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Falling in love with the ‘c’ word

September 3, 2013 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Uncategorized 

Becoming excited by an idea is a bit like falling in love: sometimes, it is an instant, head over heels moment but it can also come from the dawning realisation that a presence at the edge of your world has the potential to be at the centre of it.

As an example of the latter, over the next couple of days I want to explain why I am becoming besotted with the concept of collaboration in the development and reform of school education.

I have an old friend to thank for my new commitment; the three powers theory (derived from ‘Cultural Theory’ and the work of Mary Douglas). As regular readers will know, this theory argues, first, that change can be pursued using hierarchical, individualistic or solidaristic means; second, that often the most effective solutions find some way of combining these sources of power (if they are not combined they will often undermine good intentions); and third, that this is always difficult; such solutions are contextually contingent and ‘clumsy’ because the three forms of power are inherently in tension with each other (indeed their power partly derives from their critique of each other).

My shaft of light was to see that ‘collaboration’ when done properly has enormous potential to achieve this clumsy mix of forms of power:

- From an individualistic perspective, collaboration must be seen to be in the interests of those engaged.

- From a solidaristic perspective, collaboration needs to be underpinned by trust based on sufficiently shared norms and values.

- From a hierarchical perspective, system and organisation leaders – recognising how hard it is to establish and maintain – have to enable, incentivise and support collaboration

However, each of these ways of valuing and pursuing collaboration could unbalance the whole endeavour:

- If collaboration is too individualistic it becomes merely transactional, less creative and more prone to abuse and conflict

- If collaboration relies too much on solidaristic values it will often lack clarity and strength and end up being more of a friendship (how often are you really challenging to your friends?)

- If collaboration is too controlled and managed by hierarchy it can become bureaucratic and lifeless

At six distinct levels effective collaboration could enable a step change in the functioning of the schools system.

- Relationships between the centre, localities and schools; which are too often characterised by suspicion, misunderstanding and resentment

- Relationships between schools; which are rarely as robust and committed as they should be

- Relationships between teachers; which are too often absent or shallow but could be the foundation for continuously improving professional practice

- Relationships between schools and other local bodies; which tend to be weak or merely transactional

- Relationships between teachers and pupils; learning is still too often seen as something that is done to pupils not with them

- Relationships between pupils; even though team working is vital in the modern workplace, and children can powerfully support each other, we still see schooling primarily as a process of individual endeavour and ranking.

In my next post I will offer some evidence of what ‘clumsy collaboration’ has achieved and might achieve at these levels.

Fortunately, given my lack of educational scholarship, members of the RSA education team have kindly agreed (as if I gave them any choice) to comment on my thoughts and add their own.


Schools: clumsy synergy or load of codswallop?

August 20, 2013 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social brain 

A school system can be analysed at three distinct levels: national, regional or local governance, schools as institutions, and the system of teaching and learning. We can apply the three powers* framework to each level.

The goal of clumsy solutions is to combine the three powers by fostering forms of each which are both benign and compatible with the others. Such a balance is unusual and only temporary when it is achieved. The more normal case is for one perspective to dominate in something like the following way:

System governance:

Hierarchical orientation – Political/administrative centre takes responsibility in some detail for schools and what they do.

Solidaristic orientation – Direction provided by a closed circle of stakeholders, what Professor Rod Rhodes termed a ‘policy network’:‘a set of formal and informal institutional linkages between governmental and other actors structured around shared interests in public policymaking and implementation’

Individualistic orientation – Focus on quasi-market regulation encouraging and facilitating consumer (parental) choice and easing market entry and exit (take-over)

The school:

Hierarchical orientation – Power centred in the hands of the Head (and or governors), school highly structured around centrally mandated goals

Solidaristic orientation –Organisation driven by shared and co-produced mission with emphasis on wider social goals (in terms of both content of learning and school engagement with other schools and wider society).

Individualistic orientation – School sees itself as a market player driving in turn a ‘sink or swim’ culture in which success is rewarded and failure seen as the responsibility of individual teachers or pupils

Teaching and learning

Hierarchical orientation – Focus on knowledge, subject and traditional (sage on the stage) model of pedagogy

Solidaristic orientation – Focus on learning process as collaborative (both between teachers and between teachers and learners) and on wider development of pupils as ‘rounded citizens’.

