Identity crisis

13th June 1997 at 01:00
Is educational management a subject which lacks any underpinning of theoretical knowledge? Or is it an important discipline in need of urgent renewal? Bob Doe reports on the growing debate

The world of educational management and school leadership is in turmoil - or at least that part occupied by academics - as the subject undergoes something of an identity crisis.

Last week's TES survey of masters degrees in educational management showed more than 4,000 senior managers are spending Pounds 7 million and large amounts of their spare time on part-time degrees in the subject. And, while the Government plans a compulsory headship qualification, the Teacher Training Agency is compelling management educators to adopt its own rigid and controversial model for the new national professional qualification for headteachers (NPQH) due to be launched in September.

And yet it seems little or nothing is really known for sure about effective educational management and leadership. If a seminar of academics addressing this question in Leicester last week agreed on anything at all, it was that there is little or no belief that the study of educational management has a coherent underpinning of theoretical knowledge.

There are serious doubts whether exponents can explain what does and does not work, and why. There is little confidence, for instance, in the predictive power of the subject; that if you do A under conditions B, the result will be C. Much of the research done to date is said to be merely descriptive or based on uncritical assumptions. And some researchers feel they are still in need of a clear map of the ground covered by the subject.

How, then, can the TTA be so confident that it has come up with the single right formula for its certificate of competence in school leadership? And given the rapid growth of the subject following the education reforms of recent years, what should be done to clarify educational management theory and to identify priorities for research to put practical knowledge and understanding on a firmer footing?

The Leicester seminar, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, was the first of four designed to address the "lack of clarity about the nature of educational management theory and the debate about the relationship between general management theory and practice and management specific to education".

Convened by Professor Tony Bush, director of the educational management development unit at Leicester University, the seminar was a response to the growing critique of educational management and claims that its language and assumptions have begun to dominate the language and ways of thinking throughout education.

The creation of locally-managed and self-governing schools, the increased emphasis on competition, inspection and more systematic approaches to teachers' professional development, and the school effectiveness and improvement movements have all contributed to a rapid growth in research and teaching of school management. But the validity of much of this research has been attacked, along with what is seen as a "managerialist" approach to education decision-making.

Some of the objections are ideological. Research into the worldwide movement towards local management of schools is criticised for not addressing claims that it failed to hand any real autonomy to schools, since it was usually accompanied by greater centralised control of the curriculum. Its real purpose, critics suggest, was to act as a cover for reduced public spending; a way of ensuring that schools and not governments took the blame for cuts.

(In fact, in England, the Conservative government's consultants on LMS, Coopers and Lybrand, warned Kenneth Baker that involving heads and governors in the details of school funding through LMS would make it more difficult, not less, to cut spending. And so it proved to some extent. Education was treated less harshly than other services in recent public expenditure cuts largely as a result of parents and governors protesting.) School managers, and those researching in the field, are also attacked for failing to address issues of inequality thrown up by reforms. They are accused of being influenced too much by industrial management practices such as goal-setting, policy-making, planning, budgeting and the quantitative evaluation of performance. The absence of "a gendered perspective" is also criticised, given the over-representation of men in school management.

Among the critics are Helen Gunter from Keele University, who, in her recent book Rethinking Education: the Consequences of Jurassic Management (TES, February 28), claimed that: "Management is an ideology and is central to the New Right policies that have transformed teachers' work." And others at the seminar complained that research into the management reforms had been insufficiently sociological. "Issues of equity have been bracketed out, " said one.

Professor Stephen Ball and colleagues at King's College, London, recently contrasted two styles of school leadership which they called "welfarism" and "new managerialism". Welfarist leaders have an "ideological commitment to the material and emotional well-being of individuals and to the creation of a fairer society". They have a public-service ethos and their decisions are based on a commitment to professional standards and values of equity, care and social justice. They emphasise co-operation and collective relations with employees through their unions.

New managerialism, on the other hand, involves "the smooth and efficient implementation of aims set elsewhere within constraints also set elsewhere". Their ethos is customer-orientated and decisions are driven by considerations of cost-effectiveness, efficiency and competition.

Professor Ball is a member of the ESRC board that will decide what forms of research into educational management to support in future. He was not at the Leicester seminar, but in the foreword to a new survey of 15 ESRC research projects in this field, he says there are clear messages from this research about the limitations of management as a tool for change, and about the issues of equity and values school managers need to consider.

At Leicester, Professor Tony Bush denied educational management faced a crisis. But he does think that as an academic discipline it stands at an important crossroads. "Educational management practice lacks a coherent theoretical base," he says. "Heads have been inundated with advice from politicians, officials, officers of quangos, academics and consultants about how to manage their schools".

Many of their prescriptions were not underpinned by explicit values or concepts. Practical guides to management had their place but were no substitute for "analysis supported by research and interpreted using appropriate theory".

He called for more empirical research into management to provide a serious analysis of the issues rather than "glib precepts about how to become a better manager".

His over-riding concern was for theory to improve practice. "Theory without practice is arid. Practice without theory is valueless."

The "leading professional" role of headteachers needed to be reasserted if they were to monitor teachers and the curriculum. Bridging the gap between senior management teams and classroom teachers was a major challenge to school leaders. Studies in school improvement also suggested action was needed at both school and classroom level to bring about real improvement.

He was sceptical that the NPQH approach of setting out and measuring the "key characteristsics of leadership" would be as straightforward as the TTA suggested and it remained to be seen whether it would increase "excellence" in schools.

The qualification paid far less attention to research and theory than existing masters degrees in educational management. The TTA could have linked the two, but chose not to.

The separation of NPQH training from its tough passfail assessment underestimated the need to give aspiring heads confidence through a supported process, said Professor Bush. There was a real risk that potential school leaders would decline to present themselves for an experience which might damage their self-esteem.

"Educational management has become an important discipline but it needs a period of renewal and the challenges of the late 1990s lend an air of urgency. Failure would mean handing the initiative to national bodies whose agendas were narrower and more instrumental than universities."

* Managing Schools in the Post-Reform Era: Messages of Recent Research by Mike Wallace and Dick Weindling is available free from Alex Monckton, ESRC, Polaris House, North Star Avenue, Swindon SN2 1UJ

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