The Infinite Game: warding off warped fears 

Millions of school improvement plans are written every year around the world. Many are overloaded, disconnected, avoidant, boxy. Grey rhinos (predictable, high-impact threats) like pandemics scupper them. 

School leaders labour under intense pressures and immense forces that surround them. 

What are the strongest perverse incentives and fears in the system –  and how do we guard against them? 

The strongest perverse incentives come from inspections, examinations and external backlash, such as social media storms and media shaming.

The Fiercest Fears

Inspection Downgrades & Special Measures

We fear inspection. Among English headteachers, there is a prodigious fear of Ofsted. Even the bravest heads I know have shadow systems of tracking, monitoring and evaluating things for Ofsted that they wouldn’t otherwise collect data on. The perverse incentive here is to spend vast amounts of time on inspection preparation in areas that mismatch what the school most needs to focus on, to spend more time monitoring and evidencing and proving and less time planning and leading upstream improvement.

Examination Results & League Tables

We fear league tables. Even the bravest heads I know think about this a lot. The perverse incentive here is to fixate so much attention on a single year group, Year 6, Year 11 or Year 13, and neglect the other year groups that will be in the same place downstream if they are neglected.  

Pupil and Parent complaints and protests on rules, consequences and exemptions

We fear complaints and protests. The perverse incentive here is for leaders to undermine pupil responsibility/agency/resilience, to kowtow to the most livid parent anger or bullying, to lower standards for the angriest, dependent on mood not what’s right, to let students off and let them down, to undermine staff decisions, courage, consistency and morale, and to undermine pupils’ long-term life chances for an easier, quieter life.

Governor backlash on suspension numbers

We fear governor backlash. Governors see numbers more often than they experience the full classroom reality. They pressure heads to reduce the numbers. Reducing the number of suspensions, though, isn’t as important as reducing the behaviours and mindsets that bring about abuse, threats, aggression, fights, defiance, bullying, vandalising/damaging property, misusing social media like filming staff/students and posting it online, and discriminatory abuse. These misdemeanours increase if schools don’t give clear, consistent boundaries and consequences to show they’re unacceptable in society, in workplaces, in relationships and in life, and this violates a school’s duty of care. The perverse incentive here that governors can inadvertently exacerbate, is that heads stop or cut consistent consequences for infractions of what’s expected of young people and adults, undermining their future prospects with a culture of inconsistency, impunity and a safeguarding deficit.  

Social media has made it easy to mistake the loudest voices for the truest.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. 

Social media storms and school shaming 

We fear social media storms. Heads are vulnerably exposed to community anger and vitriol. Social media mobs can whip up a cruel circus of livid outrage, hectoring, censure, haranguing, insults, hatred, abuse, harassment, shaming, pile-ons, pillorying, witch hunts, trying to make people lose their jobs, contacting employers, stoking a mob, creating a vengeful atmosphere that creates fear and deters others from speaking out. I know heads threatened with being met in the car park as they leave in the evening by hostile facebook groups, who have told me they feel like criminals in their own community after a social media witch hunt. I know staff after a tragic school bereavement confronted with malicious accusations and hatred online. The perverse incentive here is to back down on high standards of behaviour for fear of fuelling the fire and fury from the mob.

Media backlash and hostile press coverage

We fear the media. Journalists need stories, drama and conflict to boost readership, click and advertising, to make the profession sustainable. So they amplify the disgruntled. The perverse incentive here is that heads back down on high standards of behaviour for fear of fuelling the ferocious flak of media mobsters.

Warped incentives, warped plans

In summary, the perverse incentives surrounding headteachers include:

overpreparation for inspection

fixation on exam groups and neglect of younger yeargroups

undermining, backing down, lowering standards on consistent consequences

Fears lead to recurrent problems in our school improvement plans.

Overload: we cram in priorities for inspectors such as assessment, governors or sixth form, which might not be the top priorities.

Disconnection: we disconnect from the reality of staff and student everyday experience to fixate on last-minute cramming and holiday revision for exam groups.

Avoidance: we avoid confronting our behaviour challenges and disruption obstacles so as to avoid backlash from students, parents, governors, inspectors, social media and media. 

Boxiness: we use metrics and targets, often pressed on us by inspectors or governors, like “reduce suspension numbers” (at all costs), that box us in and misincentivise us further to cut the stats rather than address deeper causes. 

Fears, though, can be dragons, guarding our greatest treasures.

Five ways to face our fears

  1. Fear setting: know our fears; learn about fear 
  2. Courage maxims: know the best maxims on courage
  3. Prisoners’ dilemma: build allies’ trust 
  4. Infinite games: play to give, play for love, not to compete
  5. Independence: increase financial security and resilience 
  1. Fear setting

Fear setting is identifying, writing and then coming up with ways to overcome our fears.

