Mysterious ways

The school system moves in mysterious ways.

There is this thing that happens; at least, I’ve seen it happen. Maybe it is a localised occurence. Or maybe it’s just the way I’m seeing things.

I’m not sure. So, I’ll describe it – or at least a simplified version of it. I’m interested to know if anyone else is seeing it too.

Establishing shot: School A

From the birds-eye view, we quickly establish its newness. Lots of glass and metal in amongst a sea of grey semi-detached houses.

As we zoom in, we observe blazered students converging on the glistening beacon of excellence (or so the sign outside says).

A jarring buzzer accompanies the opening of doors, as the blazers enter the atrium and form orderly, hushed lines. What follows would not be out of place in a military academy. Eyes front. Equipment held aloft for inspection. The blazers are forlornly compliant: drilled but not thrilled.

There is, I think, a tipping point at which the proportion of students who don’t do the kind of things that schools need students to do without fuss or coercion dictate what sort of school it is for the students who do. I’m not sure what this tipping point is, but my guess is at a 30/70 ratio.

Of course, students don’t fall into one of these two camps, but if we were to recreate the phenomenon I will describe using a computer model, this division – I believe – would be sufficient. In one group, students who tend to value school, self-regulate their behaviour to a reasonable degree, and conduct themselves well in large social groups. In the other group, students who, for whatever reason (and there are many), don’t just rock up and get on with it.

What happens at this tipping point? Well, either the school falls into chaos or it maintains order by creating tight routines and working hard – really hard – at establishing positive social norms.

Schools like School A come in for criticism; for being inhumane; controlling. Done badly, this criticism may be warranted. But for the most part, these are schools driven by a strong sense of social justice – a determination to ensure students from all backgrounds achieve the best outcomes. And before we criticize too harshly, let us remember that we have called for this equity and endorsed the use of schooling as a tool for social engineering. When we asked schools to close disadvantaged gaps, did we imagine they would do this through a wish and a prayer?

Schools like School A can be a tough gig to work in. Staff turnover is often high and recruitment difficult. I know one such school which struggles to fill vacancies and as a result deploys teachers without subject expertise and relies heavily on agency staff. Due to the experience and ability profile of teachers, they have turned to scripted lessons and formulaic teaching methods, heavily prescribed and regulated by a large raft of senior leaders. As with students, there is a staffing tipping point where the proportion of novice teachers determines the working conditions of the experts in the building.

I wonder what it feels like to be a student who doesn’t need these strictures in a school that must have them. I wonder what it is like for a parent who knows their child is motivated, well-adjusted and hard working to hear about the measures taken to ensure compliance. I wonder what it is like for the expert teachers asked to script their lessons, adopt the prescribed techniques, and submit to high-level scrutiny of their practice.

Establishing shot: School B

The drabness of School B’s 1960s buildings is a blot on the green landscape around it.

Single and double-decker buses wind their way through villages and rural roads to deliver their own set of blazered students, who debark and drift towards various locations to receive laissez-faire tutoring.

These blazers move on the teacher’s command, drifting towards their first lesson in small, chatty groups, where they will be taught in an eclectic mix of styles. The occasional student signals their difference by contravening the unwritten rules, but is quickly removed and isolated lest he contaminates others.

School B is far below the tipping point. In comparison to School A, it feels loose. It is its very looseness, and its inherent liberalism, that attracts a certain type of parent to place their child on a bus from School A’s catchment in a costly and lengthy pilgrimage to escape stricture. A certain breed of teachers is drawn there too; ones who value professional autonomy, ones driven more by a love for their subject than by a desire to make a difference.

But let us not be fooled into thinking that School B is any more free to choose what kind of school it is than School A. It is also trapped by the demands of its demographic and hidebound by its staffing profile. Staffing costs cripple its ability to maintain its degraded buildings. A stifling liberalism prevents radical reform and maintains the status quo in favour of the comfortable majority.

Schools like School B are sometimes labelled ‘coasting’. Their Progress 8 scores are frankly unimpressive, veering between the average and the ‘we got lucky this year’. At worst, these schools are guilty of complacency. And yet, many deliver a range of opportunities and breadth of outcome that speaks to the gentle commitment and generous investment of a staffing body committed to the school and its community.

But I wonder what it is like to be a student who struggles with school when so many of their peers seem adapted to it. I wonder what it is like for the parent who is told at every parents’ evening appointment that their child is falling behind or in trouble again, while the rest of the class seem to be doing fine. I wonder what it is like for the novice teacher who has to plan every lesson from scratch and is told ‘well, they behave for me’.

What I see is a polarisation of schooling. I think it has something to do with the drive to close disadvantage gaps, and something to do with academisation. School choice plays a part. Teacher shortages are a factor too, as is workload and accountability. This all plays out on a backdrop of widening inequality.

This polarisation is making schools more distinct in their ethea (ethoses if you prefer). It is driving migration of students from one catchment to another. It is beginning to affect recruitment as teachers seek out the freedoms and autonomy that they feel they have lost. I worry that the excellent work going on in School A schools is about to get much harder.

Perhaps it has always been this way. But I sense a shift: a divergence. At a time when the education system needs to pull together, we may be drifting apart.

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