The current paradigm perceives schools as machines producing clearly delineated and measurable outcomes. The current paradigm has apparently not met Mrs Humby.
[6 min read]
Two apparently disconnected events, yesterday’s teachmeet hosted at Ormiston Venture Academy in Great Yarmouth (#IgniteTM) and Monday’s social enterprise conference at Sheffield Hallam University serve to profoundly contextualise Sir David’s Carter’s recent call for a more values-focused approach to education.
A humane, inclusive and democratic society can thrive even if we don’t get X% of school-leavers into higher education. It cannot, however, thrive without responsible individuals working together. Inspired by Mrs Tuesday Humby’s speech at Ormiston Venture, this post looks at the importance of the human relational element in good education and points to successful human-focused social enterprises as a source for inspiration.
Given schools are composed of people, it seems sensible to perceive them as living organisms, each with its own unique rhythm and personality. If we accept this view, it is probably a good idea to work with pupils, parents and teachers to activate them as vital agents, instead of perceiving them as problems to be solved.
This is, of course, the real point of the Participatory Budgeting in schools programme – ticking the boxes of enterprise education, science and English and maths (even that new kid on the block, character education), raised attainment and attendance, better staff retention, more parental engagement, et cetera, et cetera, are all ancillaries to, and consequences of, this guiding principle of responsible individual and collective agency.
The Transdisciplinary Forum at Sheffield University – with the funky subtitle “Sustainable Development through Social Enterprise, Co-Operative and Voluntary Action from Research to Practice and Back” – drew people literally from all over the world. I had absolutely no idea how powerful and advanced the social enterprise movement is, nor how interconnected on a global scale.
As part of my work on the Participatory Budgeting programme for schools, I mainly came to learn from Catherine Brentnall about her experiences of NEMESIS, a 3-year EU-funded project to create and test a social innovation model to primary and secondary students. Their Co-Creative Labs deserve a full blog post in own right, but I will simply leave you with a link and some soft outcomes:
More pertinent to the context of our particular topic on schools as organisms, I was exposed to an impressive array of success stories of social enterprise in practice: ethical leadership, full transparency, linked pay ratios for CEOs, shared values, communal vision, and smash financial success to boot. Have you heard of Gripple, a highly successful employee-owned and values-led global business, which has won five Queen’s Awards for Innovation and was voted ‘UK’s Best Employer’ by the UK’s Chambers of Commerce? They have had one redundancy all the 25 years of their existence, and that individual came back five years later.
Bearing in mind the warnings from Stuart Kime and other speakers at the UEA about not adding to the workload, this quote from Gripple’s Special Projects Manager, Gordon McCrae, should cause leaders to reflect on their knee-jerk response to staff cutbacks.
If we need to cut back, we drop tasks, not people…
In a nutshell, it’s people over profit. And, I thought, if an engineering company successfully competing against the likes of Jaguar Land Rover can pull this off, how is it conceivable that most Academy chains hemorrhage staff, are on the verge of financial breakdown (even where funds are not being embezzled), and still manage to produce school leavers absolutely unfit for human existence if you ask the universities and businesses who have to pick up the pieces?
There are so many successful, innovative models and disciplines trialled and tested in the business, HE and social enterprise community, ripe for the picking. We’ve already discussed the little understood discipline of knowledge management at some length, and how it may impact transparency, more effective command structures and more employee engagement and empowerment.
Does none of that seem relevant to schools? It does, and it is. Enter Mrs Humby and Mr Simon Gilbert-Barnham.
The point of people over profit was truly brought home yesterday at the Ignite Teachmeet at Ormiston Venture Academy, where there’s no doubt as to which speaker most caught the hearts and minds of delegates. (Hint: It wasn’t me). Mrs Tuesday Humby, former principal of Ormiston Chadwick Academy, the ultimate white working-class underdog school with around 50% pupil premium was not shy about the big picture. For her, the issue of whether schools actually can or should facilitate social mobility discussed by Joe Nutt is a moot point, entirely.
What made Mrs Humby’s presentation memorable was not the horror show of statistics pertaining to that particular cohort. But slides about the increased mortality rate and teenage pregnancy have been seen before. What Tuesday brought to the game was her understanding of the schools as a living organism that could not be “organised” into submission through spreadsheet management and algorithmically targeted interventions by clever external consultants. It is the adults who make it plain that they are human beings, with lives, family, hopes and dreams that provide the real counter-narrative to what Ms Humby termed “community moms” where youngsters gather for a bit of care and more bad company. (It’s a Northern thing, apparently…).
It’s about becoming a part of the tribe, where the handing over of the school tie is a rite of passage into an authentic, caring community of parents, pupils and teachers together, where breaking the rules have real consequences, because they affect real people, but where there’s also always a way back, always a way to redemption and forgiveness after a round of exclusion, back into the tribe: To know that you’re not lost; To know that somebody actually cares whether you live or die.
Yes, there is trust involved, and risk. Not every headteacher would bring her two-year-old daughter to school to meet the party girls and wannabee-gangsters of derelict austerity-induced under-Britain. But then, not every headteacher has a chain-smoking bad boy dress up in a Batman suit for that girls birthday two years later.
In a nutshell, it’s the power of the human relationship rather than the power relationship itself that is the focus. This is not the work of autistic technocrats running a factory, it has more the sense of an large family or clan transferring knowledge that is both tangible and intangible to younger members AND responds to knowledge transferred back.
(*Who also admitted walking into parents’ homes and confiscating Playstations & XBOXes around exam time by using the smallest possible loophole in the legal definition of theft – tough love!).
Mrs Humby is not alone. Mr Gilbert-Barnham, the principal of Ormiston Venture Academy which hosted the event, in passing shared with me how his students are entrusted to set in motion their own initiatives to improve the school and how his teachers partake in the budget-making decisions. But that is a whole other article, I suspect.
Finally! On time.
Human relationships take time. They don’t show immediate measurable impact. But unlike the impact that can be measured, human relationships actually matter in the long run. Only through human interaction can you hone your skills as a human. While GCSEs opens doors into HE, who would you like to hire? An individual who has a piece of paper? Or an individual who contributes to any situation they are put in and acquires any skill with curiosity and self-confidence? Your answer to that question summarises the rather harsh critique of the education sector I had to bear at the KM Summit in London earlier this month “We don’t hire grades. We hire people. Why don’t you make some of those?”
Why, indeed. With other sectors demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt that everything Sir David outlined in his speech at the University of East Anglia is not only possible, but pays off on both the measurable and unmeasurable level.
“Rather than our narrow, counting version of value which omits is a conception of the rhythm of human relations, greater emphasis on a rhythm that needs “still points”, a conception that in measuring time these still points also have value – indeed, they may be “invaluable”, and maybe this is the point, challenges our conception of time as always driving us forward.”Nolden, Garcia Villela, McDermont & Parker (2019), Locating value(s) in Collaborative commons: measuring time and idleness, presented at EMES 2019, Sheffield Hallam University.
Disclaimer: This piece reflects the author’s limited understanding of the speakers’ presentations. It does not claim to be a comprehensive account. Any factual errors or misunderstandings are the author’s responsibility.