Set us free from the staffroom bullies

26th July 1996 at 01:00
The salaried employee, closet rebel George Bowling observes in George Orwell's 1936 novel Coming Up For Air, "is never free except when he's fast asleep and dreaming that he's got the boss down the bottom of a well and is bunging lumps of coal at him". Unpromoted teachers whose lives are marred by aggressive and uncompromising middle managers probably know the feeling. Yet suspect leadership styles owe as much to change within the profession as they do to the shortcomings of those who adopt them.

Telling, first of all, are the pressures to reach daunting goals on dwindling resources. With the stability of institutions now dependent upon balancing the books, the conduct of managers who stay within their budgets is apt to be overlooked by seniors remote from the realities of staffroom life. Relentless policy revision on higher levels conceals a similar multitude of sins. A school environment in which today's priorities are tomorrow's curiosities allows oppressive management to pass for robust helmsmanship.

Recent moves towards accountability offer further encouragement to peremptory authority. In systems of teacher appraisal which rely heavily on indirect evidence, the standing and credibility of practitioners are very much in the hands of their immediate superiors. Developing parent-school relationships are also open to exploitation, an absence of managerial support having serious consequences for staff under pressure outwith as well as within the classroom.

Current patterns of employment are no more conducive to conciliatory management. The growing number of teachers on short-term contracts can be treated with the lack of regard generally accorded transients, and permanent employees without routes for advancement require little more consideration. While unpromoted staff in a fluid promotion system are prospective equals to be cultivated, those in a static hierarchy are merely inferiors to be exploited.

But if new problems and priorities in schools allow managerial bullying to take root, the trend towards expansion helps it to flourish. Victims who initiate grievance procedures are seldom prepared for the frustration of pursuing them in institutions that are becoming, in Malcolm Bradbury's words, "modern environments of multifunctionality [in which] community [is] replaced by the fleeting . . . contacts of city life". Less tangible factors ensure that most complaints never reach the point of articulation: few teachers expect justice from an education service whose ethos of equality has been replaced by an ethic of expediency.

Ensuring that fair play is observed in an educational climate inimical to it requires a philosophy of management in which moral qualities, conscience, integrity and concern for others are valued as highly as practical abilities. Equally essential is a process of filling promoted posts which asks more of candidates than good interview techniques and testimonials from suitable referees.

No less vital is readiness within the profession to use the sanctions of demotion and dismissal, practically unheard of outwith cases attracting the attention of the courts, against managers who wilfully mistreat subordinates.

Whatever the political and practical difficulties of such proposals, their relevance should be clear even to the least idealistic educators. However well planned and run, institutions that neglect the needs of the vast majority of their employees undermine the basis of their own success.

"We live," wrote the Marxist critic George Benello in his valuable essay on Wasteland Culture, "in a society in which both the scale and structure of human organisation are powerfully opposed to the possibility of human growth and freedom." Both the present and future of Scottish education may depend upon our ability to prove it the exception to the rule.

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