In this guest story, Dr Alison Scott, Lead Professional Development Advisor for the Skills and Education Group, provides an allegorical take on the state of further education.
The Emperor’s New Clothes
Once upon a time, in a place not far from here, lived many emperors, each in their own ivory tower. A Chief Emperor ruled over them all, and one of his greatest pleasures was to meddle. He delighted in thinking up new tasks for the lowly emperors to perform. Unfortunately, the lowly emperors felt they had to obey, until one day – a day when everything changed.
Chief Emperor had thought up his best meddlesome plan yet. ‘I know,’ he thought, ‘I shall keep my lowly emperors very busy by telling them they must ensure that all the workers in their ivory towers do their work perfectly. To be good will no longer be good enough, and to be less than good will cause great sorrow for these workers who have failed – and great stress for their emperor!’
The lowly emperors, after receiving this new edict, asked a very sensible question. ‘But how,’ they asked, ‘will we know whether our workers are perfect or not? Their work is very complex. They work with people of varying abilities who come from all parts of this kingdom and beyond. This means they have developed many ways of working. How can we possibly judge the quality of this specialised work – especially as we emperors know little about it?’
‘That’s simple!’ replied the Chief Emperor. ‘I have designed a simple set of four numbers: 1= perfect, 2 = good (but not good enough), 3 = must improve (or else) and 4 = most deplorable indeed. You will observe your workers regularly, every one of them, and grade them with one of these numbers. You will know when to give a grade 1 because it is instinctive – you will just know (do not press me further on this), and a grade 2 is when you are not too sure if it is a 1 or not. Grades 3 and 4 are very useful if you want to reduce worker numbers because these grades will trigger very particular actions.’
I have designed a simple set of four numbers: 1= perfect, 2 = good (but not good enough), 3 = must improve (or else) and 4 = most deplorable indeed.
‘What sort of actions?’ the emperors nervously asked, dreading the reply.
‘Well. a grade 3 will trigger the Performance Management game. This game involves a productive activity called Support and Development. The workers will then be observed again and if another lowly grade is received then they will be in great trouble, because they are unlikely to become the perfect workers you must now employ. I will leave it to you to decide whether to give them another chance or to dispose of them more quickly. This game of Performance Management has very high stakes, and I feel sure that all your workers will be energised and motivated to be perfect, for they will not want to lose the game. In short, this is a brilliant improvement strategy! Moreover, as an added incentive to you all, those ivory towers with many perfect workers will receive the ultimate accolade: your tower will be proclaimed throughout the kingdom and beyond as Outstanding!’
The emperors were very miserable on hearing this dismal news and discussed with each other how they could possibly present this to their workers in a favourable light. ‘Truly,’ bemoaned one, ‘Chief Emperor has surely lost the plot this time. The task he has set us is unachievable, and our workers will tell us so.’
Sure enough, back in their respective ivory towers the new missive from on high was greeted with scorn and derision by many workers. The weaker workers resigned on the spot and others followed when the new system gave them lowly grades. Those who could not afford to resign or find other work became sad and dispirited, and a few became angry and militant – but never in sufficient numbers to challenge the system. What was strange was that a surprising number of workers appeared to think the task of reaching perfection was achievable; they spent many hours honing perfect work practices according to many missives designed expressly to show them how.
What was strange was that a surprising number of workers appeared to think the task of reaching perfection was achievable.
And how did the emperors cope? A few retired early, some voluntarily but most were persuaded (with generous financial settlements) to go quietly. Soon there became a worrying shortage of good and noble leaders. Many developed great skills in the Performance Management game so that they could dispense of high numbers of workers and be rewarded and acclaimed. These emperors pleased the Chief Emperor very well, and he suggested they should call themselves Chief Executive Officers (or CEOs for short). For had they not achieved great efficiencies and savings in their treatment of the workers? And with all the Support and Development available to workers, surely a refusal by workers to become perfect needed to be met with a robust response? So successful were these CEOs that they decided to award themselves very high salaries, for surely they deserved these rewards in acknowledgement of their magnificence? Some even managed to justify to themselves the practice of putting more and more of their workers on zero hours contracts. Verily these workers had a clear vocation that was not sullied by a desire for profit.
All continued in this way until one day not long ago. It so happened that the Chief Emperor was visiting an ivory tower which had received the ultimate accolade of Outstanding. He was presented to various workers and their students (for indeed, these workers were in fact teachers). Everyone he met had put on a performance for his benefit, which was bound to enhance the status (and the salary) of the CEO still further. Everyone, that is, apart from one teacher. He boldly approached the Chief Emperor, pushing aside the fawning minions and the self-satisfied CEO. This is what he said:
‘None of this is real. The lovely buildings, the resources, the polite students and our great success rates. The reality is going on behind closed doors. The difficult work of restoring the motivation of students whose lives have been devastated by previous experiences; the worry when students’ behaviour or absence prevents them from learning – because this is always the teacher’s fault – the increasing expectations that you will know enough to teach more than your specialist subject, the paperwork, the lack of social camaraderie, simply the lack of enjoyment…I could go on, but I think you get the picture. This joyless work is what teaching has become under your ignorant rule. So, what are you going to do about it?’
So, how do you think the story ends? Choose your ending:
- Suddenly another worker pushed forward. ‘The issue is not what he’s going to do. It’s up to us!’ He appealed to his fellow workers to join him in his response, but they all went away in a great hurry to write their perfect lesson plans. Within 10 years, ivory towers were no more, for truly, the aim of the Chief Emperor all along had been to make the future of FE an impossibility. What a magnificent achievement!
- Suddenly another worker pushed forward. ‘The issue is not what he’s going to do. It’s up to us! Follow me!’ And he walked away from the Chief Emperor, the CEO and the fawning minions, and they and their followers all set to work developing powerful communities of learning, both inside the ivory towers and beyond.
Dr Alison Scott is the Skills and Education Group’s Lead Professional Development Advisor. She has worked in the further education sector for 30 years in a variety of roles: as an English teacher, a teacher trainer, a manager of teaching and learning coaches and, latterly, as an independent trainer/consultant.
Through her work in the sector, she has carried out hundreds of lesson observations in a variety of FE and community-based settings. Alison has a particular interest in the power of collaboration to improve teachers’ practice, which is the subject of her recent doctoral thesis.