Category Archives: schools

Perpetual penality – thinking about targets with Mead and Foucault

I found myself among a group of school governors talking about targets. Every year in the UK school governors have a statutory obligation to set targets for levels of examination passes for pupils taking GCSE examinations at 16. The governors cannot set a target below last year’s – it must be the same or higher, even if the cohort on the point of taking their examinations is deemed to be weaker.

So should we set the target in line with what the statistical predictor (a figure derived from past performance) indicates is realistic, or should we set something more ambitious than that? Additionally, there might be other areas of teaching where we might set targets for ourselves even though we are not obliged to do so. This would look good during the next inspection, that we as a group of governors are prepared invent more ways of holding ourselves to account and scrutiny.

Just as annual setting of targets is something of a ritual, so too is the debate that follows. Continue reading


Surviving in times of cuts II – politics, values and ideology

The UK is experiencing a big series of changes which are being introduced at breakneck speed by the new coalition government. The most dramatic changes are taking place in the public sector: schools are being heavily encouraged to become academies which are independent of local authorities: health budgets will be transferred to GPs; the financial settlement on local authorities is being drastically cut back which will lead to widespread loss of jobs, and even the defence forces will be scaled back. This will be accompanied by a huge hike in fees for students wanting to study at university, accelerating the transition from understanding education as a public good to privatising and individualising it. One theme of  justification put forward by the current government, which is a familiar one amongst conservatives everywhere, is that the public sector is ‘unproductive’ and ‘crowds out’ the private sector. Cutting back the public sector thus allows the private sector to flourish just as cutting back shrubs in the garden enables border plants to thrive.

All governments are ideologically committed even when they are pretending not to be. So for example the Blair government in the early years talked of having moved beyond ideology, following Tony Blair’s intellectual mentor, Anthony Giddens: not left, not right, but what works was the mantra for at least the first term (Giddens’ work Beyond Left and Right: the Future of Radical Politics was published in 1994). There was much talk of  ‘evidence-based policy’ until a series of high-profile occasions where government ministers took decisions that seemed to fly in the face of the evidence they were being offered by leading scientists (see previous post). What Giddens was suggesting, and what the new Blair government wanted to believe, was that it could be possible to come up with policies with which all rational-thinking people could agree. Somehow political policies could be ‘objectively’ correct, because they were based on ‘the evidence’. The idea, then, is that evidence interprets itself: the ‘science’ , according to ministers, speaks for itself. What policies meant in terms of value propositions were thought to be of secondary importance, or of no importance at all, until of course the values-implications of certain courses of action became obvious even to government ministers themselves and could not  contemplate carrying them out despite ‘the evidence’. Continue reading

Inspection and other forms of control

I was working with some teachers in a school the other day when the conversation turned to inspection and evidence. The new UK school inspection regime is based much more clearly on teachers’ and managers’ assessments of how they think they are doing – they have to fill in what is called a SEF, or self-evaluation form – which is then offered to incoming inspectors as the primary basis for their inspection. According to the Department for Education, evidence has to be rigorous, has to be written down and has to demonstrate ‘impact’. The inspectors then judge not just the quality of teaching and learning in school, but also the quality of the SEF. The idea is that the inspection becomes an assessment of teachers’ ability to assess themselves in the given form of the SEF.CCTV

Since I have taken a long-term interest in encouraging reflection and reflexivity in the posts in this blog , I was interested to note my own resistance not to the idea of self-evaluation but to the way it was being put forward and the ideology of relentless improvement and scrutiny that it implies. Continue reading

Social mobility, power and exclusion

Last week a commission led by Alan Milburn set up to investigate social mobility in the UK reported on the ways in which the middle classes have consolidated their hold on elite jobs, and how graduates from top universities dominate the professions. Social postion affects educational attainment even by the age of 5, and the chance of children eligible for free school meals — roughly the poorest 15 per cent by family income — getting good qualifications by the age of 16 is still less than a third that of their better-off classmates. Being born poor makes it very likely that you will remain poor.