Individualistic orientation – Focus on developing pupils’ capacity for self-directed independent learning and self- determination; explicit encouragement of experimentation and innovation

The downside of each emphasis differs from domain to domain but, in general, hierarchical orientation risks being bureaucratic and overbearing, solidaristic being introspective and producerist, and individualism encouraging atomism and attenuated social responsibility.

Of course, these are highly simplified descriptions but they give some sense of the inherent possibilities and frailties of each emphasis. More interesting may be to superimpose this framework on current Coalition policy and on various explicit or implicit alternatives.

What might be termed Gove-ism combines an individualistic orientation at the level of the system (Academies, Free schools, consumer-focussed information) and a hierarchical one at the level of teaching and learning (standards, focus on traditional subjects and forms of pedagogy). While thinking systematically about schools as institutions is largely absent, the effect of Government policy tends to be to reinforce hierarchical control by ‘heroic’ head-teachers.

In contrast, what might be termed naïve progressivism tends towards solidarism at each level while tending to understate the inherent frailties of such an emphasis.

The clumsy approach seeks to combine all three power sources at each level.

Thus the system of governance provides hierarchical leadership by setting a clear but flexible long term strategy, providing an intelligent but challenging framework of accountability, and being a powerful advocate for schools in the wider polity. The governance framework also taps into (and fosters) solidarity by seeking to craft an open and inclusive dialogue which recognises and honours the agency of each stakeholder. The aim is to design an enabling system which maximises the degree of devolution from the centre and freedom at the level of the school and classroom.

A similar mix is recommended at the level of the school although here leadership is more personal while, in relation to solidarity, there is strong emphasis on responsibilities beyond the school. Teachers are held individually responsible for their performance but there are also powerful system of professional support and development (you must swim but there is a shallow end and lifebelts).

Things are more complex in terms of teaching and learning. A clumsy solution seeks to identify and promulgate those forms of practice and knowledge in which there really is one best route for learning. However, such codes are both underpinned by and interrogated through inquiry based practice based on a model of professionalism which sees outcomes emerging through collaboration between teachers (inside and outside the school), between teachers and learners and between schools and wider society. The goal of enabling children to be independent, self-motivated leaners and citizens is paramount, but there is also practical commitment to addressing the imbalances in social and cultural capital which make such a goal much harder for some than others.

To some this may appear like progressivism reheated, to others a back-door way of legitimising unpalatable elements of reform. But perhaps a more common reaction will be that just given by my long suffering PA Barbara (never a fan of Cultural Theory) ‘Matthew, what on earth are you going on about?’.


*Derived from Cultural Theory in which there are four including the non-active frame of ‘fatalism’


A responsible society. An enterprising economy. New leadership for new times.

May 21, 2013 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

Forgive me if this is an overstatement, but surely there has never been a time when our major political party leaders have been held in lower regard? There is the one who is apparently unable to manage his own Party, the one few people seem to think could manage the country and the one who simply has no friends.

A few weeks ago I was talking to a talented young MP who was telling me of his plans to leave politics. ‘I’m bored’ he said ‘I don’t believe in politics anymore and, truth be told,’ he said, as he cast his eyes around the atrium at Portcullis House ’nor do most of us’. A Conservative MP said to me that his Party’s obsession with Europe is partly based on genuine problems with the EU, partly on the divisive Thatcher legacy but also ‘because at last people have got something in politics to get passionate about’.

Is there anything that can be done? Regardless of party affiliation is there a message or strategy that could lift politics out of the doldrums and offer a credible policy platform. As a purely academic exercise I’ve had a go.

The rather obscure starting point is this table

Fairness/solidarity Progress/hierarchy Freedom/individualism
Ends/vision The good society (2) Human progress (1) More of whatever we want (3)
Means Invest in public sphere, redistribute (3) Strategy, bureaucracy (2) Self-interest, markets (1)
Culture Tribe, flag, movement (1) Statism, deference (3) Consumerism (2)


In the columns I have merged two frames of analysis. The first is from cultural theory and its three ubiquitous ways of thinking about and seeing change: the individualistic, the hierarchical and the solidaristic (NB there is also another passive form – the fatalistic).

