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

22 thoughts on “I’ll Get My Coat: Educational Excellence Every Which Way But Loose

  1. Shrey Srivastava April 5, 2016 / 4:55 pm

    Thanks for this blog post regarding education; I really enjoyed it and am definitely recommending this blog to my friends and family. I’m a 15 year old with a blog on finance and economics at shreysfinanceblog.com, and would really appreciate it if you could read and comment on some of my articles, and perhaps follow, reblog and share some of my posts on social media. Thanks again for this fantastic post.

    • e=mc2andallthat April 6, 2016 / 1:04 pm

      I am most impressed with your blog! I will definitely follow and keep up with your posts.

  2. ijstock April 5, 2016 / 6:09 pm

    This tired, fed-up and rapidly diminishing veteran teacher thinks you’re absolutely right.

  3. Requires Improvement April 5, 2016 / 9:43 pm

    Me too. The kindest interpretation I’ve been able to come up with is the one from Yes Minister:
    “We must do something.
    This is something.
    Therefore, we must do this.”

    • e=mc2andallthat April 6, 2016 / 1:07 pm

      Yes Minister: a classic in every sense of the word and still holds true even today.

  4. teachwell April 5, 2016 / 9:46 pm

    What’s the solution then? Keep letting the progressives screw it up? Maybe the Conservative’s women’s writer was correct. Sack everyone and starts again. What can’t happen is things stay as they are with the unions, LEAs and ITT not even recognising that, you know, they may have got it wrong a few decades back and maybe just maybe they should quit chanting the same nonsense. It’s the arrogance of this entitlement that makes me not care a jot about academisation or even privatisation for that matter. An education system which is infected with the idea that schooling is only marginally about the academic.

    • Requires Improvement April 5, 2016 / 10:12 pm

      Trouble is that lots of academies and chains are just as progressive, if not more so. I’ve had far more bad ideas from school based CPD than from my PGCE. My big concern about these plans is that they emphasise the bad bits of the last few years (commamd’n’control), whilst making the good interesting experiments harder to do (there doesn’t seem to be space for distinctive single schools), and not doing much about keeping reasonably perky teachers in front of classes.

      • teachwell April 5, 2016 / 10:28 pm

        I see your point but then it becomes about terms and conditions – the truth is we can’t continue the way that we are. In most jobs there is a reasonable attempt to keep to the working hours or compensate if one goes over them. The gold plating that so many are willing to do makes it impossible for others. However, I am sick of the idea that we can experiment. Problem-solve fine but innovating because one wants to be creative is a nonsense and takes away resources when we don’t need it. If the unions were to actually engage in the process they would have been able to have more influence. As it stands Gibb chose to speak to a bunch of bloggers on the day the White Paper came out – what does that say about the state of the system?

      • e=mc2andallthat April 6, 2016 / 1:19 pm

        Definitely agree about terms and conditions. And some teachers do go overboard in terms of commitment to their job. And I would like some life in addition to my teaching please!

    • e=mc2andallthat April 6, 2016 / 1:14 pm

      I’m not sure there is an overarching solution within reach. The problem as I see it is that there is a lot of nonsense out there. On the whole, I think traditionalists spout less nonsense than the progressivists, and it’s true that LEAs and ITTs helped to sustain much of the nonsense. But none of us is immune from the siren call of bad ideas. And RI’s point that some MATs are havens of progressivist claptrap is well made.

      • Physics tutor April 6, 2016 / 3:56 pm

        Again, which ITT provider or providers do you refer to here? Where is the evidence for the assertion that ITT has sustained nonsense? My own experience has been that school-based CPD did some nonsense and some not-nonsense, but that the university enabled academic questioning of assertions and assumptions that are not well-grounded.

    • Physics tutor April 6, 2016 / 3:52 pm

      Where did you train to teach @teachwell? I don’t think you can assume ITT is the same everywhere. I try to teach people to teach physics, myself – so more academic than claptrap IMO.
      If everyone is sacked and you start again, who will fill the teaching posts that are created? Would it not be a good idea to work with the teachers we have got?

      • teachwell April 6, 2016 / 6:44 pm

        I am being semi-facetious here – I know the blogger through twitter. For a start – I think there are people who need to go, literally this is not a holiday camp for overgrown adults who want to get paid while doing what they like. I am from the primary sector and fully accept this is more likely the case for us than secondary. Remember that it is easier to get into primary with the lowest possible qualifications required for teaching than it is for secondary given the differing requirements. For a start ITT for primary needs to draw people from the different departments not educationalists, or education researchers or ex-teachers who are now university lecturers. Enough already. Secondly, those who enter teaching via other avenues need to ensure that they are focused on teaching not teaching pedagogy or if the latter is considered necessary then an independent body needs to vet it for bias. ITT providers have had over 40 years to sort their act out and at least provide a balance, they seem utterly incapable. As for where I did my training – it was a SCITT and funnily enough focused on subject knowledge and behaviour management. We did no pedagogy other than a bit on SEN but that was the limit of it. No one preaching about progressivism. We spent too much time in school for that. As for where we would get new teachers from. With all due respect, if the progressive mantra holds and we are just there to facilitate then why does that require a degree? If the children just need someone to watch over them while they discover knowledge for themselves then a babysitter will do. There is no need to pay a qualified teacher. That is the other issue I have with progressivism – it does a better job of knocking down the profession than any government could do because it is effectively an act of babysitting.

  5. Requires Improvement April 5, 2016 / 10:50 pm

    I think/hope that there’s lots where we’d agree… the current model of teaching in the UK isn’t sustainable. The question is a lot more about means.
    As for the question of experiments, it might be my science background showing, but I think that an attitude of “we think that this will work better, but we can’t be sure without trying it”. I’d describe schools like Michaela as experiments at the moment. It’s the opposite of the “I’m right, so do this” that we get a lot.

  6. chrisanicholson April 6, 2016 / 10:54 am

    But won’t free schools continue to be allowed? I didn’t think the academy plans extended to them. For what it’s worth, I’m with Teachwell. I am so sick of everything being blamed on Ofsted and the government, when it’s ITT and their decades of progressive propaganda that is at the root of this problem.

    • e=mc2andallthat April 6, 2016 / 1:24 pm

      It seems that all new schools from now on will be free schools, or so I understand. Some ITT was dire, but probably not all of it — I wouldn’t go so far as to heap all the blame on its shoulders.

    • Physics tutor April 6, 2016 / 4:01 pm

      Where did you train to teach chrisanicholson? Is it that ITT provider that you found to be poor? Would be good to know so that other applicants can avoid.
      Via PGCE, masters and two university jobs, I’ve seen what goes on at 4+ institutions and I don’t recognise your reference to progressive propaganda, I’m afraid.
      What do you teach? I try to teach people to teach physics, myself. More academic and less propaganda IMO.

  7. fish64 April 6, 2016 / 5:31 pm

    Much as I try to avoid self promotion, I can’t resist a little here in response to the white paper – local education authorities were withering anyway and as you correctly say, forced academisation is unlikely to be a panacea. See the following link https://fish64.wordpress.com/2016/02/23/a-story-from-tony-benn-adapted-for-education/

    Actually, I wonder whether it’s not ITT that is the problem, but rather the recently established senior and middle leadership qualifications which push aspiring leaders back into practices they probably discarded years ago. Progressive jargon wrapped up as “building the 21st century school”.

    • e=mc2andallthat April 6, 2016 / 5:33 pm

      Your Tony Benn satire was undoubtedly prescient! I think the point about middle and senior leader fads is fascinating and chimes with my own experience.

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