Not so long since, I was driving home from Pembrokeshire and up the M42 when I passed a wagon on which was proudly declared that the company that ran it was the largest large vehicle and coach recovery company in the UK.
I remember thinking, for some bizarre reason, I wonder if the guy who runs it has fulfilled his potential?
Careers' Master (I went to a boys' grammar school) to bright pupil: You'll go a long way, young man.
Bright pupil to Careers' Master: Yes, I'm going to run the biggest large vehicle and coach recovery company Britain's ever seen.
So there you go. Potential fulfilled.
Actually, I really was at school with a great guy who became, for a couple of years, Colonel Gaddaffi's personal pilot.
Careers' Master (all boys school, remember): And what do you want to be when you grow up, young man?
School friend: Sir, I want to be the personal pilot of a mad despotic dictator.
Careers' Master: Well, we'd better qualify as a pilot first, hadn't we?
So, there you go again. Reached his potential didn't he?
As for me, on my school reports, I tended to get stuff, guff, like "Norman isn't working to his potential". "Could do better." (If you think of it "Norman is working to his potential" would sound quite damning, wouldn't it, as if the teacher really wanted to add "... it's just that he's thick.")
Potential "reached"; potential "fulfilled". Was there ever a politician, trying to say something meaningful about Education, who didn't say they wanted every child to "reach" or "fulfil" his or her potential? (No, I shall resist googling potential in Hansard).
So why this sudden outpouring about "potential"? Because I currently have an active and practical interest in Trustee Board governance. And on twitter about 30 minutes or so ago, I read (Sean Whetstone @schoolgoverning) that 'A Recommended Code of Governance for Schools' had just been published by the Wellcome Trust and thought I'd take a first look. Sounds authoritative.
"The Wellcome Trust believes that good education is impossible without good governance." Just so, I thought. Up-front with a strong statement. Spot on.
"The Recommended Code aims to improve how school governing bodies work, including how they set strategic direction, how they evaluate their own performance, and how they hold the headteacher and other senior school leaders to account for the performance of the school." Just so, I thought, again. Governance in three words: strategy; self-evaluation; accountability. Governance for Dummies: get the book. Or rather "The Recommended Code". So I did. Downloaded it.
Just at the moment I've been doing some work exploring what performance indicators (cf Ofsted "School Data Dashboard") can mean in an independent non-maintained special school, all of whose pupils have statements of special educational need and which practices conductive education. (As I write that, I'm wondering whether my perspicacious teacher wasn't correct after all about me not working to my potential!). So I dipped straight into Section C of "The Recommended Code":
“High-level school performance indicators, encompassing all outcomes for an effective school, on which governors report annually to parents. Linked to the high-level performance information that governors need to monitor the performance indicators.”
And there it was: the very first 'school peformance indicator' that I saw as I scrolled down the downloadable .pdf file:
Do learners at this school achieve to their potential?
I just have no idea what this can mean. Try: "Do teachers at this school teach to their potential?" Is that any more sensible? Does it mean anything more? Does it mean anything? If so, what?
It just seems so much woolly thinking. Language as fluff. How can anyone know? How will I know when I reach my potential? Perhaps I already have done. Now there's a worrying thought. All down hill from there on? What if my potential peaked when I was 21? 42? 62? Teaching in Kenya in the 1970s? Sharing running the documentary-making company in the 1980s? Having had three great children? Being a loving husband?
And just how is the Wellcome Trust proposing to measure whether learners achieve to their potential? In special schools, by pupil "Progress against appropriate measures". Progress against approriate measures is just that, useful and important as it is, a measure not of "potential achieved" but of progress against appropriate measures.
In what way is "Progress against appropriate measures" any more a measure of learners achieving their potential than it is of teachers teaching to their potential, especially when no-one can possibly yet know the "potential" of either learner or teacher? And when, if "potential" has any meaning whatsoever in education, it can only be something that is not "achieved" or "fulfilled" but "created". And what of the child for whom progress is, maybe only sometimes, agonisingly, almost unmeasurably, slight? Is their progress against appropriate measures evidence of their 'achieving their potential"?
"Potential achieved" is for educational bean-counters. The transaction between teacher and learner in education, in schooling, is transformational or it is nothing.
The real challenge for Trustees and Governors (and how much more so is this true in special education) is how to evidence that the school of which they are custodians and guardians is truly a transformational place for children, young adults and, yes, even the teachers and governors and all the other staff and the parents.