A Nation of Shopkeepers

First there was the humble shop. We were a nation of shopkeepers.

Then came the department store. These offered the customer everything under one roof. However, it soon became apparent that what the customer wanted were the shops they had come to know and trust. So the department stores offered to house these shops as concessionary units. This made sense to many shopkeepers who could relinquish some of the risk and cost of shopkeeping to focus on their product.

Then came the mall: giant shopping centres which offered a home for shops and department stores alike. For some traders, they were now a concession, within a store, within a mall.

The ‘repackaging’ of the retail establishment has some parallels to the structural changes to the school sector in England. We too were once a nation of shopkeepers. Yes, there was the oversight of the local authority, but schools in England have operated largely autonomously throughout recent history. Many independent stores still exist, but increasingly they have been swallowed up by metaphorical malls.

I wonder what interests the shopping mall manager? How do they view the units which operate under their roof? I imagine their concern is whether each concession justifies its footprint. It is a brand to them, rather than an institution. If it fails to perform then a new brand is required. There is a simple economic logic which underpins the evolutionary adaptability of the modern retail super-structure.

Of course, the humble shopkeeper of old would never have shown such brutal efficiency. This was both his failing and his appeal. His emotional attachment to the institution, loyalty to its customers and faithfulness to its traditions meant a commitment to service over productivity, often at some personal cost.

But I do not want to romanticise the past, merely to point out the risks of the trajectory we are on. I wrote here about the impact of a restructured school system on the role of the head teacher. In this post, I would like to highlight a further risk around the allure of abstraction in larger and more complex school organisation structures.

We have a tendency to want to think in abstractions in schools. This may partly be because the reality of the classroom is so damn complex. Let’s take the example of an everyday occurrence in classrooms up and down the country – teachers checking that students understand what they have just been taught.

Checking for understanding sounds like a thing we can take hold of and work on. The problem is that it means so many different things. A teacher may ask a single student a question because they are the only one in the class who looks utterly confused. A teacher may ask a whole class to write a letter on a mini-whiteboard in response to a carefully crafted diagnostic multiple-choice question to uncover possible misconceptions. A teacher may set an essay for homework to check a broad domain of understanding about a topic. Not only does the term cover such a wide range of practices, these practices will also look different in different subjects. Understanding number bonds in maths is fundamentally different from understanding the meaning of enlightenment in religious studies.

It is tempting to those who are charged with improving schools to reify terms like ‘checking for understanding’ so that they become something which can be ‘worked on’. Such terms are packaged in toolkits or listed as principles of effective practice. [The beautiful irony of this is on display in the Drama department in my own school where teachers have created a ‘Rosenshrine‘ notice board – I had to laugh.] Before we know it, we have a school-wide strategy for raising standards of ‘checking for understanding’ which lacks any definition and is so far removed from classroom reality as it could be taken to mean pretty much anything. Real things that happen in actual classrooms are so far abstracted as to become meaningless semantic platitudes.

The everyday abstraction of reality by school leaders has to be actively resisted by them, such is its allure. We must keep dragging ourselves back down to the specifics lest we create an imagined school which appears to get better and better, without anything actually improving for students.

But the advantage for the in-school leader is that they are constantly exposed to reality, or at least they feel the pushback of teachers asked to implement their strategies. The further away from the classroom we get, the less we feel this resistance and are reminded of what our abstractions might look like in the classroom. If our school-wide strategy becomes a trust-wide strategy, there is a risk of abstracting away any meaning to the practitioner.

If the tendency to generalise is untethered and unchallenged, we enter the territory of what the author David Graeber terms ‘bullshit jobs’. These are jobs that add nothing in reality. Bullshit jobs exist within schools as well as across trusts, but I would argue are more likely in the latter. It could be that the trust’s ‘School Improvement Director’, ‘Curriculum Lead’ or ‘Professional Learning Lead’ makes a meaningful impact on the standards of education children receive, but there is a significant risk that they won’t. Why?

The first reason is that these roles are often not fully exposed to risk – they aren’t accountable for real things.

To understand why, we can think about mortgage derivatives (bear with me). One of the reasons for the 2008-9 global financial meltdown was that the risk of people defaulting on their mortgage payments was so hidden within ‘packages’ of mortgage debt that investors were oblivious to the catastrophic risk built into the financial system. It’s complicated, so forgive me for grossly over-simplifying. In essence, mortgages were given to people in the US who were almost certain to default. No-one would be prepared to finance this risk, so these mortgage risks were sliced up and packaged with less risky mortgage debts, then sold as investment portfolios on financial markets. Investors traded these ‘products’ and speculated on their future value to make profit. When the bad debtors began to default, the house of cards came tumbling down.

What has this got to do with bullshit jobs? Well, if you are the headteacher of a school you shoulder a high burden of risk, particularly if that school is unstable and low-performing. Being responsible for an institution is a real thing. But at trust-level, these risks are sliced and diced. We can think of a portfolio of schools like the portfolio of mortgage debts, some of which are highly likely to default and others less so. The burden of risk falls heavily on headteachers, but is spread for those at higher levels. In other words, bad school policy has a cost to the headteacher, but bad trust policy is much less costly for the policymaker.

The second reason bullshit jobs proliferate is that the larger the organisation, the more quality must be codified as ‘metrics’. It is hard enough for leaders working within a school to gain insights into the quality of education provided day-in, day-out. Those working across schools must rely on even more abstract indicators of performance. As a result, there comes a point where you are no longer measuring the quality of something, but observing the performance of the metric. As a result, policymaking may become about improving the measure, not the quality of provision. It is not inevitable that this happens. I am sure there are examples of trusts (probably those that are decentralised in decision making) that work hard to avoid this behaviour. However, it is a feature of scale that must be recognised and actively mitigated against.

The third reason bullshit jobs are more likely in multi-school trusts relates to the planning fallacy, which Ryan Campbell writes about in relation to school leadership here. The planning fallacy is the tendency to think in more abstract terms when imagining what might be possible in the future than we do when thinking about the here and now. As a result, we have a bias toward optimism when planning, ignoring the gritty reality of delivering our promises. Leaders at all levels experience this bias, but it is amplified according to timescale and actual scale. In other words, those responsible for medium to long term strategic planning across multiple schools may be prone to more wishful thinking and therefore be less likely to anticipate the realities of achieving their vision. When these grand plans encounter reality, those charged with delivering them may indeed ask ‘what planet are they on?’

Reification of teaching practices, low exposure to risk, the codification of quality, and the planning fallacy draw us towards the abstract. If we are to continue with our shopping mall experiment – and I am sure there are advantages in doing so – we must guard against these risks. I believe that respect for the individual school as an institution that serves its community is one mitigation. Who will be the custodian of this institution, for without a custodian there is no-one to speak for it or to speak out against the lure of genericism and bullshit policy. There is still a need for the shopkeeper.

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