'Break rules': How can leaders defy macho culture?

Long read: Could a more diverse school leadership help tackle sexual abuse and harassment in the classroom - of teachers and pupils?

Claudia Civinini

fighting macho culture in schools

On the day the Ofsted report into sexual harassment and abuse in schools was published, Caroline Derbyshire, chair of the Headteachers’ Roundtable, executive headteacher at Saffron Walden County High School and CEO of Saffron Academy Trust, had sexist abuse shouted at her while she was cycling to school.

"The irony of that didn’t escape me," she tells Tes.

"Because there I was, thinking about how we were managing that issue in school, and then thinking 'this is such a bigger issue than that'."


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The Ofsted report came after the website Everyone's Invited shone a light on the extent of sexual harassment and abuse between students in UK schools – making the term 'rape culture' part of the common vocabulary.

A Tes survey also found these issues were widespread in schools, even in primaries.

While it found that one in three primary school staff had come across at least one instance of sexual harassment or misconduct involving pupils at their school in the past year, the findings about the levels of sexual harassment witnessed by secondary teachers were defined as "concerning".

But it is not just students suffering, it's #TeachersToo.

Another Tes survey, published yesterday, found that one in five female teachers has been sexually harassed by pupils over the past year. 

And this statistic may just as well be the tip of the iceberg, as sexual harassment is notoriously under-reported. Shame, emotional pain and fear of not being believed can hold victims back from reporting incidents. And some teachers in the Tes survey lamented that when they did report the incidents, they were not taken seriously enough.

Would female leaders, with their lived experience of sexism and misogyny, be best placed to spearhead change in schools? And would victims feel more confident reporting incidents to female leaders?

"I think that’s quite possible. I think that female leaders might have more empathy for the women, might have experienced that themselves as well," Ms Derbyshire says. 

She says: "It’s just an interesting issue for female leaders particularly, the whole issue with sexual abuse, because I suppose that we know and understand that misogyny and sexism are not confined to schools, and we experience that in wider society too, and it does throw a sort of broader light on the whole topic."

Hanna Retallack, lecturer and researcher at University College London, and a former teacher, insists: "We absolutely need to have more diverse leadership teams, and I think that if we are going to make sure that women are believed on these issues, we have got to have women at the top as well."

But we don't have enough of them at the moment.

'Add women and stir?'

Ms Retallack continues: "Male teachers are twice as likely to hold leadership positions. So we do have an issue with who is leading our schools, and also it’s tricky – it’s not like the solution is “add women and stir".

"I think in a lot of schools, there is a lot of patriarchal ideology that really does persist."

Teaching is indeed widely regarded as a female-dominated profession, but the picture at leadership level is the opposite, especially in secondaries.

“Across all schools, 75 per cent of classroom teachers are female, whereas only 67 per cent of headteachers are female,” Julie McCulloch, Director of Policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, explains.

“However, there is a particular issue with the under-representation of women in secondary headship, with less than 40 per cent in headteacher roles, whereas more than 60 per cent of classroom teachers are female.

“In comparison, almost three-quarters of primary school heads are women.”

The reasons behind this are complex.

Women encounter several barriers in their journey to the top, and some of those have to do with outdated and harmful stereotypes about what being a leader looks like and how a leader works.

And the fewer women at the top, the fewer role models and mentors there are for other women who aspire to leadership – and the cycle continues.

Ms Derbyshire recalls: "Before I became a head myself, I had never worked for a female headteacher, I only had male role models.

"And that’s something that’s quite interesting because if that is the case on your own leadership journey, you tend to see the pattern that men create and the way they lead, as the only pattern you can follow.

Ms Derbyshire continues: "I think that you can either follow those models and try and replicate the way that men do it, or say, 'Actually I have to lead as a woman and be myself, and charter a different path and do it in the way that a woman can do it, and that means changing and breaking the rules a little bit.'"

But, particularly after the pandemic with many questioning pre-Covid practice and routines, the time seems ripe for change.

Breaking the rules

While views that part-time is 'immoral' are certainly not common, flexible work is still not a mainstream practice for schools.

However, it could be one way to effect change.

ASCL's Ms McCulloch says: "We need to embed more flexible working practices in the workplace – in teaching and in general – to enable both women and men to combine family responsibilities with their working life in a way that does not detrimentally impact on career progression."

When she started her first headship, Ms Derbyshire recalls, she at times had to leave at 4pm to pick up her children and then return to school later. This was something that surprised people, as it did not fit with their expectations.

But breaking the rules and people's expectations, she says, not only makes it possible for other people to join in the same path, but it is a sorely needed innovation.

