Trams or Tractors? Tractors or Trams? Twice.

I wrote this (prophetic!) draft blog last Spring. As I’ve almost failed to publish a blog in a month for the first time since I started blogging, I thought I’d better publish it now – as originally drafted but with one new photo!

IMG_2331  IMG_6549

It’s funny sometimes how our personal worlds and our professional lives collide. Actually it would be funnier, more strange, if they didn’t. So much of what we do comes from who we are, and so much of who we are is defined by what we do. I am a… [insert profession/mild term of abuse here].

Having taken the decision to move on from where I am now, I am currently challenging myself as to how open I really am as to what I might do next, and to where I might do it. Hence one of the questions I’ve been asking is “Can I work equally well, whether surrounded by Trams or Tractors?”

I’ve usually been seen as a townie. Born and bred near one big city and then settled down and raised a family on the edge of another. My townie credentials are watertight – if I want them to be.

Yet a number of interesting opportunities recently have lain outside the big cities: some have had a strong rural theme to them; some have even been perilously close to the seaside.  And Manchester, as we know from Ian Brown, has everything except a beach*.


When I think of it, though, I went to secondary school with people whose idea of the ideal driving machine wasn’t a Maserati or Ferrari but a Massey Ferguson. My parents actually moved to live in the town of Harry Ferguson’s birth, with bullocks grazing beyond their back garden and alpacas fussing about across the road out front. I grew up as close to tractors as to trams.

The other Trams or Tractors question is more fundamental to colleges than my own personal future location. It’s about the model we use to describe and understand what it is that we do in education, and how we do it. Ken Robinson touched on the issue a couple of years ago here (at 14 mins 18 secs).

My description of it goes like this…

In colleges we are driven by data, just as schools before us have been driven by data.

Why? Because of the input-output model we have adopted for our education system. We use data to describe our inputs: prior attainment, initial and diagnostic assessments, range of learning needs.  We use data to judge our outputs: qualification completion rates, student progression and destination rates, value-added measures.

In between these two sets of data, these inputs and outputs, we have a black box, the black box of the business processes that we use to process students. Inside the black box are the things we do.This input-output model is a manufacturing model, an industrial model, as befits us as the descendants that we are, the children, of the industrial revolution.


But when you look inside the black box, you don’t find an industrial process. The process you find is closer to an agricultural one: planting, feeding, watering, nurturing, pruning, training, harvesting – activities designed to encourage nature to take its course, in the best possible way, a course that is about growth, development and maturation.

I believe that this is a major cause of disconnect and misunderstanding between most senior leadership teams and their teachers.

One group of people is trying to run a multi-million-pound, industrial-sized, input-output machine – in an environment that demands the justification of measurable results. The other is a group of horticultural experts lovingly pruning their bonsai and training their raspberry plants to climb up vertical bamboo canes.

But which group is right?

Well, neither of course, and both. Colleges are not, and cannot function as, collectives of subsistence farmers or experimenting green-fingered experts, disconnected from the rigours and demands of a modern economy and its shrinking public sector budget.

But nor is teaching an automatable, mechanised process that generates the same predictable, standardised outputs of progress from each teaching intervention.

Colleges are factory-like organisations operating in a post-industrial age that are having to learn how to adapt, survive, and thrive in a persistently changing and probably ever more hostile environment. But even our image of agriculture is changing. Just as  Agri-Tech conglomerates are moving us from traditional farming techniques, those at the technological edge of education are moving us towards educational hydroponics** where we have to learn how to grow our crops with neither soil nor a field to plant them in, teaching more with less, learning without classrooms.


People (and societies) will always need skills, just as people (and societies) will always need food. The people who understand learning and learners are going to have to work very closely with people who understand how to make multi-million pound corporations work. Or be the same people.

Otherwise, we may well end up with a learning and skills sector that is unsustainable, dysfunctional, or maybe even, not there.

As for me, I’m moving on. Not sure yet where, nor what to. But life is all about change and all about learning. So I’m choosing change, and will continue learning.

Trams or tractors? Yes please. Both.



* the new pic is the view from my new front doorstep

** the hydroponics pic was from

About dp40days

A senior leader in Further and Higher Education, now based in Moray (pronounced "Murray") on the coast of the Scottish Highlands. (I know, I love paradox). We have more sunshine and less rain each year than my previous home in Manchester, and about fifty more distilleries too! You can find me on Twitter as @DP40days. Blogs so far have been mainly about work and travel but frankly, I've been a bit quiet recently. Maybe that's about to change...
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1 Response to Trams or Tractors? Tractors or Trams? Twice.

  1. Rosemary McCormack says:

    A really interesting post. For me working in the college sector, the fast pace need for continual change to produce the high end PIs a continual challenge, as well as, the requirement of the SFC and the need for growth, however, less funding to create the growth. I’ve grown up around Massey Ferguson, in fact, enjoy the fun of a really old one when ever possible in my work life balance. The freedom and enjoyment of the Texel pedigree sheep I have as a hobby and tend to every day, before heading to the fast pace of the college life and output – input requirement. These sheep however also require me to think about the output -input requirement as I also breed them. The tram for me reflects the busy packed aspect of my work life and the Massey Ferguson is the recreational slower paced wellies aspect of my life. With a smile on my face, the beach photo in your post is certainly one I’ve walked on regularly to consider the tram/Massey Ferguson life balance.


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