One view would be that since there will be more and more professional jobs, so we just produce more and more better educated children and the road is open for everyone. The solution from this perspective is that working class parents just need to be more aspirational.  ‘Empowering’ parents with choice over which schools to send their children to will drive up standards and therefore produce better educated children who will go on to become professionals. Everybody wins.  However, this  view tends to ignore the fact that  on many occasions  for some to rise, others must fall.   Just so with the discussion of empowerment when it turns on disempowered groups, like poorer parents, becoming empowered, as though there were an endless fund of power to which we just keep adding . If power is relational then for some groups to have more power implies other groups having less. Continue reading

How current theories of management reduce the meaning of education

In a similar vein to the last post, I came across a report which has been produced recently on the education of 14-19 year olds in Britain entitled Education for All. One of the themes of the report is the way in which the language and concepts of management have prevailed in the sector and in doing so have reduced the understanding of what education might mean:

“As the language of management and performance has advanced, so we have proportionately lost a language of education which recongises the intrinsic value of pursuing certain types of question, or trying to make sense of reality (physical, social, economic and moral), of seeking understanding, of exploring through literature and the arts what it means to be human…” Continue reading

Values, emotions and mutual recognition

How is it that we can get locked into feeling criticised when we are offered an evaluation of our teaching methods, and how is it that we can become heated in the subsequent exchanges? What can we learn from what is going on here as a way of thinking about how we might offer evaluations to others when we are in a position of judgement on them? It is tempting for us to talk about emotions as though they are somehow separated out from rationality: first there is our ‘objective’ self, which behaves rationally, then there is our emotional self, which encourages us to behave ‘irrationally’.

Rational and irrational

A lot of contemporary researchers would disagree with this. Antonio Damasio is a neurosurgeon who has written a series of books, the last one entitled ‘The Feeling of What Happens’ where he explores the necessity of our emotions in helping us to act rationally in our social dealings with others. Because we are social animals we are attuned to others who are attuning to us; our feelings, and the emotions that arise from these, offer us good data about how we are experiencing each other. He undermines our usual understanding of how we act, that we think first and then act on this rational thought, by suggesting that what actually happens is we feel first and make cognitive sense of this feeling. He also goes onto describe some of his patients who have had brain injuries who have damaged parts of their brains which allow them to feel emotion. When these patients act hyper-rationally, with no ability to feel, or experience emotion towards others, they then begin to behave sociopathically, what we would consider to be ‘irrational’ social behaviour. If Damasio is right, then we would do well to pay attention to our feelings as they arise in our daily interactions with others since they would give us a lot clues as to what is going on for us and the people we are dealing with; they too will be experiencing their own emotions as they are dealing with us and probably picking up and responding to some of ours. If we think of communication as a gesture and response, which draws out another gesture and a further response from parties engaged in communication, then our own emotional response would be informed and perhaps amplified by the emotional response of the person we are dealing with. This is why it is easy to get caught up in other people’s anxiety or anger.

Upheavals of thought

The philosopher Martha Nussbaum refers to emotions as ‘upheavals of thought’: they give us a clue about the things that we have cause to value. They constantly punctuate our daily dealings with others, which, in the hurly-burly world of a school where we are dealing with young adults who are not always in control of what they are feeling and do not always convey what they are feeling skilfully, we are left feeling exhausted. Although they may offer good data for us to reflect upon in terms of what we and others are experiencing, we also live in a society where it is considered ‘unprofessional’ to exhibit affect in public. Somehow, then, we still need to ‘play the game’ of behaving like a professional at the same time as paying attention to our own very valuable sense data which could give us much greater ability to escape from our habitual behaviour, which may well arise from being driven by our emotions or denying them. Whenever we feel ourselves getting heated about an exchange with others it is worthwhile subsequently to ask oneself, what was really going on for me there? Values are another area of human experience where we are likely to feel strong emotions. We value our values! A contemporary German philosopher, Hans Joas, offered us the insight that values are distinct from norms although they are both manifestations of the same domain of human experience: how we articulate the right and the good. Values are what he calls, paradoxically, ‘voluntary compulsions’. We choose to feel obliged to follow our values, which are idealisations and give us a sense of wholeness that we do not normally experience. We believe in, and try and act upon, our values which, as idealisations, give us an expanded sense of self. Norms, meanwhile, are constraining and are agreed by society as rules by which we can try to lead moral lives. They are both generalisations which will need to be agreed between us what they actually mean in a particular circumstance and at a particular time.