The second uses the three core ideas of the Enlightenment as identified by Tzvetan Todorov: universalism (which I translate as fairness), humanism (the belief in progress defined by greater human flourishing) and autonomy (freedom).

These two sets of concepts (which have been the focus respectively of two of my annual lectures), one about ideas the other about frames for seeing and acting, don’t map neatly onto each other. ‘Universalism’ asserts the equal rights of all people (although in the Enlightenment this actually meant well-off white men) whereas ‘solidarity’ is about the interests of those defined as in the group while ‘fairness’ stands somewhere between and also brings in notions of just desserts. Also, hierarchies can be ambivalent about progress (think of the Roman Catholic Church). It is also important not to assume that individualism and solidarism line up on a right left axis. Nationalism and even racism can be as much expressions of in-group solidarity as trade unionism and – as the Commons debate yesterday emphasises – social conservatives don’t think individual rights trump all other considerations.

Nevertheless, for the purposes of my argument, there is sufficient overlap based on clustering of ideas and feelings around three fundamental human instincts (individual survival, desire and ambition; kinship and social belonging; and leadership/followership).

In each box there is a number. The numbers represent a view of the relative power in contemporary society of each way of thinking in relation to, first, their account of the ends to which change should be aiming, second, the means which should be used to achieve that change, third, the cultural milieu in which change takes place.

The argument is that hierarchy is most powerful when it comes to the task of describing the ends of change. To put it simply, we need leaders to tell us where to march towards. Solidarity/fairness is less powerful when to comes to ends partly because it is often a rather nostalgic or defensive expression, and also because its definition of the good society (whether it’s socialist utopianism or nationalist nostalgia) tends to sound rather pie in the sky. The perspective of individualism leads to a suspicion of the whole idea of purposive ends – where we get will depend on our choices with the hidden hand of the market ensuring progress.

When it comes to means – the method of change – individualism has the strongest hand; a position which is even more pronounced in today’s complex world. If we could achieve change simply by people doing what they feel to be in their own interests things would be pretty simple, which is why markets can be so fast moving and innovative in comparison to bureaucracies (hierarchy) or collectives (solidarity).

Finally, in terms of cultural mores, while individualism offers only the shallowness of consumerism and hierarchies tend to be fractured both horizontally and vertically, it is the domain of solidarity that provides meaning and belonging for us social beings.

Therefore, in modern society, the most effective model of change will involve leaders defining ends which inspire, using means which achieve those ends through alignment with individual choices, with processes of change being humanised by a culture resonant with solidarity and mutual obligation. To use a mechanical metaphor, hierarchy sets the direction, individualism provides the engine and solidarity is the oil.

How does this translate into a political programme? First, we need a new type of leadership (I have described this here). Second, we need both to draw on individual aspiration as the most effective means to change while also helping people to aspire to what will genuinely provide fulfilment not simply what advertisers tell them they should want: freedom to produce, create and connect rather than freedom merely to consume and possess. Finally, we need to find ways of generating new forms of solidarity and mutual obligation in a diverse, fast changing world.

Politicians are often told by their advisors to try to ‘own the future’. This means rather than simply hypothesising a better world, describe the things already happening that prefigure that world and then show how you are the person to liberate the forces of progress and remove the barriers to change.

As I said in my last post commenting on the possible end of the social recession, there is enough material to start to describe what we might mean by a responsible modern society. Also, with the growth of interest and engagement in enterprise (traditional, social and micro) we can begin to see the outlines of a new venturesome economy.

Sadly, when it comes to new type of leadership, at least in the political sphere, I can only refer back to my opening sentence.


Three steps to … well, somewhere better than this

September 19, 2012 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: The RSA, Uncategorized 

I’m on my way to speak at the impressive-looking Scottish Learning Festival. When making a speech I try always to combine ideas I have developed over some time with new elements written for the specific event. It’s more risky but also more interesting and – when it works – more rewarding than sticking to a wholly prepared script. This is a long post but readers can comfort themselves with the fact that it will tame 4 minutes to read but 35 minutes to hear.

