I’ve just stepped down from a brief period as the Chair of a Multi-Academy Trust; as a serving headteacher, I’m simply unable to devote the necessary amount of time to a seriously big responsibility. Fortunately, we now have a really good Chair (unlike me) and a growing group of trustees with good and relevant experience. They will provide tremendous support and challenge to our excellent CEO and a growing group of committed school principals.
I’d like to dwell on that word Trust. In the paragraph above, it’s found in a rather strange context. It appears within a controversial ‘market-forces’ environment – the semi-privatisation of the educational landscape. Back in the late 2000s, as Academies were beginning to be commonplace, world markets went into a tailspin and capitalism has never been trusted since.
From that day on, the Academies programme has lived an ongoing battle to prove its credibility. The BBC Panorama programme of September 17th highlighted (albeit using evidence from just one rogue organisation) the dangers of allowing too much power to be placed in the hands of unavowed capitalists, and insufficient oversight to rein in any excesses.
But this is not just about the academy policy. The collapse of trust in society, its root in that financial meltdown, has infected the whole of education in equal measure.
Let’s consider the following bullet points (by no means typical in all schools, but I think indicative). This is important because, in my view, if we can repair these fissures, the malaise affecting teacher recruitment and pessimism just might be tempered. Much of the following is not the fault of schools per se, but of either the populist, fake news hysteria of our time, or the technocratic, emotionless bluffocracy that defines much of our collective system leadership and oversight.
- Trust between senior leaders and teachers. Why the need to constantly observe teaching? Why harangue class teachers as to why their class has not made gains of 2.3% progress in maths? Why maintain immense files of data on a cohort to ‘prove’ that a teacher is having ‘an impact’?
- Trust between school staff and parents. Parents, egged on by our surveillance society, are told to be suspicious of everything that crosses their children, teachers included. In the most rudderless schools, this might extend even to governors or trustees where a suspicion of leaders’ motives can exist.
- Trust between schools and LAs/MATs/RSCs and God knows whatever other type of model, or structure, is out there. Some bureaucrats are incapable of judging a school’s well-being without consulting a wad of Fisher Family Trust (that word again) reports, or by tapping away on a desktop computer. Faced with data which is so often discredited, they can’t even trust their own judgement.
- Trust between schools and Ofsted. Schools feel they have to prove they are ‘not rubbish’, rather than the presumption being a positive one – that they are doing a good job. Thank goodness for a whole group of sensible inspectors who do often exercise good professional judgement when data tells them something different.
- Trust between schools and the DfE. Mr. Gove started with a deep suspicion of teachers’ motives (that they were lefties or statist) and we haven’t moved on much since. The DfE, despite its periodic release of warm words for the hard work of teachers, cannot hand over policy, curriculum or assessment decisions to the profession. Because it doesn’t trust them.
- Trust between headteachers and…their fellow headteachers. A minority of headteachers have farcically pursued a high league table position and a competitive advantage that has only resulted in dividing them from their peers. It has left them mistrusting precisely the same people who could be supporting them.
Thankfully, there is one area of interaction that still maintains its traditional level of trust, despite stories to the contrary – that between pupils and teachers. Well over 99% of teachers are not predators or power-crazed nutcases, and maintain fabulous, trusting relationships with those children who are entrusted into their care.
And this is why the system continues to work, remarkably so given the unprecedented turbulence of our times.
Just imagine what we could do if these fissures in trust were repaired?
Aahh! But what of gullibility you might ask? Too much trust and we will be taken for a ride, standards will drop and our pupils will be deprived of a world-class education!
Maybe. But surely it’s worth the risk.
Because the best leaders instinctively get the balance just right.
We just need to Trust them.