Schools: the egg-laying, wool and milk-giving sow

Originally posted on Labour Teachers, June 1st, 2015. If you haven’t read the posts on Labour Teachers, you really should. Even if you aren’t a Labour supporter, or even a UK teacher. The blog – contributed to by a variety of educators (not all Labourites) – articulates many of the concerns and hopes of people working in education today.


Einst fiel einem Züchter ein,
Wie die Tierwelt würde sein,
Wenn man durch geschicktes Paaren
Fische schüf’ mit krausen Haaren.
Die könnt’ man wie Pudel scheren
Und die Arten sonst vermehren…

…Was wir brauchen, ist ein Schwein,
Das Merinowolle trägt
Und dazu noch Eier legt.
Das soll Ihre Züchtung sein!

(One day a breeder thought he’d see,
Imagining how the world might be,
If you carefully chose the pair,
Fish could be made with curly hair,
Which could be sheared and bred for more…

…What we need is a pig,
that grows merino wool and lays eggs
That is what you should breed!)

A German poem, ‘Der Kampf um das eierlegende Wollschwein’ (‘The Fight for the Egg-laying, Wool-Pig’), translation from this site.


When I was eleven, I got a Swiss Army knife for Christmas.

I’d wanted one for what seemed like my whole life, though in reality it was probably only a few months. But during those few months, I dreamt of how, with this compact gizmo in my pocket, I would be able to do ANYTHING and EVERYTHING. With that little red Sampo, I would conquer worlds, defeat fearsome beasts and build fortresses. And when I’d finished all of these things, I could give myself a manicure and kick back with a freshly opened tin of baked beans.

The thought that I wouldn’t need to have separate utensils for everything was enticing. No longer would I need a set of screwdrivers or an individual pair of scissors. Gone would be the necessity to own a corkscrew (to be honest, I hadn’t needed one up until that point in my life, but I knew it would come in handy for the post-battle toasts during all of the world-conquering). And never again would I have to wield a cumbersome full-size wood saw.

Except the reality of a Swiss Army knife is that it performs none of the roles it purports to anywhere nearly as adequately as the individual tools it mimics. When I received the gift, I showed it off as much as I could. But when it came to performing functions such as sawing, cutting, tightening screws and opening tins, I shunned the various limbs of that little MacGuffin in favour of proper tools – tools that were designed to do their one job well.

Policymakers seem to want to turn schools into Swiss Army knives. Rather than wanting schools to be charged with doing the one thing they need to do well – educate young people across a range of subjects, politicians from all sides seem to want schools to do everything from babysitting to building character to teaching Britishness. The problem is, like the Swiss Army knife, if schools are spread too thinly on what they are asked to do, they will do all of those things badly.

It seems that, whenever society is presented with a problem, it is down to schools to solve it. In the eyes of politicians, schools have become what the Germans would call die eierlegende Wollmilchsau: the egg-laying, wool and milk-giving sow. Plainly put, this is the name given to an all-in-one entity that can – or at least attempts to – do the work of several specialised tools.

The idea of a single animal that lays eggs, produces milk, gives wool and then provides you with a side of bacon when it’s done is indeed an enticing one. But, of course, it is a mythical beast. Nobody believes in it. Nobody except politicians, that is.

For when society throws up a concern, politicians know that schools can add the solving of that concern to their ever-burgeoning to-do-lists. They think that schools will give society milk, eggs, wool and bacon on demand. The problem is that schools won’t be able to do that, but what they will do is try. And in trying to feed and clothe everyone, they’ll end up falling short on all counts.

What politicians needs to realise is that anything they scrawl on the schools to-do-list will diminish our ability to do everything else well. Just like the Swiss Army knife, when given lots of things to do, schools will do most of those things badly.

What we need right now is the direction to do one thing well – teach our subjects. Anything else is making an egg-laying, wool and milk-giving pig’s ear of education.

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