‘Summit fever’ is the term given to an obsessive focus on a symbolic achievement – reaching the summit of a mountain, becoming a millionaire, getting married – and the risk that our focus on the end-point can distract us from the issues that matter here and now.
It’s a term explored by Oliver Burkeman in The Antidote. Drawing on Christopher Kayes’ account of a fatally flawed Everest climb, Burkeman describes a group of mountaineers for whom reaching the summit of Everest ‘became not just an external target but a part of their own identities, of their sense of themselves’. As these doomed climbers ignored worsening conditions in their pursuit of the peak, their expedition became ‘a struggle not merely to reach the summit, but to preserve their sense of identity.’
You don’t have to spend long on a school’s website to see what it wishes for. Take this from one school: ‘With an unrelenting drive focused on achievement for all, our vision is to be graded as Outstanding within four years.’ Other schools strive to be ‘the best school in the borough’ or proclaim a ‘2020 vision’ to gain a Progress 8 of +1 by the start of the next decade.
Such statements provide clarity, purpose and urgency, but perhaps this obsession with the symbols of success distracts us from the steps required to actually get there. Burkeman tells the story of General Motors which in the early 2000s set itself a target of gaining 29% of market share. It met this ambitious target not by improving the product but by slashing the price of its vehicles. This self-imposed race to the bottom continued until it filed for bankruptcy in 2009.
Similarly, our school above which strives to gain its outstanding Ofsted badge might spend time sprucing up classrooms and perfecting the SEF, rather investing in teacher development. Our school that strives to be the best in the borough might resist collaborating with other local schools to support vulnerable students. Our school which seeks a Progress 8 of +1 might fill the open bucket with easier qualifications, rather than ensuring that pupils who arrive in Year 7 without basic literacy are provided with the support to catch up.
A school’s Progress 8 score and Ofsted rating do nothing in themselves to improve the prospects of its pupils, so a school driven by these external reputational goals can set itself on a path of activity which diverges from the needs of its students.
How can we avoid summit fever in our schools while still harnessing the organisational benefits of a clear and simple statement of intent?
Firstly, we can prioritise the process, not the destination, framing our targets around the inputs of school improvement. Such targets might include raising attendance, getting pupils to work harder, improving behaviour and ensuring that the curriculum is coherent and challenging.
Secondly, if we do want to set specific end-point targets, we can ensure that these benefit students, rather than the school. So rather than a Progress 8 of +1 we could commit to the majority of pupils walking out with 8 good GCSEs. Rather than being the best school in the borough we could commit to all of our students progressing to university or employment. Rather than an Ofsted outstanding rating we could commit to ensuring that all pupils can read fluently by the end of Year 7.
Say if our school above gained the outstanding judgement that it set out to achieve. What next? Like a runner with post-marathon blues, I wonder if the school would be able to sustain its momentum.
A colleague of mine recently conducted an Ofsted inspection. Throughout the process he didn’t once hear the word ‘outstanding’. It wasn’t uttered by a single member of staff. It didn’t feature on the SEF. In fact, the first person to use the word was the lead inspector when she delivered her final judgement to the school. If we invest in the process, the end-point might just look after itself.
There are hundreds of things that schools can strive for. A single headline measure, or a particular judgement from a team of inspectors, shouldn’t be the extent of our ambition.