‘My job…is to help head teachers by making a colourful data folder which they can keep in their office drawer. When Ofsted come calling, they can use this folder to prove that they are a good school.’ Anonymous School Data Consultant, circa 2017.
Bullshit? Well, perhaps. Steven Shorrock would call it PR and Subterfuge. It was arguably necessary under the previous Ofsted framework. The handbook specifically stated that such in year attainment data was expected. It was also widely understood that ‘the data’ needed to show particular things for a school to be deemed effective.
Do we now need to replace this data folder with a carefully scripted story of curriculum intent, implementation and impact? Is this merely the next in a series of elaborate, and time-consuming exercises in PR and Subterfuge? Or, more colloquially, same story, different words?
Not exactly. But we could do with analysing more closely the types of work prescribed, imagined, done and reported in our schools and the dynamic which produces them.
Now that it is in retreat. We can look back critically at the activity which the data wave produced. We can see now that much of the work it produced was poorly prescribed and inadequately imagined. It was not aligned with experience of work as actually done, not shaped by by experts on the ground. Abstract nouns abounded, ‘forensically targeting’ ‘focussing-on’ ‘uplifting sub-groups’, but the day-to-day (and already busy) work of teachers, teaching lessons to whole classes of students at once, was not transformed. It rarely translated into work as actually done. When it did, the quantity and irrationality of said work was impossible to sustain for long. In The Next Big Thing, we frame this as an ill-fated solution; a solution that is destined to fail as it attempts to solve irresolvable problems.
At peak data, teachers faced two jobs of work, the actual work of teaching students (or supporting this process) and the extra work of demonstrating that data was being used as it was meant to be, in a good or outstanding school. Work in our schools has shifted in line with a substantially overhauled inspection framework. What sort of work has been produced? Will it lead to improvements? Is it simply another fad?
To help answer these questions I am leaning upon Shurrock’s analysis of the forms of human work. This in turn rests on a fairly simple observation. ‘How people think that work is done and how work is actually done are two different things.’ Because of this dynamic, Shurrock proposes, most work takes one of four common forms which ‘usually overlap, but not completely, leaving areas of commonality, and areas of difference.’
The italicised sections below are extracts from Shurrock’s ‘Varieties of Human Work’ (link above).
Work as Done.
Work-as-done is actual activity – what people do. It is characterised by patterns of activity to achieve a particular purpose in a particular context. It takes place in an environment that is often not as imagined, with multiple, shifting goals, variable and often unpredictable demand, degraded resources (staffing, competency, equipment, procedures and time), and a system of constraints, punishments and incentives, which can all have unintended consequences.
The classrooms in our schools are just such environments. This complexity is hard to countenance. The mental models we employ to make sense of and improve our schools draw on simplified imagined versions of the classroom lesson. Such simplification is necessary. Maps only help us because they translate reality into organised information which informs navigation. The larger the scale of the map the less it actually tells us about the terrain which it charts. Meta-work, or work focused on describing or transforming ‘work as done’ has to rely on simplified and imaginary versions of the same.
Work as Imagined:
‘The work that we imagine others do and the work that we imagine we or others might do, currently or in the future…Our imagination of others’ work is a gross simplification, is incomplete, and is also fundamentally incorrect in various ways, depending partly on the differences in work and context between the imaginer and the imagined.’
Flightpaths and the imagined role of teachers in ensuring that individual students progressed smoothly upon them exemplify work as imagined. The same could be said of curriculum maps. They also rest on the premise that individual students proceed along a course in a predictable and linear manner, largely in sync with their peers. Often work as imagined by more senior members of staff produces our next category, ‘work as prescribed’ for those they manage.
The expectation that disparate students should learn similarly from each lesson unit is one example of the gap between imaginer, a teacher leader or policy maker, and the imagined, 30 unique individuals. I spoke about this gap here. That piece draws on Nuthall’s fantastic book The Hidden Lives of Learners
Work as Prescribed.
Work-as-prescribed is the formalisation or specification of work-as-imagined, or work-as-done, or work-as-disclosed, or some combination of the three. It takes on a number of forms in organisations, including: laws, regulations, rules, procedures, checklists, standards, job descriptions, management systems…It is not unusual to see work prescribed far away from the actual work by those who have never actually performed the task.
The production of data summaries for classes, is an older example of work as prescribed. So are taking a register, starting the lesson with retrieval quizzes, or sharing learning objectives. Curriculum reform once operationalised as mandatory processes, documents or artefacts – new work for teachers – is a more recent example.
Work as Disclosed
In addition to the way that we imagine work, and the way that work is prescribed, we can add a third variety of human work: Work-as-disclosed… This is what we say or write about work, and how we talk or write about it. It may be simply how we explain the nitty-gritty or the detail of work, or espouse or promote a particular view or impression of work (as it is or should be) in official statements, etc.
The bullshitting, or as Shurrock would have it ‘PR and Subterfuge’ which my colleague helped schools to prepare, represents ‘work as disclosed’ in a way which aligned with ‘work as prescribed’ but which did not actually reflect the ‘work as (actually) done.’ It is one of Shurrock’s 7 archetypes of work sitting at particular points of overlap between the four forms outlined above. These are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in themselves. Each can have a lighter or darker role to play within an organisation.
Sometimes all four forms of work overlap. This ‘congruence’ may be darker or lighter.
If the work is badly designed, but enforced, it is neither sustainable in the long-run nor healthy for productivity within the organisation which has imposed it. At peak data, sometimes the work prescribed was actually done. In these cases, schools achieved a degree of congruence. For a time, at least at surface level, ‘work as done’ did reflect the work as imagined, prescribed and disclosed. Many schools implemented intervention groups, conducted regular forensic data analysis, wrote and rewrote class information sheets after each ‘data drop.’ It was rarely sustainable and less than vitally useful.
