You can’t have your cake and eat it too!

The phrase’s earliest recording is from 1546 as “wolde you bothe eate your cake, and have your cake?” (John Heywood‘s ‘A dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue’)[1] alluding to the impossibility of eating your cake and still having it afterwards; the modern version (where the clauses are reversed) is a corruption which was first signaled in 1812.

Paul Brians, Professor of English at Washington State University, points out that perhaps a more logical or easier to understand version of this saying is: “You can’t eat your cake and have it too”. Professor Brians writes that a common source of confusion about this idiom stems from the verb to have which in this case indicates that once eaten possession of the cake is no longer possible.[2] Alternatively, the two verbs can be understood to represent a sequence of actions, so one can indeed “have” one’s cake and then “eat” it. Consequently, the literal meaning of the reversed idiom doesn’t match the metaphorical meaning.

The phrase came to mind this week in relation to the outcome approach that we’ve struck with schools.  Following the model established by the Scottish Goverment we struck a concordat with schools where they are free to deliver the outcomes in a manner which suits their circumstances – as long as they deliver the agreed outcomes.  The great temptation in such a scenario is for us to stray from the original concept and begin to interfere by:

  1. instructing schools about the process of delivery;
  2. directing the inputs that they must put into any outcome; or
  3. directing the outputs (numbers/quantities) in relation to any intitiative.

I first explored the notion of moving from an output approach to an outcome approach last year when I came across the concept of social return on investment.  I’ve had to stop myself on a number of occasions over the last 12 months from directing schools towards outputs, e.g. the number of teachers who have gone through a certain course; or, the number of hours that must be spent on a subject.

I’ve stated on many occasions that I think the Scottish Government are to be congratulated for adopting an outcome approach – but like them we must guard against the temptation to interfere in the delivery process – which is better left to those who are responsible for delivering the desired outcomes.  I’m worried that if I were to jump in over the heads of headteachers and direct their actions from above it wouldn’t be too long before they became incapacitated by confusion about whether I really trusted them or not!