The Fool and the Fool who follows the Fool: The Difficulties of School Leadership

20th October 2013 at 17:26

KING LEAR: Who wouldst thou serve?

KENT: You.

KING LEAR: Dost thou know me, fellow?

KENT: No, sir; but you have that in your countenance
which I would fain call master.

KING LEAR: What's that?

KENT: Authority.

King Lear, Act I Scene IV


There's an old saw that says if you want to lead someone you have to get behind them. Unfortunately some people think this means 'at the edge of a cliff' and 'push.' I've read several good blogs recently about bad management, or leadership. Tessa Mathews spoke of her recent mismanagement by an incompetent, and Old Andrew took a break from his normal chirpy, optimistic celebration of group work to write an acidic love letter to bad leadership. Both are well worth a read.


One of the main problems facing some schools would appear to be bad leadership. I constantly answer questions from new teachers whose difficulties stem, mainly, from weak management; from people for whom access to the upper pay spine has simultaneously removed theirs and rendered them invertebrate. In some schools, the quality of leadership is very bad indeed, and is a significant impediment to the progress of pupils and the well being of staff. To say this isn't to launch another salvo in the Great SLT War of 2013. Only an idiot thinks that all senior staff are incompetent, just as only a m*ron would claim that all teachers were faultless. Last I heard, we were all cut from the same cloth.


But, as Sam Freedman pointed out on Twitter today, this isn't unique to schools. I've worked in several fields of the private sector, and I can assure you that corporate bullshit is the lingua franca that unites them. I've endured grisly management training programs that would have broken a four star general like a school boy. I can confirm that NLP, Brain Gym and Inspirational Quotes from The Art of War were common in this field years before the zombie of commerical argot bit the brains of the education industry.


And, as Gerard Kelly mentioned in an earlier exchange today, it's important not to simply mistake a dislike of being told what to do, with the cognitive dissonance of believing management to be intrinsically unsound. There are good leaders and bad leaders, just like there are bad teachers and good teachers, and every point of the spectrum within those poles. There are good teachers that made bad leaders, and good leaders that can't teach well, and at times all of these people reverse their poles and do the opposite. Someone with more time should draw a graph with four quadrants to illustrate this excellent theory of mine, stick a TM on it, and sell it as CPD.


The Peter Principle


One problem is what's commonly called the Peter Principle, often summarised as 'employees always rise to the level of their incompetence.' Any hierarchal system based on merit or longevity will eventually promote everyone to the point where they are no longer skilled enough to be efficient. I've seen this often: great bartenders turned into bad bar managers; fantastic inspirational teachers, shuffling along as miserable, mediocre bureaucrats.


Defensive Infantilism


Another problem what I call Defensive Infantilism: the refusal to accept that one has impact and influence in an institution, because to do so would be to admit that you were responsible for the success of the environment around you. New teachers can scarcely believe that they're real teachers; new doctors drown in this feeling. Eventually you cut open enough pupils and teach enough corpses (check this- Ed) to accept that you are what you are. But it's amazing how many people in schools still refer to us and them, who complain that 'the school' never does anything about problem X. This is drawn in stark relief if you try a similar conversation with a pupil of a parent. Complaining about 'the school' with them will draw odd looks. ''re part of the school,' they'll say. Rightly.


That's no Moon

Connected to this is good old fashioned lack of perspective: every staff member in a school exists in a continuum of authority, not a binary Marxist nightmare. Teachers have some (varying) levels of authority in the classroom; they answer to a Head of Deaprtment or Year, who is in turn answerable to a senior staff member, who bends the knee to the Head Teacher....who in turn answers to the Governors, or Diocese, or LEA, or Academy Panjandrum or shareholder. I know Head Teachers who have complained to me about feeling helpless in the face of pressure from Ofsted, belligerent sub-committees, etc. We are all the school.


Join us, Luke

But the reason why more senior staff members get it in the neck, and justifiably so, is that their locus of influence is broader and less transient. They get to make decisions that over rule and transform the working lives of teachers, and therefore the learning life of a students. They are paid, it is said, the big bucks. They are subject to the same kind of high stakes accountability pressure that tends to be experienced by the bedsprings of Russell Brand's four-poster. And Head Teachers experience the crushing gravity of Jupiter, and live with job security levels that would draw pity from an England manager.


And the source of the gravity is Ofsted. This is the culture now. Senior staff in many schools are driven by one goal alone: satisfying Ofsted, surviving inspections. And when surviving inspections becomes the primary purpose, then all other purposes become secondary, in the same way that the pursuit of profit can chase out all other objectives. All other endeavours are subordinate, instrumental to the exterior target of satisfying the inspector. That would be a problem even if the aims of the inspectors were ideal, but if they remain as fundamentally estranged from the goals of education as they are, then the forecast is for continued disintegration.

Instead of asking, 'Is this the right way to educate children?' we now ask, 'Is this what Ofsted are looking for?' Instead of acting in the best interests of the education of the child, we attempt to divine, 'Will this evidence success, measured agaunst the barometers of Ofsted?' This turns every school it touches into a Satanic Mill, worse, a machine designed to emulate the Shibboleths of Ofsted. Nothing matters unless it can be evidenced, and nothing is done unless it meets the imagined whims of the inspectors.


No one, I think, could have done more to attempt to restore the Health of the inspection process than Wilshaw and Gove. But I wonder now if it isn't beyond nursing, and all we're doing is providing palliative care, when what we should do is tenderly smother it with a pillow and give it a Viking funeral. Many of the sins of gaming, early entry, resits etc are products of this culture. The present regime has done a good job of cutting such tumours out of the system, but as long as we're judging health by trepanning, the patient won't get well.


Someone has to save our skins. Into the garbage chute, fly boy.

So the problems of bad leadership in school cannot be solved easily. 1. External proxy metrics designed to commodify school success transform human beings into monkeys presenting their hindquarters. 2. Leaders trained, ironically to slavishly follow a rubric, and enforce it through a machine gun of initiatives and pet projects until even tough teachers wave a white flag and send up flares. And behind it all, human beings being both frail and superhuman at different times, trying their best- usually- and wondering when it starts to get easier.


Next I'll write about what needs to happen.