This isn’t just Factory Schooling. This is Battery Schooling.

The rationale for intensive, ‘factory’ or ‘battery’ farming of chickens is all about productivity. By arranging cages in long rows on multiple tiers and standardising the input processes (feeding, medication, waste control, measurement, mechanisation), more laying hens or broilers can be housed in a given space, production can be systematised, quality more easily controlled, natural variations minimised, labour costs reduced and, critically, outputs more readily managed. Critics point to the cruelty of denying these animals the ability to stand, walk, perch, flap or nest, or any other natural or instinctive behaviours, but this is the price we pay for predictable and low cost egg and meat supply.

The thinking behind this approach to any production process is that if you want to control the output, you must control the input, to the greatest possible extent allowed by the variable. This is Taylorism – or scientific management – as applied to living things, regarding their needs and nature as unimportant relative to the achievement of economic efficiency. This is why such practices are ethically controversial, yet difficult to condemn outright in a morally imperfect context, defined by poverty, hunger, profit and loss.

But what if the living things being subjected to scientific management are children? And what if the organisation seeking to standardise and control inputs in controversial ways in order to better manage outputs was a state-funded school?

In September 2017, following a re-launch within a new trust, the Great Yarmouth Charter Academy implemented a set of 1710 GYCA academy rules and behaviour guide which sought to define and control the behaviour, habits and attitudes of its children in and out of school in the very finest detail. Very little was left to chance.

The school’s even more detailed induction guide (leaked to a journalist, as here), provides further insight into the micro-level at which school leaders seek to control behaviour, limit opportunities for natural variation, and standardise inputs, and how far they are prepared to go to impose these controls.

This stuff is probably about as close as one can get to the ultimate realisation of scientific management in a school without going the whole Pink Floyd.

The Great Yarmouth Charter Academy is part of the Inspiration Schools Trust, a multi-academy trust which seeks to drive improvement in its schools through “encouraging the practical implementation of a knowledge-rich curriculum”. Its Chief Executive, Rachel De Souza, promotes the ideas of US educational theorist E.D. Hirsch, whose concept of ‘cultural literacy’ defines what facts, ideas, and literary works children need to know in order to operate effectively as citizens, and crucially, how the teaching of those things should be sequenced and structured. Earlier in 2017, the trust established a Teaching School to promote knowledge-focused pedagogies amongst teachers, and spreads this approach further through a Teaching School Alliance with other schools led by ideological allies. The CEO – along with many of those allies – was also behind the formation of Parents & Teachers for Excellence, a controversially well-funded pressure group, established to normalise Hirsch’s ideas and equate them in the minds of parents with the concept of high educational standards (i.e. if it ain’t knowledge-focused, it ain’t high standards!).

The trust has borrowed liberally from US KIPP Charter schools, which have been promoting Hirsch’s ideas for a decade or so, and have established curricular and organisational strategies to support their knowledge-led ethos. Although unacknowledged in the Great Yarmouth Charter Academy’s documents, many of the principles in their behaviour policy – including SLANT – are lifted directly from the ‘no excuses’ policies used by KIPP Charter schools in the US.

If, as the leaders of this school do, one believes that the job of a teacher is not to develop relationships with children or negotiate authority, but to cram a certain amount of a certain type of knowledge into a child within a limited amount of time and with limited resource, so that the output to be measured is as predictable and reliable as possible, then it is completely logical to set ethical issues aside and focus like this on controlling inputs so as to control variability. It is completely logical to focus on arranging children in well ordered, controlled spaces and standardising the input processes (feeding, teaching, waste control, rules), so that more knowledge can be transmitted within a given time, delivery can be systematised, quality more easily controlled, natural variations minimised, labour costs reduced and, critically, outputs controlled. Critics point to the cruelty of denying these children the ability to stand, walk, talk, laugh, fidget, day-dream, wee, or any other natural or instinctive behaviours, but this is the price we pay for a predictable and low cost labour supply.

I was in Finland at the time of the furore, and my hosts – school leaders, teachers, and parents – could barely believe what I was showing them. I really couldn’t have found something that contrasted so starkly – in every way – to everything they held dear about the (very successful) student-centred Finnish system, nor which offended their respect for the nature of children.

But, regardless of one’s views of the ethics of this approach, and notwithstanding the fact that most research from the fields of neuroscience, psychology, behavioural science, relational research, and educational sociology would question its potential efficacy (see, for example, Joanne Golan of Vanderbilt’s research into ‘no excuses’ schools, which demonstrates that super strictness and micro-management of classroom behaviour does not enhance learning, and actually undermines the success of middle-class children), from the perspective of a systems theorist or organisational strategist, it is pretty impressive.

In the schools sector, it is rare to find vision translated to provision so coherently, or to find policy and practice designed in a way so consistent with the culture and aims of a school’s leadership. Many organisations falter or fail to build trust or credibility when there are large differences between what they say and what they do; between the espoused culture and the lived reality. Indeed, it is very difficult to maintain a healthy and successful organisation when the very basis for strategic planning and direction is not aligned with the reality of everyday experience and frontline practice.

But here, what we see is an attempt to shape that frontline practice such that it is perfectly aligned with strategy; to reduce the incongruity between what is being promised, and what is being delivered. It is scientific management par excellence, attempting to simplify a messy and human interface so that it clashes less with the strategic wallpaper.

But that’s the problem. It is a human interface. These are children, and teachers, and parents, whose needs and instincts and behaviours and actions and beliefs are not easily reconciled with these extremes of efficiency and optimisation, targets and performance, rules and regulation.

So whilst for a systems person, the approach is logical and understandable, from the perspective of anyone versed in the theory and practice of organisation development, it is deeply flawed, and cannot work, because it seeks to contain and constrain human behaviour rather than enable and develop it; because it fails to respect human dignity; because it is far from compassionate. As the great organisational psychologist Edgar Schein might point out, it is all about telling and defining, and therefore leaves no room for asking or listening, or the sort of humility that encourages trust and transactional behaviour (like learning, for one example!).

Schools as systems or organisations arguably have to be even more human and relational than the other types of organisation OD people deal with, because they are spaces in which child development takes place, and in which that tricky, emotional, unpredictable, joyful, terrible, human process is managed by the professional adults who society pays to bear the burden. I would suggest that it is therefore not so easy to set aside questions of ethics in these contexts, just because one perceives the outcome to be so important that it justifies even these means (in the same way that cheap eggs and meat are assumed by some to justify sub-ethical battery chicken farming). The fact is that neither the scientific rationalism of the battery farm nor the corporate managerialism of the factory are applicable to the context of schools.

Put more simply, the variables are simply not controllable.


See also:

George Duoblys in the LRB

Disappointed Idealist 

The Guardian

Ambitious About Autism

Warwick Mansell’s twitter 

Mark Steel 

The Head’s blog 

Naveen Rizvi’s Conception of the Good blog 

Dan Haesler of Australia’s Teachers’ Education Review