May 2022 edition: Policy, Practice and Avoiding Cognitive Dissonance

Policy, Practice and Avoiding Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a term first coined by Leon Festinger in the 1950s and is used to describe the mental discomfort an individual feels when they simultaneously hold contradictory beliefs or act in ways that are incongruous with what they know to be the case. Humans have a remarkable capacity for cognitive dissonance.

It often resides in our everyday behaviours: the knowledge that certain courses of action might be harmful, but we make a decision to undertake them nonetheless (perhaps drinking, smoking or believing this year might be the year for your team despite all evidence to the contrary).

Disciplined Trust leadership and governance will be necessary in order to make sure that Trusts grow in tandem with their capacity to deliver quality education.

Steve Rollett

We see it too in education policy. Take reactions to the Schools White Paper for example, simultaneously described by some commentators as both unambitious and too difficult to deliver. It’s a curious position indeed to describe the White Paper as unambitious. The desire to see every school join a Trust signals a significant undertaking for individual organisations and the wider system alike, from the contents of the Schools Bill which are now being debated in Parliament, to the legal implications for schools and Trusts, to the fundamental repositioning of the role of the Local Authority in relation to schools and children. Let us not forget that the last time the Government attempted to take on system reform in 2016 it ended up abandoning its plans. Delivering the aims of this White Paper will be challenging for Government, make no mistake.

That’s not to say the White Paper is a panacea for all the challenges the system faces, and indeed the challenges that children and families face. In particular, the worrying increase of child poverty is alarming, and the growing cost of living seems set to make the situation more challenging still. But a Schools White Paper was never going to be the vehicle to address these vital concerns. Indeed, one might worry if schools were positioned by government as the answer to what is, I suspect, a much broader societal and economic challenge. So, we have to avoid seeing the Schools White Paper as an either/or situation: it is right that government addresses the system reform issues it’s focused on, and it is also right that action is taken to address child poverty.

To return to what may feel like the rather dry-sounding proposals in the White Paper, the aggregate objective is not dry at all: it’s about school improvement. We agree with the Government’s assessment that a full Trust system helps to create the conditions in which school improvement can flourish. There are two key reasons for this:

  • Bringing schools into groups creates the potential for the collaborative knowledge building upon which professional learning and improved practice are based.

  • Coherent regulation and commissioning creates the conditions for proper stewardship of the system, with schools joining the right Trust for them and with regulators being able to intervene on behalf of children in those rare cases where it’s necessary.

But the wording above is carefully chosen – potential. For understandable reasons much of the focus has been on the policy implications of the White Paper, and the legal implications of the Schools Bill. But amidst the policy hubbub and future-thinking there is something for the sector to remember: a moral duty on Trusts to not take their eye off the ball and to keep the main thing the main thing.

Matters of education policy, Trust growth, operations, finances and so on are essential, of course, but only in so far as they help Trusts to deliver on their commitment to advance education for public benefit. Disciplined Trust leadership and governance will be necessary in order to make sure that Trusts grow in tandem with their capacity to deliver quality education. Greater levels of collaboration will be needed between Trusts in order to build and share the most effective models of school improvement. Put simply, practice matters as much as policy.

This is why CST’s support for the sector is multi-faceted. We marry our outward advocacy for Trusts with our sector-facing work to support Trust excellence. We connect you to us, to each other, and to the national policy picture. By doing so you help us to be better informed about the challenges and opportunities you face, and we hope you feel better equipped to do what you do. It’s this commitment that’s led us to establish our thriving role-specific networks (with more to follow):

  • Directors of Improvement

  • Chief Operating Officer & Chief Financial Officer

  • Data Leaders

These are based on the theorisation of knowledge building we outlined in a recent paper. Accordingly, our networks aren’t simply ‘talking shops’, they’re intended to help us build together a picture of what best (or better) practice looks like.

Perhaps the most developed of these is our Directors of Improvement network. In the Spring we ran a two-day residential conference, bringing colleagues from across the system together to explore the ‘problems of practice’ that Directors of Improvement/Education are tackling. Since then, we’ve launched an online ‘Hive’ platform featuring curated content from a range of highly effective Trusts, teachers and leaders. We’re delighted that Ruth Ashbee, author of ‘Curriculum: Theory, Culture and the Subject Specialisms’ has helped us with this exciting project.

The platform is specifically designed to facilitate conversation around the content, so it’s not static. Network members can add their views, questions, and resources to an ongoing discourse. As such, it’s not just another online forum, it’s a community of practice. And it’s a free benefit for CST members. If you have someone in your Trust who is responsible for leading on matters of school improvement and educational quality and they’re not yet a part of this network, please do give them a nudge.

Which I hope returns us to the point above – the importance of keeping the main thing the main thing. There is a lot for the sector to contend with at the moment, and it’s important to remember we’re not yet ‘post-Covid’, but we must make sure that educational quality remains at the forefront of how we work towards the Government’s 2030 vision.

Trusts exist in order to deliver high quality education. Of course, CST will be continuing to work through the unfolding policy picture on your behalf, but don’t forget we’re also here to help you in the work you do, from Trust Governance to school improvement, to support you in providing the best education possible for the children you serve.

To do otherwise would be to miss the whole point of the White Paper and would be a remarkable act of cognitive dissonance.