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The stakeholder test

The stakeholder test for making decisions in schools - Teacher and Musician - John Kelleher

I used to think that ‘stakeholder’ was an ugly word. Especially when applied to schools. “Teaching isn’t a business,” I would protest, “can’t we just get on with the job?” A few years later, of course, I was using the word as much as anyone. It might be an ugly word but it’s also a useful one.

Useful how?  First, a little context…

The times when I would most often hear ‘stakeholder’ used in schools was during an INSET day. A list of the who has an interest in the school would be dutifully listed by all present. Ofsted, senior leaders, governors, parents, teachers, support staff and pupils.

‘Pupils’ were invariably the last to make the list, which was, presumably, because they were the least likely to wear a suit (school uniforms don’t count…). More often than not, everyone would leave the meeting having agreed that the pupils were the most important stakeholder.

Knowing the list of stakeholders isn’t what makes the word useful.

I always thought that the stakeholders could be divided into a simple list of three:

  • the learners
  • the teacher
  • the system

For the sake of clarity, I’ll define each one.

Learners are the children, the pupils, the students. The ones doing the learning. Hopefully, that’s clear enough!

The teacher, in this context, is the one person working with the specific learners at this specific time. During your lesson, you are ‘the teacher’. The same learners in a different person’s lesson? You are not ‘the teacher’.

The system refers to everything else. All the things that support the lesson that the teacher and learners are in. All of it. Support staff, Ofsted, senior leaders, middle leaders, databases, flight paths, spreadsheets, attendance records, timetables, governors, other departments, the kettle. The lot.

With these three things agreed on, the word ‘stakeholder’ starts to get useful.

The stakeholder test

The stakeholder test asks ‘the system’ and ‘the teacher’ to ask a simple question:

“Who will benefit from this action?”

“This action” can be anything. Assessment is a particularly good example:

  • “Who will benefit from this assessment?”
  • “Who will benefit from this performance assessment lesson?”
  • “Who will benefit from this multiple choice test?”
  • “Who will benefit from completing this worksheet?”
  • “Who will benefit from entering data in this spreadsheet?”

With our simple, three-point list of stakeholders, the answer will be any combination of ‘the learner’, ‘the teacher’ or ‘the system’. Answering this questions should, therefore, be simple.

Entering data into a spreadsheet is likely to benefit the system but have little or no benefit to the learner or teacher.

The chances are that the ‘performance assessment lesson’ benefits the teacher (by simplifying the process of coming to a summative assessment grade) and the system (by having those grades entered into the system). It probably has little or no benefit to the learner since they could have learned a whole lot more from a formative assessment that provided little or no interruption to the learning process.

Formative assessments? They benefit the learner, since (s)he receives useful feedback. The teacher also benefits because it informs his/her understanding of how the learner is progressing. The system doesn’t gain a lot from it (except in the long term).

Drawing conclusions from the stakeholder test

If I were to write a simple mantra for the stakeholder test, then it would be:

“Only do things if they benefit the learner.”

Unfortunately, we live in the age of accountability. The system will need some occasional feeding. As a result, a more relevant mantra would be:

“If an action doesn’t benefit the learner, then reconsider your approach.”

This has the wishy-washyness that the current climate so often demands. If the system demands that you do something, then it’s probably best to do it. By all means, argue your case. Present evidence that calls the action into question. Try to implement the action in a way that benefits the learners. But be prepared to lose the battle – there will be more important ones that need to be fought.

The stakeholder test, therefore, is a simple way of keeping your ship sailing in the right direction. Try keeping a list of times when you’ve applied the stakeholder test. Do the learners benefit more often than not? If not, that’s when you really do need to take action.