As we lurch into a half term break, many of us a little shell shocked and depleted, we contemplate the use of our precious time. For many, the priority will be to recharge. For a while we need to just ‘be’; to avoid structure, goals, and requirement. The unwinding of body and mind is necessary before we once again become tightly sprung.
The change of pace between term and break is stark to us when on the cusp of the transition. This rhythm to the school year marks the passing of time more than the changing seasons. We move from intense activity to a more measured pace overnight. I suspect it is an unhealthy pattern.
If I had longer, I may embark on a project around the house. Teachers have a habit of leaving so much to the holiday, unable to squeeze in the tasks of normal life during term-time. But one week is not enough to garner the energy to do something that constructive. If I wanted to relentlessly ‘improve’ things, I’d go back to work!
Joking aside, I’ve been contemplating the concept of ‘improvement’ a great deal lately. Improvement has become the holy grail of schooling. In our recent Ofsted inspection, I was asked how the school has improved since the last inspection. I answered directly and confidently (I had a checklist ready), but there was a voice in my head asking ‘what do you mean by ‘the school’?’ and ‘against whose criteria?’ and ‘assuming what objective?’. I have to keep this voice out of the way during Ofsted inspections, governors meetings, and my performance review. I only let it out when I write.
The contrast between work and life is stark. In life, we spend relatively little time improving things. Instead, we direct a great deal of effort towards maintenance and the prevention of decline. I might sort the recycling, tend to the garden, go for a walk to clear my head, get a check-up at the doctors, restock the fridge, catch up with friends, take the car for a service, or pick up my guitar and practice a tune I am on my way to forgetting. The world needs our attention. We might like to make it a better place, but the first task is to prevent entropy and neglect from eroding what we have.
The maintenance of what is good is a valuable use of our time. I am reminded of the internet meme with the boy who looks back over his shoulder at the girl in the red dress, as his girlfriend looks on in disgust. In this version, the girlfriend is labelled ‘maintain’, and the red-dress girl ‘improve’. We should pay more attention to what we have.
When we do set about improving things in our lives, it is done in bursts. What maniac has a continuous programme of decoration for their property? Most of us live with the state of our homes until we have the time and inclination to refresh the decor of a specific room. We talk of ‘home improvement’, but we don’t improve ‘the home’ in its totality, we target a particular room. Gains are made by focussing on the specific, not the general.
Similarly, whilst we may keep a general level of fitness by regularly running, when we are training for a half-marathon we are in the business of improvement. Goals are set. An increasingly demanding schedule of exercise is laid out. Our fitness demonstrably improves. But once the goal is achieved, we do not sustain this level of attention. We settle back to maintaining what we can through more manageable routines.
As in life, why not in schools? When we step back into a work environment, the rhetoric of improvement is pervasive. The everyday work that we attend to is mostly maintenance activity, as it is in life, but the language of betterment dominates our discourse. Why so?
I have noticed three tendencies in school improvement. First, there is the tendency to make ‘the school’ or ‘the teacher’ the object of improvement. This tendency is so normalised, you probably don’t even notice it or consider the alternatives. Our school improvement apparatus is geared towards these objects. ‘The school’ is inspected and graded. Politicians talk of attracting ‘the best’ teachers to the most disadvantaged areas. Schools and teachers are attributed qualities and have simple labels attached. It is fine to want ‘better schools’ and ‘better teachers’, but there are consequences when we prioritise these objects over others. For example, we pay less attention to achieving ‘better policy’, ‘a better society’ or a ‘better start’ for children in their early years. It is expedient for certain interest groups to emphasise one object over another. If educational standards are too low, it is because there aren’t enough good schools or competent teachers, not because other aspects of the system are sub-optimal, such as the quality of training, working conditions, or inequalities in wider society.
Second, school improvement is plagued with generic claims. It is senseless to talk of schools improving without specifying what it is they have improved at. And yet we do so frequently. School performance tables are an example of this. We point to a Progress 8 score and claim a school has improved, or is better than another school with a lower score. But such claims have incredibly low validity. Neither do they inform us about what it is that has changed about the quality of education. School improvement is often a story of trade-offs. Gains in one area are usually secured at a cost, and benefits are rarely distributed evenly over a population. What exactly has improved, for whom, at whose expense, and for how long? Without answering these questions, we cannot hope to build collective wisdom about school improvement as we cannot accurately attribute success.
The third tendency is the call for continuous improvement. Our instinct is to improve in bursts, but we demand our schools engage in a relentless cycle of improvement. This ideology, imported from the Japanese revolution in industrial quality assurance in the 1980s, has become the orthodoxy for schools. It is a constant stressor; a shadow over the shoulder of school leaders and teachers. There is never time to consolidate when the expectation to innovate is ever-present.
These tendencies – the elevation of the school and the teacher as the primary objects for improvement, genericism over specificity, and the ideology of continuous improvement – create a narrative which is hard to step outside of. This narrative is appealing to those inside the system as it is told increasingly as a story about eliminating disadvantage gaps and speaks to the need to feel that we are doing something important. It is also appealing to progressives from across the political spectrum: to the desire for a more equal society on the left and to the urge for creative destruction on the right. Like all dominant narratives, it serves various purposes for powerful interest groups.
This particular version of the school improvement narrative plays out in schools in regularised systems and habitual behaviours. Development goals and actions are laid and reviewed in annual cycles, not in discrete and targeted just-in-time plans. Improvements are prioritised and written down while the valuable efforts necessary to maintain what is already good remain undefined and unrecognised in official documentation. The management of performance is the focus of the precious moments of dialogue between manager and subordinate. Transformational change underpins the expectations for school leaders, cast more as innovator than caretaker.
If allowed, these tendencies have casualties: the erosion of mental health, the corruption of targets, the dominance of accountability, and less attention paid to protecting our educational inheritance. I’m left wondering if there is perhaps a better way we could approach school improvement. One which balances improvement with maintenance, is selective and specific about where improvement attention is focussed, resists placing so much weight on the shoulders of particular agents within the system, labels less and describes more, and is less relentless and more in tune with how we operate outside of a bureaucratic environment.
These are the thoughts of a tired mind in the process of adjusting, albeit briefly, to the more natural rhythms of life. In a week’s time I’ll pick up where I left off, my head turned by the desire to improve.