Standardisation or Talents. Or both?

On Thursday, I was fortunate enough to be at the Liverpool Philharmonic to see Sheku Kanneh-Mason play Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Prodigiously talented, Sheku rose to fame as Young Musician of the Year and played at Harry and Meghan’s wedding. It got me thinking again about the friction between ‘standards’ and talents.

A common feature of the best primary schools is a measured and equal focus on common standards and individual talent. One the one hand, the school recognises the need for all children to learn key knowledge and skills to a minimum standard. On the other, it champions the development of individual talent in pupils and staff.

For a time during June, July and August, standards (in its system-definition form) dominate. Pupils become numbers, a piece of data, an impersonal reflection of a wider accountability agenda; their individuality is blurred. If this is allowed to dominate in other months (sadly the case for many pupils), talents are subjugated to the needs for standardisation. Friends have remarked to me that an ability in gymnastics, or swimming, or singing, or dancing, did not ever appear in an entire series of school reports. My nephew, now in Year 6, is a brilliant dancer; yet this talent is sidelined as a skill ‘unmeasurable’ and therefore less important. Says who?

The language linked to ‘talents’ and ‘standards’ should really run alongside each other, but my experience tells me this is not always true.

I’m regularly made aware of ‘training’ that seeks to develop leadership ‘talent’ or some strange ‘mastery’ of a craft. Invitations talk of a ‘marketplace’ where ‘best practice’ can be shared to focus on ‘talent management’. It appears to be one of many responses to a growing concern related to the lack of leaders in the school sector.

At these events, a speaker will share expertise from the private sector in how to ‘unleash this talent’ and create a ‘lean philosophy’ which leaders can replicate, presumably in their own schools. Well, they may unleash something but too often it’s total chaos. This lean philosophy is interpreted as slashing the staff profile as quickly as possible, and squeezing everyone through a machine labelled ‘expected standards’.

Where does talent fit into this system? Awkwardly. Because possessing a talent makes us different. It gives us a special identity and helps us feel included in a group of equally different and diverse people. Seeking to ‘unleash’ the talent in our staff and pupils is undoubtedly something we all aspire to in education, but will inevitably clash with a standardisation agenda.

Placing talent development within a ‘marketplace’ setting, with a business framework (productivity, outcomes, performance management) as the prevailing narrative, risks ruining this aspiration.  This is because it clashes harshly with the word that dominates education – standards.

Aspiring to everyone meeting standards, or even worse ‘competencies’, has the opposite effect. It strangles talent. It suffocates it and leaves it lifeless. It bludgeons people into replicas of each other, and cuts off their potential. New horizons become obscured because the standards blur any vision the aspirant leader might have.

An obsession with standards drives us all to norm, an ‘expected standard’. Admittedly, there are areas of school life where this is desirable, for example standards of dress, or standards of courtesy to each other. If all of us meet shared standards of manners and respect, all arguably gain.

However, it is less appropriate when applied to teaching and learning, or the appraisal of teachers and leaders. It is damaging teaching and teachers and may have a negative impact on school leader recruitment.  It acts as a forcefield against the unleashing of talent and, instead, promotes bureaucratic conformity.

On Wednesday, some of our pupils got to meet Sheku at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic after his rehearsal. Sheku is nineteen years old. Had he been standardised? Who discovered his talent? I’d love to know.

The best teachers find the talents of children and nurture them. They didn’t go into their jobs to standardise children into a robotic army.

Let’s not allow the standardisation agenda to dominate too much.

Instead, cherish the talents of our children.




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