Trust, but verify…

A lot has been written about trust recently. How a lack of trust in teachers is holding back education. Or how we should have a trust based inspection process. Or we should trust teachers with the curriculum.

I have my doubts.

Like other parents, every day I trust teachers and schools with my children. I trust them to care for them, to educate them. I don’t do this in a vacuum. We have a system. We have training for teachers (and implicit in that is a selection process). We have an (imperfect) inspection process for schools that includes inspection of safeguarding. We have a governance system that ensures a variety of stakeholders are involved in the strategic oversight of the school. Much of this is legally mandated through a democratic process. And it is, in the main, operated out in the open.

So the trust is not blind, it is based on evidence that has been provided through a variety of routes.

But the trust has limits. By which I mean that there are areas to which that trust extends and areas beyond which it does not.

I trust a teacher of maths to know the curriculum that the student is studying, to know the best ways to teach that curriculum, to know my child well enough to assess what has to happen next to ensure that they achieve the best possible outcome. I don’t have to know that teacher personally to trust that because I trust the school to ensure that the teacher is doing this and to take remedial action where appropriate. And I can trust the school to do this because of the systems indicated above. All this is within the expected area of expertise of the school.

But when it comes to looking beyond that we start to get into areas where there is no reasons for me to trust schools and teachers. This is not because they are bad people, it’s not that kind of trust. It’s because we are moving outside their areas of assured expertise.

Now I’m about to venture into areas where my limited capability with words runs the risk of me being misunderstood. This is where I ask you to trust me and accept that I have no intention to be negative about schools and teachers and the role they currently undertake. Lets see how that goes.

In reality the professionals in schools, as with any other profession in any other sector, have a limited range of expertise. Whilst there are more people coming into teaching as a second or third career, they are still the minority. Schools, in my experience, have a limited understanding of the workplace and the economy in general. Most times when I have attempted to engage school leaders in conversations about, say, labour market statistics, I’m usually greeted with a blank stare. Trying to discuss local employment is often a better bet, but there is a general lack of understanding about employment opportunities in the area, what the main skills requirements are, what qualifications local employers are looking for. Beyond who has gone to what university there is often little knowledge of where students end up working and in what industries.

Now, we could start a discussion here about the purpose of education being more than to get someone into a particular industry, and I would have some sympathy with that discussion. But it’s not really the point.

When it comes to creating the curriculum I’m not sure that teachers or schools, in general, have the expertise to decide what should be studied. Some teachers, who have worked to gather this expertise, may well be able to do so, but I cannot just trust teachers in general to undertake this important task. Generally speaking, and this is not intended as a criticism, a teacher is a person who has expertise in the subject area they have studied and taught. And that is often quite narrow.

I fear that if that process of, for example, curriculum creation, were under the sole control of schools it would be dominated by those who had the greatest desire to do so. I would prefer to know that there was some process that I could trust to ensure that the group of people who were going to create the curriculum have the greatest capability to do so. And as for schools eventually being responsible for a “self-inspecting system”, well, that’s just a silly idea. To see how this will work, have a look at the impact of executive pay committees.

And the truth is that unless you want to live in a technocratic society virtually any process to create capability based processes will require oversight by some group with democratic authority, either direct or which has been (temporarily) devolved to them. Whilst our democracy is not perfect, I still trust that the checks and balances that are built into it will ensure that I can trust any process that creates such a group. Given that it generally makes sense to have a nationally agreed curriculum the obvious democratic authority in this case is the national government.

As with any system, this is never going to be perfect. It is fair to say there are many who would argue that at the national level the system of checks and balances has failed to an extent over the past few years when it comes to education. Again, this is a view I have some sympathy with. What I would say is that no system is perfect but we do have an opportunity in the coming months to remedy that situation if we feel we need to. If curriculum development were entirely the responsibility of schools then if they were to mess it up then there would be no way for me (and others of a like mind) to make a change to the system.

In short, trust is not a blank cheque. Trust can be limited to specific areas of expertise.

And just because I say I don’t trust you, doesn’t mean I don’t trust you.