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  • Chris Jeffery

On the Importance of Knowing Why

35 years in education and nearly 18 years as a Head have taught me about the vital importance of starting with 'why' (and how worryingly absent this is from our national conversation on education)

The most important 18 minutes of my journey in leadership can be found in 2010 when I first watched this video:

In it, Simon Sinek -a thinker and writer I have come to greatly admire for his subsequent work as well as this idea- explores the importance of putting purpose at the heart of all you do in leading the organisation you are responsible for; of establishing your ‘why’ and allowing that to shape the ‘what you do’ and ‘how you do it’ of that organisation. It transformed my thinking about how the two schools I have led should understand and present themselves; and what they should be aiming for. It's hard, though!

It has also subsequently made me worry more and more about the lack of any overt and clearly articulated understanding of the purpose -the ‘why’- of our national education system. I’d love to be pointed in the direction of such an articulation by people who have real influence over shaping our system. I can’t think of one.

I and a colleague have asked that question in person to teachers and school leaders on several occasions. The pause that follows (often accompanied by tumbleweedy sorts of sounds) is instructive. Relatively quickly, we establish a consensus around something to do with helping all individuals to make the most of their abilities and improve their life chances. For some colleagues, that is best measured in SATs or public exam results; for others in destination beyond school; still others understood it in terms of opportunity offered; very few instinctively articulate anything about wider life-flourishing beyond education.

But next to no one instinctively thinks about wider benefit or importance of education to improving our national society or the wider world.

That was also echoed in a rather unscientific poll that I carried out on Twitter back in 2019: the vast majority of respondents saw education much more in terms of what it did for individuals rather than it having any significant and wider pro-social purpose.

If, in the end, our focus is really only on what our schools do for individuals, with little emphasis on what role those individuals then have collectively in -and on- the world they are growing up into, we have no vision, just provision.

To borrow Sinek’s core idea: if we can say lots about ‘what’ we do and ‘how’ we do it but nothing coherent about ‘why’, surely that’s upside down! What we do and how we do things is shaping the purpose rather than being shaped by it.

That’s a real problem.

If we don’t understand and articulate as a nation what our education system is ultimately trying to achieve, then it makes it pretty impossible to develop effective policy or even have informed discussions about issues such as political priorities; funding and taxation; public exam assessment; the importance of teachers; the place and role of independent schools; vocational education; SEND and so much more.

A report in the old News Chronicle in 1952 carried this phrase: Walk into any room and talk to a dozen people there. You will probably find that they have only one thing in common: they are all experts on education.

I believe that this a really important part of the problem: politicians and many of the policy makers they work with believe that they really understand education, because they have all been subject to it for at least 14 years themselves. It’s the only area of public policy which all of us get know from the inside over a considerable period of time. Thus education becomes something of a political football…but with the players having no clear idea of where the goal actually is!

It’s high time -and desperately urgent- that we try to have some sort of national conversation about what it is we are educating our young people for; that we attempt to develop some sort of long-term vision that we can commit to as a nation regardless of political ideology. To get towards a coherent, clearly articulated consensus on -and understanding of- a national ‘why’ that then dictates the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. I actually don’t believe it would be that hard to find that consensus.

I’d like to offer something to any debate that might some day occur: the articulation of purpose that we developed for the school I currently lead back in 2017. Having done some work with staff and governors, and led by the established Quaker values of the school we articulated our WHY in this way:

The purpose of all aspects and facets of Bootham’s Quaker Education is to liberate and equip its young people to flourish as adults and live adventurous lives that will serve to create a better world.

Of course exam results, the right next steps for all and all sorts of individual achievements are really important and to be highly valued; but not as ends in themselves, rather as a springboard to each individual using their unique combination of gifts and talents to make the world a kinder, fairer, more peaceful and more just place.

High minded? Guilty as charged!

Wrong? I’ll leave you to judge.

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