He has seen the future and it gets harder

29th November 1996 at 00:00
Much of what Charles Handy predicted for schools 10 years ago has since come true. Patrick Scott looks at the work ofa far-sighted thinker.

The only certainty about the future is its uncertainty, Charles Handy writes towards the end of Understanding Schools as Organisations, simultaneously parading his credentials as a futurologist and inserting an escape clause should he be proved wrong. Notwithstanding, he uses the final chapter of the book to risk a number of predictions about the future of education, for the very sound reason that "if our current schools wish to (stay) part of the action, they will need to change".

Given that Understanding Schools as Organisations was first published in 1986, it's not unreasonable, 10 years on, to ask for a progress report. How good was he at spotting the trends?

This, in brief, is what he saw coming:

* all schools will have to provide for special needs;

* further pressures for the rights or needs of individuals to be met in school programmes;

* more technical and vocational experience and a growing demand that "life skills" be included in school programmes;

* education coming to be seen and practised as a lifelong process;

* education that is less about subjects and gathering knowledge and more about learning to live as an independently functioning being who is both self-regarding and regardful of others;

* the teacher's job becoming less didactic, less judgmental and more enabling and facilitating;

* a move away from a fixed curriculum for all in order to meet the needs of the individual;

* active learning methods so learners participate in decisions on the nature and pace of what they are doing;

* a move away from the authoritarian style of relationships between teachers and learners.

In The Age of Unreason two years later, he went a step further, floating some radical ideas about institutional change, including:

* schools to provide a core education and contract out the rest to independent suppliers or mini-schools - the example he gives is of information technology or the arts being taught in specialist centres; * educational credits forpost-compulsory education to be cashed in at any time in an individual's life;

* a more emphatic emphasis on establishing learning organisations so that schools constantly renew themselves.

He didn't do badly, though it should not be forgotten that Handy is in that most comfortable position for soothsayers of being sufficiently eminent to shape as well as predict the future. None the less, he was undeniably clear-eyed about some trends, particularly those that reflect the wider political and social shift towards individualism, "the de-massification of society" as Alvin Toffler terms it in an ugly but useful neologism.

His most astute observation, however, is not so much about what the future holds but about the way in which, as a nation, we will adjust to it. "It is ... likely," he wrote, "that schools will, in the best British tradition, stumble backwards into the future, looking longingly at the past as they move away from it."

Ten out of ten for having anticipated today's wave of nostalgia about educational practices that were junked 30 years ago. It is no mean feat to have identified something in the national culture that would ultimately lead to Melanie Phillips and her ilk queuing up to turn our schools into educational heritage centres.

It's this that makes Charles Handy particularly interesting. He is not just a flashy management technician with a cute turn of phrase. His range is much broader. He is interested in the wider social, economic and cultural context within which organisations exist. A recurring theme of Beyond Certainty, his most recent publication, is that "there must be more to life, and indeed to business, than mere money, or more money ... success can and should be measured in other ways ... there is, after all, such a thing as society".

It is this that makes him more difficult to categorise than most. He has few nostrums, preferring principles to panaceas, and he has an independence of mind that makes him something of a maverick. There are a number of items on that list of predictions that might make him look like a champion of the new right - educational vouchers, contracting out, specialist educational centres, a technical and vocational curriculum. What else would you expect from the private sector? At the same time, he is quite comfortable citing Carl Rogers and Ted Wragg when he's trying to paint a picture of what school-leavers need if they are to exist in an adult world: active learning, a move away from didactic teaching, less reliance upon a fixed curriculum and so on. It's the same when you try to identify the underlying belief systems that inform his work. On the one hand he embraces with enthusiasm much of the current vogue for downsizing, glamorising short-term contracts, for example, by reinventing them in The Age of Unreason, as an essential contribution towards "portfolio" working. On the other hand, he lectures the captains of industry in the Michael Shanks Memorial Lecture on the dangers of short-termism with every bit as much conviction as Will Hutton in The State We're In.

Some of this can probably be attributed to a career that has allowed him to steer clear of any single set of cultural or ideological assumptions. He is fond of quoting Dr Johnson to the effect that you can understand your own country so much better by standing in someone else's. That is clearly how it has been for him. He is one of the few Britons working in a field dominated by North Americans. He has been an academic as well as a businessman and when he is on the radio, you are as likely to find him speaking on the Today programme's "Thought for the Day" as on Analysis. It may also be significant that he has, on occasion, chosen to work with people who complement rather than reinforce his experience. His co-author on Understanding Schools as Organisations, for example, was Robert Aitken, at the time director of education for Coventry.

