Don't try to win the war

21st October 2005 at 01:00
TE Lawrence is back in fashion I see, with the opening of a new exhibition ("Lawrence of Arabia, Life and Legend") at the Imperial War Museum in London. One exhibit tells how the Pentagon has been circulating some of Lawrence's sayings to its generals, for example, "War upon rebellion is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife."

When I read that one, I couldn't help thinking that could apply quite well to the business of school improvement. Rather than being passed down from above, though, it could be used by the schools themselves as a reminder to a government which appears at times to think that a school can be quickly turned round by changing its name and status. The truth, though, is that deep rooted change in a stressed and complicated organisation takes longer than anyone thinks. As someone who certainly wasn't Lawrence of Arabia once said: "It takes nine months to make a baby. You can't get yourself a baby in one month by hiring nine women."

Part of the problem is that the heads themselves like to tell an uplifting tale of marching onward and upward at the front of the parade. Ask the right questions, though, and you start to learn the things they'll only tell you off the record - of the long, slow business of lifting the spirits of demoralised staff. Most importantly you'll hear about the frustrating and distracting amounts of time spent on competency and disciplinary procedures, dealing with those who can't or won't live up to what's being asked of them. It's very difficult and it calls for a rare blend of personal and professional leadership qualities. The trick is to ensure that the majority of people, defeated and doubtful though they may initially be, will rally to the cause, leaving only a small number who in the end will have to leave.

There are many moments when it seems it'll never come right. One head I interviewed some years ago, who eventually wrought a total transformation in a city school, went through intensely dark times, at one point having to be persuaded by the chief education officer not to give it all up. Sanity survived, in his case, because without realising it he was faithful to another of the Pentagon's timeless Lawrence utterances: "It is their war and you are to help them, not win it for them."

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