'It's a mistake to assume that good classroom teachers will make good headteachers'

Too often, the great teachers are pressured to climb the career ladder to leadership – does it really make sense for these members of staff to spend so much time in an office, while children are taught by the less experienced, one author asks

Ian Stock

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It’s all too easy as a rank-and-file teacher, to sit on the sidelines and take pot-shots at "the management". To those free from such responsibility, those in that unfortunate position are sitting targets. It is worth remembering, though, that nobody is obliged to take those posts, with their irresolvable conundrums, difficult decisions and divided loyalties.

Neither is it reasonable for those in management to dismiss the rest as also-rans, ignoramuses who don’t know what they are talking about. All of us have experience of management – just from different perspectives. Given the power-imbalance here, regular teachers need a louder voice on this – it’s only what the "pupil voice" does for the children. When office doors are even metaphorically closed, misunderstanding is the likely result.

The management consultant Margaret Heffernan wrote a book called Wilful Blindness about the effects of this. When you put some people in charge of others, divide their loyalties between those above and those below – and then place them at a remove from the rest, in comfortable offices where they can see little and know less about the real human beings in their charge, it is hardly a surprise if decisions are taken "strategically" rather than with the actual human consequences in mind. That remove is the first stage of depersonalising the management process. The second is the all-too-easy assumption that those in charge know best, and are therefore infallible. The perceived need to listen to those who might be their "eyes and ears" on the shop floor rapidly fades.

When, as Heffernan describes, the consequences are meltdowns in power stations or fatal explosions in oil refineries, this is not a trivial matter. And that is a critical point: management is not always right – and the workforce not always bloody-minded and parochial.

Different skills and talents

Yet there is much to suggest that this is how many of Britain’s schools are still managed.

There are certainly some enlightened ones, but they seem to be the exception. We should perhaps remember that school teaching and school management are two entirely different occupations, which require different skills and different talents. It is perhaps a mistake to assume that good, classroom teachers will make good school managers. My experience and impression is that management does not generally want to hear what the grass-roots have to say.

Alain de Botton observed that a lust for status is a mark of how difficult life is at the bottom. By this measure, life as a British classroom teacher is not good. Very many who enter the profession seem to be making a decision either to climb the ladder as rapidly as possible, encouraged by what passes for a professional culture – or get out after just a few years. This is not good for the profession: it means that very many experienced teachers are spending large proportions of their time in offices rather than classrooms – joined by those who increasingly have little deep experience in the classroom role to draw on as managers.

We have here the recipe for something of a perfect storm: managers who are both pressurised and constrained, who may lack the perspective to take the long (and humane) view of the issues and people they have to deal with – and a situation where the regular day-job is so tough that those who can, get out. We might add to the mix the air of entitlement that often seems to accompany management roles; this naked assertion of status is not something I have noticed in schools in other European countries. For example, the Swiss school that I know well has minimal distinction between staff, and even the headship is low-key. Coupled with the loss of autonomy that heavy-handed management often brings, it is perhaps not surprising that there still seems to be considerable antagonism between many managers and their staff.

Exacerbating teachers' problems

In difficult times, such as now, this is especially unhelpful. A "them-and-us" culture is not inevitable in the workplace – and yet it seems to be something that management as routinely practised seems pre-destined to create. When times are tough, it does not help if one group is seen to be insulating itself at the expense of the other. I wonder how many academy heads have taken a pay-cut as part of their austerity measures that have seen lower-paid staff losing their jobs.

Over the years, management has been used as the (only) means of career progression in a job whose essentials basically entail remaining ad infinitum in classrooms with children. The top-heavy structures and vested interests that have resulted have made basic problems worse: the cost of management salaries cuts deep into the budget for teaching staff. Their lighter teaching loads exacerbate the problem, adding further pressure to those who remain in the classroom. The use of space for offices and the demands of bureaucracy cut into resourcing and departmental budgets. It makes for a situation where even more are likely to seek respite from the classroom. And if we accept for a moment that those promoted may indeed be the most talented teachers, I wonder whether it really makes sense for them to be spending much of their time in offices, while the children are taught by the less experienced.

Schools need management: there is no way in which resource-heavy institutions of perhaps a couple of thousand individuals can function without it. But management has become the albatross around the profession’s neck. Particularly in straitened times, we can ill afford so much of it. Managers should manage logistics – and leave professionals largely to manage themselves. Most teachers are more than capable of doing that – it just requires a less neurotic mindset on the bridge. Continental schools function with flatter management structures than we do in Britain – and trust their teachers more.

Perhaps the time is right for those who purport to lead the profession to show less "management" and more leadership. They could start by setting a better example in how they treat those at the sharp end – by both listening and trusting more, by consuming fewer of the sector’s scarce resources – and by getting back into the classroom more themselves. 

Ian Stock has taught full-time in a large and successful secondary school in Brentwood, Essex since 1987. He is the author of The Great Exception: Why teaching is a profession like no other, published by John Catt Educational.

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Ian Stock

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