“Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool . . . thou find’st to be busy is some danger.” – Hamlet
There is nothing new under the sun. Great literature becomes great by enduring: as successive generations recognize themselves and their situations, the universality required for ‘greatness’ is established. Technology may change, but we don’t. People were just as sophisticated, noble, selfish, guilty, altruistic, ruthless or self-absorbed in the past as now. Great theatre simply holds up a mirror to show us ‘the soul of the age’.
Polonius is a case in point. He is comical precisely because he takes himself so seriously. Though Hamlet calls him a ‘prating knave’, and a ‘tedious old fool’, Polonius counts himself as a shrewd politician, a spymaster, a tasteful judge of literature and theatre, the king’s right-hand man and, at the last, the queen’s overseer. Such conceit invites ridicule. We tend to be more sorry for Hamlet, who kills him in error, than we are for Polonius.
And yet Polonius’ comic appeal is based on familiarity. He is very much like us, or the parts of us that we might not like to admit to. He likes to be listened to; he has lots of advice for others which he studiously ignores in his own life; he fishes for compliments, and will talk himself into knots rather than disagree with someone of higher status.
His conceit leads to delusion. He believes himself powerful, but does not realize how little power he really has. Nevertheless, his position gives him too much scope for trouble. In a more junior role, he might have minded his speech, curbed his sense of rank, spared himself pain, and not triggered the destruction of a dynasty.
Polonius is the portrait of a human type, the self-important manager. He is the David Brent of Denmark, and he is, sadly, all too recognisable in the managerial ranks of the nation’s schools. From Slough to Skegness, Southampton to Scarborough, managers are busily keeping us busy, reminding themselves daily of their importance by reminding others of their existence. As Zen might ask, what is a manager with no one to manage?
This busyness is the greatest curse of schooling in the UK. The illusion that more activity will result in better outcomes has blighted the education of millions of students. Over the last several years, there has been a massive increase in workload for teachers: some specifications at GCSE are into their third rewrite in six years; we have moved from coursework to controlled assessments to exams; ‘informal’ learning walks have become embedded as a way of targeting staff deemed unsuitable; Ofsted has changed its assessment framework three times without a blush, and schools are falling over themselves to comply with each new version. Interventions to push students higher at key grade boundaries are de rigeur in many schools now, and there is a common expectation in many – though not all –that teachers will provide after-school and holiday tuition. One could go on to other examples, but much has been written elsewhere. John Thomsett, for example, has argued cogently that ‘less is more‘ and that quality of teaching, not busyness, is the key to success; and Heather Leatt has concisely summarised why English is no longer a viable subject to teach on Twitter:
The deeper problem is not that politicians and bureaucrats want to set us targets so that they can prove that they have raised standards – it was ever thus – but rather that the accepted mechanism for creating change is more ‘ambitious’ and ‘driven’ managers (you can look in the TES to find these words in most SLT job advertisements, along with ‘exceptional’ and ‘outstanding’). As a result, we have promoted many people who at a lower level in the feudal hierarchy of education would have done little harm and perhaps some good. Now, however, they are busily acquiescing to, and even anticipating, each new edict or whim from above – whilst transferring the pressure to those below them.
We desperately need people of vision, empathy and courage in our schools. Too often we have appointed those who can flourish a spreadsheet or an action plan, and who can present themselves as the king’s right-hand man or woman. You can be certain that such a person will be very good at ensuring that deadlines are met, that instructions are given in time, and that compliance is checked. But you can also be sure that they will not care about the people beneath them in the hierarchy. Like Polonius, they are blundering into darkness, with no plan but to comply with the latest wish of their masters. Like Polonius, they are blinded by their preoccupation with position, and like Polonius they cannot perceive their true condition.
This is not a call to insurrection by teachers, but an appeal to managers: to be braver, less self-centred, and more humble in the face of the talents and characters of the people we work with. Is it possible that we could find ways to be less busy but more productive? To encourage teachers to focus on the quality of our work rather than the busyness that is so much easier to observe and tick off a list?
Not that this is an easy road to take. Hamlet rejects the pretence and pomposity to which Polonius is bound. He is a man who can see what needs to be done, and what this might cost, but chooses to pay the price: “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right!”