Fast, good or cheap? The ‘Triple Constraint’ in Education.

‘Fast, good or cheap? Pick two.’ Originating in software design, this aphorism nicely challenges our ‘have it all’ delusions. Make something quickly and cheaply and quality suffers. High quality products made quickly are expensive. You can have both quality and affordability, but you will have to wait for it. Known in business circles as the ‘triple constraint’, it also lends itself to a great pub game – finding examples in everyday life. Home cooked food can be tasty and easy to make (bacon sandwich) but not terribly nutritious, or easy to make and nutritious (a salad) but not terribly tasty, or tasty and nutritious, but not easy to make (anything in a ‘Anna Jones’ recipe book). I first came across ‘triple constraint’ in this article by Oliver Burkeman and he cites a blog by the entrepreneur Ben Casnocha who has some amusing, if provocative examples. For example, holidays can be exotic and/or cheap and/or relaxing, and our partners can be hot/smart or emotionally stable.

Perhaps teachers can be popular and/or effective and/or emotionally stable whereas with leaders the trade off is between being visionary and/or consultative and/or effective. Pupils’ writing can have good ‘SPaG’ and/or be neat and/or be interesting…although this year’s end of key stage interim assessments are only bothered with the first two. While I hate and detest that dull and boring writing which is neat and has good spelling trumps imaginative, thoughtful work – particularly the perverse incentive to use easy-to-spell vocabulary rather than take a creative risk – I would be willing to trade a little bit of creativity for better spelling and handwriting. Or we could go all out for all three by increasing the curriculum time for English by cutting time for something elsewhere. You might be able to cling onto a broad and balanced curriculum by your fingertips – but depth of coverage in English will have to be paid for by superficiality of study somewhere else. You just might not admit it. At least, not publically.

Project managers describe the triple constraint as defined by choices between time, cost and scope. By scope, performance specification, and/or quality is implied. Project managers use this as a tool to stop kidding themselves that there are no limits upon what can be achieved within a given set of finite resources. It’s a refreshing blast of realism in the face of aspirational, ‘whatever it takes’ woo.   No one gets to have to all. We’ve all made choices along the way – using the model just makes us honestly own the downside of our decisions. If you want something quickly (or frequently) and high quality, it is going to cost. That cost may not be in cash terms, it may be in terms of opportunity cost – you can only spend the time of your teachers once, so make sure you spend that time wisely. So with marking, a set of books can be marked and returned to the class very soon after the initial lesson and the marking can be very effective in that it enable great progress – but this will be at a huge opportunity cost to the teacher. All other calls of their time will have to be rejected – including the calls of their family commitments and personal wellbeing. Here the high quality of the marking and quick turn around is achieved at the expense, or cost, of the teacher’s time. Whereas in days of yore when ‘tick and flick’ was the norm, marking cost relatively little in terms of teachers’ time and could be turned around quickly – but didn’t have much impact of pupils’ learning. Its scope was limited. The Holy Grail of course being finding a system that effectively accelerates pupil progress (scope) whilst still occurring frequently (time) without incurring too large an opportunity cost on the teacher’s time. (Although I suppose theoretically one could reduce opportunity cost by increasing financial costs by employing more teachers to do the marking – not a route likely to catch on in the present funding climate).

The Marking Policy Review Group certainly makes some interesting suggestions and claims that its triplet of ’meaningful, motivating and manageable’ marking is relatively easily achievable – no triple constraint here. Maybe, because meaningful and motivating cover the same ground? Marking’s hardly meaningful if it is not motivating, is it? Clearly, we all want to reduce the opportunity cost to teachers that marking in its present form is extorting. So either we accept that we will have to reduce how frequently work gets marked, or reduce the scope of marking.   So, for example this primary school uses codes and symbols which direct action the next day. A different solution is to only explicitly marking a couple of pieces per class – and sharing these, via a visualiser, with the rest of the class – leaving them to then ‘mark’ their own work by extrapolation. The trail blazer schools are reporting that this approach is working really well; better in fact than the old distance ‘deep’ marking of all pupils’ work ever did.  This of course has its own opportunity cost in terms of curriculum time – curriculum content not covered because lesson time was spent improving and deepening what has already been taught – teaching less but in more depth – in other words, a mastery curriculum. Maybe this is a price well worth paying – for what it is worth I think it probably is – but we should not flinch from owning our choices. There is a shadow side to every decision.

One of the things I really admire about Michaela School is the way it is so up front about its choices. Accepting that it is impossible to do everything – it doesn’t try to. But rather than sweep under the carpet the corners it has cut, it advertises its omissions as a badge of pride. No distance marking here, no siree and no display neither. No computing, or DT or PHSE. Joe Kirby explains here how ideas can be either hornets or butterflies. Hornet ideas are high-effort, low-impact, whereas butterflies are vice versa. Reports and homework are hornets. I don’t think computing and DT are seen as such – just collateral damage in the struggle to teach an exacting and demanding curriculum in the other subjects. You pays your money and you makes your choices. Costs and time being relative fixed within schools – the only give in the system is to reduce scope somewhere along the line. Even when you’ve honed your systems to be as effective as possible – no school can do everything – so choose what you don’t do or what you do less well consciously and not by default.

