David, Justine, Amanda: praise us like you should

Punishment and praise need to be re-thought for education’s CEOs and leaders
27th October 2017, 12:00am
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David, Justine, Amanda: praise us like you should


Shock and awe behaviour policies seem to be all the rage - not least with the government’s latest cunning ruse that would have some of us retrain as prison officers. These gradgrindian approaches are not for me - I’m made of softer stuff - but they have given me pause for thought as to the rewards and punishments meted out to us CEOs and leaders in education.

First, the rewards. Obviously, we are handsomely remunerated. Many of our number have also been recognised with honours. Others are vaunted in the media.

But none of these is truly a reward. A bauble, yes. And just as we get the so-called rewards wrong, we make a Horlicks of the punishment. Yes, I’m sure that being hauled over the coals by the Public Accounts Committee or having a reporter sniffing around your soiled linen is deeply unpleasant. Being probed by the Education and Skills Funding Agency must be up there with, I imagine, a prostate examination. But none of these genuinely represents punishment.

Just as a crude set of sanctions don’t work in a school, they don’t work for the sector. When students behave badly and are seen to get away with it, it emboldens others. The same applies to us. High-profile misdemeanours that apparently go without consequence are not a disincentive for others who might be tempted down that path. The list of shameful behaviour that has passed by with little more than the raising of the eyebrow grows ever longer. Just how bad do things need to get?

We need to toughen up. We need not to become the captive of the forces of political correctness, which Sir Michael Wilshaw reminds us are alive and well in the Department for Education (bit.ly/WilshawDfE). Misdemeanours must be called out. But we also have to get the other side of the equation right.

Establishing a culture

Praise usually works. But where’s the praise for those doing a good job? Without wanting to sound part of the woolly-liberal-knit-your-own-yoghurt brigade, when you establish a positive culture that positively promotes behaviour, guess what? It usually works. And we need our leaders to lead on this front: Sir David, Amanda, Justine - listen up!

But it’s not just our national leaders who need to change their behaviour policy. At local level, things have to change. The most egregious failures have come to pass because leaders of schools are not effectively supported and challenged by a good governing body. And here’s the rub: multi-academy trust governance is, in general, shockingly weak, and too many trusts try to turn a governing body into a board of trustees. It just doesn’t work.

I’m all for Ofsted inspecting MATs. But how about these inspections have one focus: the forensic testing of governance? Let the student outcomes speak for themselves, and keep inspecting academies as before - but focus on the board: it all begins and ends there.

CEOs should be banned from being trustees, and regional schools commissioners need to be much, much tougher when approving sponsors. How about taking more than just a cursory look at their governance?

The DfE and government needs to smarten up their act, and the smart thing to do would be to invest in strengthening MAT governance so that the real powers to rebuild, reward and punish sits at the right level.

The author is the CEO of a MAT somewhere in England

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