Bashing senior-leadership teams (SLTs) seems to be in vogue right now. A recent article about Barry, "the old-school teacher who defies SLT", was enormously popular, and another comparing college leaders to ""visionless bank managers" was an unashamed takedown piece. So although I’m probably not going to do myself any favours here, I believe decency is preferable to popularity and I think we need to stop this silly narrative that our bosses are our enemy.
I will say from the outset that I am married to a senior leader – and, hell to bias, it would take no effort to write a thousand and one blogs about how phenomenally impressive she is. But even if I were writing this before she joined SLT, I would feel the same about the need to treat our leaders fairly and respectfully, because they are genuinely deserving of it.
Background: Tes FE Podcast: The FE leadership challenge
High-quality senior leaders
I came into FE from schools and I have been struck repeatedly by the consistently high quality of college leaders compared with school heads. There’s a logic, if you think about it. While schools have weathered austerity, thanks to their higher funding, colleges have starved. It’s been survival of the fittest, so any leader still standing is likely to be very effective. Yes, a small number of principals’ salaries are like an annual lottery win, but most are not. They all come with the terrifying level of accountability and commissioner-oversight that is absolutely right for the solemn responsibility of preparing 2 million learners to build the future.
Comparing our leaders to bank managers is presumably meant to be insulting to them, though I think it’s more apt as a compliment. It was the world of deregulated high finance that led us into the 2008 crash, not the George Bailey types running local branches and looking after everyone’s savings. In colleges, senior leaders are often responsible for ensuring a thousand people have roofs over theirs heads and food on the table, while managing uncertain budgets and ever-greater costs. I sleep better at night knowing that there are people with some sense of caution and a working knowledge of Excel running things. If I were in charge, we’d have a few weeks of the most incredible resit-English provision you could imagine; every lesson would be like Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage on the Sunday night, but with elephants, and free Macbooks. Then we’d all be down the job centre.
Another criticism I’ve seen is about the suits. I’ve always worn a suit, from my first steps in education as a classroom assistant to my current, modest, middle-management role. I think it’s a working-class thing about respect that I picked up from my mum, who puts on her best clothes for the dentist. Therefore, it’s probably alien to the well-heeled Totnesian types who are usually the ones most critical of management. Speaking of heels, the high variety seem to regularly come under attack from those taking a shot at SLT; a sad misogyny symptomatic of those oppositional staff who imagine they’re on a picket line with Scargill and whose social attitudes haven’t moved on from the 80s either.
I have as much reason to rail against SLT as any loud, irreverent English teacher who runs his mouth in the heat of the moment and who can be too convinced of his own righteousness. However, I’m an adult and a professional and I’d like to think I’m reflective enough to admit when I’ve been a pillock rather than creating some grand mythology around myself like the "Barry" who, according to that article’s repeated refrain, “doesn’t give much away” but who in all likelihood doesn’t do much at all.
Senior leaders carry the burden of dealing with the Barrys, who don’t do a good enough job for our students, and who want a professional salary without professional expectations. Yet whatever kind of educational horror Barry is, I won’t deny his humanity. It’s worth remembering that our leaders are human, too – but their first duty is to our students, not popularity.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college. He is an ambassador for education charity SHINE.