The message of Michael Gove’s Schools White Paper: ‘Only Connect’

November 24, 2010 at 4:26 pm 3 comments

by Alec Patton

E.M. Forster must be one of the few writers whose most quoted line is only two words long, but that’s because ‘Only connect’ is such a winner.

The novel from which it comes, Howards End, tells a story about unlikely alliances, and I thought of it this afternoon because the notion of making connections where before there was isolation, and even mistrust, is at the heart of the Schools White Paper, The Importance of Teaching, published today by the Department for Education.

New connections abound in the white paper. The government has promised the following:

  • a national network of ‘Teaching Schools’ modelled on teaching hosiptals, to lead professional development of teachers and heads
  • an increase in the number of ‘National and Local Leaders of Education’ – head teachers of ‘excellent schools’ who commit to supporting other schools
  • ‘families of schools’ data made available so schools can identify ‘from whom it is possible to learn’
  • a ‘collaboration incentive’ which financially rewards schools ‘which effectively support weaker schools.’

The white paper focuses on networks because, to quote directly, ‘our aim should be to support the school system to become more effectively self-improving.’

This is (potentially) great news. I’ve noticed that whenever groups of teachers from different schools get together, one of the most valuable aspects of whatever event is taking place is that THEY JUST GET TO TALK TO EACH OTHER ABOUT WHAT’S HAPPENING AT THEIR SCHOOLS. I’ve sometimes thought the best CPD you could possibly do would be to choose a topic to put on the invitations, invite teachers from a bunch of schools, and then just provide tea and coffee and let them talk to each other about what they and their colleagues are finding effective, and what they’re finding frustrating.

So just getting schools communicating with each other will be of tremendous benefit to education in this country.

BUT we will miss a huge opportunity if we persist in treating the relationship between schools as one between the ‘excellent schools’ and the beneficiaries of their munificence. This is not a good way to do things. Very few people like to be told ‘this colleague of yours is doing much better than you are, so they’re going to tell you how to do your job better.’

I came up with an analogy that I use to describe how this relationship could change, about ‘fathers-in-law and plumbers’ (NB: the model is not based on my own father-in-law, who is both immensely talented and immensely modest).

Here’s how it goes: If your father-in-law comes to your house, notices that there’s something wrong with your toilet that you hadn’t noticed (or had learned to live with and stopped worrying about), and then explains in detail how you could fix it, odds are pretty good that you’ll feel defensive. You KNOW he knows more about plumbing than you do, but still, it’s YOUR house, you didn’t ASK for advice, and you’re very happy doing things your way, thanks very much.

If, on the other hand, you call a plumber in to fix something, and the plumber points out that there’s something wrong with your toilet and tells you how you can fix it yourself, you listen, and you’re grateful  (even if you’d called them out to fix the sink). The difference is the power-relationship. You made the choice to call the plumber, because of their SPECIFIC expertise.

I’m concerned that the networks proposed in the White Paper are geared towards creating more fathers-in-law, when they should be creating more plumbers.


Entry filed under: Education & Children's Services.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Asher Jacobsberg  |  November 24, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    Of course people talking and networking is a great way to share good practice and positive experiences. It can also been an excellent way to reinforce entrenched ideas and make poor practice seem acceptable. Go have a look on the TES forums if you dare.
    Whilst encouraging schools to work together must be a good thing, removing or undermining the agencies that can analyse the ideas and practices that are being shared seems dangerous.

  • 2. Denis Mongon  |  December 6, 2010 at 11:53 am

    If I remember rightly, the Networked Learning Community Project with which the IU was closely involved a few years ago, identified the importance of external catalysts and challenges in the dynamics of networks. Networking, sharing and collaboration are great ways of raising insights and skills but they are not immune from exclusivity, hierarchy or complacency.

  • 3. alecpatton  |  February 3, 2011 at 10:35 am

    Absolutely right on both counts, Denis. It’s all to easy to treat networks and hierarchies as opposed and mutually exclusive, but in fact, networks develop their own (often tacit) hierarchies


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