Take respect, for example. Respect for each other is a value which we sometimes try to take up as an institution like a school, for example, or as a society. In order to take up the value of respect we would then try and make sense of that value in norms, or rules. ‘No swearing at each other or at teachers’ would be a rule that would be an attempt at enacting this value as a norm. In any situation we are likely to experience competing values: our own values may be in conflict, and in addition, we may find ourselves in conflict with other people’s values. This is not a thing to be decried, butis part and parcel of being human and living with others. Both values and norms are generalisations, and as such need interpreting. Conflicting values arise directly in our consideration of how we respond to, or express dissent in a managerial relationship: how is it possible to recognise difference but adhere to what we value at the same time? If we accept the Joas’ insight that values and norms are distinct but related, and that values are always likely to be a source of conflict both for ourselves and for others, then the contemporary management idea that we all need to do is to ‘share values’, somehow align our values so that we are all pointing in the same direction, looks as though it would be impossible to achieve. If they were voluntary compulsions, then it would be impossible to oblige someone else to share my values, as I understood them, without an enormous amount of coercion. Values are, rather, areas for discussion and negotiation. It is very unlikely if we set out a set of broad idealisations which are value statements, that we would all understand them in the same way and that they would help us decide what to do except in very generalised ways. But it is also right to say that leaders in an institution must go on articulating institutional values as they understand them as a way of inviting others in to the discussion. We have no choice but to articulate values, if we are to act responsibly and if we are to encourage students as active citizens to consider their values and the values of the community of which they find themselves a part, and we should try and derive norms from them: but in doing so we should expect debate, discussion and disagreement which will in the end be mediated by power relationships. (If students disrespect a supply teacher, even usually respectful students, this does not necessarily mean that they do not value education, however. It may simply mean that in that particular class at that particular time, the temptation of being able to tilt the power relationship in their favour, when usually they experience the power relationship running very much in the opposite direction, was too much to resist. In that moment they valued feeling more powerful more than they valued education. And this is another thing about values – they are not always ‘positive’. We can come to value the domination of white people over black people, for example, as was the case in apartheid S Africa. That was certainly a society that acted on its values.)


Another thread that underpins thinking about values is the theme of recognition. Is it that we become irritated with interns when they are so needy because we feel that they do not recognise how much we are dealing with in our jobs? As teachers and managers we are experiencing needy people all day. But who recognises our own neediness? Just as we need to recognise that other people have different values, or understand the same values in different ways, so we need to be aware that human interaction depends on an ongoing process of mutual recognition. Students are unlikely to be respectful if they themselves experience disrespect on a daily basis. We have all experienced the effectiveness of the response: ‘I can see that you are upset’ with a distressed student. How, in our dealings with others, do we encourage mutual recognition to arise? This is particularly tricky if we ourselves have very strong valuations. If we are convinced that our way is the best way, or that our lived experience must be really useful for others, how do we work with this at the same time as recognising the experience of others? One way of understanding this would be to look for what are called ‘win/win’ outcomes. I understand what this is pointing to but my own difficulties with this way of understanding social interaction is that it suggests that there is always a possibility for equivalence, that we can always turn things to the positive, that power can always be shared equally. My own understanding is based on the assumption that we are always in a power relationship with others, and that this power is often unequal. The example of neediness also comes within my definition of a power relationship. If I need you more than you need me, then power is tilted in your favour.


And finally, how do we recognise ourselves, and consequently get recognised by others, in what we are doing? How can we be sure that we are good at what we do, or conversely, are poor at what we do? What arises in our daily interactions with others that gives us the data from which we conclude that we are, or are not doing a good job? If we start from a position of understanding human relating as being co-created, what is our own responsibility for creating the situations we find ourselves in (although this does not imply that we are equally responsible for creating the situation – see thoughts on power above).

