On trusting people, and Ofsted

This post has nothing to do with maths. Which will disappoint about one of you, and my other two readers will be delighted.

I used to work for Hewlett Packard, back in the days. It always seemed to me that Dave Hewlett and Bill Packard were really rather remarkable people, because they had built their company based on a somewhat unintuitive management philosophy. Their approach was based on the idea that most people want to do a good job, and will do a good job provided you let them get on with it. Given that Bill and Dave started in a garage and ended with a company employing tens of thousands, either they were lucky or something positive is to be said for their management style.

Here they are, back in the days.

Here they are, back in the days.

One often hears an argument somewhat at odds with the Bill and Dave approach. I am going to focus on this in the field of education, which is just what I know well. I am sure this applies elsewhere. The argument is this. Something must be done. Something must be done about poorly performing schools. Something must be done about underachieving teachers. Something must be done about coasting establishments. You know what I mean. Something must be done. (Parenthetically, did you ever hear a politician say “something must be done about underachieving politicians”?)

And, after all, why not? Surely we should do something to fix schools which are not helping their pupils, teachers who sit idly by enjoying their long vacations and watching students fail? Bill and Dave were just naive. There are bad guys out there. And something must be done. And up steps Ofsted, with a cheer and a hurrah, to make sure something gets done.

Here come the Ofsted cavalry. They will sort it out.

Ofsted. They will do something.

Yet, when you hear these words “something must be done”, you must ask two questions. Two rather subtle questions which Bill and Dave understood, and are easily forgotten. First will the doing something actually do anything? It is quite hard to tell if someone is doing a good job, so all one can really do is check a few key indicators – what percentage of GCSEs are A*-C? did the teacher write the lesson objective on the board; stuff like that – and see if these are met. Trouble is, the small number who don’t care about doing a good job are not, on the whole, stupid. They see these things coming and make sure they tick the boxes. Meanwhile, the majority who do are often see these things, realise that doing a good job is somewhat bigger than these smaller indicators, and often get picked of by the cavalry. So, how is that helping something be done?

Secondly, is the harm you are doing in one place less than the good you are doing in another? OK, so maybe you identify a poorly performing school here and a bad teacher there. Meantime, a whole bunch of otherwise excellent teachers are suffering from stress, another group are putting hours into trying to placate Ofsted in a way which will help no actual pupil, and school managers are running in circles not to help improve the school, but to make sure the next inspection runs smoothly. Is that supposed to be helping? Of course, if you think teachers are an idle bunch who need to be sorted out, then you’re probably cheering. If you care about the standard if education of young people, you should be scratching your head.

This is not particularly relevant.

This is not particularly relevant.

Bill and Dave’s point was this. Yes, of course, in the real world there are some bad guys out there who are not doing a good job. But, they really are in a minority, and trying to oust them will probably cause more harm than good. So how about you spend your efforts trying to help the people who do care about doing a good job do an even better job. Make sure that people feel supported, encouraged and motivated. And then see what happens.

But that doesn’t make much of a Daily Mail headline, does it.

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