'Officers of the council' or thinking professionals?

27th May 2011 at 01:00
Teachers are expected to urge pupils to think independently, but are themselves curtailed in what they can say

I was speaking recently to a group of aspiring headteachers, discussing how the political contexts of central and local government would affect their work. I argued that it was important for them to have a good understanding of the people and institutions responsible for policy decisions which would have an impact, directly or indirectly, on their capacity to demonstrate effective leadership.

They needed to know about the way in which politicians, senior civil servants, councillors and local government officials operated, as well as the statutory and advisory functions of organisations such as HMIE and Learning and Teaching Scotland (the two soon to be replaced by a single new body).

Such knowledge would enable them to ask informed questions, and contribute to debate, not simply follow directives from above.

It is generally local government that affects headteachers most immediately. One member of the group pointed out that senior staff in schools were often reminded that they were "officers of the council" and that they owed their first loyalty to the local authority which employed them and paid their salaries from public funds.

Others knew of colleagues who had got into trouble for writing to the press about matters which they considered important but which were interpreted as critical of official policy. We did not have time to explore in any detail the tension that can arise between professional values and organisational loyalty, but I was left in no doubt that this was a serious issue for many of those present.

Despite some improvements in recent years, the culture of local government in Scotland remains hierarchical and authoritarian. Due deference has to be shown to elected members and senior officials and a "corporate culture" in which unquestioning compliance with approved policies is expected and dominates day-to-day proceedings.

Staff providing frontline services in education and social work often express frustration at the managerial constraints to which they are subject: these, they argue, are sometimes more to do with managerial back- covering than providing an improved quality of service to clients.

Consider, for example, the dilemma faced by a headteacher of a small rural school threatened with closure. There will be a consultation process during which he or she is likely to be subject to representations by parents, who are likely to want the school to be retained. The driving force behind the closure proposal is almost certain to be financial, though it is likely to be accompanied by claims that there will be educational benefits as well.

The headteacher will be fully aware of strong counter-arguments about the distance young children will have to travel to another school and the loss of a valued community resource, which may mark a further decline in rural life, but may be reticent about supporting them for fear of sanctions from the directorate.

The phrase "officer of the council" has interesting military associations, suggesting that obeying orders is more important than thinking for oneself. Is that really a credible position for people who are supposed to be professionals, capable of forming intelligent judgments based on knowledge and experience, and committed to providing the best possible service to pupils, parents and the community? In implementing Curriculum for Excellence, teachers are encouraged to develop critical thinking in their pupils. It would seem, however, that there are distinct limits to the kind of critical thinking they themselves are permitted to demonstrate.

The argument about public money is also questionable. It is true that headteachers are employed and paid by councils, and are subject to the terms and conditions of their contracts. But the salaries and expenses of directors of education and councillors also come out of the public purse and, judging from past experience, it would be hard to claim that they have a monopoly of wisdom in the allocation of resources or the formulation of policy. There are legitimate debates about many aspects of public policy and in a democratic system it seems unreasonable to muzzle some of those who might have useful insights to offer about educational priorities.

In my exchange with the aspiring headteachers, I expressed surprise that the teachers' unions were not more vocal on the issue of freedom to express views that might not meet with official approval.

One person pointed out that as headteachers approached retirement age, they sometimes showed greater willingness to rock the boat - surely, in itself, an indicator of an oppressive dominant culture. Someone else suggested that union leaders were themselves quite keen to maintain the same kind of control over their members as directors of education were over teachers and headteachers.

In other words, the "radical" credentials of the unions were an illusion. They were a well-entrenched part of the educational establishment.

The key question to ask is: "Whose interests does the policy of requiring headteachers to see themselves first and foremost as officers of the council really serve?" It would be hard, I think, to maintain that it always serves the interests of children and young people, their parents and the wider community, and it often presents headteachers with a painful dilemma: speak out and be disciplined, or keep quiet and feel that you have not fulfilled your professional duty.

In the final analysis it seems clear that the policy principally serves the interests of senior local government officials, allowing them to maintain organisational "integrity" and enabling them to exercise narrative privilege in promulgating their version of events. It is time that position was challenged.

Walter Humes, Professor of education.

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