An edited version of this was originally published on the TES: https://www.tes.com/news/when-socrates-met-multi-academy-trust-ceo
MAT CEO: Socrates, welcome to Big-Boat Multi-Academy Trust. As you know, due to your recent poor Ofsted inspection, your joining our trust has been mandated by the DfE. The aim of this meeting is to enable you to learn a bit about the process but, most importantly, a bit about us.
Socrates: Thank you! I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. I just hope you can show me the way and save me from the depths of ‘inadequacy’!
MC: No need to worry, Socrates. I think we can help. We’ve a very robust and successful model here at Big-Boat Trust, and I believe, if you follow our principles, you too will be successful, and perhaps one day be part of an Outstanding school.
S: That’s the dream! Well don’t leave me in suspense! What are the secrets of success?
MC: Well we’ve found that successful Academy trusts are those with a clear vision and, here at Big-Boat, all our schools follow the same set of underlying principles, called the six pillars: excellent teaching; high expectations; exemplary behaviour; depth before breadth; more time for learning; and knowing every child.
S: Ok… forgive me, but it would seem strange if a school founded itself upon a rubbish teaching.
MC: Ha, yes, I understand that. No school is boasting about having low expectations, or poor behaviour. The difference is that we have a very specific understanding of what ‘excellent teaching’ means.
S: Please, explain.
MC: So, the features of ‘high expectations’ are things like No Opt Out, where we try to ensure children don’t have the option not to answer questions, or Right Is Right where we defend a high standard of correctness in our classrooms.
S: Sorry! I’ll be honest, I don’t have a clue what you’re on about. I feel as if I’ve gate-crashed a Dungeons and Dragons Role-Playing convention. You may as well be talking about Orcs and Swordsages and Phylacteries. I’m sure you’re having a great time, but there’s no reason why I must play along.
MC: This isn’t a game, Socrates. This is about transforming lives!
S: I’d transform lives if I ran someone down in a car. That hardly makes anything clearer…
MC: … Listen. It’s only fair to warn you: the more successful MATs tend to be those at the more controlling end of the spectrum, and we do expect that you do as you’re told.
S: But why should I play your game? Other than your political power, what is the logical authority for these pillars?
MC: These are principles of a successful school. If you develop these qualities, then you too will become a successful teacher.
S: Ah I see. These six pillars are like the virtues of teaching?
MC: Precisely. If you want to understand it like that, then fine, call them virtues.
S: And what luck! Here comes someone who may be able to help! … Aristotle, can you help me? The CEO here is trying to explain the six pillars of the Big-Boat Academy.
Aristotle: Hello! Yes, I’ve heard of these famed six pillars. What’s the problem?
S: Well she tells me I must abide by them, but to me they seem utterly vacuous.
A: Hmmm, a similar criticism has been levelled at my virtues. But virtues are qualities required to fulfil a function well. For example, the function of a pen is to write, and for a pen to write, ink needs to flow. So correct ink-flow is a virtue of a good pen. Virtues are not vacuous if they’re tied to a function.
MC: Exactly! ‘Excellent teaching’ is a quality needed for a school to fulfil their function of ‘educating children’. It’s all rather obvious really?
S: Obvious? When Aristotle says the function of a pen is to write, I know immediately what that means. I can see whether a pen writes or not. How do I know whether a child has been educated?
MC: A child has been educated if they can go to university or have real choices in life.
S: A terminally-ill child cannot be considered educated?
MC: Let’s look at this another way – although the academy system is young, we can see that our approach has had a real impact. Our progress 8 performance is well above average.
S: That sounds impressive, but it’s all gone a bit Dungeons and Dragons again. Progress 8 is only success within your weird gamified version of education. It’s well above average, so what?
MC: …so our children are getting a better education than in many other schools.
S: Ok… So you’d say, ‘If our progress 8 performance is well above average, then our children are getting a better education than in most other schools’?
S: But it’d also be true to say that ‘if more of our children are getting a better education, then our progress 8 will be better’?
MC: I suppose.
S: But that’s entirely circular! And are you suggesting that the function of your MAT is the progress 8 score, or that more children get a better education?
MC: Better education, obviously. The progress 8 score is just one indication of that.
S: …So you’re just inferring that the children are getting a better education?
MC: Well all the indicators seem to suggest that. I think that’s a reasonable inference.
S: Not really. It sounds like you don’t really know what ‘a better education’ means. How can you know that progress 8 is an indicator of better education, if the only way of knowing about better education is progress 8?
MC: We’ve other indicators too – reading scores, maths scores.
S: But what are they indicators of? This is like a game where you’re blind-folded and you have to guess the object by touch alone. But the object only mysteriously appears when you close your eyes and disappears when you open them again. How can you ever establish whether you are correct?!
MC: Ok. We all know that ‘better education’ is hard to define…
S: According to your definitions impossible.
MC: But there’s an established correlation between a lack of qualifications and poverty. Can’t that be the function? That’s measurable!
S: …so our jobs are not to educate but to make people richer? If one of my students is rich but uneducated, I’ve succeeded; poor and educated, and I’ve failed? The teachers of Donald Trump must be so proud!
MC: Look, I don’t know what the problem is.
S: The problem is that you’re trying to persuade me your six pillars are justified because they lead to better education, but you’ve no idea what ‘better education’ means. Therefore, unless I treat your six pillars as being part of a quirky role-playing game, they’re nonsense; you have no logical authority.
A: Look, discussions like this are bound to be a bit vague, but at least my concept of a virtue is based on a clear idea of the function of a human being: i.e. rational activity. Your pillars serve the function of an institution, not individuals. But the function of an institution is to serve human beings. And so, for your pillars to be meaningful, you need a conception of the function of a human being, but you don’t have one.
MC: But I don’t think every child has the same function. That’s why one of our pillars is ‘knowing every child’. If we get to know every child, then we will get to understand how to best serve each child. Then we have our function.
S: Well that sounds sensible. But doesn’t that render your multi-academy trust self-contradictory? Is lumping 21,000 students together in a single organisation, and then imposing a set of very arbitrary and contrived rules on all the teachers, really the best way to enable us to know individual children?