Sharp suits can't fool the original actor managers

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
If you've been working in secondary schools for some time (more than 10 years, let's say), have you, like me, noticed a marked shift in senior management's attitude to staff? I think there's been a sea change for the worse, with some obvious exceptions, and it's happened as a result of of local management of schools.

Picture a pre-LMS school. The head handles a budget dealing with, essentially, staffing and capitation, while the local authority looks after the buildings and grounds. The senior management have limited scope for decision-making; they are largely confined to policy decisions about teaching and learning which, in pre-national curriculum days, could be truly innovative. If they want more of anything they must confront the LEA.

The policies can be formulated and the battles fought as a whole staff; they experience knock-backs and victories, but maintain a powerful collaborative spirit.

Then control over budgets was devolved. Now we have managers who have learnt theory formulated in a commercial environment, and staff are part of the financial equation. The staff's future depends on the decisions made by management; budgets are tight and a decision in favour of one curriculum area will be seen to damage another. The result is an inevitable rift between staff and management.

All of this happens in-house and often involves poor people management, justified by the delusion that this denotes a necessary tough management style, and a culture where "because we say so" rules. This might have some credence in companies whose workforces have different educational and career histories from their management.

But a school staff is not like a commercial workforce. Managing teachers is more like managing a collective of clever, rather bolshie, self-employed actor-managers: they write the scripts, give the performance and mark the audience's responses. What is more, they are not going to take a high-handed management style from someone who they know is just another actor-manager in a sharp suit. The overwhelming motivational force for teachers is belief in the integrity of the system at all levels.

Headteachers have always operated with finite, inadequate resources. Yet, paradoxically, when they had less control their schools had greater educational integrity. The financial management of a secondary school is beyond most of them, so they employ a bursar, usually at a salary that in no way reflects the financial responsibilities involved. So now we have a financially nervous head aided by an underpaid bursar. Believe me, if you were to lift up the big flat stone that these two meet under, you would be amazed at what often crawls out.

Pre-LMS, the limitation of headteachers' powers enabled them to work within their abilities and carry their staff with them. I know there is no going back and I admit that I've put a worst-case scenario here. I also know that contemporary heads are bound to point to their training, particularly in financial management. But training is not experience and, even if it were effective, it takes a truly exceptional person to work within the crazy parameters given to heads these days. For all of these reasons, I believe financial devolution has been achieved at the considerable expense of staff morale.

Peter Thompson teaches music in the south of England

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