The Heart of the Problem

Whilst I applaud the Chief Inspector’s recent call to put children’s education before the constraints of performance tables and school inspection, I could not help wonder whether parts of the speech succumbed to the principles of self-deception which I have talked about in previous poststhe power of problem is firstly the fact that you don’t recognise the problem exists; and secondly, you are actually at the heart of the very problem itself or choose to ignore it. Schools are not just at risk of becoming tangled in a football league table like culture, head teachers have become no different to football managers and are recognised, rewarded, and even honoured, by the speed of movement up the league table. Those who produce the quickest results and best Ofsted ratings get the biggest bonuses, those who fail are sacked instantly – is the dog currently being well and truly wagged by the tail? The cost of this transformation to our schooling system through a legacy of quick fixes – early entry, multiple entry, easy vocational equivalents, EAL students entered for their native language as a modern foreign entry, all in an effort to boost statistics – has created a seismic shift from long term to short term thinking, and a slow eroding of what might be seen as traditional values based education.

If the whole purpose of a school is to develop every facet of a child, why, then, up and down the country, do schools continue to focus far too heavily on the metric of exam results and obsess over Ofsted inspections? How many times do you hear this in your school “We don’t do it for Ofsted but we need to do X, Y & Z in case of Ofsted”! What could a paradigm shift in the way we run our schools and classrooms look like and how could it be achieved? The consultant and author Peter Drucker put it best: management is about getting by – or, in our case, ‘managing’ the system to get the best ranking in the performance tables and stay in the good books of Ofsted; but leadership? Well, leadership is about doing the right thing per se: not right for the league tables, not right for the system, but simply right. It is about accepting that there is a simple and unalienable definition of ‘right’, one that transcends everything else – and this brings us right back to the value systems and culture that underpin our organisation.

The more tangible cost of ‘management’ has been the generations of children ejected from school into the working world with qualifications that might, on the face of it, seem encouraging – but which, in reality, hide the stark truth of their under-preparedness from view. Yet, despite what the science is telling us, despite revolutionary writers and thinking increasingly challenging these norms, there appears to be a systemic refusal to see the problem staring us in the face. Why should the tail, made up of government led performance measures and inspectorates, continue to wag the main body of our educational system? Only the other day did I receive an invitation to attend a conference on British values and the delivery of character education in our schools – its closing title “what Ofsted is looking for”. Too often, the failure to see that a problem even exists expounds the problem itself. The solution stands right before us – personal leadership from ourselves and what is truly best for our children.

The Iceberg Effect

It was at the height of the quick fix culture in 2009 that I first began to think of school leadership in terms of icebergs. Think that sounds nonsensical? Well, think again! Icebergs are curious things; we think of them as big chunks of ice floating on the water, but in fact they’re much vaster than that. What we see are only the tips of giant mountains of ice hewn from the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets, with most of their bodies, over 90% of it, entirely submerged. In other words, only 10% of what goes on is ‘outward facing’ or in plain sight for all to see; the rest is ‘inwards facing’. When we talk about scratching the surface of the problem, sometimes we talk about seeing only “the tip of an iceberg”. Dentists have a similar expression and express it with their own mordant sense of humour: they talk about getting to the “root of the problem.” As Confucius once said, “you reap what you sow” and we are all too familiar with the tactics many schools revert to in an attempt to jump the hurdles of the accountability system (and could be argued are required) to ‘game’ the system in order to protect their schools (and countless jobs). So why do we take short-cuts year after year in our schools?

Quite simply, the way schools are examined and held to account, and ranked against each other, doesn’t encourage teachers and school leaders to take the long view.  What’s happening in Britain’s schools, particularly those which are failing or struggling to keep their heads above required performance measures, even under the stewardship of strong-willed, driven school leaders, points to this very fact: it takes willpower and a ferocious strength from its leadership to turn an unsatisfactory school around, but too often these transformations are driven by tip-of-the-iceberg thinking; because of the way the inspection system works, change has to be fast – and only change that is imposed by brute force can be rapidly effected. To outside observers, the transformation strong school leaders can effect must look revelatory, but to what extent are the long term implications of these blitzkriegs being taken into account? More importantly, what happens to an institution, to a culture, when its head is cut off or removed, literally? If change has been imposed by a super head or NLE for example, parachuted in to save the day, rather than cultivated from below, what happens when that imposition is taken away? Can change be lasting if it is forced, or does it just wither away? Does a school or any other organisation for that matter start to nosedive when their leader is removed or moves on to bigger and better things? If it does, this points to an overt focus on ‘tip of the iceberg’ thinking; in other words, the organisation has succumbed to the ‘iceberg effect’.