Mutual recognition

Continuing with mutual recognition. Some philosophers think that the self arises in a social process of interaction with others – we know the ‘I’ through a relation with the ‘not I’. The same for ‘we’: we know who ‘we’ are from the associations and organisations we belong to. Both as individuals and as members of groups, knowing who we belong to also describes who we don’t belong to. Inclusion and exclusion arise together. One theme that comes up a lot for people working in organisations is the difficulty of dealing with the ‘otherness’ of others. So, it is far more straightforward for us to have a relationship with people who agree with us, or who are like us, than it is to deal with people who are very different. To be genuinely open to this difference would imply being prepared to be open to changing ourselves, of being open to experiencing the otherness of others. Paradoxically, this radical openness to difference implies our having a strong sense of self too.
Hegel talked about the dangers of ‘indeterminacy’. What he meant by this is we can be so wrapped in ourselves (lost to the self, egotism), or so taken over by who we’re dealing with (lost to the other, suggestible), that we no longer have a sense of who we are in relation to others. If we can open ourselves to the difference of others, then they in turn will be opened to our difference.When we engage with others are there alternatives to being only partially present in the engagement, or to silencing oneself? What other ways of acting are there in our practice as managers or as teachers where we can be there in our practice as a strong self open to the otherness of others?There is a lot of pop psychology written about ‘being there in the moment’, but there is nonetheless something of value being alluded to in this phrase. And many people are able to recognise those moments when in their practice they come alive, feel enlivened, in their interaction with others. These moments don’t happen very often, nor can they be predicted or engineered (like the spurious idea of spending ‘quality time’ with family) but we can be more alert to the possibility by being present in, and increasingly conscious of, our practice.
Recognition in school
Recognition, or lack of it, is a big part of students’ experience of school. Where school could feel like being part of a bureaucratic regime run with a strong power relationship between staff and students, like a prison, or like a factory for example, recognising students in the corridor, ‘Good morning Gemma’, or allowing students to have a genuine say in the way the school is run so that they recognise themselves in the behaviour policy, will make a big difference to the way they feel about the institution. They will see themselves in it, in being recognised they will in turn recognise, they will experience what gets described these days in management speak as ‘ownership’ (very suitable for a country so dedicated to owning property). My own son talks about the difference in recognition between GCSE and A level: in the former case, students are just cattle class, all treated uniformly and sometimes by megaphone. At A level students become individuals to their teachers. They seem to go from monochrome to technicolour. Obviously with reduced numbers and older kids it is easier to do this. But all institutions have lots of routine ways policies and procedures which have a tendency to systematise and homogenise people. How can we find ways of acting to mitigate this process?

The dominant way of understanding management these days is to see everything as a ‘problem’ which needs a ‘solution’. By taking our daily practice as managers and teachers seriously, what we are trying to do is uncover what we are doing, the assumptions we are bringing to it and the way we have come to think about it. If you like, we are making our taken from granted assumptions about what we are doing more explicit. This makes what we are doing richer, but also more problematic. This is the difference that Heidegger was making between ‘dwelling’ and ‘building’. Most management theory is about building, whereas reflective and reflexive practice is more about dwelling.

Let’s take the idea of ‘best practice’ as a very good example of a building assumption. The idea here is that one can find examples of best practice elsewhere, learn from them and describe them, then pick them up and apply them as a model at home. Someone in an organisation I worked with once described this to me as the idea that you can cut and paste a formula from one cell in a spreadsheet to all the others. Clearly, it is not going to be as simple as that. On the one hand, there are obviously good ideas to be learned from elsewhere, otherwise the practice of writing would never have taken hold in human civilisation. But if it were just a question of applying a formula, sometimes referred to as a blueprint, or in the Middle East these days, a road map, then everybody would be able to do it and do it quite quickly. The interesting question for me is what is the experience of applying the ‘best practice’ in the institutions that have developed them in the day to day in the minute by minute interactions between people? How do they dwell in their building? This, I suspect, cannot be bottled. A map can get you from A to B but will give you no sense of the marshy field you have to cross full of bullocks, the sense of the wind in your hair, how you will feel half way up a steep gradient on a hill.

Schools – Rules and membership of communities

All communities need rules to operate by, but rules are by their very nature generalisations which will need interpretation unless we are prepared to go to encyclopaedic length to explain what we mean by each one. In schools we are dealing with a community of people which comprises newly forming personalities who, in order to shape their very growing, will want to challenge the rules of the community in which they are obliged to belong. They will do this for a whole spectrum of reasons: because they are curious, because they push in order to experience being pushed back, because they are inexperienced in how to deal with rules, perhaps because there are very few rules at home, or even rules at home about breaking other rules.How is it that we can involve young people in the rules of a community to which they are obliged to belong until they are 16? After that point they are in school voluntarily, which changes the whole power dynamic. Perhaps this word ‘power’ is a starting point, and any honest discussion of rules would involve finding ways of drawing attention to the power dynamic which defines the relationship between people in communities. Teachers, as people principally responsible for running schools, have a responsibility to define the rules and explain the values that underpin them. However, they also have to find ways of engaging others in this defining process in a continuous way so that community members will experience, not just learn about, what is being talked about. So, for example, the word ‘respect’ features a lot in many organisations’ value statements, and a number of rules will follow to try and create an environment where we practice respect towards each other. But respect will be experienced by young people in the way that the rules are applied. If we apply rules in a peremptory and high handed fashion, or perhaps unthinkingly in ways which take no account of the specific context of the person we are dealing with we will be talking on the one hand about respect, but on the other treating young people in disrespectful ways. What do we mean by being consistent about the application of rules? We all have to come to understand that our actions have consequences and we are right to look for fairness of treatment. But our understanding of ‘fairness’ is also conditioned by our particular circumstances and the particular context in which we find ourselves acting with others. Unthinking application of the rules despite the context will sometimes also feel ‘unfair’ and rigid to us, like the recent story about the coastguard who responded spontaneously and immediately by rescuing a young woman clinging by her fingertips to a cliff edge, but was sacked by his bosses for not following the correct procedures.

