We need a bit more poetry as we emerge from Covid - and a bit less prose

Now is the time to rekindle our sense of vision, strategy and purpose

Co-Director, Big Education

‘You campaign in poetry and govern in prose’. That was the phrase that we often quoted from American politician Mario Cuomo, when we were finding it hard going in government. I think he meant that you can be lyrical and rhetorical in pursuit of winning an election or campaigning for change but when in power, pragmatism, compromise and the hard graft of ‘delivery’ takes over. 

The last two years have certainly been more prose than poetry in our schools. A lot of logistics. A lot of keeping children and families safe. A lot of crisis management. It has often been draining, thankless and frustrating. 

Yet as we emerge from the pandemic, I get the strong sense that people are desperate for some poetry; for rekindling that sense of mission and change  – looking once more for the higher purposes in what we are doing. 

A return to satisfying Ofsted, jumping through the same old hoops, squeezing more out of the toothpaste of our tired exam system is not enough. In fact it’s quite demoralising.  

We want something to believe in again.  

Strategy can provide that. But only if that strategy starts from vision and values. 

Too much writing on ‘strategy’ treats it purely as a managerial tool. Something to provide structure. And that of course is one of its purposes. 

But for me it’s all about working back from a vividly drawn picture of what success looks like – in the case of education, what do we really want to offer young people? 

From my experience of both politics and education, I am more convinced than ever that energy and  momentum comes from having that driving sense of narrative – a compelling story in which the central characters – in our case, our teachers, families and children – are building something special.

So how do we construct an ambitious strategy going forward?  Context is everything. For this government at this time, this means constructing a vision of what Britain looks like outside the EU. In education it means understanding what young people need to prepare them for this rapidly changing world, particularly after the trauma of the last two years.

So story and strategy need to weave together as we try to answer some big questions.

1. What is our cause?

What gets us out of bed in the morning? What gives us energy even when times are tough?  What difference do we want to make?

2. What does success look like?

Write it. Draw it. Feel it. Bring it alive in ways that make people want to be a part of it. In five years time people will visit our school because…

3. What is our diagnosis of where we are at?

What is the problem we are trying to solve? What will take our work to the next level? What matters most to us? Our self evaluation needs to go beyond the tick box of what we do and get underneath what’s really happening – what orthodoxies need challenging? 

4. What is the through-line of our story, the golden thread that brings everything together?

Our favourite box set grips us episode after episode because of its through line – we want to know what happens next. That means more than working towards the next Ofsted grade – what is going to make our teachers and students want to watch the next episode? 

5. What are the design principles that guide our actions?

These are crucial. They provide the framework and tell us what actions we will take and also make clear the sort of things we won’t do. If we believe in oracy and empowering every young person to have a voice, then silent classrooms and corridors may not the best signature policy. 

6. How do we sequence what we are doing so it is manageable over time?

My track record is not great in this area. I go for more ideas rather than fewer. I like different initiatives to work together – oracy plus wellbeing plus coaching plus real world projects all combining to empower the students. But for some teachers I know this can sometimes feel like overload. So sequencing and providing the right amounts of professional development are essential to get this right. 

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