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Tempted by the networking bandwagon

Picture the scene: another education seminar or conference at which the "great and good" of Scottish education are well represented. Introductions, handshakes, pats on the back, self-deprecating humour are all much in evidence. Smooth transitions between groups are effortlessly effected, business cards are exchanged, promises of follow-up contacts made. Welcome to the world of networking, now seen as an essential feature of professional life.

A recent advertisement for a senior post in the public sector listed "advanced networking skills" as a required characteristic. Not so long ago the "old boy network" was viewed with disfavour as a bastion of sexism and class privilege. Now the possession of a personal organiser filled with the phone numbers and email addresses of "movers and shakers" is seen as indispensable for anyone with ambition.

Do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that opportunities to exchange ideas with people working in different parts of the system are undesirable, nor that having professional contacts who can be consulted for advice or information is without value. But modern-style networking goes much further than that. I can think of people who seem to spend so much time networking that one wonders how they manage to do any real work.

Equally, there are people whose main talent appears to be to "work a room", ingratiating themselves with those judged to be key players in the game of professional advancement. Watch out for that person who is always looking over your shoulder to see if there is someone more important to talk to.

Some self-interested networking is comically transparent and its practitioners soon gain an unenviable reputation for greasing and smarming.

But, in its more subtle forms, there are insidious aspects of the practice.

It can lead to shallowness and superficiality, so that who you know becomes more important than the quality of your thinking or the professional principles that underpin your actions.

It can also lead to a cosy complacency in which people tell each other what they want to hear instead of really engaging in the kind of hard reflection that is a necessary condition of real progress. Ego-massaging is simply unacceptable when, in so many areas of education, what is required is sharp analysis and creative solutions.

Another questionable aspect is the way in which contacts in education extend into other areas of public life. The political links to new Labour of some senior figures would be worthy of investigation, though it is doubtful whether co-operation for such an inquiry would be forthcoming.

Again, tracing the connections between the independent schools in Edinburgh, the rugby fraternity and the financial services industry (banks, insurance companies, investment trusts) may offer equally interesting insights into the exercise of power in Scotland. What might emerge is that the "old boy network" is alive and well, despite the rhetoric of inclusion and opportunity which is trotted out with regularity by political leaders.

There is a sense in which education is simply catching up with other fields. "Good" contacts have always been regarded as vital in the business sector. And in medicine and the law, networking is well established as a professionally advantageous activity with unwritten rules of propriety which, if followed uncritically, can ease career paths. Increasingly, the same pattern can be observed among voluntary organisations.

The danger in all of this is that it may be the slickest, not the best, people who gain recognition. If the talents of those who are not prepared to play by the networking rules (because they cannot stomach them) are submerged or lost, that is surely a matter of concern.

Walter Humes is professor of education at Aberdeen University.

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