Monday, July 02, 2007

School under scrutiny

There has been a lot of interest in the new schooling initiative in Knowsley, Merseyside recently. Several blogs (including this one) have referred to the the plans as described in the Independent. Predictably, the idea has a lot of support from the innovators and early adopters who abound in the edublogosphere. The people whose voices we tend not to hear in this environment, however, are the traditionalists, since they don't tend to occupy this space.

I have a fear about this, which (because of my mind's natural inclination towards analogies and allegories) reminds me of a situation in which I found myself almost 14 years ago. The practice at the hospital where I was to be confined for 4 days following the birth of my younger son, was to keep the babies in the nursery and only deliver them to the mothers at set times for feeding. I found this custom ludicrous (a) because I wanted to bond with my new baby and (b) because I planned to demand feed my son when he was hungry - not set him on a tight 4-hour schedule. So I insisted on having my son with me (known as "rooming in"). Since it was a private hospital, they were compelled to let me have my way, and with much tutting, moved me into a room on my own so that my unconventional approach did not disturb other mothers. Thereafter, the trouble began. My son had a very rough first night, most of which he spent demonstrating the capacity of his new lungs. When I requested help in identifying the problem, I got a sniffy "This is why we don't allow rooming in," instead of the help I had hoped for. The same thing happened when I dropped my son off at the nursery the next morning so that I could have a shower (this had been the standard practice at the far more liberal hospital where my elder son had been born). Every time there was a hiccup or a need of any sort, they triumphantly leapt upon it as evidence that this break with convention was a bad idea.

The fact that the staunchly observed practices in this hospital had been shown years previously to be less than ideal for either mother or child made no never mind to the staff, who sought to run their ward in a way that was organised, efficient and predictable... for the staff.

I worry that the same attitude is going to be adopted in respect of the Merseyside approach. That the vultures will be circling from the outset. Every new venture has teething problems, but I fear that every time this venture encounters a hiccup, there is going to be a chorus of "You see? You see? This is what you get for breaking with convention!" Any request for help or support will run the risk of being seized upon as a sign of failure, as will any changes to the original format. The pressure to get it exactly right straight out of the blocks is going to be huge, and I wonder how they will make the space to allow for mistakes and an evolution of the concept into a working realisation of the current vision. I wonder if, after the first few go-rounds, they might begin to think that the naysayers have a point, and start to compromise.

If this is going to work, it has to be based upon solid ground, but quite apart from that, it is going to take absolute conviction, determination, stubbornness, perseverance and a hide like a rhino.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I absolutely agree with your fears on this issue.

Not only will this initiative need support -- it's going to need TIME. Any major reform initiative takes at least 3 to 5 years of full implementation before there is evidence of improvement (usually as measured by test scores -- other improvement indicators such as reduced dropouts or increased passing/graduation rates can appear much sooner).

I was involved in a very dramatic reform initiative in my area that was declared a failure when administrators failed to see "improvement" after only 2 years of implementation. They weren't looking at a growth model (comparing cohorts of students) -- they were looking at a one year snapshot and comparing our school against other schools in the district. The other schools had higher scores, so our initiative was obviously not working. (A growth model approach to looking at the data showed that we had slight increases in test scores over the implementation years while the other schools tests scores were actually falling).

The naysayers are going to be looking for ANY sign of failure -- and based on my own experience, they will ignore or deny any evidence of success. I am willing to predict that test scores will probably drop initially (the implementation "dip" -- well known and accepted in change processes), but everyone will need to keep in mind that this is not an indicator of failure. It is simply a predictable symptom of a change process, and if the change is implemented successfully, then there will be other indicators which do show improvement long before the test scores begin to increase.

I hope that this idea is protected from "the vultures" who will seek every opportunity to tear it apart before it really gets off the ground. This initiative will have a huge learning curve for all stakeholders (administrators, teachers, students, and parents) and it will take some time for everyone to figure out how to make it work for themselves.

As I said in my blog post -- this is definitely a project worth watching very closely as it continues to develop.