I have really enjoyed learning to be part of the Milton Keynes learning community, and have made some good friends among the heads that work for the local authority. There is still not the collegiate sense of mutual affection and care that we were able to generate in Shropshire, but that is partly because our children have less to do with each other here, and partly because it took nigh on 7 years to build that kind of community of heads committed to a single purpose and relying on one another for support and resourcing. However, yesterday morning we all gathered together at Kents Hill for the twice termly meeting with the officers who lead Children and Young People’s Services and I just came away with a depressing sense of the inevitable discouragement that hangs around English education at the moment. It was nobody’s fault, or at least nobody’s fault who was actually in the room. Gail Tolley, the DCS, was her usual upbeat and welcoming self, the budget material that was shared was well-presented and clearly well-argued and defended on our behalf, and I had some good conversations with other heads. But still. The pervasive discouragement lasted all day and I actually had to talk earnestly with God about it last night before it lifted. The danger is that I then bring down that discouragement on those who work for me, and I can fall right into the trap of thinking that driving people through fear will achieve anything at all. One of the most disheartening, but unsurprising conversations I had was about the fact that some heads put into place certain interventions with certain children to meet the requirements of an inspection report, knowing that these will have little or no effect but doing it simply to cover themselves should OFSTED revisit. Fear again. This happens all the time, in all authorities, and of course the DfE sees this as a sign of mediocrity. It isn’t. I have hardly ever met mediocre leaders of schools – why would you even be a head if you had a desire to produce mediocrity? It is a sign of desperation from serious-minded people longing to serve children and their families but having to look behind them all the time with a view to the guy with the stick. It is, perversely, from a desire to protect their schools from the debilitating effects of a poor inspection report that heads resort to these things. Rarely is it done to protect themselves.
The other discouragement was the extent to which most people there seemed exhausted – the comment that it “doesn’t seem like we have only been back for a week” was widely heard – and this points to something else that is fundamentally wrong in the way we educate. Why is it that we submit to the machine-like aspects of our education system, believing that it will bring freedom? It won’t! A mechanical view of education will only bring slavery, ultimately.
So, how do we deal with all this stuff? I think the start point for me is to encourage all those around me, whenever I can, and come in the opposite spirit to that which prevails in the official educational world. So for fear, we act and speak in love (taking seriously the apostle John’s insight that perfect love casts out fear). For a mechanical metaphor (where we fix the machine that is not working) we come with a gardening metaphor, where the emphasis is on the conditions (the “water, sunlight and soil”) that a child grows in, attending to the soil as much as to the plant. Instead of focusing on data which are approximations, we focus on children, who are more precise entities. Instead of “outcomes” that are again, approximations, we focus on the delight of the learning, and instead of intense efficiency we focus on what is effective across all of children’s learning.
None of this will make me less relentless – that motivation comes from a desire to see adults and children thrive. However, it will require me to be encouraged by those to whom I am responsible. A deficit model will never be as effective as encouragement that springs from affection.
As Wendell Berry has said recently – it all turns on affection.