On Friday I had a short conversation with two inspiring leaders from the Islamic Shakhsiyah Foundation schools in Slough and Tottenham. I asked them whether they were a good school – did they think of themselves as a good school? They hesitated, giving the usual answer of “well, it depends what you mean by….” In reply, I said to them “Are you successful in terms of the values and standards that you set yourself, your goals and vision?” And both of them beamed and said “Yes”. It was really refreshing to hear. And I had to say that we too, by the measures we value and have worked hard for, are a successful school.
This is important for us, because as useful as external verification could be, it is what is verified and the external values implicit in that verification that are being assessed, not the values that the school or organisation holds to. As we discussed on Tuesday morning at the branch meeting of NAHT, it is not assessment that we are struggling with, but the uses to which it is put in the accountability measures devised by the government. We all as school leaders understand the wide variability in, for instance, writing moderation outcomes that have been flooding across English education this summer. We recognise the variation in judgments between any two inspection teams looking at the same school or the same set of figures. We also know that this year’s KS2 and KS1 outcomes (and, actually, the outcomes at Foundation Stage in terms of the measurement of a Good Level of Development – GLD) were a travesty of what constitutes good assessment. Yet, they are written down. They appear in documents like RAISE Online, in the sledgehammer-to-crack-a-nut language of the Data Dashboard (one colleague told me this week that her data dashboard said that “this school has no strengths” which is hilarious if not so discouraging) and in the panicky reaction of some Local Authority advisers desperate not to lose another school to the cess-pool KPIs of the so-called “regional schools commissioners.” And being written down, they assume a life of their own. They become real in the writing.
What may have been an aspiration or an intention now becomes a measure to be striven for – a target, if you will, and at that exact point, our relationship to it changes. As Charles Goodhart has it – when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to have any value as a measure. Even if the data was trustworthy enough to believe, Goodhart’s Law says you can’t believe it anyway, because in treating it as a target, our own striving to meet it renders it useless as a measure of our progress! How else can we explain the fact that our “allegedly low” Good Level of Development of 61% in 2016 is the same as the MK average just two years ago? People have been “reassessing” children’s progress, that’s what has happened. As a result, the average GLD in Milton Keynes has risen by 10% in two years. The national data, in the same time, has risen 9% and the regional data also 9%. Everybody is “reassessing” in the light of the data of the year before. And Milton Keynes Schools are “reassessing” a little bit better than the national average, or so it seems. Are Foundation Stage children getting better by 5% every year? No, of course not. This means that the only value the measure can possibly have is that of “lateral competition” – comparing yourself with other schools in the same time frame. We cannot use it at all to prove year on year progress. It makes it the absolutely worst measure of any we have to justify progress in schools. For this reason, and I NEVER thought I would hear myself say these words, I give thanks for the Year 1 Phonics Check, as awful as it is, as the only measure whose methodology has stayed reasonably reliable over the last 4 years of assessment chaos.
Yesterday I had the joy of appointing a new TA to work in our Early Learning Phase. Following the interview, she expressed gratitude that we had made it easy for her to be at ease and had made it plain we were employing a person, not just a person to do a job. Her reaction really helped me to see something important – that we have to live fully by the standards of the life we choose.
Sometimes we hear people say that a managerial stance has to be robust and challenging – because that is what the “real world” is like. If you don’t meet your targets, then that’s just tough, you fail and lose your job. “That’s what the professional world is like,” they say. “Your results have slipped three years now, so you will have to find yourself another job. You are obviously no good at this one.”
This is predicated on a key assumption that we live by the law of the jungle, of the fierce competitiveness that characterises huskies pulling a sled, and not by the law of love and of affection. We are expected, therefore, to find it necessary to fight our way to success, rather than to work at it in fellowship with others and to find our pleasure and success in terms of the good goals we have set ourselves, learning to achieve those using the ordinary kindnesses and, occasionally, self-sacrificial love . This is, as in so many instances, summed up most eloquently by Wendell Berry, in the essay “Economy and Pleasure”
Rats and roaches live by competition under the law of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy. It is impossible not to notice how little the proponents of the ideal of competition have to say about honesty, which is the fundamental economic virtue, and how very little they have to say about community, compassion and mutual help.
But what the ideal of competition most flagrantly and disastrously excludes is affection. The affections, John Ruskin said, are an “anomalous force, rendering every one of the ordinary political economist’s calculations nugatory; while, even if he desired to introduce this new element into his estimates, he has no power of dealing with it; for the affections only become a true motive power when they ignore every other motive and condition of political economy.”
Thus, if we are sane, we do not dismiss or abandon our infant children or our aged parents because they are too young or too old to work.For human beings, affection is the ultimate motive, because the force that powers us, as Ruskin also said, is not “steam, magnetism or gravitation” but “a Soul” (in “What are People For?” p136, Counterpoint, Berkeley CA)
This dovetails right into another area of substance. If we are committed to being followers of Jesus, then everything we do in a school or in a business is held to a different standard than that demanded of us by the professional world. God’s standards are resolutely amateur, being that of love and of the strong giving themselves to the weak, of the rich making space for the poor. If we as leaders in a school are told to “clothe ourselves with gentleness, humility, kindness and patience” and to “bear with each other” and “forgive whatever grievances we may have against one another” as Paul in Colossians 3 bids us, then we cannot primarily look to a competitive standard, a “business model” to inform our thinking. The basis has to be rethought, and in the rethinking, of course, comes the subversion. We cannot rethink the whole basis of western economic activity, predicated as it is solely on competition. That Jesus’ gospel is subversive we sort of know, and have been told. In the rethinking of how we should live between these two constructs of affection and competition, the former completely subverts and destroys the latter, for the benefit of schools and businesses everywhere.
Choosing a standard to work by is of first importance to school leaders. And with the kind and thoughtful leaders of the Islamic Shakhsiyah Foundation, I choose affection over competition, and choose to orient this school around the purposes God has called us to, and the life he has called us to live in our community.