Lord Nash, speaking at the Challenge Partnership national conference, titled his talk: ‘what is relevant in business to education?’ According to the TES, he said that:
“…too often teachers have confused their individuality with their professionalism… Being a professional means embracing accountability, standardisation and consistency, although of course we want our teachers to be inspiring.”
He went on to talk about how: ‘using standardised content would allow teachers to focus on delivery and differentiation, and would reduce workload.’
Adding it was impossible to: “run an organisation of any size and any diversity, efficiently and effectively if you haven’t got consistent procedures… The content has to be provided by the MAT based on evidence-based best practice across the group.”
Perhaps it is inevitable with the introduction of MATs that business issues and practices would soon come to the fore. A local school that had its own identity serving the local area would not have had to consider ‘standardisation and consistency’ to any great extent. Games staff would teach games and the physics teacher would teach physics. When you have a MAT the temptation is to have a consistent brand, in which all the teachers teach their subjects in the same ‘branded’ way. It might also be a revenue stream, selling branded curricula, lesson plans, scripts and powerpoint slides to other schools and maybe even provide ‘MOOCs’ for those who home educate or live in places where schools are difficult to access. With a standardised brand consistency might be considered key.
McDonalds, at first glance as standardised a company as you can get, soon realised that the problem with standardisation is it’s lack of adaptability. They developed a: “…consistent customer experience and branding while still allowing for locally relevant menu and service variations in segments across the globe…”
This tension between standardisation and adaptability is an interesting one. The ‘brand’ thrives if it can sell itself as a consistent experience, when I go for a Costa coffee or buy some Marmite, I am responding to this consistency. I prefer not to take too many risks when spending my cash. And, thankfully, I like Marmite. Imagine what would happen if Marmite tried to change in order to appeal to those who dislike it, they would lose my custom, the very reason that I like Marmite might be the thing they have to change to bring in customers who don’t like the bitter taste. Adaptability can be problematic.
It is interesting that Lord Nash feels standardisation rather than adaptability is the business model that schools should adopt. He suggests standardisation would require staff to be less individualistic and more professional. I question whether this is the dichotomy here. I think the role of teachers would change, but instead of being more professional, their profession changes. They become more like a sales staff. They are provided with the product, the ‘standardised content’, and then they are required to sell this product ‘differentially’ to different consumers. As someone who worked in sales for a period of time one of the adages was that a good salesperson must believe in their product. A period of training (ITT?) would be required to sell the the product to the workforce, to convince them of its efficacy and then train them with the techniques of teaching about and selling the product to the customers, in this case pupils and their parents.
Success rates of staff could be compared, figures shared, and each teacher would then be responsible for making it work, competitively, showing they could ‘sell’ the product through ‘delivery, differentiation and inspiration’ as Nash would have it.
This ‘differentiation’ that Nash talks of is, not ‘adaptability’ of product. The sales-teacher would be expected to deliver in the classroom. The teacher will try to sell marmite to all. Actually that is not quite fair, the ‘product’ will be far more varied than a jar of marmite can ever be, and maybe ‘adaptability’ can be provided by breadth of curriculum and content.
But whether we go to a McDonalds in Beijing, Berlin or Nairobi we still feel the corporate imprint. This standardisation is its strength and its weakness. Lovers of artisanal burgers, home made or made on an organic farm, believe McDonalds is decidedly second rate to the best of these burgers. McDonalds might need to entice you in with the promise of toys for your kids to make up for the mundanity of the product. Imagine the happy meal transposed to the classroom. Happy learning. Free toy with each maths exercise completed.
Are staff working within a standardised business really more professional than those who have more control over what they do? Being paid for doing a task that is imposed upon you is different to one which you have designed for yourself. As Cicero put it:
“vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labour, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery” Cicero: On Obligations
Although it is possible to enjoy your work when you work in this way it is a very different relationship with the school than teachers have been traditionally used to. This might be no bad thing, because if the school staff is made up of those with little artistic skill it is better to replace them with hired hands. Yet, there might be another way to achieve some form of consistency, to be true to the tradition of teaching, be adaptable and envisage teachers to be rather more professional than Nash’s view would seem to be.
