I’ll Get My Coat: Educational Excellence Every Which Way But Loose

He wanted to say, oh, how he wanted to say: craftsmen.

D’you know what that means? It means men with some pride, who get fed up and leave when they’re told to do skimpy work in a rush, no matter what you pay them . . .

But you don’t care, because if they don’t polish a chair with their arse all day you think a man who’s done a seven-year apprenticeship is the same as some twerp who can’t be trusted to hold a hammer by the right end.

He didn’t say this aloud, because although an elderly man probably has a lot less future than a man of twenty, he’s far more careful of it …

— Terry Pratchett, Going Postal

“I have a dream . . .”

To me, the recent Educational Excellence Everywhere white paper reads like a managerialist’s dream. It has all the hallmarks of a document written by the kind of person for whom spending a whole morning composing a stiffly worded email equates to “kicking some serious arse”.

Consider this “illustrative example” of what things may be like when, at long last, the unwieldy behemoths known as MATs rule the Earth:

Evans Education Endeavours (EEE) is a strong MAT of six schools. EEE is performing well in published MAT measures … EEE is overseen by a small, skilled board which sets the overall strategy … A strong headteacher from one of the schools has stepped up to the role of Executive Head.

Another MAT, Shining Academies (SA), is struggling. It has nine schools, seven within the same county as EEE and two in another part of the country. SA is performing poorly in published MAT measures . . .The RSC [Regional Schools Commissioner] suggests to EEE that they should take on seven SA schools . . . and suggests that the Executive Head becomes the CEO . . . EEE’s central board is strengthened by a new non-executive director recruited via Academy Ambassadors. Parents’ views are sought throughout this process. The board restructures governance and leadership by establishing two ‘raising achievement’ boards, each holding an executive principal toaccount for a cluster of 6-7 schools, leaving school level bodies to focus on listening to and engaging parents. EEE uses its expertise to improve the newly joined 7 schools, improving outcomes for thousands of children.


Now truth be told, I’ve no great love (or hate, either) for local education authorities: in my experience they are just bureaucracies which can be either supremely helpful or wilfully obstructive depending, in large part, on the individuals that one happens to come into contact with.

The white paper seems to have the idea that by placing the bureaucrats in geographically-scattered offices with different wallpaper one can achieve so much more. I suppose that such ardent faith in the transformative power of bureaucratic structures is either endearing or terrifying, depending on one’s point of view. My own life experience, and a childhood reading of the works of C. Northcote Parkinson, lead me to believe differently.


“Godwin’s LAW? Actually it’s more a sort of guideline…”

But what of the rest of the white paper? For the life of me, and Godwin’s Law notwithstanding, the historical parallel that springs to my mind is that of Hitler and Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner. In 1945, Hitler was sealed in his bunker, vainly ordering phantom divisions that existed only on paper to attack and halt the rapidly approaching Red Army. He fully expected to execute a bold strategic master stroke that would result in total victory. “Wo ist Steiner? Where is Steiner?” Hitler kept demanding, wanting Steiner’s forces to be part of a pincer movement that would crush the Soviets.

Little did he know — or care — that the divisions that looked so mighty on paper were, in reality, outnumbered 10-to-1 by the Russians and were composed mainly of platoons of exhausted walking wounded without combat weapons. At times, they were even grouped by their wounds for administrative convenience, so there would be whole battalions of men with stomach wounds, and brigades of men who’d had their right arms amputated, for example.

Steiner refused to attack.

Wo ist Steiner

“Wo ist Steiner?”

I believe we are currently in Nicky Morgan’s “Wo ist Steiner?” moment. She apparently believes that a simple act of administrative  legerdemain can conjure up legions of “talented teachers” ready to be thrown into the fray. After all, how can they not when, luckily, their performance can be scrutinised by “raising achievement panels”. Leadership is all, apparently. If we can get a few “can-do” CEOs and RSCs in there then everything will shape up nicely.

In reality, what she’s got is a tired, fed-up and rapidly diminishing core of veteran teachers. Our leaders seem to think that a lick of paint and a new general or two with the right attitude will sort everything out.

Sadly, I don’t think it will.

Now, like an apprentice staring at the work of a master, he read Reacher Gilt’s words on the still-damp newspaper.

It was garbage, but it had been cooked by an expert. Oh, yes. You had to admire the way perfectly innocent words were mugged, ravished, stripped of all true meaning and decency and then sent to walk the gutter for Reacher Gilt, although ‘synergistically’ had probably been a whore from the start. The Grand Trunk’s problems were clearly the result of some mysterious spasm in the universe and had nothing to do with greed, arrogance and wilful stupidity.

Oh, the Grand Trunk management had made mistakes – oops, ‘well-intentioned judgements which, with the benefit of hindsight, might regrettably have been, in some respects, in error’ – but these had mostly occurred, it appeared, while correcting ‘fundamental systemic errors’ committed by the previous management. No one was sorry for anything because no living creature had done anything wrong; bad things had happened by spontaneous generation in some weird, chilly, geometrical otherworld, and ‘were to be regretted’.

Terry Pratchett, Going Postal