To err is human....


One of my least successful pieces of writing was a sketch column for the magazine of the teachers’ union NASUWT. My first job after university was as a researcher for the union but I had persuaded my boss to let me try to write something amusing every month.

The column in question was an attempt to satirise the exam board which set the first ever GCSE papers. The newspapers had been full of stories about mistakes in the questions (what a relief that doesn’t happen anymore!), so this was my target. I composed my own paper containing questions such as “comment on fascism’s claim to efficiency’ with reference to the assertion that Mussolini ‘made the drains run on time’” or ‘what is the atomic weight of the element hydrangea’? If you want to know why my humour fell on deaf ears you’ll have to read to the end.

Even though I used to work for a teacher’s union I share most people’s ambivalence to today’s strikes. There is little question that most of us would be very angry if we were losing as many entitlements as the teachers, not to mention putting up with a significant cut in real pay levels. But the suspicion felt by many outside the public sector is that teachers too often compare the Government’s offer with their former conditions rather than with those accepted by most in the private and third sector. If I was advising the teachers’ unions today – which is about as likely as Eric Pickles being made a freeman of Lambeth – I would encourage their spokespeople to address this sense that teachers just don’t understand what life is like for the rest of us.

I remember talking a few years ago to a banker who had changed career to become a teacher at my sons’ primary school. He was full of praise for his colleagues and their commitment and was quick to acknowledge what a tough job it as to teach 29 a class of young children. His one unflattering observation about his new colleagues was to say;

‘you know, Matthew, they genuinely think that most white collar workers go to work at 9 have an hour for lunch and go home with their brolleys tucked under their arms at 5. They don’t realise that nowadays all professionals work long hours, miss their lunch breaks and take work home with them.'

I make this point not just to draw a tenuous link between the news and my blog, but because I was trying to address a similar kind of myopia in a speech on public value in higher education which I gave today to the QAA.

Understandably, the university sector feels put upon in all sorts of ways right now, and the demand that it evidences social impact and community engagement can feel like yet another unreasonable burden. So the theme of my talk– drawing on much of the material in my annual lecture a couple of weeks ago – was that enlightened organisations of whatever sector are having to think more deeply about issues of public legitimacy and how to help us close the widening gap between public aspirations and public behaviour. As I pointed out, some businesses have been willing to change the whole way they think about value, customer engagement and their business model. Universities should not feel sorry for themselves but be willing to be just as bold in exploring how they could tap into the hidden economic and social assets they contain.

The talk went OK but the best part was the conversation it led me to with Jonathan Black, Director of the Careers Service at Oxford University. He had picked up on a point I had made about companies seeing their zone of corporate responsibility extending beyond the factory or store gates back along the supply chain and out to customers.

Jonathan told me that Oxford had undertaken research among one of its key customer groups – employers – and found that while Oxford graduates scored highly in most areas (as you would expect) they rated rather poorly on team work. This had led Jonathan to develop a highly successful scheme in which teams of students work together with businesses and charities in Oxford to help the organisations tackle difficult problems. There was clear evidence that the student who had done the scheme were perceived as better team players when they went into employment.

Well done Oxford, but as we spoke the same idea occurred to us both; what about the supply chain for universities – schools? If students need to be better team players (and this is, after all, a core competency in the modern worplace), then how is this helped by the requirements that Oxford University places on school students? Achieving the right grades at ‘A’ level is all about individual achievements and assessment. There is nothing in the process for getting to Oxford which encourages school students to work in the least bit collaboratively. So, if encouraging team work is part of Oxford’s public value proposition then surely the university need to take that value out into schools and explore how getting into Oxford could become a process that prized collaboration as well as competition?

Back to me crafting my NASUWT column in the mid-eighties. I was quite pleased with my witticisms until I got a call from the printers asking me to take message for the Assistant General Secretary:

 ‘Tell Bill it’s all got printed on time, but he needs to have chat with his contributors. There were loads of obvious mistakes in the Taylor column, but it’s OK, we think we’ve corrected them all’.

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