UKEdMag: Blaming the System by @ICTMagic

We are told ‘Don’t let the system get you down’, and ‘rail against the system’ and endure the untold misery of ‘We are updating your system.’ Systems have a bad reputation for being bureaucratic, red-tape decorated jumping hoops. This is certainly true of many systems and no more so than in education. A system which isn’t working well is clearly evident while those that are working as they should are often invisible or unnoticed, but vital to the smooth working of work, learning and life.

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 edition of UKEdMagazine
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Many systems in schools work perfectly well, but many do not and it is important to know why this is and to attempt to make at least marginal improvements whenever one can.

In education, we rightly fear mechanising teaching and learning and worry about schools becoming production lines for clones and drones. However, by having the right and ever improving systems, whether organisational or technological, we can streamline what can be automated and achieved habitually to give us more resources, and notably time with the children. In business, this idea is often referred to as ‘the Toyota way’ which reflects the car company’s push for incremental improvement by everyone and anyone on the team. All organisations try to make improvements of course, but the difference here is that the improvements are always used to push up standards rather than driving down costs, which is the usual focus of ‘efficiency and improvement’ in most organisations.

Being ‘of the system’ often means that one is unable to see the simple possible improvements or how ludicrous some of our current systems are. In business, this is what consultants are often paid huge sums of money to point out. Thankfully in schools, we have our school community who will often help us for coffee and biscuits, but a school needs to welcome and encourage their outsider’s insight.

One interesting example can be found in the medical world with Atul Gawande’s @atul_gawande W.H.O. work of embedding a check-list into surgical operating theatres. In studies, this simple measure to ensure that nothing was forgotten and that everything needed was to hand reduced the mortality rate by many percentage points. Simple, but something important that wasn’t being done until recently.

Lastly, it needs to be acknowledged that all systems can and will fail. It is a key component of every NASA mission design to decide and work towards the best mission with this in mind. There are fail-safes for fail-safes on space missions, but redundancies cost more and make the mission more complex, so a compromise must be reached. The discussion that we as educators need to decide is what rate of failure is acceptable to us, how we design and then improve the systems within our schools to met that rate of problems arising, and what we need to put in place for when systems do break-down. Let me be very clear that I am talking about failing systems, rather than failing our pupils here. By thinking about how a system may fail we can have contingency plans and resources to deal with the failure to ensure that pupils and staff are not impacted unduly.

It is important to continually improve what we do, but it is equally important to recognise what is working well in the background and contributing to the learning of our pupils. Because in a school it is always ‘all systems go!’

Martin Burrett @ICTmagic is editor of UKEd Magazine and edu tech specialist. Find his educational app and website listings at and see his new Primary Computing book at

Image credit: By Christian Schnettelker on Flickr under (CC BY 2.0)

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