Wrong lever!

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(Picture: Wikipedia)

I was sitting in a meeting a few days ago, in which a well-meaning member of senior staff was outlining what ‘needs’ to be done to address under-achievement among some of our older students. As she conceded, there is little wrong with the teaching (we know we are collectively doing all the things that are currently identified as good practice). It just isn’t always having the desired effect.

A Plan was wheeled out. It involved yet more folder checks, setting and tracking of target, removal of privileges, helicoptering of students. In other words, all the things we are already doing; hardly a creative response to the situation. But in a way, I do sympathise: where a problem has been identified, Management cannot very well sit there and do nothing.

I was left with a sense of hopelessness, despite the fact that the issue doesn’t directly affect me at the moment as I don’t teach the cohorts concerned. As has been said many times, if you make the same input you will most likely get the same output – and yet again the people caught in the middle of this thankless, probably fruitless effort are the teachers whose workloads have been added to once again.

As I said, I don’t blame those making the decisions – they are caught in the same system as the rest of us, being held accountable for things we cannot control – but I would still suggest that the chances of improvement as a result of the extra work are minimal. I would have thought that recognising the limits of our powers might however be a good start. After all, this is not the first time the same approach has been taken, and last time, if anything, it seemed to have the opposite effect.

At the root of this is an inability to accept that there are some very important things over which we have very little control. And key amongst those, particularly with the older students, is their wider culture and attitudes. It may be necessary for schools to claim they have total control over student outcomes, but I am afraid it just isn’t so. Even Hattie accepts that.

I am not going to suggest there is nothing we can do to tackle complacency and over-confidence in students, but I think it is foolish to expect to bring about a rapid, profound change – or that coercion will achieve it. Rather than seeing schooling as the ability to drive back the tide, I see it more like sticking a paddle into a fast-flowing stream and hoping to make some rather helpful eddies. Note I say ‘schooling’ as opposed to education; the latter is indeed a profound force – but I am not sure that it is limited to, or even particularly well delivered by, what goes on in schools, particularly for those sectors of youthful society that if anything are already over-stimulated.

To put it bluntly, trying to change student actions by directing teacher ones amounts to pulling the wrong lever. Teachers are generally not the problem; (lazy) students are. And pressurising the teachers put even more pressure on those students, in the process becoming more stressed and short of time, is unlikely to make any difference at all. My best bet is for more resistance as more potential confrontations arise.

On the other hand, creating the space for teachers to be nurturing, even inspiring, or just plain human, might in time have an effect. But this looks too much like doing nothing.

I suspect the problem with lazy sixth-formers comes partly from post GCSE burn-out and possibly from admitting uncommitted individuals because of the cash they attract. It  perhaps lies in the fact that most of ours already want for nothing, and probably normal teenage inertia. It might also be that the targets aren’t right in the first place. In other words it is the wider circumstance that is wrong.

But depressingly, the only response the system seems to know is to work teachers harder. I suspect it actually requires a more subtle interpretation of which levers to pull; is it too much to expect subtlety, or at least wisdom, from the education system? Pulling the wrong lever is no better than pulling none at all.

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