For example, we fear a social media storm. How can we handle this where it occurs?

2. Maxims on Courage

  1. ‘Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we might attain, by fearing to attempt’. William Shakespeare
  2. ‘Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it… As we are liberated from fear, we liberate others.’ Nelson Mandela
  3. ‘Courage is the first of all virtues. Without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently’. Maya Angelou
  4. ‘Success is never final; failure is never fatal; it’s the courage that counts’. Winston Churchill
  5. ‘Live brave; if fortune is adverse, front its blows with brave hearts’. Marcus Cicero
  6. ‘To learn the most important lessons in life, one must each day surmount a fear’. Ralph Waldo Emerson
  7. ‘Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage’. Anais Nin
  8. ‘Stand on a mountain top where lightning strikes; you don’t have to hide in the valley where you’re safe’. Richard Hamming
  9. ‘Now the trumpet summons us again, not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are – but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle…’ John F. Kennedy
  10. ‘Fear? I never saw fear.’ Horatio Nelson
  11. ‘Courage calls to courage everywhere’. Millicent Fawcett

3. Prisoners’ Dilemma

Are heads trapped in the prisoners’ dilemma?

The prisoners’ dilemma is a thought experiment that shows why people might not collaborate well, even when it’s in their best interests to do so. 

The scenario: two prisoners are arrested and separated. Each is offered the same deal.

If you confess and the other remains silent, you go free, the other gets a long jail sentence.

If you both confess, you both get a reduced jail sentence.

If you both remain silent, you get the lightest jail sentence.

Each is faced with a dilemma: confessing at the cost of the other, to try to avoid any sentence at all, is the rational choice for each. 

So both prisoners tend to confess, and betray the other.

Even though it would be in both of their best interests to cooperate and remain silent.

Each prisoner, in trying to maximise their individual gain, means the group as a whole suffers.

The moral: cooperation breaks down in situations where individuals act in their own self-interest.

It’s similar in schools. Examinations and league tables put heads in a bind and in a dilemma. If they fixate on their own results, they neglect to support other schools and other children, and they might increase their own scores but at the expense of helping others. If they fixate on individual interests rather than on community cooperation, it makes their scores better but their community role harder. Schools competing over resources, students, staff, league table positions and inspection results, become less willing to share learning, knowledge, ideas and resources, making it harder to solve common problems, like underachievement or truancy. 

What are the ways out of the collective action problem of the prisoners’ dilemma? 

Support: headteachers can be supported with great CPD on how best to collaborate.

Cooperationenabler: a third party, such as a trust, can help collaboration.

Sharing. Headteachers can share knowledge and resources with each other.

Trust. Headteachers can build trust with each other over time so that when they are faced with self-interested choices, they can trust each other to make the enlightened choice to share. 

Communication. Headteachers can communicate with each other in moments of truth like recruitment of staff across schools.

Recognition. Our ecosystem can better celebrate, recognise and encourage headteachers who share and who make enlightened choices. 

4. Infinite Games

Finite games are played to win. Examples are examinations and inspections. 

Infinite games are played for love. Examples are learning and relationships.

Finite games are fixed in a scarcity mindset so that some must lose.

Infinite games are set in an abundance mindset where everyone can win.

We don’t have to play the game to beat, defeat or outcompete others. 

We can play the game to learn, to stay in the game, to learn, for the love of it!

Seeing education as an infinite game helps us in several ways.

Cooperation, not competition. We are not adversaries, but allies.

Long-term, not short-term. We can think intergenerationally, not about year-end results.

Lifelong learning, not just schooling. We can all always be learning together, adults and kids. There is always more to learn, always deeper truth and greater wisdom to develop.

Creativity, not fear. There is no single goal to be achieved at all costs; we can always find new and different ways to achieve the diverse goals of hope, wisdom, contribution, community and dignity.

5. Independence

If we increase our financial security, we increase our freedom and independence.

If we are free from debt traps, we feel more free to be brave and take risks.

The more free we are from heavy mortgage repayments, the more flexibility and choice we have, the less dependence and fear.

If we increase our financial stability, we have more versatility to take up greater opportunities.

If we have greater financial resilience, we have stronger chances of enduring life’s storms.


Warped incentives warp our plans. 

Overpreparation for inspections, fixations on exams and lowering behaviour standards warp our school improvement plans, making them overloaded, disconnected and avoidant.

Inspections, examinations, parents, governors, social media and the press are here to stay.

Fear setting, courage maxims, collaboration, infinite play and resilience can help.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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