Tuesday, 8 March 2016

A Traditional Authority

Every school has its motto, its emblem and its unique culture. Even schools without ethos have these. They exist. I've been to a few. In those schools, the emblem is a floating signifier, unanchored from its meaning; the motto, a vapid sentence that reflects no reality; the culture, shaped by the sheer will of the most powerful group to suit their own interests, be that the staff or the students.  

Without a common narrative of aims and aspirations, guided by common values and informed by each member of the community, ethos is a hollow husk of a word, and education is something to be feared, or resisted, or both. Never to be respected or revered.

Much of today's workload problems come from this simulacrum of school ethos. School leadership teams prioritise this year's results alone and chase Ofsted criteria without consideration for time constraints or anyone's health or happiness, including their own. Without ethos, short-termism replaces considered value judgments. 

That even such an idol of mine as John Tomsett has seen students and staff at his school get to such a point that he's chosen very publicly to make an ethos-based judgment gives a strong indication as to the challenges faced by leadership teams. Pity the less experienced, the more vulnerable. Pity the staff who work for the most career-driven, too.

But if all can't be put down to poor leadership (and John Tomsett's example shows it can't), then what is wrong with our national framework? Why are values always its first victim? Why, indeed, should I perceive it as having victims? Are policy-makers therefore aggressors? I'm an optimistic sort, and so I will start from the (sadly poorly evidenced) assumption that they are not.

What ethos underpins our education system? What values can we point to and say that these are the core principles of our ethos? And how might we ascertain that they are indeed core values? 

Teaching standards give the profession credibility. These are monitored and upheld at the school level through performance management and Ofsted inspections. 

Exam results give school leaders and politicians credibility. These are framed, monitored and upheld by qualifications authorities, exam boards and league tables.

The system's credibility depends wholly on these things: standards and exam results. These, in turn, imply two beliefs: The first, that teachers and school leaders should behave in proscribed ways; The second, that education has a purpose: to prepare young people for the competitive world of work. In other words, young people should be treated with respect and armed with knowledge and skills to be economically self-sufficient. So far, so ethical.

And yet, the picture is incomplete. Why, otherwise, do we need the addition of Fundamental British Values? Why do we need Prevent and SMSC? Why is Personal Development an aspect of Ofsted's judgments, and what does it mean? Why grit and resilience? Why soft skills, PSHE, SRE, Citizenship? What is missing from our education system that all these questions point to?

I believe the answer lies in the word ethos itself. Ethos is originally one of the three modes of persuasion, one of the three ways of exercising power over others. It means to persuade by virtue of your character and emotions, and is distinguished from pathos, which means to persuade by stoking the emotions of others. Ethos is calm. Pathos, violent. Ethos is constant. Pathos, erratic. Ethos coopts. Pathos coerces.

I contend that our education system is driven by pathos. 

It is the only explanation for the fact that fundamental values of democracy, individual liberty, tolerance and respect for the rule of law are bolt-ons to our curriculum. Were they education's ethos, they would underpin the curriculum. Fundamental would not be a descriptor of the values themselves, but of their place at the heart of education.

It is the only explanation for the fact that even the strongest of school leaders abandon these values immediately when they succumb to short-term measures to achieve ever-shifting targets.

It is the only explanation for ever-shifting targets, and for the growing crisis in recruiting and retaining school leaders and teachers.

It is the only explanation for the fact that our system continues to fail so many children and to seem such an irrelevance to them and to their families.

Qualifications are a valid and valuable aim. Professional standards are a non-negotiable code of conduct. Without ethos, though, they are both simply subjects for the empty rhetoric of people for whom education is at best a political tool, and at worst a political liability. 

And where shall we find this ethos? 

Perhaps we might find it in democracy itself, with its values of individual liberty, tolerance and respect for the rule of law. Perhaps we should be thankful to Michael Gove for the after-thought. Perhaps it is time this became a true ethos in education from top to bottom, and perhaps the only way that will happen is from bottom to top. As T.S. Eliot, author of Tradition and the Individual wrote: "The general ethos of the people they have to govern determines the behaviour of politicians."*

I suggest that if we chose such an ethos, we would rely less on the rational-legal authority of bureaucratic agencies and school structures, and less on the charismatic authority of school leaders, Ofsted chiefs and education ministers. Yes, then our shared values would be the foundation of a truly traditional authority.**

Eliot, T., (1940). The idea of a Christian society. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.
** Weber, M. (1965). Politics as a vocation. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.


  1. This is very good, thank you. I've often pondered why it is that we find it fairly easy to maintain and uphold our ethos at preschool, so such an extent that we simply would refuse to do something if asked by Ofsted, if we felt it was not appropriate. I guess it is partly because we run the settings as volunteers, and so there is no bind between us and the government in terms of them being able to 'get rid of' us. Ironically it is also partly because we are PVI and not state run, that we are in a stronger position to do this. We were here before funding arrived, and if it went away tomorrow parents would still use us. It's a fascinating discussion.

  2. Thanks for this JL. Persuade by stoking other people's emotions? Is this the sign over the door of the school manager's office, or up at the DfE? It seems more mechanical than that to me, less about emotions. It makes me think more of Toyota's move which resulted in commercial success dragged out of persistent failure - the managers closed the factory and spent the time asking the assembly line workers how things could go better. A shift in ethos from Fordian to post-modern. Volvo followed suit, workers formed teams responsible for their section of the assembly line and quality and profits went up. Do you think it might be useful to look through this lens, that post-modernism still leading the way in academic thinking about society has given way to the new modernism in education, where all-knowing managers tell stupid-workers every detailed move they must make, and success is measured in terms of the number of good/bad products coming off the assembly line? Process knowledge developed by workers gets sidelined and product failure is put down to faulty workers. Gove as a manager feels entitled to make any changes he feels would increase production and profits, as a non-technical member of the executive but a believer in the Fordian ethos. A tension arises because communities of people don't fit the assembly line model, they're infiltrated by people exercising their agency - like you!

  3. Thank you! Thought provoking and poignant essay, truths that resonate beyond educational systems and institutional structures. As an American expatriate, my thoughts turn immediately to the inescapable and unprecedented conflict unfolding daily in my homeland; an uncomfortable breeding – a certain illness, violent metamorphosis which defies common sense and ransoms mercy. Education is the answer, except intelligence and awareness are requisites to even begin to revisit, reengage and restore the common American narrative. A bespoke American ethos undeniably rooted in a British narrative and experience might provide insight and guidance. It teaches, enlightened leadership may call us to rally and focus a shared declaration, but fruitless without the resilience of ordinary people, acting intentionally as catalysts of change for the amelioration of the human condition. Thank you for provoking my thinking!


Thanks for engaging. I aim to respond to all the feedback I get because that's why I write: To share ideas.