“Most people don’t read the writing on the wall until their backs are up against it.”

quote-man-is-a-strange-animal-he-generally-cannot-read-the-handwriting-on-the-wall-until-his-back-is-up-adlai-stevenson-178108My colleague John Carr introduced me to this lovely epigram, attributed to the American vice- president, Adlai Stevenson. If you consider the various headlines published this last month, most of the situations highlighted seem to remind us of Stevenson’s caution.

For example: In some senses it  would have been easier for the Westminster parties to have lost the Scottish referendum vote. Instead, they now have to solve how they give greater devolved powers and authority to Scotland, whilst removing from Scottish MPs the rights to vote over English, Northern Irish and Welsh dominion. What is known as the West Lothian question is insoluble as our current arrangements stand – you simply cannot have a totally devolved Scottish Assembly on the one hand and have Scottish MPs voting on English business on the other.

Well you could, actually and therein lies the rub. Because the whole business about being a United Kingdom is that we can all sign up for a national strategy for the UK, whilst leaving the tactics devolved to the regions (wherever they are found) for delivering local solutions that meet local needs.

In the education space, the state sector finds itself divided into millions of pieces, each fighting for its bit of space amidst  local authorities which are no longer funded to be concerned about that provision.  I have written before how odd it is that the Independent Sector, atomised as it is of course, have invented their heads’ associations, overarching councils and professional inspectorate to ensure that its schools are held to account for issues and problems as and when they arise. My own Association, ISA is the second largest of the Heads’ Associations with over 340 members, and we have a vast raft of activity going on each year that ensures pupils and teachers have access to regional and national opportunities for competition, collaboration and professional development.

So what are we to make of the Chief Inspector’s comment that Mediocre schools need maverick heads, says Ofsted chief: Sir Michael Wilshaw wants teachers ‘who aren’t afraid to ruffle feathers’ to take charge:
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2785813/Mediocre-schools-need-maverick-heads-says-Ofsted-chief-Sir-Michael-Wilshaw-wants-teachers-aren-t-afraid-ruffle-feathers-charge.html#ixzz3Ff1pFhSJ
He might be right, but he could be colossally wrong. What does he mean by “Mediocre schools need maverick heads” actually. What makes successful schools is the deeply embedded professional supportive culture that supports all kinds of learning for all kinds of children. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” and it particularly does so in schools. Willshaw and others within the DfE seem to imagine that the coasting/failing schools are full of complacent teachers too afraid to challenge the status quo.  The reality is that in the vast majority of those schools, those that lead them are not provided with either the resources or the know-how to make that leap forward into a better, more successful place. The dismantling of the local authorities has taken away the obvious way of providing knowledgeable local support, and their replacement by chains of academies mean that the support by its very nature will be less focused and distributed more widely across the country.

Establishing and maintaining a highly successful culture is not something just for schools either. The international PISA tables highlight just how strongly the South East Asian countries do in attainment, and Wilshaw and DfE suggest we could learn lots from those schools, even though for some, their schools ppermit caning. Again I have written about this previously, because I certainly would oppose any introduction of corporal punishment into my school! The latest detailed research into this area has been conducted by Institute of Education, London looking at the performance of Asian Children in Australian schools.  And guess what – these children do as well in Australian schools as they would have done in Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong or Japan. Here’s the news story around that research – http://goo.gl/le8WCv and it really does underpin the Claires Court approach – it’s about a school’s culture silly, not endless and repetitious drill and kill to achieve passes in national tests every year or so.

I am not alone in speaking out about this;, the retiring HM of Eton College, Tony Little has made this clear time again this last year.  Testing children ’til they drop’ is not what Singapore does; supportive culture to ensure the child never falls behind or is made to feel worthless by being offered feeble tasks different to their peers.  The curriculum is not overburdened, yet is made sufficiently challenging not because there is too much knowledge to learn, but because knowledge and skills are juxtaposed to solve questions and explore new areas of research.

Nor it is a good idea to find all the gifted and talented children and put them in one place to ‘hot house’ them to a brighter future. As Malcolm Gladwell explained in his seminal work on achievement ‘Outliers’, it was not the early gifted and talented violinists in Germany that made the grade as adult violin students. None of the naturally gifted had risen to the top. The psychologists found a direct statistical relationship between hours of practice and achievement. No shortcuts. No naturals. Read more here: http://www.wisdomgroup.com/blog/10000-hours-of-practice/

So when Wilshaw and others thrash around looking for answers on how to improve individual students, groups, teams and whole schools, they really need to do a lot better than suggest mavericks and/or lots of tests/inspections. I guess when your back is against the wall, your freedom of manoeuvre is very limited so soundbytes are perhaps the only way forward.  The success of the Asian communities is to instill family values of hard work in their children, and not give in to the mantra that ‘only bright children can achieve’. Success at school is about learning to learn, which takes hours and hours, and school and home need to provide such opportunities with relentless regularity. You don’t luck into learning the scales on the piano or being able to hit a golf ball to 5 foot to win the Ryder Cup, as Jamie Donaldson did at Gleneagles last week. When your back is against the wall, it’s that relentless practice you have had hitherto that makes the difference, come rain or high water. You certainly don’t have time to turn and read the writing!

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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3 Responses to “Most people don’t read the writing on the wall until their backs are up against it.”

  1. Pingback: ‘A day in the Life of a CCJB’ – How school environment matters. | A Principled view

  2. Jeff White says:

    Adlai Stevenson was never president of the USA.

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