Why we need to learn from the past and become Black Box Thinkers

March 31st 2016

It’s been a while since I went to a sector event so I decided to attend an event hosted by PACEY last week to hear if our Minster had anything new to say (he didn’t but what he did say was that he was listening!) The theme of the event was ‘partnership’ and how we better engage with schools. PACEY was celebrating the positive evaluation of a £350,000 DfE funded pilot called ‘Starting School Together’ created to help build good partnerships for children as they moved into schools. It was a very fine project involving four schools and the Headteacher who spoke was a Head we would all like to have; personable, engaged and fully cognisant of all the benefits of good partnership for everyone along the chain including nurseries, schools, childminders, parents and obviously most importantly the child.

I sat for a while before I was moved to speak. What baffled me was,

1. Why were we talking about the benefits of partnership like it was a new concept?

2. Had we all forgotten the Ten Year Strategy set up by Labour when they came to power in 1997 with operational targets to improve partnerships particularly through Children Centres?

3. Were Children’s Centre not designed for the express purpose of creating a systemic response to helping partnerships develop and sustain?

4. Have we still not learned that while projects are great they don’t change the system because they are too dependent on funding and when does the project end? When the funding stops?

5. Why are we allowing Children Centres to disappear if they are key to developing the very partnerships we applaud?

6. Hands up, how many of you got involved in a range of Local Authority led projects to improve transitions with school only to see it fail because of the lack of engagement from key people?

7. How many of you found that partnership depended on the personal relationships with the local Head, Early Years Adviser but most importantly the local community networks ?

8. What is the future of partnerships if all schools are to be independent Academies?

9. Add you own questions here…

The concept of partnership is not new. It makes eminent sense. What we must do is consider why it continues to fail at every level of the system. We have not managed to create behaviour change. I recently read a book called “Black Box Thinking” by Matthew Syed. You will recognise the Black Box image from the aviation industry but this book uses a range of industries; health, car manufacturing, pharmaceuticals. In order to better understand how we can use failure to learn from our mistakes we must use deeper analysis so as to transform our performance and develop properly instituted learning cultures which lead to reduced failure and greater embedded innovation.

The challenge from Syed is for us all to become Black Box Thinkers. That means avoid blame and the usual knee jerking (not me gov!) but to take time and effort to understand what has failed and transforms our action. In a cash strapped children’s services world where every decision matters to the long term life chance of a child we need to get as much right as possible. We therefore owe it to every child to stop reinventing the wheel but to think, analyse and learn. This quote sums up for me why we all need to become Black Box Thinkers

Everything we know in aviation, every rule in the rule box, every procedure we have, we know because someone somewhere has died. …

We have purchased at great cost, lessons literally bought with blood that we have to preserve as institutional knowledge and pass on to succeeding generations. We cannot have the moral failure of forgetting these lessons and have to relearn them.