An over-reliance on past successes is a sure blue print for future failures – Henry Petroski
I once worked with a head teacher whose school was graded outstanding and had the following opening lines in Ofsted’s letter to the children, “When we are in schools, one of our jobs is to sort out what a school needs to do to be even better than it is. Your school is so good, we could not find anything.” The head in question had taken on a new school which was in special measures. It had been failing for decades. As we were touring the school and discussing the many challenges I noted how the school corridors, paintwork and carpet colour was almost identical to the heads really successful school. “I have the blue-prints and I believe they will work here.” Eight stressful months later he had left and gone back to his successful school. The blue-prints had not worked and the school was taken over by an academy chain (who also had a blue print).
Education is scattered with blue-prints for success. Walk in to any school in the UK and you will see strategies for phonics, handwriting, spelling, calculation, behaviour, marking, lesson study and a host of other approaches to learning. Usually, they are sold to you in shiny folders with labyrinthine pages of cleverly coloured illustrations. The perfect blue-print that will magic up progress or make the job of education so much easier. I have visited hundreds of schools and I have never gone to two that were the same. Every child brings unique experiences and challenges to each school. Every school has a multitude of factors which challenge it. Therefore, is a one fix solution an impossible dream? I feel that there are great blue-prints out there but I have seen far too many schools invest in ‘strategies’ without questioning the true purpose of their approaches. Schools become reliant on the next great fix rather than being in control of their own destination. They forget that they are the ‘Workshops of Education’ and their staff are the true Craftsmen and Craftswomen.
Richard Sennett, in his book The Craftsman, explores the idea of Craftsmanship – the desire to do the job well as a skilled professional. In one chapter he explores how through the development of Computer Assisted Design (CAD) some architects had lost sight of the theory, concept and the art of practice. The CAD building designs could not equate for the nuances of the building within its natural environment. He discusses how skilled architects can take account of details that a computer could not because it is not human, ensuring the ascetics blend with the views, aware of shelter and the climate. Therefore, he argues being in situ as you plan is crucial. The dilemma around educational design is whether you want a Gaudi or a Louis Henry Sullivan. Both created great buildings but their method and aesthetic outcomes were very different. I liken these two approaches to two camps within education, The Traditionalists (Louis Henry Sullivan) and The Progressives (Gaudi). In recent years I have felt that educational development is at war with its ideas. This is not a bad thing. In fact it is the best thing to have happened for decades. Twitter has bought the profession together so that they can slug it out. The danger is when school leaders take up ideas without understanding why. They take on these approaches and use them as an architect would a CAD. I believe that at its heart this educational debate between traditionalists and progressives is about the same thing but the principles, values and concepts are very different. It is about the journey rather than the destination.
The idea of the skilled professional is further developed in Paolo Belardi’s book, ‘Why Architects Still Draw’. In it he talks about a buildings DNA. How the sketch or more developed Italian ‘disegno’ is an acorn in which the roughest lines can be the seeds for the greatest of achievements. That the architect must know the space they design. That the knowledge they bring to their sketch is critical and must explore the culture and history of this space; know the traffic patterns, feel the cold and weather the seasons and storms. The architect must move about and breathe in their creation. What does the culture and history of this area need from this building? I believe that in education we too rarely dwell on what the history and culture of our schools need. We struggle too often to find an answer to the simple question: Why do we educate? The simple answer is: To prepare for the future. If only it was that simple.
When I became a school leader (After my head teacher was dismissed on the spot) I remember walking the corridors and every member of staff would look to me as I buzzed pass them looking stressed. I’d even say things like, “What a day! You wouldn’t believe what…” I was not in situ with my school (It is very hard when you begin a headship or new post) therefore I was desperately searching for solutions. Quick solutions were like the Holy Grail. I shudder when I think of the time I have wasted questing after it though.
“Green pens for success and pink for further development? I LIKE IT! Cancel the staff meeting on moderation… Beryl! Order 500 multi coloured pens!”
Time wasted when by its very nature the Holy Grail is right in front of you.
A head teacher, in fact anyone who works in schools, needs to get into the blood stream of their organisation. The circulation system is the key to knowing your school and through knowing it you begin to write your own blue print… rather than look to others. Walking through your school can quickly become a sequential, natural experience that helps you to assess how problems act in tandem. Observation is a powerful tool. Branch this circulation into the community and you develop an even greater understand.
So, please don’t just look for blue prints. Create them. You know your school better than you think. Just because a person with an acronym, impressive blog, years of experience or a reputation the size of The Shard comes to you with a quick fix; it doesn’t mean it is the right fix. So, before you cancel that Staff Meeting go for a walk and take your School Development Plan with you (I hope it is in BLUE) and ask the following questions:
Will this Quick Fix really deliver on our priorities?
If you think it does then breathe in and ask yourself:
So, what will it replace?
As you breathe out ask one final question:
Am I buying in to a gimmick that will sit like a carbuncle blocking the circulation of this place?