What Three Words?

What Three Words?

by Susannah, 19 Oct 2022

(A story of rhetoric over human nature and potential and The UK School Inspection Handbook)

‘Homogenisation, generalisation, organisation’.  These are the three words that I will ascribe to my interpretation of the recently published, “School Inspection Handbook”.  

When the current political trend for simplifying everything into a three-word catch-phrase enters an inspection handbook, you know that the contents are not necessarily driven by the needs of children.  In principle, I have absolutely no problem with inspections of educational institutions and I do believe that professionals in every realm of life should be held accountable for their actions.  I also see the need to revolutionise the manner in which inspections are carried out and strongly believe that they could be made far more efficient and effective (and kind) if the core strategy was support rather than judgement.

Back to the handbook.  There are occasional glimmers of brilliance and humanity, such as section 206 which states that, “..pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said and hoping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.’  Please don’t expect the rest of the document to give you such optimism, however, as there is a grand total of two references to creativity in this 151 page document.  Worrying indeed.

Just as anxiety-making is the complete absence of mention of high ability learners and their needs.  A whole sector of society is forgotten about.  Having 59 mentions of learners with Special Educational Needs (and in this context that does not include the individual needs of high ability learners) one might imagine that it would be normal, natural and obvious to mention learners who require extra challenge.  These learners exist, they are real and their needs are different.  Whereas personalised learning or consideration for individuals might have once been at the heart of educational excellence, a dangerous rhetoric of the need to homogenise our young population has taken its place.  The word, ‘talent’ features once but this is within the context of personal development rather than curriculum.

Which brings me nicely onto the topic of curriculum.  The importance of curriculum, how it shapes education and is a document of entitlement, lies at the centre of the inspection framework.  I agree that curriculum is a vital part of structured learning.  However, this is where the use of three alliterative words goes just a little too far for my liking.  Curriculum is unravelled into three stages:  ‘Intent, Implementation, Impact’.  On the face of it, these three words work well.  However, like all vastly complex ideas, when one tries to simplify them, you lose the reflective elements, the details and the exceptions.  What curricula look like is boiled down to coverage, content, structure and sequencing.  The obsession with alliteration is starting to grate by this point, isn’t it?

Does this inspection framework have the potential to do good?  Yes.  Does it have the potential to do harm?  Emphatic yes.

My evidence?  In one part of the document we are assured that ‘pupils’ (I hate that word - let’s be revolutionary and call them ‘people’ shall we?) must be taught how to be ‘reflective about their own beliefs’.  In another we are informed that they must show, ‘willingness to participate in and respond positively to artistic, musical, sporting and cultural opportunities.’  Have I misunderstood or aren’t these two ideas slightly contradicting of each other?  We want youngsters to reflect, but we also want them to conform.  Right.

Where does the homogenisation come in?  It is assumed that all young people have the same needs but that some will struggle/need more support than others.  Would you, as an adult, say that you have the same identical needs as all of the other adults you know?  Probably not.  It’s like saying that everyone needs to be able to climb a tree but that ladders will be provided for those who need them.  Some of us have physical disabilities that mean that we will never climb a tree even with a ladder and frankly have no interest in doing so whatsoever.  We have other things that interest us and the average life span is only 467200 waking hours - they are our hours and we might have preferences of how to use them.  And so do young people.

Is it all bad news?  No.  There are solid, sensible ideas and guidance in the handbook, which inspectors will use to inform and carry out their role.  The repeated emphasis on connecting learning to existing knowledge is good as is the statement that teachers should have expert knowledge.  Being ambitious in expectations of learners is great - but let’s at least be realistic and humane about this.  Forcing all young people to follow the same (broad) curriculum is probably neither what is best for them as individuals or what is best for society.  This kind of generalisation should be obsolete in an advanced, technological age.

Finally, what’s the problem with organisation?  Having visited over a hundred schools I have experienced every level of organisation and disorganisation and I can state that there are consistent correlations between the academic success of the learners and how orderly the environment and its inhabitants are.  Chaos is virtually never a good sign.  However, viewing schools as organisations of documents, structures and processes (which is what the guidance does) loses the sense that educational establishments are all about people.  

What we need is respect for individuals rather than homogenisation, personalisation rather than generalisation and people-centred processes rather than organisation-biased structures.

Which three words should we have to form the heart of an inspection framework?