The aim today is to connect the analysis of my annual lecture to broad questions about the future of schooling. For those who haven’t yet watched my annual lecture (shame on you) key elements of the argument are:

There are three fundamental ways of thinking about and exercising social power: hierarchical authority, solidarity and individual aspiration. To solve difficult problems we need to call on all three sources, being aware that there is a fourth way of thinking about change: fatalism.

All three sources have benign and malign potentialities (for example, hierarchy can be strategic, expert and inspiring but can also be self serving or bureaucratic). The best way to address the downsides of each source is the presence of the other sources. The problems of individualism in modern society are partly a reflection of its frailties as a way of seeing the world but also a consequence of the relative weakness of authority and solidarity.

Effective organisations and solutions combine the three power sources.  However, they also have to manage the tensions between them.  Indeed, to some extent, each way of thinking about power justifies itself through a critique of the others.

Today I will offer this framework as a way of thinking about schooling at three levels: the national system, the school as an institution and the content of children’s learning.

For nearly forty years the English system has seen a concerted effort to challenge the domination of schooling by expectations and norms determined by the professionals within the system. This inward looking system of producer solidarity – famously characterised in 1975 by then Prime Minister James Callaghan as ‘a secret garden’ – has since been subject to a major programme of hierarchical (inspection and intervention) and individualistic (autonomy, diversity and competition) reform.

On the surface of things this has created a system better able to call on the different power sources. However, the undermining of solidarity within the system (partly as a result of being excluded and partly as a result of a failure to organise) has led to hierarchical overshoot and irresponsibility. The political needs of ministers and the tendency to lay at the doors of schools the problems of wider society has led to a demoralising and destructive discourse of decline combined with constant and often dysfunctional reform.

In contrast the Scottish system continues to place the views and interests of the educational establishment at the centre of decision making. This leads to a calmer, more positive and more consistent approach (see, for example, the decade long implementing of the consensually agreed Curriculum for Excellence). However, the relative weakness of hierarchical oversight and an absence of performance incentives and sanctions mean that there must be a danger of the system being run more for the benefit of the producers than for wider society or individual services users. For example, the Scottish system is likely to be much more tolerant of poor performance.

This leaves the big question of whether it is possible to combine the best of both systems. Finding an answer is less likely given the apparent lack of interest in Scotland and England in each other’s systems  (overheard recently from a Scottish Executive member at a policy seminar in London – ‘I am interested in any new idea as long as it’s not English’).

At the level of the school the type of leadership needed combines 1) a strong and clear mission but openness about how best to achieve this 2) promoting accountability by being accountable 3) focussing on the span of the mission, not just the span of control (so, for example, if parents are vital to raising pupil expectation they should be engaged even though school leaders can’t tell them what to do).

In relation to solidarity, the most important element is that shared values should be focussed not on inward looking protection but outward facing ambition. In particular, the core shared value of learning aspiration should be exemplified by all members of the school community: ‘we are all learners, together’.

Finally, in terms of individualis, for both staff and pupils there should there right balance of support and challenge based on a robust system to interrogate the performance and ability of each individual. The uber finding of research into what works in the classroom is the importance of feedback (children understanding what they are learning, why they are learning, and how they are progressing). The best feedback must be personalised.

Finally, in terms of the content of children’s learning, the hierarchical component lies in instilling an understanding of, and respect for, the hierarchy of knowledge and skills. This may be particularly important now the internet allows people to access (although not to understand or assess) knowledge (both reliable and unreliable) at any level. The solidaristic component refers to the wider preparation of young people to be good citizens in a world which is not only diverse and fast changing but one which will probably require of them higher levels of individual and collective resilience and responsibility. The release of individual aspiration involves attending to young people’s sense of agency, enthusiasm and ambition. Interesting in this regard is evidence (of which there was more last week) that children with concrete and stretching  ambitions are not only more likely to succeed but also exhibit higher levels of resilience and wellbeing.

