“The power of the Crown has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished.” John Dunning, motion in Parliament, 1780.
For those working in education, it won’t have taken the act of self-immolation of June 23 to notice a growing feeling of powerlessness and mute rage in the face of an over-centralised, over-mighty state that seems neither to listen nor to hear; making barely comprehensible decisions for which it is barely accountable.
a feeling of mute rage in the face of an over-mighty state
In 1976, James Callaghan took the unprecedented step for a prime minister of giving a speech about education. He devoted much of it to defending himself against critics who felt that politicians ought not to discuss schooling at all. Its manipulation as a tool of social control by the totalitarian regimes that had brought the world to disaster in the previous generation was a still fresh memory.
Forty years on, the state’s role is transformed. David Laws, the former schools minister, captures it compellingly: “The thing is that we’ve created… an amazingly responsive system where the stakes are so high … that with frightening speed, once you change one of these things … within 24 hours … you’ve got heads writing to parents saying, ‘Next year you’re going to have to study a totally different range of subjects’.”
There are at least four things wrong with this. First, as Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek demonstrated, the problem of information asymmetry makes this form of “central planning by performance indicators” (Onora O’Neill) impossible to do well. The centre can never have information as good as that on the periphery.
Second, the problem of perverse incentives is not a problem of some particular indicator but an inherent problem with indicators. Growing use of ECDL and the three-year key stage 4 are just two current manifestations. Over years of shifting targets, leaders increasingly internalised the idea that doing well in government measures is identical to doing right – the problem of “governmentality”.
“Theory X” managers believe that workers are lazy and dislike responsibility
Third, the problem of “shifting tectonic plates”. Some aspects of the system (curriculum, qualifications, accountability, funding, teacher training) are so fundamental that any change should be approached with great care. Change demands so much attention that it carries significant opportunity cost in reduced focus on improving classroom practice. Yet central government finds such change impossible to resist.
Fourth, policy thinking is based on a deficient theory of motivation. Douglas McGregor famously distinguished “Theory X” managers (who believe that workers are lazy, dislike responsibility and respond only to clear sanctions and rewards) from “Theory Y” managers (who believe that workers are intrinsically motivated, want responsibility and find self-development in their work). Under successive governments “Theory X” has predominated.
So, what needs to happen?
“Theory Y” policymaking would be a start. If the purpose of school reform is that more teachers succeed with more children in more classrooms, some obvious points emerge.
Growing the capacity and capability of the profession is critical. Today’s most able graduates want work to provide meaning, self-expression and participation in decision-making.
Today’s most able graduates want work to provide meaning
Policy should aim not to crowd out discretionary effort. Beginning from clear and meaningful vision rather than from deficit is vital. Relationships in the working environment matter too: policies too often promote instrumental and mechanistic views of the managerial relationship.
We need to balance problem-solving and appreciative enquiry. Problem-solving is sometimes necessary, but difficult and energy-consuming. Appreciative enquiry (taking what is good and exploring ways to extend and deepen it) is energy-creating – and energy more than time is in short supply.
Accountability for what you do and achieve is important. But real and meaningful accountability is not just “arms-length” and not just about the numbers (though it is about the numbers).
Unrealistic? Then consider London Challenge: the most successful if most misunderstood school improvement policy of recent years – and based on Theory Y thinking.
Meanwhile, what can we do? Well, for a start throw our weight behind the College of Teaching. Because our profession is so institutionally weak that we don’t control our own entry standards; cannot set out expectations for early professional development that equate with other professions; cannot stand up for the evidence when powerful voices seek to promote other agendas.
With a stronger professional body, we can mitigate the effects of government power, however public policy develops. You could call it “taking back control”.