So, rules yes, consistency yes, but also a way of continuously engaging young people in the process of being ruled that leaves room for them to experience respect. In an asymmetrical power relationship, how do we continue to engage them in ways which increase their autonomy and their sense of belonging? This will occasionally involve encouraging discussion about the rules and what we mean by what we say. It is important to have values but we may also have values about being able to discuss values: this is what we might mean by being interested in people’s continuing education. We can educate ourselves and others by experiencing the continuous opening up of possibilities. We can be explicit about finding ways to admit to having legitimate power over others, but also to involve those others in the continuous legitimisation of that power.

Continuing with our theme of recognition which manifests itself in every act of human interrelating. Young people will feel they belong in a community in which they constantly experience being recognised. This manifests itself in small everyday acts, from the simple ‘hallo Kylie’, through to being consulted about how the community might be run. Bodies like the School Council are important, both symbolically and politically, but if this is all the recognition that students feel they can get one might understand why they could still feel largely unrecognised. We ourselves seek recognition in the work that we do and sometimes the scale of recognition that we seek outstrips the possibility. This might lead us to take on more and more things seeking recognition which is still not forthcoming in the form and quality in which we feel we need it. This can lead to burn-out. Coming to terms with this potential for continuous disappointment might lead us into developing better judgement about how we are recognised by others in a continuous way in everyday acts: a class that visibly goes well, a compliment from a colleague, a thank you from a boss.

It is important to understand that recognition is not necessarily positive; that is sometimes why young people act up, because any recognition, even negative recognition, is better than none. Repressing our feelings in our practice can also be experienced as a form of lack of recognition by others. This is not a recommendation to emote uncontrollably in class, but it is an invitation to point to the role of our feelings in enabling or constraining our ability to do what we’re doing. So, for example, maths is not about feelings, but the teaching of maths is. If, despite agreements, students do not hand in work that is expected, then drawing attention to your feelings of disappointment may make a difference to whether they do so next time or not. If I feel I enjoy the respect of someone who is teaching me, and I reciprocate that respect, then I need to know that what I do matters to that person and vice versa. Expressing disappointment can be experienced as a form of caring. If failing to hand in a piece of work elicits no response, how do I know that what I do, and don’t do, matters? Of course, there is no guarantee that expressing one’s disappointment will necessarily lead to what one expects to happen: for some it will serve as a provocation to disappoint you some more. Nonetheless, the acknowledgement of our feelings arising in the day to day hurly burly of dealing with others is one way of finding ourselves in our practice, otherwise we may invite the possibility of not taking ourselves seriously and thus inviting others to do the same.

The self and the other
We know we are ‘I’ through dealings with people who are ‘not I’. However, we are encouraged in the West to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals that come into the world pre-packaged. The very common phrase ‘realising our full potential’ carries with it this idea that there is a fully formed self inside which we just need to unfold with the right tools, a bit like an IKEA flat pack. We have an essential me ‘inside’ which relates to lots of other individual me’s, an understanding which one sociologist called ‘thinking statues’. Another way of thinking about how we come to be is that we are born into a world where there is already an improvisational play going on, and we are invited to take up particular roles, constrained and enabled by our genetic inheritance, our society and our family history. We become ourselves in finding differing roles in the play, but always in interactions with others. The social process individuates us. If we think of ourselves as somehow split off from others, there is me and my opinion and the other with their opinion, then this only presents us with a dualism: we can either be totally ourselves, or we have to become totally the other, rather than being in dialectical relationship with them. How is it possible to remain true to what we believe at the same time as remaining open to the otherness of others? This is different from saying either that there are fixed truths (modernism and pre-modernism), or that all truths are equal (relativism), but that I have a truth but not an infallible one. Because I am who I am I have to stand somewhere, but if I cannot recognise others in a continuous way (see paragraphs above) then I risk remaining inflexibly who I am and not fully recognising others. This will be experienced as a form of disrespect. I have to be able to widen my sense of self to include the recognition that there are other selves. This suggests a form of continuous engagement with others in a paradoxical dance: we cannot entirely let go of who we are for fear of losing ourselves, but if we cannot engage with others then we are cut off from them. Continuing to engage with others becomes a form of ethical action, for the benefit of others and for the benefit of ourselves.