‘Where work-as-done is monitored and controlled, especially where work is not well designed, and in a climate of low trust, Congruence may emerge only temporarily. Typically, this cannot be sustained for long due to the variable and degraded nature of real (as opposed to imagined) system conditions (goals, demands, pressure, resources, constraints, incentives, punishments, climate, etc.), which force a return to the The Messy Reality when monitoring and control allows. Those observing work-as-done, however, may leave with the impression that Congruence is the norm.’
Fortunately, we have moved on. The DfE, Ofsted, consultants fairly consistently push back against the sort of data work outlined above. This does not mean that schools have changed overnight though. Interestingly, another of Shurrock’s archetypes, ‘defunct work’, may apply to many schools! This happens where schools continue to prescribe processes which the wider system has abandoned. ‘Some forms of prescribed work are not enacted, or else drift into disuse, but are still officially in place. Some will imagine that these are in place, while others know or think they are not.’
Now let us consider the curriculum. What work is being produced by Ofsted’s new emphasis? We might make a case for a healthier form of congruence? Now perhaps each of the four types of work are overlapping and producing well-designed work? Shurrock suggests that this can and does happen.
‘Congruence may reflect well-designed work, inasmuch as the imagination of how it will and should be done matches how it is and should be done in order to optimise system performance and human well-being. There is typically a high level of field expert involvement in the design of this kind of work (including resources and constraints), for instance via a human-centred design processes. In other cases, how work is done informs how work is prescribed and imagined, i.e., procedures are written to reflect the real work. Here it may be the case that there is a low authority gradient or power-distance, and management is well connected to the front-line work.’
This is what many of us aspire to. Work which affords an authentic focus on the specifics of what, when and how we teach what we teach. Our curriculum work, we hope, informs and enhances the ‘work as done’ by teachers in a way which enhances students’ experience and learning. The way we talk about work and the work which we actually do are aligned with our internal models of teaching (work as imagined) and the expectations against which our teaching quality will be judged (work as prescribed).
This is possible. Especially where there is a clear emphasis on the ‘enacted curriculum’ (the work as done?). An emphasis upon curriculum reform can be empowering. The emphasis upon subject teacher expertise and scrutiny of explanations, examples, modelled answers and the like all bring this work as imagined into closer alignment with the work which we teachers actually do. Arguably this is most likely in contexts most similar to those in which the curriculum wave emerged. History departments at secondary school for example.
Conversely, small primary schools may well be feeling the pressure to ensure that their work ‘as done’ rapidly, converges with a prescription informed by an imagined context far removed from a staff body of perhaps just a handful of teachers, each tasked with implementing curricula outside of their expertise whilst already facing a considerable daily workload. There is also of course the unevenly distributed impact of the pandemic to consider. Extended school closures, continuing absence, uncertainty about the end point of examined courses at secondary school all clash with an imagined curriculum based upon 6 uninterrupted terms of study!
Those of us in a position amenable to healthy congruence (as a secondary teacher of psychology and sociology I am fairly comfortable with the curriculum discourse and find the emphasis empowering) may need to consider whether the net effect for others is a positive one. (@michael_merrick for example has recently tweeted around the particular challenges that Ofsted’s curriculum focus presents to smaller primary schools).
When tasked with prescribing work for others we need to carefully consider whether their work as we imagine it and the prescriptions which we make of them actually reflects their daily experience.
I am yet to be convinced that school leaders are well-advised to conflate two distinct roles:
1. Preparing to represent themselves well to Ofsted (work as disclosed) and…
2. Seeking to evaluate and positively influence the rather messier reality of ‘work as done’ by teachers in their school.
The latter entails accepting compromise, messiness, the limits of what we can know and do. The former requires telling a story with a predetermined ending. This curriculum work (just like now defunct data sheets) needs to show that we are ‘good.’
The Ofsted dynamic, by which our self evaluations need to have a particular finding and the expectation that curriculum reform will resolve the attainment gap problem which data could not, are probably both unhelpful. They push us away from grappling with the work as actually done in a bid to ensure that our work as disclosed aligns with what is being prescribed by those currently imagining how it could or should transform schools.
This would only be a universally good thing if there was a realistic prospect of healthy congruence. That we could do all these things and both succeed in our work as done and be recognised as such when we fully disclose this publicly.
A number of others disagree. I would like to agree with them. I do agree that many aspects of curriculum improvement are clearly worthwhile and that such thinking can inspire teachers to make significant changes to their practice. I also think that school leaders probably still have two distinct jobs. School improvement (or sustenance even!) and Ofsted preparation.
There is a risk that the curriculum elevator pitch – a pithy form of ‘’work as disclosed’ punctuated by the three Is and memorised by HoDs, teachers and SLT – will simply replace the data summary which once sat in the metaphorical top drawer of Head Teachers across the country.
Head teachers who I respect, and who are very much on board with the vitality of curriculum improvement tell me that to succeed under inspection, the story told, particularly by heads of department, needs to be just right. Ensuring this is hard work in itself and probably best not conflated with the actual business of ‘school improvement.’
For now, accepting this reality may help us to keep that second job, of keeping a useful story in our top-drawer, at least somewhat contained.
Becky Allan, Matt Evans and I have recently finished writing The Next Big Thing. It is about educational fads and why school improvement is so challenging. One strand within it explores the stories told about schools and the emergence of successive ‘waves’ which sweep over the system. This tangential musing is part of a series we’re releasing in the build up to the book launch on 22nd October.