05 November 2015

On scalability

 Apologies: I wrote this a while ago, but somehow never posted it.

Not many people will probably have heard BBC Radio 4's File on 4 programme on 17 or 22 March, but it deserves a wide audience—and is still available as a download. It was called “Sick of School?” and was about teacher stress—as the web-page describes it:
Is the pressure on teachers reaching crisis point?
Record numbers are leaving the classroom and thousands of teachers recently responded to the Government's workload survey to say they were struggling with their workload. They blamed the pressure of Ofsted inspections and pressure from school management.
Official absence statistics are silent on the causes of sick leave - but now File on 4 reveals new figures on the number of teachers off long-term because of stress.
Jane Deith hears from those who say they were pushed to the brink by the pressure - some suicidal and others hospitalized or diagnosed with depression.
Teaching has always involved long hours and heavy workloads but, with schools' performance open to unprecedented scrutiny, some education academics argue that the 'surveillance culture' is now seriously harming teacher's health and their ability to provide high quality education.
Are they right? How alarmed should we be about the mental well-being of our children's teachers?
For anyone professionally involved in education, the picture will be recognisable, but the tales told by teachers who have left the profession (usually anonymously and “voiced by an actor”, because of the draconian terms of the “compromise agreements” under which they leave), are harrowing. There are more readily available in the educational blogosphere—the Echo Chamber meta-blog is a good place to start. Here is a specimen post today.

The issues seem to be particularly extreme in schools, but they are shared in FE and indeed in HE (consider Marina Warner's recent piece on why she resigned from Essex). I belong to an occasional walking group of former colleagues and friends, most of whom have exited from academic life via a compromise agreement—we refer to ourselves as the “escape committee”.

The proximate causes of this exodus vary. The programme made much of the pressure of Ofsted inspection regimes, only partly because being inspected is inherently stressful, but also because the stakes are so high, at the systemic level. School gradings affect everything; from funding to recruitment and retention of teachers, and to head-teachers’ jobs. One voice on the programme compared their position to that of football managers—one poor result and you are out.

And the practice associated with dealing with staff who succumb to stress, as recounted in the programme—although obviously the stories are selected for effect—is presented as gratuitously brutal and humiliating.

What is going on? What has happened to collegiality? To pastoral care? To mutual support? To trust?

Stefan Collini suggests in What are Universities For? (2012) that there has been a cultural shift in these institutions. As I summarised one of his arguments in a post a few years ago:
'[He] contends that the managerialist rhetoric of current neo-liberal politics in which everything has to be accountable and costed, has forced those who would run universities (and indeed other educational institutions) to embrace spurious metrics as distorted proxies for fuzzy contestable aims such as "education" and "scholarship" which are no longer accepted as goods in themselves. In particular he refers to fatuous notions of "continuous improvement" "beyond excellence"--that can only work if the standards do not change.'
That's not enough. There are still plenty of well-intentioned and pleasant people who work in these institutions. Some of them even manage to conduct themselves in accordance with those old-fashioned values, but I fear that they are under ever-greater pressure...

It strikes me that part of the problem is that those abandoned values are just not scalable.

Large modern people-processing institutions are characterised by anonymity, by pressure to get things done, by standardisation of “product”, by fragmented roles and instrumental rather than personal engagement (at least in the formal structures) and so on. The values of collegiality, mutuality, and trust need time to develop and emerge, and time is at a premium.

Mutual respect and support cannot be legislated into existence; they require people to accommodate to each other and make allowances—and that of course means tolerating inconsistency.

And schools and colleges are complex structures characterised also by the emotional charge which attaches to their members, and their tasks. Success and failure, inclusion and exclusion, safety and risk, create emotional dynamics which have to be managed. That is of course usually achieved by denying them and attempting to impose control at a surface level.

There used to be a sub-genre of educational writing which attempted to take these issues seriously associated for me with the work of  Elizabeth Richardson and Isobel Menzies-Lyth in the 'sixties (within the Tavistock/Kleinian/psychoanalytic tradition), David Hargreaves (social psychological tradition) and Isca Salzberger-Wittenburg (psychoanalysis again) in the 'seventies. Unless I've taken my eye off the ball too much, it then went fallow, to resurface (pardon the mixed metaphors!) in the work of Andy Hargreaves (from America) in the '90s and to date.

Re- reading them today, their discourse is barely recognisable. It has to be admitted that the “research” component tends towards the anecdotal and subjective, and would be criticised harshly today*; but the richness and the depth is remarkable.

They come from a less instrumental and more humane era (albeit one castigated from the present for sloppy approaches to education, with the beginning of its end marked by Jim Callaghan's famous/notorious “Ruskin Speech” of October 1976.) and the subordination of all educational values to economic imperatives.


Becker H S (2014) What about Mozart? What about Murder? Reasoning from cases London; University of Chicago Press
Hargreaves A (2002) “Teaching and Betrayal [1]” Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, Vol. 8, No. 3/4 (Accessed 31 March 2015) Note; this paper is cited as just an example of Hargreaves' oeuvre and because of its accessibility.
Hargreaves D (1972) Interpersonal Relations and Education London; Routledge and Kegan Paul
Menzies-Lyth I (1988) Containing Anxiety in Institutions: Selected Essays, volume 1 London; Free Association Books
Richardson E (1967) The Environment of Learning London; Nelson
Salzberger-Wittenberg I, Williams G and Osborne W (1975) The Emotional Experience of Learning and Teaching London; Routledge Education (1993 edn. published by Karnac Books)
Webb P T (2005) “The anatomy of accountability” Journal of Education Policy Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 189–208 (accessed online 9 April 2015

* On the other hand, I'm also reading Howard Becker's latest. (Yes, that Howard Becker.) It is on “reasoning from cases”, and seems set to rehabilitate some aspects of the methodology of those 40-year-old studies.

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