Lifting the toilet seat on macho metaphors

17th January 2003 at 00:00
Are you, or is your partner, a new man? Is the toilet seat in your household left irritatingly up after use, or not? If it is, the unreconstructed male in question would almost certainly have a career in educational management.

Let me explain. As editor of The TES opinion section, scarcely a month goes by without some aspiring columnist emailing me some carefully-crafted argument or other, that employs the language of football to make their case. Sometimes the imagery is impressive; at other times it is pompous and self-serving. On occasions, alas, it is about Manchester United and the management genius of Sir Alex Ferguson.

What none of these men - and, yes, they are all rampantly male - seem to be aware of is that 70 per cent of the teaching profession, and the majority of TES readers, are female. For many women, being expected to know the finer points of, say, the red and yellow card system in order to to follow the latest idea in school discipline is about as irksome as a raised toilet seat.

The most celebrated exponent of using football as a metaphor for life and learning is Michael Barber, now responsible for driving through Tony Blair's public services "modernisation" programme. As Blair's key education adviser before the 1997 general election, he wrote a book called The Learning Game that became - and remains - a blueprint for Labour's education reforms.

Prior to the 1998 World Cup, he asked the question: "How had (Glen) Hoddle built a team capable of taking on the world?" (a bit dodgy, that prediction). On another occasion he confessed, somewhat revealingly, to being, "a member of that neurotic group of people who spend every weekend through the winter worrying about the football scores".

As it happens, I am a great admirer of Barber's energy and passion for education as a force for good. Not for one moment would I seek to imply that he is an unreconstructed chauvinist who does not know how to connect with a largely female profession. He is, to those that know him, the very model of New Man (though I have no idea whether he leaves the toilet seat up or down).

My point is this. Depressingly often, opinion-formers and people in leadership positions in education, use the language of the macho male to communicate their message. If the anecdotes, jokes or high-minded metaphors are not about football, they are likely to concern golfing handicaps, cricket rivalries, or anything which reflects the typical male's obsession with competitive sport, league table positions and the importance of winning rather than losing.

This is not confined to the pending files of The TES but can be heard whenever education's top brass speak. Headteachers, advisers, quangocrats, training consultants and civil servants are all doing it - the male ones, that is.

The worry is that this obsession with finding a language based on largely male pursuits is not only discouraging women from joining the debate and taking up leadership roles themselves, but may even be harming our education system. Who, after all, dreamed up league tables, target-setting and football-style incentives to reward schools and teachers who get results?

So here is a challenge to TES readers. How can we create a language which articulates, in a non-macho way, the desire we all share to create a better education system? Is it possible to produce a feminised alternative to football as the educational leader's metaphor of choice? Should it, perhaps, be shopping? In any case, now is the time to lift the lid on education's macho-management culture.

jeremy.sutcliffe@tes.co.uk

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