Beyond outstanding.

The grace of a soaring bird is not in its understanding of aerodynamics. The intense beauty of Bruch’s Violin Concerto is not visible on Nicola Benedetti’s Grade 8 music certificate. And I suspect that some of the world’s greatest sporting moments were more a product of chances seized than any premeditated plan. No matter how important the 10,000 hours, it’s having something ‘in your bones’ that counts.

I was party to a discussion about what a school should do if and when it is awarded ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted.  

This presents an institution with precisely the same problem as anyone who has just won gold – what do you do for an encore? The risk, of course, is that the higher you fly, the further there is to fall, and while school inspections are not competitive as such, there seems only one way to go from the top. So the secret might be to pretend that it isn’t the top after all, merely a false summit on the way to greater glories…

All well and good so far: many people like a challenge, and it is no doubt helpful for management to have another carrot to dangle (or stick to wield) to keep the donkeys on the move. The problem is this: what should that new summit be? If you have built your entire reputation on complying with the demands of an organisation like Ofsted, have done everything it required of you and received in return its top grade, no matter how much ‘more of the same’ you do, you will receive no further recognition; you will never know if you’re still getting better, the criteria simply don’t go there. The summit is the summit. Even if you do carry on doing more of the same, it isn’t going to show – unless of course Ofsted does the very Ofsted-like thing and moves the goalposts, effectively downgrading its own benchmarks. I suspect there are only so many times it can try that trick before someone launches a serious assassination attempt on its boss…

The other curious thing about top marks – be they Ofsted gradings or league-table positions, is that not all schools get there by the same route. I have read several interviews with heads of very successful schools, who seemed almost surprised to have received accolades, as they were ‘just doing what they always did’. One was adamant he did nothing to prepare for Ofsted, at all. Other schools, on the other hand (probably the majority) sweat blood to attain such heights, and then risk paranoia at their fear of falling. What do some schools have in their bones what others drive themselves into the ground to achieve?

I’m not convinced there is only a single route to success; even Ofsted passes no comment about how one reached the target, simply that one did; as far as I know, it makes no public comparison between different strategies for getting there. Some approaches grind their way up to where others seem to be simply soaring: same result, but one route is a lot more painful than the other.

The obvious, if mechanistic approach seems to be rigorous control over all aspects of what the school and the personnel within it do. Strict quality control and strong accountability will pull every one into line and ensure that they deliver the best – assuming, of course, that you can correctly identify what ‘best’ is.

But I’m not so sure. While those surprised head teachers might indeed have been doing those things behind the scenes, it doesn’t really explain their surprise.  Maybe they were just lucky with the raw quality of their students and innate talent of their staff – or maybe they found another, more oblique route. The problem with grind is that it tends to be self-defeating.  Much has been written on the demotivating effects of strident management and excessive control. Daniel Pink’s excellent book ‘Drive’ defines the problem.

To motivate people, you need to respect their desire for autonomy, mastery and purpose. You also need to tap into their intrinsic reasons for doing things, rather than trying to bolt-on incentives, whether of the carrot or stick variety. You need to create opportunities for what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  calls Flow. In other words, the opposite of all the things that conventional wisdom says you should do. The basic logic is unnervingly simple: people do better when they’re happy.

I’m a classic example of this: highly internally motivated (for example in my music – and my reflecting about education) – but if someone started directing me to do it, setting me targets and ultimata, the motivation would very soon dry up. Contrary to what a carrot-and-stick outlook might expect, the very experience of being manipulated saps people’s energy and interest.

This would be made all the worse by the increased difficulty of action. The inevitable imposed routines, procedures and checks would divert my time and energy away from my core purpose, remove my autonomy – and very probably further drain my enthusiasm as well. The success criteria imposed to assess my progress might well not be congruent with my own motivation and may not therefore reflect what I am actually trying to achieve. For spice, some added threats about what could happen if I didn’t meet the target might tempt me to game the system, my original motive replaced by a more primitive fear and desire to fend off bad consequences at any cost.

There is a story of three medieval stone masons carving sculptures for a cathedral in Italy. When asked what they were doing, the first said, “I am carving the most beautiful sculptures from stone”; the second said, “I am helping to make a beautiful building for our city”, while the third replied, “I am building to the glory of God.” Which was right? And what would have happened if you were to tell one of the masons he was “wrong”? In fact, there is nothing wrong in allowing all three to go on following their own motivations – they are still working in complete harmony.

Ofsted’s Outstanding grade is a confected and artificial benchmark, even allowing for the commodification of a word that should be used exceedingly sparingly. Reaching it has the effect of homogenising procedures and narrowing goals, but it does at least bring to a school a degree of freedom from being under the cosh. Just as Nicola Benedetti undoubtedly had to work through the grades before she became a virtuoso soloist, I can accept that such a process is probably necessary. But simply to carry on to grades nine and ten (if they existed) would not, in my mind constitute going ‘beyond outstanding’, more a failure of imagination.

Miles Davis said of genius, “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there”. I think it is the same with education. The real quality is not in the mechanics – it’s what comes when you set practitioners free to follow their instincts – even if it means sometimes breaking the rules. Genius is not characterised by adherence to mechanical rules, and real education (as in what happens inside people’s brains rather than computer spreadsheets) is simply not a definable, quantifiable entity that can be pinned down as though we are assembling a Big Mac. It requires individuality, intuition and creativity – the very things that are so difficult to do on command.

For school managements, that offers a fearsome prospect – it implies less management for a start – but I suspect it is nonetheless what those surprised heads do. John Tomsett, the head teacher from York, has written about the need to trust his staff, to learn from what they say and do, to remove unnecessary constraints, and to create the possibility for them to flourish as individuals – both inside and outside school. That is what will make them great teachers in the true sense of the word. He has had the confidence to let go, and believe that his staff will strive for their best. It will actually deliver more.

I think it was the boss of 3M who said, “Hire good people and get out of their way”. He was right; my experience of recent educational developments is that they have simply made my job (and life) much harder; that the quantity of work has been increased for comparatively little gain in quality (that’s an inescapable trade-off). In fact, I have been taken away from my core purpose, and in the process had my inner motivation quashed and replaced with an inferior, imposed replica. My happiness and drive decreased; I have had to fight a hard inner battle to preserve them.

I’m not sure what all the answers are to “what next” – but given recent experience, I’m certain that it isn’t more of the same. A paradigm-shift is needed, and I hope the foregoing (and the wider content of this blog) might point if not the, then a way.

Once you get to the summit of the mountain, the only way upward is to fly free…


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