Business – stay out of the classroom!

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
Dr Bernard Trafford, head, Royal Grammar School, Newcastle

As we are again urged to learn lessons from business, Dr Bernard Trafford says industry should not be teaching us how to teach...

I’ve always had time for Lord Nash as schools minister – a political outsider who, following a successful City career and undoubtedly with an eye to public service and altruism, chooses to serve in government. His feet are firmly on the ground and he’s a man of his word. But he lost me recently when he urged schools to take a leaf out of business’s book and stop giving underperforming teachers the benefit of the doubt.

He was speaking on “What is relevant in business to education” at the Challenge Partnership National Conference. Given his background, one might feel few people could be better placed. Describing occasions on which he wasn’t sure whether someone would really measure up to the job, he would perform “a risk-reward analysis”: “how much better can this person get and then what’s the downside and the upside of letting them go?”.

Mind you, it’s easy for people on a conference podium to talk tough. We can always sound smart by talking (not that he did) about how to “fire to inspire”: but workers have rights, even teachers! – and proving underperformance is rarely straightforward.

Next he urged teachers to embrace “standardisation” instead of “individuality”. Curriculum content and lesson-planning should be far more standardised: why give new teachers the task of planning lessons? Better to give them ready-made content.

“Being a professional,” he continued, “means embracing accountability, standardisation and consistency, although of course we want our teachers to be inspiring.”

Standardised content would allow teachers to focus on delivery and differentiation: it would even reduce workload. He added that it’s impossible to “run an organisation of any size and diversity, efficiently and effectively if you haven’t got consistent procedures”. Amen to that. Anyone who’s spent any number of years in school leadership knows that achieving consistency of approach (for example, to discipline and pastoral care) is really hard. Teachers have to follow enormous numbers of consistent instructions and procedures, not least in the legal requirements to register children, to follow safeguarding procedures, to mark, to report and all the rest. The greater consistency we can achieve in those, the more efficiently the school will run. Business-like, indeed.

But Lord Nash’s notion of “standardisation” won’t do. We need teachers to show their individuality, to be honest and personal about the way their subject touches them: only in that way can they inspire.

I’m not reminiscing about some golden age (that never existed) where teachers were mavericks, doing their own thing and inspiring children in exotic and extraordinary ways. There were inspiring mavericks in the old days: there were also incompetents, nutters and those who were a danger to children. Schools have moved a long way – and needed to.

Yet even that scourge of softness, Sir Michael Wilshaw, claimed the best heads are mavericks. They’re not intimidated by the system: they tread their own path, put children at the heart of their purpose, and if what local or national government requires of them doesn’t meet their purpose, they subvert or reject it.
It was US Admiral Grace Hopper who said: “It’s easier to obtain forgiveness after the event than permission before it.” She was right.

Thank goodness the classroom remains teachers’ domain, where they can draw on what turns them on about their subject to spark similar enthusiasm in the pupils they teach. Yes, the more teachers can share material and avoid constantly reinventing the wheel, the more we can reduce workload and sheer exhaustion. But teaching is a personal interaction between teacher and pupils, not a matter of content delivery: to deny that fact does a disservice both to the professionalism of teachers and to the value of the job they do. Business can teach us much: but not about the chemistry that happens in the classroom.

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of HMC. His views are personal. Follow him @bernardtrafford


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