Thursday 19 July 2012

On Being Chefs not Food Critics

Here's my final post of the academic year, and I guess I have to revert to type and use one of my (now infamous?) extended metaphors. The difference is that this one is not new to me. This is one I've already developed and one I believe in more than anything else. I've used it freely with many members of staff and I even have it in a nutshell version which goes something like this.

Ofsted are food critics whilst we are chefs. We need to stop thinking like the food critics and think a lot more like chefs.

I come to this conclusion because essentially I see teaching as a creative process, not a reductive one. McDonaldisation is not something you can do to education and teaching because teachers, students and parents are not homogeniseable. There are too many variables that schools can't control and so to try to do so is a futile effort. You could set up the most restrictive academy chain, make all your students start in your nursery and run through to post-16, make all their families attend parenting classes and set up your own in-house ITT provision to train all your teachers and you still wouldn't get near to uniformity.

So why are so many schools trying to follow a recipe for success written by the non-teachers at the DfE and Ofsted (I know SMW is a former Head, but you know what I mean)? Every time Ofsted changes its focus and publishes a new inspection schedule we set off at a gallop to attend courses by consultancy firms, to gather to listen to horror stories from the guinea pigs from the trials and - most alarmingly - change many of the things we do to ensure we still meet the new 'outstanding' criteria or pull clear of the new 'requires improvement' criteria. This mania to ensure compliance runs from the local authority and unions to school leaders and to teachers. Sometimes it even finds its way into the consciousness of students and their parents ("we must get our happy parents onto ParentView").

Compare this to the much-coveted Michelin Guide stars awarded to restaurants. The first is awarded because its a place the critics feel is worth stopping to eat for. The second is awarded because its a place the critics feel is worth taking a detour for. The third is awarded because its a place the critics feel is worth making a special journey for. And that's it. No evaluation schedule. No tick boxes. No guidance notes. Nothing.

The net result of this is that if you're a chef with aspirations of being exceptional there is nothing that you can do to make it happen other than be exceptional for your customers, to make the experience uniquely wonderful for everyone who sits down at one of your tables. You can't second guess when a critic will come in (and even if you could, two more will follow at a later date to validate their judgement so its best not to even try to), but instead cook what you want to cook, how you want to cook it and do so brilliantly every time. And this is what I mean when I say teachers need to think more like chefs than food critics.

Of course it isn't easy in education. Ofsted aren't going anywhere anytime soon, and in the interests of openness they are required to publish their evaluation schedules and guidance to inspectors. Added to that recently we have even seen a return to the (in my eyes) bad old days of advance notice of when we can expect an inspection, a keep-you-on-your-toes mechanism if ever there was one! I can't imagine that the teaching profession would accept Michelin-style secrecy around the judging process (and nor should they) especially given the recent furore over zero-notice inspections.

What that all means is that it is up to leaders at all levels in schools to set the tone and to encourage and foster everyday excellence in teaching and learning. Michelin don't look any further than the food and, if the hype is to be believed, Ofsted won't be looking much further than the quality of teaching when making their judgements.

Since taking over as Chief Inspector Michael Wilshaw has repeatedly asserted that there is no single Ofsted way to teach that inspectors are looking for, and he has even urged school leaders to be a little odd and experimental in their approach. So let's take him at his word (we could always quote him to any disapproving inspectors) and then do our best to put him to the back of our minds. Instead we need to co-construct with all our partners in learning the way in which we want to be a place worth planning a special trip to go and see, and then we need to make it happen day in and day out for every teacher, student and parent we serve. And that's not easy, and it doesn't involve taking shortcuts or tolerating mediocrity or excluding people from the process no more than a Michelin star seeking restaurant can allow standards to slip in any way. But the standards we need to hold each other to need to be our standards, not Ofsted's or the DfE's. More than this, they need to be standards rooted in the shared experiences of our schools and their people.

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