Her Majesty's Ark

Amanda Spielman is to be the new Chief Inspector of schools.

Amanda who now?

Me neither. Much of the reaction to her appointment has focused on her lack of experience either as a teacher or headteacher (to which I would add teaching-assistant, lunchtime supervisor, edpsych, learning mentor, site-manager...). Both the NUT and the ATL have highlighted the message this sends to teaching staff about the importance of their role: 

"It is a sad indictment of this Government's attitude to education that they place such little value on the experience of teachers and head teachers, that they would not consider such a background necessary for the Chief Inspector's role"   - Kevin Courtney, NUT

This is true: it is a sad indictment, though it is not a surprising one. In a paper which I recently presented at Keele, I noted how the current obsession with accountability, evidence and measurement across both the teaching and counselling professions often leaves those who practice on the front line feeling unheard and undervalued. I won't repeat the arguments I made then (the original article can be found here), but the gist was that we as front-line staff need to take back ownership of our practice.

It is fine, in an organisation whose main aim is to create products, to focus on outcomes above all else, and to define tightly regulated procedures to ensure high standards are adhered to. But it is not fine in professions where our primary concern is (or should be) the development and enrichment of people. In such professions, we need to remain open to what appears in front of us: to the new and the surprising and the difficult. We need to have open minds so that the children we speak to know that we're speaking to them, not to an idealised expectation of what they should be.

Our aim is not, in these professions, to produce a pre-determined outcome, but to enter into a nurturing, challenging relationship out of which a person will emerge deeper, broader, and more vibrant, more creative and intelligent and empathetic and quick and considerate and ruthless and everything. 

If we are to create relationships which change, we need to be trusted in our practice, just as we need to trust those that we teach. Without trust we cannot relate, and without relationships we will be mere transmitters of knowledge and skills; mere fillers of empty vessels.

Which brings me back to Amanda. Which side is she on? Well, her role at Ofqual doesn't speak well of her, especially when you consider the shambles that the examination system has become. But what about her other role, as co-founder of the ARK chain?

Initially, when you read their spiel, they come off quite well: they're all about reducing the gap between those who are disadvantaged and those who are not. Ace. I'm all for that - there couldn't be a higher aim in education, I think. Their 'six pillars' seem pretty standard, and one that mentions knowing every child appeals to me. But as you dig further down there are troubling hints of hedge-fund managers (surely the least qualified to take responsibility for the moral growth of our children) and, more worryingly, business-speak. The core, unique selling point of the chain seems to be its business methods. To quote from a wikipedia page which can only be written by someone within the company:

"they claim to apply robust development principles and sound business disciplines to all its programmes, including setting targets and emphasising close monitoring and evaluation to ensure high impact"

In other words, they apply the models of business management to education, and get results.

It'd be lovely if we could say that this kind of approach doesn't work, but it does. It gets results, if results is what you're after. Focusing on targets, monitoring and evaluation gets results for SATs hoop-jumpers just as much as it does for factory foremen and hedge-fund managers.

But it is not good for children, students, teachers, or the community at large. Every move towards greater accountability, monitoring and evaluation is a move away from trust, and so a move away from relationship. It may enrich our exam performance and ranking in the global race, but it may also impoverish our humanity and development as people.

As teachers what we need right now is not to be more-tightly managed and evaluated, but to be given more space to develop meaningful, transformative relationships with our students. Not to be seen as big cogs turning thirty smaller cogs, but to be seen as people in relationship with other people. The appointment of Amanda Spielman as the new HMI chief makes that an ever more distant proposition.

With her appointment we are taking yet another step towards the commodification of education. Yet another step away from the realm of the community and the household, into the realm of business and work. Yet another step towards silencing the voice of the teacher, and so the voice of the child, in the name of targets, benchmarks, and global races.