How long is a piece of string?

‘How long must my essay be?’ is a favourite question asked by pupils. What they are really asking is ‘How short can my essay be?’ The answer is easy: ‘How long is a piece of string?’ It depends! As long as it needs to be!

Of course, those are not the answers the pupil wants. For them it is purely a matter of the number of words or lines — for the teacher it is a matter of the depth of the response.

 It is the same when a parent asks of a Head: ‘So, how is it going?’ In one sense it is a silly question: after all, do we really think that someone would answer “Dreadfully”? Would it really help if he answered “Brilliantly!”?

If we still want to know, would we want the short answer (which would simply be “fine”, obviously) or a long one? Are we really interested or are we just being polite? Is it a genuine request or a traditional greeting?

The fact is, it is a subjective question. Ask three different people how a war is going and we may receive three different answers, even from people on the same side.

A politician may decree that it is going wonderfully; a General may declare that it is promising as they make slow progress; a foot-soldier though, who has suffered great pain, may respond that it is going dreadfully. Who is right?

More importantly, it is a flawed question. Determining if someone is obese by looking at height and weight on a chart purely does not consider all factors.

The means of measurement may not take into consideration other important factors. Determining a school’s status on results is equally flawed.

The fact is, how a school is going may depend on how the parent wants to measure the ‘going’. Do we want to know the number of pupils there? Or the number of pupils on the waiting list? The ‘ratio’?

The number of A* passes? The results compared to other schools? The number of Zimbabwe players at the school? The blood pressure of teachers? Number of squash courts?

Unbeaten matches at 1st team level? Budget against expenses? The state of the buses? Sales in the Tuckshop? Do any of those questions really equate to education?

Do they adequately or correctly measure education? How then do we measure education? Understand that Education is not a business – we do not measure education by profit and loss. Understand that it is not sport – we do not measure it by the number of wins or points.

Understand that it is not a religion – we do not measure it by rules or length of meetings or volume of singing. Some people think that Education is purely about Results and Resources – it is not.

It is about people, young people, young people with loads of different abilities, talents, interests, backgrounds. If we want to ask a question about the school, we must not ask: how is it going? We need to be more specific, sensitive and selective.  The poet T.S. Eliot once said: “not fare well but fare forward”. Of course, we will always prefer to wish someone ‘farewell’ but it may be better for him to fare forward than to fare well – often our most powerful and significant learning experiences come when things are tough, not when they are smooth or easy or well.

When things are well, we think everything is fine and so we do not need to learn anything – and we become arrogant. The same can very easily be said about schools. We do need to know we are going forward more than if it is all “going well” (whatever that means).

Anyone who follows athletics or swimming will know that the competitor is motivated above all by her PB (Personal Best) - but anyone who has been there knows all too well that she does not beat her PB every time she competes.

No golfer, however brilliant, can play perfect rounds one after another. There are good days and bad days. Like running up and down sand-dunes, it is exhausting; it is wearying; it is sickening. But it is productive. It is progressive. Just like education will be.

Equally, anyone who has been in education will know that if all is going well in a school, we should be worried – because we may be blind to what is actually happening in our school. Every school is dealing with very different youngsters facing different agendas and temptations. Does everything always go smoothly there?

That question is easier to answer than the question about the length of a piece of string. We do not need to write a long or indeed short essay to provide the answer. It depends.

And it depends on us understanding that education is about progress, not success. “Where is it going?” is more helpful than “how is it going?” How long will it be before we understand that?

  • Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS. Email: [email protected]
  • website: www.atschisz

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