In fact, his views are more straightforward than they sometimes seem. It's just that he doesn't fit the popular conception of a management consultant. He isn't an evangelist, or, as one reviewer put it: "Handy is light years away from the Californian mega gurus, the snake-oil merchants with ever ready management remedies." He puts it more modestly himself: "A consultant solves other people's problems. I could never do that. I want to help other people solve their own problems."

Much of what he has to say stems from a conception of how organisations should work that is almost moral. He builds everything around a belief in the potential creativity and intelligence of humans beings and the capacity of organisations to release this if they are run properly. The ideas for which he is best known - shamrock companies, federalism, upside down organisations and the rest - are all extensions of this central belief. He is different because he is interested in values as well as systems. He wants to talk about what it is all for as well as how it is all going to work.

For all these reasons, Handy doesn't provide any kind of a blueprint for the kind of organisation he would run, or the kind of school that might win his approval. But he does provide some pointers which help to exemplify what his ideas might look like in practice. This is the Charles Handy school of the 21st century, bearing in mind, of course, that "the only certainty about the future is its uncertainty".

The school will be more a system than an institution, a network of interlocking opportunities for learning. It will be entirely client- oriented, defining the client as the child not the parent as is the case at present. Because the aim it to foster autonomy, there will be no talk of "empowerment". That implies a hierarchy in which power is hoarded at the centre and handed out by grace and favour. Instead, the informing principle will be that of subsidiary. Decisions will be taken by those who are most affected by them: the pupils.

The adults responsible for making this system work will fall into two categories, "line" and "staff". Those in the "line" group will be part of the core, taking responsibility as managers for supporting children's progress by helping them identify their learning needs. The "staff" are those, perhaps "pulled in from the contractual fringe", who deliver whatever is required tofulfil these needs.

It may come as no surprise that he sees the core staff as managers, but he tries out a number of definitions of what it means to be a manager that stretch the meaning of the word well beyond its normal usage. The best way of understanding this is to look at what he says about management training. In The Age of Uncertainty, he quotes Professor Robert Katz in the Harvard Business Review, describing the skills needed by the manager: "These were technical skills, human skills and conceptual skills. The technical skills could be taught very readily by those who knew them to those who did not. They were the stuff of courses, of books, of exams and apprenticeships. Human skills were more difficult, they could be learnt but not taught, learnt by experience and helped by advice and reflection, what we might call mentoring or coaching. Conceptual skills were the toughest of all, he thought, and they most necessary because they were the skills that discerned the way, that defined the problems which technical skills could solve, that glimpsed the opportunities and unsuspected niches. It is no good doing things right - using the technical and human skills - if they are not the right things to do."

What this allows him to do is to redefine the role and significance of managers. They become visionaries, people with an ability to "frame the world" and to imbue it with significance. Most obviously, this is a talent that can be used to refocus an organisation. Less obviously, it is can be used to direct and focus the work of individual children. The "line" staff, in Handy's school, "frame the world" for the children. They broker experience so that the children can define and capture what they want to learn. The network then makes available the further resources, material and human, that they need. The problem, as he sees it, is that "we are conceptually impoverished. Management education seems to be all about techniques and tricks and counting, rather than concepts to help you frame the world."

The watchword is flexibility. Handy's school will be capable of responding to change at a speed we can barely imagine. Today's schools, aiming as they do to cater for all the needs of all their children, are lumbering giants by comparison. But the demands will be great. The expectations of staff and pupils to be autonomous rather than merely competent will make it an exacting place in which to work. Everybody will have to think as well as do, to respond to current and future needs, and stop living in the past.

Would you want a job there? Only, perhaps, if Charles Handy were in charge. Not only would he have an endless supply of good assemblies, filed under "Thought for the Day", but he would make sure that life was never dull. He has a gift for presenting old problems in new ways that is at the heart of all good teaching.


Beyond Certainty : The Changing Worlds of Organisations Charles Handy; Hutchinson; 1995.

Inside Organisations Charles Handy; BBC Books; 1990.

The Age of Unreason Charles Handy; Random Century; 1989.

Understanding Schools as Organisations Charles Handy and Robert Aitken;Penguin; 1986.

Patrick Scott is deputy director of Education for Redcar and Cleveland but writes here in a personal capacity.

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