When I was younger I used to work in a video store. I loved how busy the store would get on Friday and Saturday nights, the relationships we developed with people in the local community, the free bags of out-of-date crisps we’d get when the stock was changed – but, most of all, I enjoyed recommending movies to customers who weren’t sure what they wanted to watch.
Back then, one of my go-to recommendations was The Matrix. I was very taken with the film’s premise, and still think of it often when leading my little school in London and working with other teachers and leaders across the country. The premise in question is that the everyday world we perceive as real is, in fact, an all-encompassing simulation created by a race of sentient machines that have subdued the human race.
In one of the film’s best scenes, our protagonist Neo is offered a stark choice by Morpeheus, leader of a small group of human resistance fighters who know what’s actually going on:
“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember; all I’m offering is the truth.”
Why do I bring this up? It’s because we school leaders in England have been living in our own simulated reality for years. One we’ve always known was somehow ‘off’, and one we shouldn’t have to live with any more.
The blue pill
This is the world we’ve always known. It’s a world where recruitment and retention crises are commonplace, where strategies aimed at addressing them merely fumble with the symptoms rather than fix any underlying problem.
In this world we’ve been led to believe that an ‘inspection culture’ is synonymous with a ‘development culture’; that in order for schools, leaders, teachers and pupils to improve, they must be constantly measured and monitored. This surveillance takes many forms – frequent high stakes observation, regular and robust scrutiny, coupled with top-down accountability regimes.
We see this culture at every level. It’s there between the system and schools in the form of Ofsted ratings and league tables. It’s manifested between one school and the next via audits, reviews and mocksteds. You can even see it in leaders’ interactions with their teachers and between fellow colleagues during lesson observations and ‘routine’ book planning, subject scrutiny and miscellaneous monitoring.
This is the world we’ve been told is real. Most schools you’ll visit and talk to will likely be operating in this way, and chances are your local authority or MAT will be actively promoting all of the above as the sure-fire route to gaining an ‘Outstanding’ rating. Except there’s just one problem.
It’s not real.
Oh, it all seems real enough – but just like the simulated reality of The Matrix, it’s a system built on a fallacious understanding of what education actually is, and what we can do to get better at it. It’s a system that benefits impersonal ‘machines’ – data-crunching software, private companies, financial markets, accountancy firms – while subduing our growth, development, creativity and innovation.
There is another way.
The red pill
In terms of what will actively help us as leaders and educators, here’s what’s real. Schools where there are no shortfalls in recruitment or retention, Teachers who are able to grow professionally over time, and help others to do the same. Everyone in a given setting aligned to a deep moral purpose.
In these schools, development isn’t centred on professional inspections, but rather professional collaboration. These schools won’t perform regular observations and monitoring, or fire out overly prescriptive performance policies. Instead, they’ll discuss and design pedagogy, engage in action research and regularly perform learning and lesson study.
Under this system, teacher development is seen as an important leadership responsibility. To that end, school leaders care deeply about their staff, and understand that growing great educators involves both moments of brilliance and moments of mayhem.
These are schools that build in time for reflection, research and collaboration – both within the school itself and with partnering settings elsewhere. Moreover, these are schools that consistently achieve top results. How? Through collective efficacy and well-developed core programmes. The teachers have autonomy and are trusted to make decisions concerning their classroom instruction. There’s little need for marking policies or planning scrutinies, because their learning programmes are collaboratively designed and collectively refined.
Nor is workload an issue. Why would it be? Under this system, the work teachers carry out at their schools is meaningful for them, and impacts directly and clearly upon their pupils.
And yet, in England right now, this type of thinking is distinctly unconventional. Taking the red pill isn’t easy – it takes courage and conviction. It requires us to rethink what we’ve always been told is true, and ask deeper questions about our own roles in the system’s broader failures.
Defy the machines
When looking at some of the most acclaimed education systems across the world, it’s easy to pick up on surface-level reasons as to why they’re more effective than ours. In Singapore, we point to the parental culture there around education. In Canada, we flag up the relative lack of income inequality. In Finland, some point to the lower levels of immigration.
The truth, however, is that it’s the culture around professionals, learning and development that allow those nations to succeed. Schools in Ontario only perform teacher observations once every five years, but make a point of organising and maintaining mutually supportive communities focussed on learners and learning. Singapore schools regularly perform lesson study to develop professional skills in lesson design and learning. In Finland, research and reflection is prioritised over basic practice.
What these nations don’t do is overburden their teachers with prescription and policy. They instead create conditions under which every teacher is able to flourish.
As school leaders, we face a choice – take the blue pill or the red pill. We can take the blue pill and continue to live in the world created by machines. That’s the easy way, the way we’ve always known. Some of us might even feel that we’re prospering under the system we have.
Alternatively, we can take the red pill and start designing our own future. It will be difficult. We’ll need to think unconventionally and be ready to embrace a series of tough challenges.
But if we succeed, that world will be real. And it’ll be ours.
Jeremy Hannay is the headteacher of Three Bridges Primary School