What The History of Forceps Can Teach Us About Academies

By Laura McInerney, Policy Development Partner

For 130 years the Chamberlen family kept a secret which, had it been shared, would have prevented decades of untimely deaths.  In the late 1500s, Peter Chamberlen - a London-based French surgeon - developed the first tool for successfully extracting live infants otherwise obstructed during labourChamerberlen’s solution – the forcep – looked like a simple metal tong but its introduction significantly reduced the risk of death from obstruction. Given that 1 in 27 babies rotate in such a way that their exit from the birth canal is impeded Chamberlen's discovery would become one of the most important birthing tools ever invented.

The forcep was so successful it made the Chamberlens famous. So in-demand were they that Queen Henrietta sought their services during her pregnancies with Charles II and James II.  Their fame and subsequent wealth however relied on keeping the instrument absolutely secret.  During its use the family would hold sheets around the patient so not even the mother could see the forceps.  Not sharing the instrument meant the Chamberlens stayed in constant demand among those lucky enough to afford their services; in the meanwhile thousands of women and infants needlessly died. 

Back in our modern day the daily news wire is alive with the sound of scathing attacks on education.  Though it’s demotivating to hear of mediocre teachers, terrible headteachers and academy-only-praise,  occasional stories should cause us to stop and reflect.  That Mossbourne managed to get 90+% of its students – regardless of ability – to make 3 levels of progress is impressive.  Similar results are noted for Harris Academy in Merton and Burlington Danes (run by Ark).  No doubt many non-academies achieved equally impressively even if less promoted.

These progress results are most impressive because they show learning is happening for everyone in these schools. The next, and most important question, is how? The usual answers are around behaviour, pupil pride, parent involvement. These are crucial yet only mediating factors for learning.  The truly important question is: What is happening inside those classrooms to get concepts into students’ heads in such a way that they can understand and apply them in future situations?   You can have the cleanest hospital room in the world, but if you didn’t have the forceps a breech baby would be a dead baby. Similarly you can have the greatest behaviour in the world, but if you don’t have thoughtful learning activities you are merely creating polite ignoramuses. 

Given the extra resources and promotion academies have received they need to stop talking about uniforms and start showing us their 'forceps', I.e. the instruments that drive learning in the classroom. Unless academies have fundamentally recreated education (and if they have I am all ears) each of these schools will have medium-term plans (sometimes called ‘schemes of work’) describing planned learning activities and assessments, and are accompanied by resources used in the lesson (e.g. handouts or powerpoints).  Effective teaching, like effective surgery, always requires adaptation to these plans..  Teachers cannot simply take pre-written lessons and deliver them; they must adapt to their own style and their students.  But having a base of detailed, well-designed plans and resources is a good start and means that in the moment a teacher can concentrate on how to adapt to the situation they find themselves in rather than having to create from scratch.  If schools are demonstrating amazing outcomes some answers for this must be in their plans.

Imagine my surprise then when, in recent discussions, I had not one – but three – teachers, all at academies (of different brands) claiming they could not share medium-term plans or resources because their Head or employment contract had clearly stated anything created while holding a position at the school was copyrighted and must be purchased rather than shared. The teacher time that created these resources is – as far as I can see - paid for out of a national education budget designed to support all learners. Yet that knowledge is being kept secret by one school even though sharing the information would be no more onerous than sending an email and would have no detrimental impact on the schools' own students.

For 130 years forceps were kept secret so that the Chamberlen family could get rich. Though lives were needlessly wasted at least I can see how the Chamberlen surgeons benefited.  In the case of Academies (or any other school) blocking resource share I simply cannot fathom why they would want to keep their resources secret. Who benefits?  If something is working so well you are making headlines then surely it is only ethical to share what you are doing in your classroom so others can replicate your success?  If ethics isn’t a satisfactory claim, there is also a value-for-money issue.  How can it be efficient to have resources created by employees of the national government only to make those resources available for use in one school?

One might argue such secrecy still occurs in medicine as demonstrated in the protectionism and extortionate pricing of the pharmaceutical industries. But employees of these companies are paid for by the sale of goods – they are businesses, not public institutions. In education comparable services to pharmacy are the private publishing and consulting companies selling textbooks or software.  Paying for those services makes sense. But the idea that teachers – trained by the state, paid by the state – can be made to withhold information from others in their profession sets a dangerous precedent.  It sets us against each other rather than working together. And again I must ask, for what benefit?  Whose interest is protected by this? Is it the students? Really?

The only people who won in the history of forceps were the Chamberlens and a few hundred people wealthy enough to afford their services. Let's not have Academies make the same mistake.

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