It would be really useful if schools had to be really honest about the downside of their choices. Particularly in these days of school to school improvement, where we look to schools with amazing results and then try and copy what they do, its really important we are aware of the hidden cost in the choices they’ve made, so we can decide whether the strategies being employed are really replicable, sustainable and ethical. For example, some schools burn through young staff by working them to exhaustion at great cost to the individual teachers concerned. It gets results…but is this sustainable long term? Obviously it’s unethical. (Maybe that should be marked up as an increase cost…to one’s mortal soul!)   But less dramatically, how useful it would be to hear about the things people have decided not to do. School A decides it won’t have a library, thus reducing both financial and curriculum time costs – no more time consuming book-choosing time. The downside is some children who don’t have parents who either buy them books or take them to the library don’t get to read much for pleasure. Maybe their intake means they don’t have many parents like that, or few enough for some different, cheaper strategy to expose those children to a rich selection of books. Or maybe that’s just how it is. Instead, all the children get quality musical instrument teaching. At School B, the priorities are reversed. School C teaches maths in a way that means almost all children make rapid progress. The cost? Children on p levels become more and more isolated, hardly ever working in class with their peers, never taught maths by the class teacher. School D withdraws poorer readers from humanities lessons for extra phonics. The downside is while their phonics improve, their general knowledge suffers, so later on they find it harder to understand what they read.

One problem is often the effect of the downside is displaced a few years, so the school in question does not pay the accountability-price of their choice. The school without a reading-for pleasure strategy doesn’t pick up the tab when that child effectively stops reading fiction. As I’ve written about before, teaching maths with an over-emphasis on the procedural at the expense of the conceptual might engender short term results but at a cost to longer term comprehension of the basics which comes back to bite (some other teacher’s) bum. And the outcome of some choices will make itself felt many years down the line, well into adulthood. An adult drowns; her primary school cut swimming provision to the bone. Another goes to prison; he never received help with his anger management when he was little. Yet another has poor health due to obesity; PE was a Cinderella subject. Obviously the lines of cause and effect aren’t anywhere near as clear-cut as this. But let’s be honest with ourselves. We say we come into teaching to transform children’s lives. Yet the reality of it is, we have to choose which bit of their life it is we are trying to transform. In other words, we have to be clear about the scope of education; what it is we can do well, given the other constraints of limited time and money. What really matters, what will we go to the stake for?

With the coming National Funding Formula, us London schools are bracing ourselves for cuts on an unprecedented scale. The triple constraint reminds us that if there is less money, then either scope will have to be reduced or timescales will increase. In an education context, timescales are fixed. Whether SATs or GCSE’s, those annual results wait for no man – there’s no potential to ask if year 11 can take their Maths GCSE at the end of year 12 as we’ve had to reduce the frequency of Maths lessons due to staff cuts. (Although I love the idea of ‘when –ready’ exams along the piano grades model, I can’t see the government adopting this any time soon). Age-related expectations set tight delivery timescales. Failure to meet them is, well, failure.

So the scope of what we offer will have to take the hit, or several hits, meaning we’re reflecting as rigorously as possible on what is absolutely essential and what is potential cut-able. Not being an academy, I can’t ‘do a Michaela’ and decide we are just not going to teach certain subjects. Obviously English and Maths take centre stage. The time devoted to the rest is already less than ideal, except for music and French – which being taught by subject specialists and taught whilst class teachers have PPA – get an hour per week come what may. Who knows if we will still be able to have subject specialists. Are they the cheapest way of covering PPA? Are they the best use of ‘spending’ precious curriculum time.

We are very proud of our pastoral provision. As well as a (part time) learning mentor and a (part time) home school liaison officer, we also have our own social worker half a day a week. She’s invaluable. They all are. I could reduce this team, or salami-slice their hours. But the inevitable effect would be to reduce the scope of support for the most vulnerable. Maybe, longer term, the scope of the kind of pupil that comes to our school will have to be reduced as we have to cut the resources that enable them to stay in mainstream. They won’t cope. We won’t cope. But hey, there’s always permanent exclusion.

Cutting back on the arts is pretty much inevitable. Swimming provision: how little is too little? We have already cut back on our intervention programmes. Children who are way behind in Maths would have, in previous years, had half an hour a day catch up with a specialist teacher, following a programme proven to be highly effective over the long term. Well, those children won’t get that opportunity anymore. But at least our deputy head teacher is able to run intervention groups – for now.

No wonder oldprimaryhead wrote this heart felt blog recently. That’ll be me next year. I don’t deny that funding needs to be fairer and that in Tower Hamlets we’ve been generously funded compared with everyone else. But it’s not like we’ve been burning fivers; the money’s been used very effectively.

Of course, we are not allowed to admit that scope – quality and breadth of provision – have taken a knock. Since we are held accountable for standards in English and maths, we will move heaven and earth to maintain quality there, while wondering what we can pay lip service to, while maintaining a veneer of quality? What can we get away with? What can we live with and still sleep at night?

I didn’t start this blog to moan about education.   There’s plenty of people doing that already. I’m not decrying moaning. It’s necessary. Done well, it galvanizes us to change things. But I wanted to mull things over, suggest solutions, share what I’ve read. This post seems to be a bit scarce on the sharing suggestions front. Sorry about that.





Fast, good or cheap? The ‘Triple Constraint’ in Education.

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