It's time to trust the workers

4th October 1996 at 01:00
Industry is waking up to the fact that it should value its staff. Education should do likewise, say Chris Devereux and Ian Ireland. Business today is characterised by the need to improve service continuously to an increasingly demanding customer, to drive down costs and to do much more with much less. "Restructuring" abounds and insecurity is ever with us. Many organisations face an uncertain future in an increasingly hostile environment.

This may sound familiar to many of those working in teaching. Yet although the two environments contain many parallels in terms of structural change, the way in which these changes are being addressed, differs greatly.

The business world is increasingly devolving responsibility from the centre towards the periphery as more open structures emerge. The education world, on the other hand, seems to be organised according to a tight hierarchical structure where power is exercised through rules, systems and procedures.

In business, one of the reasons for the growing pace of change towards personal autonomy and responsibility, and the recognition of individual worth, has been that an authoritarian form of management has just not worked.

In the turmoil suffered by commercial organisations over the past few years many staff have been left with a feeling of loss, bewilderment, anger and low morale. Pride in their work and their organisation slipped. They took no risks, they kept their heads down, they did what they were told and were often rewarded for years of service with redundancy. Some took this as a merciful release, others as a bitter blow, and organisations were left with a generally compliant staff who worked very long hours.

The result was that productivity dropped. Such organisations may have become superficially more "efficient", but in reality they were becoming less effective. The upshot among those companies who want to stay afloat has been to recognise the value of their staff in the new structures that are emerging.

It is not enough simply to say that staff are valued. Those same staff need to see the words translated into action. This means that time and energy is spent in clarifying the overall aims of the organisation and then vesting real responsibility in staff to create, execute and modify systems to achieve those aims. In forward-thinking companies the strategic direction is developed by the board, but how plans are realised is largely determined by all others involved. The expectation is that staff will tackle things differently; they will not be checked at every turn and their whole focus will centre around benefit to the organisation's present and future customers. As a result, there is an amazing growth in confidence and effectiveness among staff in those organisations that really mean it when they say they listen to, respect and value their people. Wise companies realise there are many ways of achieving company goals if only you let people achieve them. But to sustain increasingly effective staff, senior managers and the executive themselves need to demonstrate they have the internal stability to keep a light hand on the tiller rather than a clenched fist.

To us, the world of education seems to be very different to this. What we read tells us that prescriptive initiative follows prescriptive initiative while at the same time teachers themselves face a constant barrage of criticism. We hear that teachers do not know how to teach reading: if children do well it's because their teachers aren't marking correctly; and there are allegedly 15,000 useless teachers. (Many a chief executive would see that as an accolade as most companies would love to have only 4 per cent of their workforce not up to standard). What is surprising is that much of this criticism seems to stem from the very people whose responsibility it is to improve things. It is very sad to watch, and it will all end in tears if it continues this way.

Smart business leaders understand that most of their people actually want to do a good job and want to deliver high levels of customer service. They bite the bullet and ask "What stops you doing a good job?" to which they receive two consistent replies. The first is "the behaviour of our bosses" and the second is "the systems and processes we are asked to use". It is interesting to note that these comments are acted upon by enterprises serious about the service they give to their customers.

No chief executive would dream of publicly decrying this or her own organisation in the way that education is week after week. Chief executives talk up their organisation, they don't rubbish it. Those who do talk down their own organisation pay the price. Remember the chief executive of Ratner's who said one of his company's products was "total crap". It gained column inches, but it cost him his job.

Business has been through the management-prescription, employee-compliance loop, found it wanting, and is beginning to find great success through changing its ways. There are signs that education is beginning to recognise this.

The new national professional qualification for headship aims to build confidence, status and leadership into the profession. This approach is to be commended if self-esteem and the qualities of leadership bring back confidence to a battered profession. Leaders understand complex issues and tackle the right things. They take risks, upset the status quo and make a difference because they motivate, develop and inspire others. The business community understands that sustainable growth lies in valuing and trusting its workforce. It's time those calling the shots in the education community recognised this.

Chris Devereux is director of WA Consultants, a management consultancy, and Ian Ireland is human resources development manager of Forward Trust Business Finance Limited.

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