The Constant Gardener

What’s happening in rapid turnaround schools up and down the country is remarkable and inspiring in so many ways, but I wonder if the incentives created by the current system risk being overtly subjected to the quick fix culture – a legitimate reaction to the demands of the system, perhaps, but still an example of how momentary improvements can be made at the expense of long term thinking.

Education, just like horticulture, is based on an ecosystem requiring constant seeding, nurture and cultivation to achieve its true potential. Yet, is education now a system that actively encourages schools to become ‘seasonal gardeners’, sowing new seeds each and every year yet only tending to a select group of their flowers at the most important times of school year – and defining that importance in terms of them and their positions rather than the long term benefits of their students. The idea of a school leader becoming a ‘constant gardener’, who plants and nourishes every seed, attends to each and every flower equally, regardless of species or time away from the annual village show, with the same rigour and commitment every day of their working lives, is actively not encouraged by the system into which our school leaders are bound. We might laugh at the colourful comparison between leaders of education and those of horticulture, but look a little closer and think about what we, as teachers, do in comparison to gardeners: we plant the seeds in September, we ignore them for four years, expecting all our flowers to grow in a linear fashion; then, when the summer show is fast approaching, we cram in all the quick fix techniques and miracle grow cures we can, and keep our fingers crossed for a perfect summer bloom. And just as Aristotle has taught us that habits are the cornerstone of every behaviour, positive or negative, if we fail to prepare the minds of our students effectively over the course of their childhood, is it any wonder why so many adults fail to develop into life-long learners? Rather, our students become more adept at cramming and see education as something to be endured, all at the expense of developing mastery and a lifelong passion for learning.

The ‘constant gardener’ knows that a truly flourishing life starts at the root. Although it is impossible to make a flower grow in a linear fashion, we can create a culture that fosters the right conditions to maximise growth for the long term. As the old adage goes: give a man a fish and you will feed him for a night; give him a fishing rod and he can feed himself for a lifetime. One of the best pieces of advice was given to me on day 1 of the Future Leaders programme by Sir Iain Hall: “Invest more time and resources into year 7 than you do for any other year group; get year 7 right and the rest will follow”. Only recently did I visit an inspirational primary school and their actions mirrored this same principle, with the school investing more time and resources into their pre-school students than for any other year group. The values based culture and ethos of the school was palpable at every level because the foundations of character and the essential ingredients of how to be a model student had been codified on entry and reinforced relentlessly.

Education 2.0

My experiences have only bolstered the belief that there is no quick fix to the problems of the quick fix culture: at its heart, the system needs fundamental change – a new paradigm, an Education 2.0. If there is a valid Education 2.0 out there, it must be one that goes against the grain of modern living, one that puts value in the solid and long term instead of the fleeting and momentary; and one that, in eschewing the rush for instant gratification and putting the desires of the present ahead of the needs of the future, lays long-lasting foundations. Education 2.0 has to become focused on “below the iceberg” principles, hewing close to the character virtues and values that set students up to be successful in the long term, not just to appear successful in the short.

My book The Power of Character: Lessons from the Frontline has opened my eyes to the wealth of research, dialogue and debate being undertaken by some of the world’s most learned researchers into this very field. Not everyone agrees on everything, but common to all these thinkers is a unifying thread – that character matters, and whether we frame it in terms of ‘Emotional Intelligence’, ‘Grit’, or any one of a dozen other different titles, all of the behavioural scientists agree that strength of character is a better indicator of a child’s future success in life than the academic markers which have, until now, been our only way of gauging, measuring and unfortunately in too many cases, restricting the innate potential of our children.

When I reflect on Doctor Martin Luther King’s statement, ‘Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education’, I believe we are all drawn to people by forces that go beyond intellect and success, drawn to them because of the intangible, often unspoken, merits of their character. How long before we recognise that character is all – that everything else is a sub-set of character, that everything we do would be easier to understand, easier to process, easier to learn, if we turned to the merits of character first. How might the world look if it had more teachers, more school leaders, parents, communities and business leaders who looked to character education as a real asset, one that could holistically better the world? What if we collectively turned our backs on short-termism, on tip of the iceberg thinking, and took more time to build our young people’s self-worth through a firm foundation of principle-driven values? What if we then took the time to nurture them for the long term, confronting both what we do and why we do it? As Covey says, “To do well, you must be good. And to do good, you must first be good”.

Thanks for reading.

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