When schools deliberately ape businesses, problems can occur. The Business Academy, Bexley opened to great fanfare in 2002:
…the concept of openness extends to the physical layout of the school, which is based around flexible, open areas, rather than corridors and classrooms…
Classrooms look more like hi-tech offices, with clusters of flat-screen display computers and lessons taught using touch-screen whiteboards.
…gushed the BBC, reflecting the cargo cult nature of the philosophy behind the school. Get Norman Foster to expensively design a school, which looks and runs like a business then all the positive aspects of business practice will imbue every individual who passes through. This proved to be a fallacious argument.
To many teachers it would have been obvious that problems might occur by doing away with corridors and classrooms. Experienced teachers’ professional expertise might be a useful rejoinder to the inevitable hubris of those who believe they have the right answers and reason on their side and are determined to use a top down model to impose this onto a workforce.
A school is not a business and should not be run as one. This is not to say it should be run badly or operate with a balance sheet in the red, but it should be run along different lines, it should be recognised that schools far from being merely rational places that can be measured with a simple ‘bottom-line’, they can be inconsistent, inefficient and completely devoid of standardisation and yet still be places in which good teaching takes place.
A school is not a business, it is an institution.
An institution, is a place of shared knowledge, grounded in emotions and feelings which then shape reason. This was essential to Edmund Burke’s idea in which we come ‘to love the little platoon we belong to…’ we inherit the wisdom of practices that are passed down to us. Far from being individuals, we are social animals, and rather than responding kindly to being fed from the top down for our manual labour, teaching has always been a collegiate activity within which teachers express their ‘artistry’, within the traditions of their school, subject and society.
A good school has a strong ethos through which all the differences can coexist, giving out a semblance of unity of purpose. Far from being imposed through a time and motion top down management model this comes about through various traditions coalescing in the institution.
A school is not the result of some grand plan or project, made up in some grand thinker’s study or laboratory, a school is a social institution, made stronger by man’s many interactions over the years. If one rides roughshod over all this sui generis history with the imposition of alien practices which have been proven to work in another domain one might lose the very heart of what kept the institution alive in the first place.
The making of a new school is not a soulless act of efficiencies and customer pleasing activities, it is about setting in place the means by which a school can grow into an institution. In this case the need for partnership is more, yes take notice of the ever evolving ideas of how to run a school but don’t base your school on current conventions, base it on the tried and true ideas of centuries past that is embodied in the expertise of teachers, the history of subject teaching and the great teaching tradition. This could be MAT wide, it could form the basis of ‘product’ but it would be the product of an institutional, organic approach and not the business approach that threatens to de-professionalise the workforce.
Some sort of rights and liberties should be given to teachers to be creative in their classrooms. This is adaptability. But Nash is right about the dangers of individuality, a purely anarchic approach in which every teacher is a lone figure delivering curriculum in their own eccentric style will not help the progress of a child, if from year to year she has to relearn or learn stuff that was not rooted in previous learning or is at odds with it. The teacher is not a Grand Panjandrum but needs to work professionally as part of a team of teachers designing and reviewing their curriculum collectively responding in an agile way to the changing needs of society, represented mostly by the children who attend the school, their subject knowledge and by continually refreshing their professional expertise. They don’t become professional by being denied the need to be curriculum experts.
This relies on the teacher being ‘what they ought to be’, the professional, given the responsibility in which she can grow into that role. Teachers have, for centuries, developed habits, rules, and together have created subject disciplines, various canons, books, ways of teaching, tests, terms, without resorting to imposing a blueprint from above to improve their work. The risk might be that what is imposed from above, might be worse than what they already do. And, being imposed from above, its ability to adapt might be too slow.
Evidence-based practice across a group is an excellent idea but it requires flexibility in approach. A standardised approach does not have flexibility. Adaptability when decreed from the centre can only take its expertise from outside of the group, it devalues the professionals within the group even more by always having to bring in ideas from beyond. Innovation needs to come from within too, therefore anti-fragile adaptability needs to be part of the ethos of a MAT. It can achieve this by realising that schools are not businesses, they are institutions.