The surplus model of school improvement

Cardboard textured world Europe oriented with a heap of packages

As teachers we are sometimes guilty of assuming that all would be well if only children behaved better and worked harder. This is basically sound; everything would be better is kids did what was in their best interests. So why don’t they? Well, in some schools they do. In some schools there are strong social norms which ensure that misbehaviour and laziness are the exception. This isn’t because only children from more affluent postcodes are capable of doing the right thing, it’s because schools and teachers have worked hard to make it easier to do the right thing than the wrong thing. They have worked on the assumption that mucking around doesn’t have to be endemic, but kids are basically kids; they’ll default to whatever the prevailing expectations allow.

Likewise, all too often schools leaders take the view that everything would be OK if only teachers were more motivated and worked harder. This is the deficit model; the idea that less than desirable outcomes are due to someone else swinging the lead. According to this way of thinking, problems will be solved if this deficit can in some way be addressed. And how should we address this lack in others? Why by supplying more information, stricter parameters, tighter deadlines and clear consequences. This is the logic behind the way our education system manages the accountability process: schools and teachers cannot be trusted to do the right thing and take responsibility for their own development so we will club them with the cudgel of accountability until they fall in to line. Sound familiar?

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