Editorial - Machiavelli? Sun Tzu? No, desperate heads should look to George Dubya for inspiration

22nd October 2010 at 01:00

School leaders are having a hard time. Expectations have never been higher; calls for instant success never louder; intolerance of failure never greater. In the past three years, the number of deputies and heads who have been forced to resign has risen by 75 per cent (Magazine, pages 10-17). Now the Education Secretary has vowed to cull headteachers who cannot cut the mustard just as the chancellor is wielding his axe.

Beleaguered heads may look to leadership gurus for answers. That, however, would be a mistake. The last thing one needs in times of crisis is the advice of a genius. Machiavelli is silent when it comes to the remorseless logic of Ofsted's new framework, and Sun Tzu has little to say on the impossible expectations of politicians. Far better to turn to someone who not only survived huge challenges but did so despite being widely derided as a fool. Yes, the desperate should heed the words of George W Bush.

George has been much "misunderestimated". He, like many heads, was alive to his critics: "I would like to thank you for your warm welcome. Especially those of you who waved with all five fingers." And he understood that sound finance was key to any operation: "It's clearly a budget. It's got a lot of numbers in it." Above all, he formulated one of the most brilliant and least appreciated leadership maxims of all time: "You can fool some of the people all the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on."

Apply it to education, and the possibilities become apparent. Sadly, the days when you could spend weeks painting the school and sending dodgy staff and students abroad ahead of the inspector's visit are long gone. But there are still games a desperate head can play: a liberal interpretation of special needs to flatter the contextual value added, for instance, or a zealous application of exclusion. Then there are the dark arts of covert selection, the wholesale adoption of courses that aren't too taxing but promise excellent league table results, and the focus on maths and English to the exclusion of virtually everything else. Indeed, if a head times it right, the short-term improvements could earn them a knighthood before they are proved to be utterly unsustainable.

None of this could of course be called "education". But faced with a system that prizes uniformity above uniqueness, data above judgment and conformity above creativity, what's a head to do? Uncannily, George was on the money: "Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?" Which not only neatly posed the problem but answered it, too. Yet for those who despair that a culture of mediocrity infects education, he offered encouragement, too: "To those of you who received honours, awards and distinctions, I say well done. And to the C students, I say you, too, can be President of the United States."

gerard.kelly@tsleducation.com.

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