Many a hand has scaled the grand old face of the plateau
Some belong to strangers and some to folks you know
Holy ghosts and talk show hosts are planted in the sand
To beautify the foothills and shake the many hands
There's nothing on the top but a bucket and a mop
And an illustrated book about birds
You see a lot up there but don't be scared
Who needs action when you got words
When you're finished with the mop then you can stop
And look at what you've done
The plateau's clean, no dirt to be seen
And the work it took was fun
Well the many hands began to scan around for the next plateau
Some said it was in Greenland and some in Mexico
Others decided it was nowhere except for where they stood
But those were all just guesses, wouldn't help you if they could
(Plateau - Nirvana MTV unplugged in New York)
Randomly, whilst reading various blogs and posts on twitter I started to hum the tune and then selected sequences of lyrics from Nirvana’s ‘Plateau’. This is a song (and album) that I haven’t listened to in years but it has always struck a chord with me. In essence, it is a song about conforming, sense of loss and of feeling lost once your ambitions have been fulfilled. It’s about the realisation that once you have reached the Plateau and played around up there for a little bit, that there are others… but you’re not quite sure where they are or how to get to them.
I couldn’t help but feel that this is a reasonable description of the current state of education. You see the tune popped into my head whilst I read (for the third time) Lord Jim Knight’s speech in the House of Lord’s (transcript and video here). Like many, it resonated deeply with me. I had also just read Teacher Toolkit’s excellent Christmas wish list/Manifesto. So much common sense in a simple to access ‘Dear Santa’ letter, I sincerely hope that the letter makes it to the North Pole.
In my reflective state I thought about my own experience as a Headteacher at Marlwood School. I’m not naïve or conceited enough to think that we were trying to deliver a paradigm shift in education at Marlwood. However, we were trying to do things differently, in part because we had no choice, in part because it felt right to. The financial constraints coupled with 5 years of significantly changing cohort sizes meant that we had to be creative, the traditional structures that work in most schools were not going to work for us during the period of transition from a large rural comprehensive (the past) to a small rural comprehensive (the future). Within all of that there was also the matter of rapidly and significantly improving the quality of the education children were experiencing. On top of that was the need for a cultural shift amongst the students themselves, to get all of them to aspire to be their best (many did but not all of them) and to get them to be excited about their education. We worked with ‘Whole Education’, we researched widely, we developed, we invested in staff (time, not money, we didn’t have any money). We did so unencumbered by any OFSTED rating, we were free of the school’s past and heading to a bright new future.
What’s that got to do with the Plateau I hear you cry! Well, naively, I thought that we were scaling our own Plateau, we were only partway up but we had a clear idea of what the top of our own version of excellence would look like, our own Plateau. As long as we could articulate our journey and our method for reaching the plateau we would be left to finish the climb. As it transpired, we were told in no uncertain terms that we were climbing the wrong plateau, that we needed to climb that one over there, the one that everyone else is climbing because they have been told to.
Like many in education I am not against accountability, I think OFSTED have a vitally important role to play in education. However, like many, I am deeply uncomfortable with the effect and impact of the framework on the way we do things in our schools. I am even more uncomfortable with the impact created by the introduction of a new framework. If you made it to the top of the current plateau you probably have the time and capacity to see the top of the new one and race off in that direction… but what if you are still making the climb? Stuck partway up for reasons beyond your control, by the time you make it to the top, you’ll find that the whole crowd have moved on. Forever trying to catch up. In OFTSED land there is only one plateau to climb, and it’s theirs, this feels wrong.
What if Jim (and the other voices on the plain) are right? What if we are all climbing the wrong plateau? What if the top of the one we are being directed to climb is ultimately unfulfilling for staff, students and parents alike? What if it’s time to build our own Plateau?
Metaphor stretched to breaking point. For now, I’m with Jim, now that sounds like a song worth singing!