She says: "I think some of the models of headships have been built around what was possible for men to do perhaps in the early part of the 20th century rather than a more modern take on how leadership can be done nowadays.

"I think there are still old fashioned attitudes to flexible working, for example, or more modern approaches to leadership, but I think those ideas can be challenged, they are not logical: we have always done it like that I don’t think that’s necessarily effective."

She adds: "I think there are opportunities now to revisit leadership, and if you look around the world at the moment there are some excellent examples of extremely effective female leaders leading their nations and their countries, particularly during the pandemic.

"I think they have done an extremely good job and I think that it does ask the question: are we looking at what’s effective or are we looking at expectations about behaviours?"

Harmful macho stereotypes

When she started leading the Chartered College of Teaching, Professor Dame Alison Peacock felt that there would be some prejudice against a female leader in the wider sector.

She tells Tes: "I have been leading with stealth because when I became too outspoken there was an undercurrent of, 'Oh well, who is she anyway, ex-primary-head woman.'

"So I just continued to quietly speak up when I need to speak up about the things that I think are important. I try not to be unnecessarily provocative because what happens with that is that women are accused of being hysterical or over-emotional."

But she adds that kind of leadership, the quieter, principled, empathetic leadership, is what schools need.

She says: "I do think that governing bodies are themselves very often dominated by men, but governing bodies need to be looking at other voices. And I think the quieter, more insistent, principled voice is sometimes overlooked in favour of the macho-strutting kind of approach.

"I think about Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand and I think: what a great example of being able to be principled and firm but not necessarily need to link that with aggression in any kind of way.

"So I think the models of ideal leadership that we have are quite often defined in terms of male/female terms. Now interestingly I think that the leadership that Gareth Southgate has shown is much more in that sort of female style – daring to show love, daring to forgive, daring to constantly show hope, I think that’s a much more sort of female leadership than the – "Everybody sit up straight, I have arrived" – kind of male leadership."

But the kind of leadership that Ms Ardern and Mr Southgate champion has some diehard clichés to fight against.

"Despite efforts to the contrary, there remain the vestiges of some harmful stereotypes in education ranging from the cliché of the male PE teacher being the only person who can manage behaviour (no doubt some truth in it but it is not the only way) to the cliché of the male headteacher who has gravitas," Kathleen McGillycuddy, principal of the Broadoak Academy – Cabot Learning Federation in Weston-super-Mare, tells Tes.

"I cringe when I hear that word ‘gravitas’ used in this way."

She adds: "If we cut to the heart of the matter, there are too many recruiters with a fixed view of what a headteacher should be and this needs to change – we change it by being very incisive and critical about recruitment practices, about how we manage the talent pipeline and how we become aware of what our unconscious bias may leak out in our words and deeds.

"I would also advocate for candidates to be brave and to do what we tell our students to do – go for it and fail splendidly if needs be!"

And this is something women don't necessarily do well. 

"Quite a lot of the research into this issue about why women don’t step forward is that they sometimes think they need to be the finished article, and actually they don’t," Ms Derbyshire says.

"Encouraging people to be braver, encouraging people not to see leadership as a sort of super quality, and that you can get there and you can be good enough – these are all things that can be quite helpful."

Echo chambers

The need to challenge leadership stereotypes is quite urgent.

"Here’s the thing, if nothing is done then we have status quo, we risk echo chambers, we risk compliance, we risk identikit leaders and we may never realise the potential of our fabulous education system," Ms McGillycuddy warns.

"It’s a system bursting at the seams with talent, dedication and moral purpose – we need to actively nurture leaders that may look, sound and feel different to what we are used to in our various organisational entities… and celebrate that."

But there is no easy way to explain and solve the gender imbalance. "There are some interesting factors at work here and no facile nor binary reasons suffice as an explanation – as always, it is more complex.

Perhaps it is time to embrace that complexity rather than suppress it. Perhaps it is time for education to be brave and to change the way things are done round here?," Ms McGillycuddy asks.

And while it is indeed true that the solution, as Ms Retallack says, needs to go beyond "add women and stir", it is worth remembering that harmful stereotypes harm men as much as they do women, and that empathy is a quality available to all genders.

Dame Alison says: "I don’t think it’s always a gender-based thing – I don’t think women always believe other women, that would just be simple.

"But I think the more women we have in positions of power, the more women will have kind of experienced gender battle and understand what other women report to them.

"You can have a male leading an organisation with a culture of empathy and listening and ensuring that everybody’s voices are heard – it’s not just an exclusively female kind of thing.

"But we need to make sure we have that sense being valued and listened to and understood. And that’s the way I think we can move beyond this."

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Claudia Civinini

Claudia Civinini

Find me on Twitter @claudiacivinini

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