My argument was that people closest to a problem are those best placed to solve it because they have the fullest grasp of it.
I’ve been thinking about this because part of my job is to decide on an approach to remote working and learning during the shutdown period.
I’ve been thinking about how much work it is reasonable to expect people to do in these strange times.
One obstacle to adopting a consistent approach is that the circumstances of my staff and pupils are so different; one teacher may be locked down alone with a fast internet connection and the technical savvy to livestream lessons from their study, while another may be a single parent with three pre-school children and an elderly relative. Similarly one pupil may have their own bedroom and laptop while another may share an aged cracked tablet and bedroom with four siblings – developing an approach encompassing such diverse circumstances is tough.
One way to do it might be for me to send out some strict non-negotiables.
I could tell all my staff that their individual circumstances are their own problem and that they need to do what I tell them to do without making excuses.
I could do the same for pupils – I could send a letter home to all parents and carers saying something along the lines of “this is not a holiday and every hour your child doesn’t do any work means they are an hour behind!”
My colleagues would all hate me and many would probably leave. Lots of families would hate me too and perhaps some would be really upset. But I could do it. I could even double down, telling everyone leadership is tough and this is what strong looks like.
I could do this, but I am not going to.
A second way of addressing this issue might to use data. I could design a questionnaire grilling people on their individual circumstances and then put all the information on spreadsheets, which I could then use to make a central work schedule. The biggest advantage of this would be that I would have a in impressive document to show to people – “Look!” I could say. “Yellow means they are at home but doing childcare, but this could be interrupted if essential. Green means available to work – you’ll notice that Ms Kidd has an hour of availability after her children are in bed every night, so I make sure we get work to her by six. I’m keeping a record of people with lots of red.”
Of course this would give my staff no flexibility for if circumstances change, or if a child refuses to go to sleep when they are put to bed, and it would probably also make them hate me, but I could do it.
But I will not.
I won’t do it because my belief is that real life is complicated at the best of times and more complicated than it has been in living memory now. I won’t do it because I believe my staff are hardworking, committed professionals and caring people who are doing the best they can in the circumstances in which they find themselves. I will not presume to know more about these circumstances than the people living in them.
So instead we are clear about what people should be working on and ask they do their best to get this done. Where deadlines are necessary (and sometimes they are) we ask people to let us know if they can’t meet them. We meet virtually a lot. We ask that people talk to each other and not do everything over email. We ask people to proactively tell us about the obstacles they are facing so we can understand and make adjustments.
This is an approach we extend to our pupils too. When I first began thinking about distance learning I spent a lot of time trying to decide whether we’d set work to consolidate previous learning or work that introduced new material. I now realise my paradigm was wrong – what might be appropriate for a foundation group in Y7 might be entirely inappropriate for a highly achieving class in Y10, and that it would be impossible for me to know what was right for every class.
The people best placed to decide which classes do what – indeed the only people who can – are those closest to them; their teachers.
This is also why it is entirely farcical for one school to criticise the approach taken by another when all our circumstances and contexts are so different.
Instead of having a policy then, we have principles and things to consider. Instead of having directives we have suggestions and training. We don’t tell people to use BBC Bitesize or Oak National – we show them where the resources can be found and ask them to use what they think worth using. We keep oversight of this through the pleasant, collegiate conversations that are a hallmark of the way we work at my school.
We praise, challenge, share ideas and connect people working on similar problems together.
The only thing we insist on is that pupils are set work and that there is the opportunity for feedback for those pupils who want it.
It’s an approach based on trust. I think it works and hope nobody hates me.
Is it inconsistent? Well yes. But given we’re living in the most inconsistent times anyone can remember perhaps this is just as well.