Context is King. #shortblog

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Just a quick observation: In our educational discourse, we make too many generalisations about a wide range of issues that ignore the context in which people operate.  I’m visiting schools all over the country and I’ve worked in lots of types of schools – it’s an inescapable fact that the specific context in which we operate makes a massive difference to priorities and perceptions.

On behaviour, discipline, ethos etc – you have schools where the default levels of behaviour, self-regulation and interpersonal relationships are extremely high compared to  somewhere else.  In one place, everyone breezes around in a calm atmosphere with virtually no observable enforcement required;  elsewhere, behaviour can never be taken for granted and there is intense enforcement and supervision at all times.  A discussion of a ‘no excuses’ ethos, inclusion/exclusion and behaviour-related stress and workload are going to be radically different in each place.   I often think people don’t quite appreciate just how big the contextual differences can be in this area and it doesn’t wash for people to preach to others without taking context into account.  Even if the intent is there, it’s just much, much harder in some places than others.

Similarly in relation to beliefs about pedagogy, context is a factor.  Reading back some of my blogs from when I was at KEGS, I cringe at how glib I was about teacher autonomy, nebulous ideas about creativity and letting students off the leash – as if these were some kind of general truths.  At KEGS, the level of teaching expertise for that context was incredibly high because staff stability was high and there were lots of real subject experts with experience to match; students were capable of high levels of independent work and self-directed study.  However, this was highly context specific and needed to be stated as such.  Discussions about autonomy are completely different in a context with lots of new, inexperienced and borderline teachers who need support, structure and guidance.  The general notion of creative/independent learning is massively dependent on prior knowledge and levels of support in the home environment – so in some contexts it’s much more a longer term goal than a sensible immediate strategy.

A complication is the exact mix in a school.  It’s so frustrating to hear sweeping references to ‘the London context’ for example  – as if that’s a universal thing. A girls’ schools with a homogenous intake in Tower Hamlets is radically different to a mixed but boy-heavy comprehensive in Camden or Brent.  Some bubbles in London – like Muswell Hill – bear no comparison to others in terms of diversity of need.  Different micro communities exist all over London and the challenges they face are very different; the FSM and prior attainment data don’t capture that.

And then there’s the money issue.  The money you get per student in an inner London school is massive compared to the level of funding in some counties.  But I’m going to say this: those schools need it and should fight to keep it; robbing Peter to pay Paul in a funding shake-up is not acceptable. The level of social care that 50%+ FSM schools have to provide is far far more than the simple proportions might suggest compared to a say 20% FSM school.  The PP funding is barely scratching the surface.  It’s not a linear relationship – it’s exponential.   In some contexts, the whole organisation has to do a gigantic amount of basic thankless, unrecognised social care activity to get students to the place where the agenda for learning and achievement begins in other schools.   I don’t think the differences are acknowledged nearly enough.  Where high FSM schools are doing well, matching P8 outcomes of their leafier counterparts, you know that they’re doing immense work.  Some schools can get their P8 plaudits more or less falling off a log – by comparison.

And buildings – wow!  This may or may not have a direct bearing on outcomes but in terms of the environment for learning and working, schools are poles apart here.  Some people are coping with whole departments working in a village of portacabins in the car park,  ROSLAs surviving way beyond their design life, a leaky roof and grim staff toilet facilities you would never ever see in a private sector environment.  Others are working in stunning, beautiful modern buildings that make it feel that people have truly been invested in.

Finally, it’s the new school phenomenon. It’s just so much easier to start from scratch.  Only after many years when new schools/free schools are no longer new can we really say how good they are compared to their established neighbours.  Once your first wave of fully signed-up, hand-picked staff recruits have left and you’re into the cycle of long-term renewal can you really say you’re on the same playing field as the schools that have been doing that all along.

Context is king.  Worth remembering.

*ROSLA:  Raising of School Leaving Age – a generic type of prefab building brought in during the early 70s after the leaving age went up from 15 to 16 in 1972.




  1. I think that’s absolutely right, it’s all too prevalent that we’re given the heavily redacted highlights of any given situation. By way of example as an outsider with the new funding formula I would be heartily impressed that they were trying to redress the balance, but as a governor and someone who works on the inside I’m stunned by the idiocy of the undertaking and its often contextless suppositions that are made to support the piracy that is being inflicted on so many schools. If the pinhole camera through which so many stats were viewed were expanded to a mighty oculus there may be a greater level of civil unrest and meaningful change could occur rather than the skullduggery enacted in the wings.

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  2. Your point on about the schools that have started from scratch. I was part of a school that did this in Hackney and , wow!, you should shave seen the hand picked staff! High quality in every classroom. The quality of every field for a job was immense. It will be interesting to see how they are positioned in 15-20 years when that leadership team and staff body has been recycoed 2-3 times. It was exciting working there but not a realistic exprience of the wider school experience landscape.

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    • Your analysis works for me; I joined a relatively new secondary school 30 years ago and it was resourced with high quality, dedicated young teaching staff, and had very good small admin team – indeed, a large proportion of the whole school staff stayed for over twenty years. As this original team started to dismantle it was more difficult to recruit and maintain / recreate that original buzz and intensity. Outside interference has had its role to play in this scenario too, of course.


  3. Brilliant! It’s a scam that the inspectorate do not recognise the enormous amount of work teachers are doing in challenging schools (e.g. with 75% pupil premium) above and beyond their counterparts who are performing better (with different context).

    Who on earth would want to work in a challenging school? They fleetingly pop in for a day or two, adopt a binary script to make a judgement and leave the school and its staff on their knees. Inspection is not a fair playing field …

    Context IS king!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “. . . Similarly in relation to beliefs about pedagogy, context is a factor. . . teacher autonomy, nebulous ideas about creativity . . . the level of teaching expertise for that context was incredibly high because staff stability was high and there were lots of real subject experts with experience to match; . . . Discussions about autonomy are completely different in a context with lots of new, inexperienced and borderline teachers who need support, structure and guidance . . .”
    I now recall colleagues in neighboring (older) schools being rather envious (15 to 20 years ago) that we were fortunate to have had a good track record of results, strong and stable staffing across the whole school, and thus the confidence within and around us to be creative and give the vast majority of students a broad and rounded curriculum experience.

    Liked by 1 person

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