In high school I had a great economics teacher who was brilliant at simplifying complex ideas.
One of her lessons focused on the law of diminishing returns – in economic terms, the point at which the level of profit or benefits gained becomes less than the amount of money or energy invested. To use one basic example, it means that adding more workers to a production line will eventually lead to a decrease in overall production. However, the example that has always stuck with me most concerned chocolate cake.
Now, I love chocolate cake. The first bite – delectable. The second, fantastic, but slightly less great. As I continue eating, I start noticing how full I am, how sweet the icing is and how I’m enjoying the cake less and less with each bite. The same cake that was delicious 10 mouthfuls ago is now making me feel slightly ill. That’s the law in action – that things which can be helpful, productive or even essential can, if overused or abused, be the very things that will derail our schools and our people.
In a similar vein, it’s important for school leaders to recognise all the mechanisms we have at our disposal for developing and improving our organisations, yet also be fully aware of the point at which their effectiveness decreases and they start to become damaging.
You won’t find many teachers who’d argue that all testing should be abolished, or that there should be no accountability at all. Just like chocolate cake in the life of this headteacher, most things in education have their place, including those we may not like as much. There are things we can control, such as monitoring arrangements, quality assurance measures, culture and CPD. Others, less so – Ofsted, national testing, funding. Those things within our control must be delicately managed and led, while accounting for the nuances of our people, context, community, culture and capacity.
When speaking with school leaders across the country about the Three Bridges approach to improvement – decreasing accountability and monitoring measures, while increasing development models and professional agency – I often hear the phrase, ‘We’re just not there yet’. We didn’t make those changes to be revolutionary, or to fly in the face of tradition. We made them because we were having to deal with a recruitment and retention crisis, low staff morale and high levels of turnover. Our results were low and our accountability was high. We examined the low returns we were getting from traditional school development and wondered if there was another way.
We found that our troubles lay in the diminishing returns of our systems over time. One lesson observation can inform practice with valuable feedback from an external source; multiple observations can communicate a lack of trust, or suggest the observer is somehow superior. Sharing planning can translate to effective collaboration; scrutinising planning, or expecting it to be submitted in advance each week or term can create a culture of low self-efficacy and belief.
This examination of our systems led Three Bridges away from tradition and towards new systems that could drive improvement while helping uncover the best in our teachers and children. We must ask ourselves whether what we’re eating is best for our people, context, community, culture and capacity. If it is, how many bites can we take before it starts to become bad for us?
Jeremy Hannay is the headteacher of Three Bridges Primary School; follow him at @HannayJeremy.