Indiana Jones plays no role in the outcome of the story. If he weren’t in the film, it would turn out exactly the same… If he weren’t in the movie, the Nazis would still have found the Ark, taken it to the island, opened it up, and all died, just like they did.”

Amy’s analysis of Raiders of the Lost Ark in The Big Bang Theory

I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark (for the nth time) recently. I couldn’t help but think about the episode from The Big Bang Theory when Amy destroyed any notion that Indiana Jones is instrumental to the plot in any way. The deflating truth is that he makes very little difference to the outcome of the film (being that all the bad guys are decimated by a divine death ray). And yet, he is portrayed as the hero. And watching it again, I am happy to buy into this myth. After all, what is an action film without a hero?

And what is school improvement without a hero? It is easy to knock the hero-head stereotype, but it makes for a great story, even if in reality they influence the outcome about as much as Indy.

Ofcourse, headteachers often do play a key role in the fortunes of a school. After all, like Marvel heroes, they have access to greater powers, even if this is a result of positional authority rather than being bitten by a radioactive spider. With great power comes great responsibility and we can reasonably expect those in positions of influence to use it for good.

But don’t you get rather fed up with this narrative? In popular culture, some of the best stories in recent years have come out of a retelling of the story from another perspective. In the West End show, Wicked!, the narrative is turned on its head and we see the classic Wizard of Oz story from the perspective of the Wicked Witch. Without giving away any spoilers, we are asked to question where wickedness really originates from. In education, the hero narrative requires bad guys, but we risk simplistic caricatures. We may set up Ofsted as the enemy, but when the enforcer of standards was created, the system was in dire need of external regulation. Can we imagine a school system without regulation? Not all characters can be the good guy, but they are all needed to drive the narrative forward.

In another West End show – Six – we also flip the perspective. The story is told from the point of view of the six wives of Henry VIII. This is both a feminist revolt and a statement about how history need not always be told from the perspective of the most powerful. What of the Deputy Head who has loyally served throughout the reign of successive headteachers, never publicly questioning their actions but quietly working behind the scenes to smooth things over. I worked with such a person once. They slipped into retirement without fanfare and with a track record that many headteachers would long for.

Perhaps my favourite twist of storytelling is where previously minor characters are brought to the fore. In Rogue One (up there with the best of the Star Wars tales in my view), we see the story of a small band of bandits who are tasked with stealing the plans for the Death Star. The film ‘fills in’ a gap in the plot between Episode 3 and 4 of the saga. In a tragic climax to the film, we see the plans being handed over to Princess Leia, who hides them inside a small droid named R2D2 and sends him to the surface of the planet Tatooine, where he is fated to meet the young Skywalker. The Princess never knows the sacrifices that were made to secure data which will eventually, many films later, lead to the evil Empire being overthrown. If you work in a school, you don’t need me to tell you that there are many bit-part heroes without whom the grand edifices built by educational leaders would fall apart.

The school improvement story often goes like this… The school is in dire need of assistance. Enter the headteacher, plucked from the far reaches of the Trust. Our hero brings with him (and its is usually a him) special powers – insight, charisma, leadership skill. He sets out a vision for the troops and turns this into an executable plan (with clear success criteria, accountabilities, and timescales). This plan isn’t made up, it is ‘evidence informed’! The tactics include interventions drawn straight from the holy order of the EEF – the Jedi Council of education. By the end of the movie, the Evil Empire (Ofsted) is destroyed, justice returns to the galaxy, and everyone lives happily ever after.

This is an appealing story, and although I am being slightly mocking, it is not an implausible one. That is not to say I think the story is a wholly accurate, useful, or truthful way of describing the journey of school improvement. Shipping in a charismatic headteacher may be the catalyst for change, but the potential energy must be there to be released. This leader may indeed possess useful abilities, but these abilities are small in comparison to the combined skill and knowledge of those in the school community. And the components of the plan may indeed be inspired by research evidence, but educational research is yet to provide us with a credible school improvement blueprint. I also wonder what happens after the end of the movie? What happens when the hero moves onto the next battle?

A story merely needs to be plausible for people to accept it, not accurate. We cannot hope to tell a story which reflects the true complexity of events, incorporates all the available data, and views things from multiple perspectives. The stories we tell about schools are necessary simplifications – appealing narratives which keep us moving forward. As Sutcliffe & Obstfeld (2005) say, ‘People may get better stories, but they will never get the story’.

Plausible stories fit the orthodoxy of the time, are consistent with what we believe we know, do not disrupt the ongoing projects in which we have invested time and energy, reduce equivocality, provide an ‘aura of accuracy’, and offer a potentially exciting future (Mills, 2003). The story we tell ourselves about school improvement is plausible to us because it meets the above criteria. The orthodoxy of leadership as the dominant construct for what people in positions of authority ‘do’ and ‘are’ is now well established. We are invested in the narratives of school transformation, of research-informed practice, of our ability to imagine a brighter future and to deliver it through precise planning and implementation. The story we tell about school improvement dispels our fears and keeps uncertainty at bay. It invests power in us and gives us a reason to get out of bed each morning. If you find the story compelling, I am unlikely to be able to convince you that it is not entirely truthful… and why would I if it is what drives your endeavours? I would rather you keep going in your effort to make schools better than to undermine the your school improvement edifice.

But let me perhaps suggest some alternative stories we might consider alongside your preferred narrative.

First, we might consider school improvement over different timescales. Schools exist far beyond the residency of any people. Pupils, staff and headteachers come and go, but the institution remains. As with the building of great cathedrals, we might tell the story of our schools over timescales that stretch beyond the transience of transformational leaders and strategic plans. This stretching of the timescale casts us as custodians of our schools whose purpose is to pass them on in good condition to those who come after. I wrote further about this here.

Second, we might bring forward the stories of our ‘minor’ characters. Our hero narratives cast these characters as incidental, as mere ‘followers’, but by telling their stories we may begin to see the vital role that they play in maintaining the momentum of the narrative and imbuing our heroes with their power. There are no irrelevant characters, only less visible ones. Telling their stories allows us to countenance the true complexity of of our schools.

Lastly, we might accept that we are not documentary-making. The stories we tell about schools are fictional, albeit ‘based on true events’. We should exercise our creative license to weave a palatable and powerful story from the flux of activity that marks out the messy reality of school improvement. It is this act that propels us forward. However, in doing so we should hold onto the knowledge that our version of events is just that: a version of events. If we believe our storytelling is an act of truth making, and if we believe that we are actually at the centre of the story, we will lose our humility: our sense of place in history and our relative importance in the unfolding narrative of the school. If we are too taken in by our own heroic deeds, we may one day realise that we are nothing more than a frontman in a story that would have played out just as pleasingly without us.

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