"Enablers of Promise": a refreshing new approach

Henry Stewart's picture
For years the teaching profession has been used to attack and criticism from the government - whether Labour or Conservative. Politicians and press regularly focus on what is wrong, in their view, with our schools. Instead Stephen Twigg said, in yesterday's speech, "we start from a position of strength" and described our education professionals as "enablers of promise".

Too often the standard government approach, in education and other sectors, is to start by saying how bad things are and how many professionals aren’t doing a good enough job. The next step is to prescribe a set of actions, set targets and publish public rankings to name and shame those not doing well enough. And then they wonder why people weren’t eager to take part, and are "resistant to change" - or even "enemies of promise".

For me, Twigg's speech is a potential game changer and a real alternative to the bleak and negative approach of our Secretary of State. My colleague Fiona has already written about some of the positive policy ideas. I want to focus on the difference that talking about the strengths of our schools and valuing our professionals can make. And it is a view more in line with that of parents: You wouldn't realise it if you listen to Gove or read the press but, according to Ofsted, 94% of parents are happy with their children's education.*

Learning from NHS Success

This focus on the positive reminded me of one of the best change campaigns I know of: Star Wards, the organization set up by one inspirational woman, Marion Janner. She decided she wanted to help change the way acute mental health services were delivered in the UK. Now Marion had no position of authority. She didn’t even work in the health service. Her only experience was as a patient, but that gave her lots of ideas how things could be better.

Marion started by publishing a booklet of 75 ideas. These range from staff engaging more with patients to having pets on the ward. Marion is unrelentingly positive. In six years she has never criticized any provision. Instead her newsletter praises the good examples she finds, with total respect for the professionals involved. One recent newsletter reported from a ward arranging design competitions and holding space hopper races between patients.

"Its this crazy idea of not telling people what to do,” she explained. “We provided ideas and good examples for ward staff but there was no enforced action. The concept was that if you trusted people and worked to make them feel good, they would come up with great ways of doing things. And, amazingly, it has worked.”

It has not just worked, but brought dramatic transformation. A peer-reviewed study of the effects of Star Wards in just one hospital found it helped reduce average patient stay from 25 days to 20 days, improving patient satisfaction by 83%, reduced violent incidents by 65% and the saving on less use of agency staff alone was £175,000 a year. That is just one of the 66 hospitals who have implemented the program. All this effect stems from what is still a one-person organization.

Evidence, not Ideology

Michael Gove will no doubt continue to criticise our schools (well, those that aren't academies or free schools), attack our teachers and alienate our headteachers. It is a fundamental mis-understanding of psychology to believe you enable change by making people feel under attack. He will continue to base his changes on ideology rather than evidence. This led to wasting £1 billion on converting already successful schools into academies, without any evidence or past experience to go on. In fact GCSE results fell in those schools last year, after conversion.

Instead Stephen Twigg has decided to learn from the most successful English educational programme of the last 50 years, the London Challenge which helped transform the capital's schools. This was not achieved by slagging off our teachers. Like Marion Janner, Tim Brighouse - head of the Challenge - understood that change is about collaboration, supporting professionals and making them feel good about themselves. What Marion and Tim, and hopefully now Stephen, understand is that change becomes easier, not harder, when people feel valued and motivated and supported.

We know our schools are not perfect. To be delighted with what is good about them and the hard work our teachers put in every day to help and support our children does not mean we are satisfied. Everybody in education needs to work together to get the best education possible for all children. Personally I think the best route is that to improvement is that proposed by Mike Tomlinson: Spend any extra resources not on changes to structures but on increasing professional development for our teachers and other school staff. Work with them not against them.

I have not always been a supporter of Stephen Twigg or of Labour. But finally we have an alternative with the potential to make a difference. Finally we have a positive approach to education and policy based on evidence not ideology. Go, Twigg, go.


Date note:

The 94% of parents being happy is taken from the 2011 Ofsted report, based on 315,000 surveys, up from 93% in 2010. The 2012 report did not quote the figure for that year's surveys.
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