Chainsaw heads? Never!

13th January 2006 at 00:00
A few months after I became a head, I asked the local authority advisory team to inspect our school. In the days before regular and frequent inspections, it was a good pre-emptive ploy. Maybe it still is. The authority had put me there after all, and were likely to add their weight and approval to what I was trying to do.

"You've turned it around," said the lead adviser. I was quite taken aback by that. "Improved things a bit"? Maybe. "Made a decent start"? Perhaps.

But "Turned it around"? I'm not sure about that even now.

That notion of "turning round" is heard even more in these days of our preoccupation with measurable school improvement. There are heads who are reputedly good at it, moving from school to school, shoving them one by one up the league tables. Let's hope, though, that they do not cleave too assiduously to the methods of "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap, the self-styled "Turnaround King".

Dunlap, a renowned chief executive in the States, went into companies with the one explicit aim of increasing shareholder value. In a typical example, the share price of a business he ran rose from $1.77 to $18.55 in the two and a half years he was there.

How did he do it? There's no mystery. In fact it wasn't even very difficult. All Chainsaw Al did was focus single-mindedly on the one important target. Anything else was fair game for being cut, sidelined, and covered up. So, in one case he stopped the company's charitable donations, closed two factories and, crucially, slashed the research and development budget. One senior manager recalls being told: "We don't want any bullshit.

Your life depends on hitting that number."

The shareholders, and Wall Street, loved it. The feelings of the sacked workers (11,000 in one company alone) can only be guessed at.

Of course, in the end, it all fell apart, and it was Al's turn to be fired.

There was no real long-term thinking you see. It was all about chasing a target and not worrying about real, deep-seated and sustained development.

Heads, of course, don't work like that - they wouldn't, for example, focus resources upon the small cohort of children where a marginal improvement will make a visible impact.

The fact that school leaders do generally behave honourably around narrow targets owes everything to their integrity and values and not much to the system within which they are expected to work.

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