The danger is that this is no more than a wish list. So it is important to underscore that the three ways of seeing and doing are in tension. Providing children with knowledge and skills, preparing them to be good citizens and personalising their education is a tall order – not just because of the work involved. There are also genuine pinch points and dilemmas in seeking to achieve all three. But in defence of this approach, unlike other more contrived frameworks, it goes intuitively with the task of living. We all have to wrestle with the voices in our heads (sometimes benign, sometimes less so) saying ‘do what you’re told’, ‘do what the group expects/needs’ and ‘do what you want for yourself’. As my colleague Matthew Mezey has argued, the pursuit of clumsiness (the name given by cultural theorists to approaches which combine the three power sources, while always being aware of the ubiquity of fatalism) is also the pursuit of mental complexity, and that – arguably – is the most important 21st century competence of all.


Going for gold for the old?

August 16, 2012 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

At the risk of being repetitive, I keep coming back to the Olympic Games as a vivid example of clumsiness. To repeat (again) the idea of clumsy solutions (developed by adherents of ‘Cultural Theory’) lies in the attempt to combine the three basic forms of seeing and exercising power: hierarchy, solidarity and individualism (there is a fourth – fatalism – but it’s not so relevant to this specific argument).

The success of the Games lay in strong and effective hierarchical leadership, the powerful solidarity of national pride and the Olympic spirit, and, of course, the enthralling efforts of individuals competing to be the world’s best. Rarely, if ever, are the ingredients so richly available as they were for London 2012, nevertheless to see a nation prone to scepticism and pessimism amazing itself, and impressing the world, with its capacity for engagement, mobilisation and collective joy is to get a glimpse of the kind of step change this alignment of forces can enable.

As I said earlier in the week, as a motivating force the Olympics started with all sorts of unique advantages, but rather than making the best the enemy of the good, we should seek to learn its lessons. Take the issue of care for older people, which I am glad to see the Government is promising now to address in next year’s spending review, is there anything to carry over to such a tough issue from the exuberance of the Games?

The first might be to set an inspiring goal. Instead of presenting elder care as a depressing problem that we can only hope slightly to mitigate, how about a celebration of the virtues of long life and a population of all ages, linked to the vision of England as the best place to grow old in the world?

Second, we could learn from how Games organisers derived power from the simple imperative of having to deliver the Games on time and according to the promises made when winning the bid seven years ago (we may have quibbled about Olympic transport lanes and officiousness over logos but in the end we knew there was no alternative). So, the Government might consult on an absolute commitment to deliver a particular outcome by a particular time (say reducing by half the proportion of people over 80 who are consigned to institutional care). Having won support for the goal ministers would then have a mandate to make tough decisions and stick to them.

Third, there needs to be valued role for us all. In the Olympics there was the splendid volunteer force, but also every fan with a ticket felt privileged and expected to shout their heads off, and even the rest of us knew we had to enter into the spirit of it (even my mum who HATES sport got quite excited). So an Olympic approach to making England great for frail older people would be one in which we could all feel we were playing a useful role; social care professionals, carers, volunteers and all of us committing to being more positive about old people and old age.

Finally, can there be anything in normal life even remotely as inspiring as the individual pursuit of medals? Perhaps not, but as well as the right financial incentives to insure care needs, a individualistic component to a plan might involve a message crafted and promulgated by older people combining a demand for dignity and respect along with a focus on what all of us can do to put off the time when we need care, or to be better prepared for having those needs or meeting them in loved ones. A loose analogy might be with the way the gay community responded to AIDS through a message of pride and self help. Such a narrative might inspire the independently-minded baby boomers now entering retirement.

There are, of course, lots of riders to attach to the ambition of an Olympian plan for population ageing. It is a challenge that will last a generation not just two weeks (no government can credibly have more than small handful of such transformational goals at any one time). My high level long-term strategy still leaves a myriad of tough policy issues (including the crisis of care facing us right now). But the point remains: whatever the scale of the issue, to make a big difference in a challenging context we need to align bold leadership, strong solidarity and individual aspiration. Maybe if we did so we could be the envy of the world for something a little longer lasting than the Games.


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