A wonderful essay in Aeon magazine ‘Hail the Maintainers’ describes innovation as “a dominant ideology of our era”. In a podcast based on this essay its author warns: “Our culture’s obsession with innovation and hype has led us to ignore maintenance and maintainers.”
In schools we’ve tweaked and tinkered, chopped and changed, until what counts as school improvement is often just layer upon layer of initiatives and innovations. This onion-skin school improvement can hide a rotten, neglected core.
Innovation is alluring. When we bring in new initiatives we don’t have to offend those who invested in the previous project. New initiatives are shiny, gleaming and different; they offer a brighter future compared to the dull, messy, complex present. Brexit and Trump – and Obama in his time – were able to sell an exciting new vision, a rejection of the status quo, while those of us who campaigned to Remain could only offer more of the same.
What if we turned our attention away from innovation, away from the latest marginal gain, and towards getting the basics right, towards investing in the infrastructure which will support sustainable school improvement in our schools? I think of this infrastructure as 5 foundations: leadership, culture, curriculum, teaching and assessment. These are our building blocks of school improvement and it’s likely that we can trace all manifestations of success back to one of these five foundations.
There’s a dogged patience required to fix an incoherent curriculum, to raise standards of behaviour or to overhaul an assessment system. Those invested in the status quo might be offended, we might have to get our hands dirty, we might not see the fruits of our labour for years to come.
Of course we can embrace some innovation, while also fixing basic infrastructure – ‘we can walk and chew gum at the same time’ as Larry Summers puts it in the podcast mentioned above – but I think the current state of our school system means we should focus on fixing, not innovating. We talk a lot in education about marginal gains, about extracting an additional 1% from myriad ‘interventions’, but I worry that this distracts us from seeking the 20% gains that lie before us if we banish classroom disruption, introduce an effective literacy catch-up programme, or provide a coherent 5-year curriculum. As I’ve written before, schools are different to the SKY cycling team. The idea that we just need to tweak around the margins if we’re going to improve ignores the fact that nearly half of our students leave school at 16 with very little to show for their time with us.
When Bazalgette designed London’s sewers he analysed data on peak rates of sewage flow. Rather than building sewers to accommodate these rates, he trebled the numbers to ensure that the sewers would serve London for generations to come (a point made in this brilliant Great Lives podcast on Bazalgette). Sure enough we’re still using Bazalgette’s sewers 150 years later. When it comes to school improvement, we should avoid imitating individual initiatives and innovations and focus instead on the infrastructure which will underpin the school for years to come.
While our teachers teach like champions, maybe our leaders should lead like engineers?