The quiet revolution in Britain’s schools.

I’m going to start 2018 on a hopeful note. I am privileged to be chair of governors at a primary school in Lambeth. This morning I attended the opening session of an INSET (staff training) day for my school’s “cluster” – a collaborative group of schools in the south Brixton area. I was a good note with which to start the year.

The area that the schools serve is a challenging one. Tulse Hill, where the event was held, gets into the headlines for the wrong reasons (recently: a fatal stabbing and hit-and-run death involving several vehicles, none of which stopped). It is dominated by large interwar and postwar housing estates, which are home to a lot of poor people. These are from diverse communities, generally referred to as “minorities”: African, Afro-Caribbean, Pakistani, Portuguese, Latin American, and so on. My school is in the middle of an estate that had the reputation of being one of the worst in the country. Nearly half the children at the schools speak a English as a second language. Nearly a quarter qualify for the pupil premium, a standard of poverty that manages to exclude a lot of struggling families. These challenges continue. Benefits cuts is making housing unaffordable to the poor, who are moving to outer London. They are encouraged by developers who want to demolish the old housing (and any non-housing property they can find) and replace them with modern homes, to be sold to better off people. The area is increasingly devoid of local jobs, services and even shops. The Labour council are enthusiastic partners in this process. So the school rolls are falling and the demographics are changing – though the rolls could bounce back as the housing developments mature. Many families are trying to manage in very challenging circumstances. They live next door to increasing numbers middle class families who are demanding in a different way.

Our meeting was appropriately diverse: the teachers, and a few governors, forming veritable United Nations. The schools themselves are diverse. There is one secondary school, which is an Academy, and four Church of England primaries, three non denominational primaries (including my school), a Muslim primary, and a specialist nursery school. There was a lovely buzz as colleagues, compared notes within and across the schools. Their achievements are astonishing. SATS test results are well above the national average in spite of the challenges (though in line with the rest of the borough – their achievement is not an isolated one). If you read about schools in the papers these days, you hear of pessimism; teachers leaving; budget cuts, and so on. The financial pressures are real enough, with falling rolls local making things worse for most  schools. The positive attitude of leaders and staff in these schools is quite humbling.

What makes the achievements of these schools so impressive is that so many people outside London would consider them to be impossible. I routinely read people who claim that multiculturalism has failed; immigration places impossible challenges on public services; and that austerity has made life impossible. While there is certainly truth to the last of these claims (some services are becoming impossible, compounded by an appallingly designed new policy on nursery funding), but even here I am not finding the despair that I hear so much about elsewhere. Just be clear, I am saying this out of admiration for the positive attitude of management and staff in the face of challenge, not because I think squeezing funding from schools is a good idea. In fact the opposite: these schools have shown themselves to be such good managers of public resources that it seems a good idea to give them more so that they can achieve more.

None of this is new. I have mentioned the remarkable progress of London schools often, and tried to draw political conclusions from it. Instead, I want to talk about something else. There is a common management ethos in this diverse range of schools (shared, incidentally with another nearby school where I am a governor) that deserves much more attention that it will ever get. This was excellently articulated by the keynote speaker at our event, Mary Myatt. It was evident that she was preaching to the converted.

Mary’s mantra is “high challenge; low threat”. She says that the key to success is creating a work environment where people can and do experience high levels of challenge while not feeling threatened. That, of course, applies to the relationship between pupils and staff, as well as to between staff members. She enumerated many aspects of this idea, but one is especially important: inclusivity. Nobody, but nobody is left out. There is no child you cannot help. There is no awkward parent you don’t give a hearing to. There is no negative colleague that you don’t try to persuade. And if you do that, it is amazing what you can achieve with the team you already have. Mary is not shy about using a word that makes this all possible: love. “Professional love” she calls it, because you have to accept the tension of being demanding and compassionate at the same time. This well describes how the two schools I have been involved with have overcome challenge after challenge.

It is striking how different this is from a conventional wisdom that is still very widely held. The most effective way to challenge is to threaten; good performance is achieved by excluding the awkward; hard targets matter more than the stuff that can be waffled; and what has love got to do with it? I find it quite astounding that so many people thought that Donald Trump was an effective manager and were happy to give him a shot at America’s top job. Many people on the left and right seem to think that anger and confrontation is best way of dealing with challenge and opposition. Think of all those trolls, so mch the face of modern dialogue.

A further thought struck me this morning. The leaders who are carrying forward this revolution are predominantly female. Most of the schools where the achievements have been so striking and durable are primaries, and this is a very female dominated workplace – though I have been happy to observe slightly more balance in recent years.

The quality of management of the first school I was involved with, which became Outstanding when I was Chair, and has simply got better since, is I think the best of any organisation public or private that I have been involved with. My current school is on the same journey and its management has made phenomenal strides. It used to be said that excellent management was impossible in the public sector. Many schools are proving that is nonsense. They deserve more attention.



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