This silly obsession with management

25th July 2003 at 01:00
MY nomination for the topic on which most nonsense is spoken and written is management. As a manager myself, I have no doubt contributed to this. For the past 25 years we have all been subject to sustained propaganda from government and other sources about the power of "better" management to transform the economy and improve public and private services.

So-called management "gurus" have attracted large audiences up and down the country and persuaded them to participate in revivalist-style meetings holding out the promise of individual and organisational transformation (at a price, of course).

The outcome? We have a private sector where fat cats reward themselves for failure while plundering the pension funds of their employees. And in the public sector endless management restructuring has not succeeded in improving performance in areas such as health and transport.

Education, instead of questioning and challenging the dominant management culture, has bought into it. More students now include management courses in their degrees than any other subject. Business schools in universities are invariably better funded than other faculties and enjoy state-of-the-art accommodation. The possession of a master of business administration (MBA) degree is said to add thousands to salaries. The aim seems to be to turn the next generation into a nation of plausible smoothies.

Within the school sector, those aspiring to senior posts have to meet the requirements of the Scottish Qualification for Headship (SQH), much of which draws heavily on popular management discourse. I should admit that I occasionally contribute to SQH programmes but I try to inject a note of scepticism about some of the unquestioned assumptions of the field.

Take leadership. I think the leadership qualities of a headteacher are important, though not quite in the way intended by those who peddle the idea. The usual line is that leading the management of change, driving the school improvement agenda and producing impressive school development plans are what matters. These are essentially "in-school" activities. The political implications of this inward-looking interpretation should not be missed.

By defining the headteacher's role only in terms of internal institutional management, blame for schools which fail to achieve their targets can be attributed to poor leadership. All those "out of school" factors which play a large part in determining the success or failure of schools (poverty, crime, unemployment, inadequate housing, poor health) can be left out of the picture.

I would urge heads to see themselves as public figures who need to connect with the big debates about the direction of social policy. In fact, they have a duty as public service professionals to speak out on matters that affect the life chances of their pupils. This will bring them into conflict with officials and politicians, but policy-makers need to be confronted with the experience of those at the sharp end of the service.

Fortunately, there are signs that some heads share my concerns. I recently heard the head of a highly successful school say that he thought most development planning was a waste of time - he argued that it was all about planning and not about development. The production of documents setting out ambitious targets (based on other people's priorities) was not, in his view, what schools are about.

The ethical dimension of school leadership has received insufficient attention until now. Interestingly, Michael Fullan's latest book is entitled The Moral Imperative of School Leadership (Platform, page 13). By challenging the prevailing orthodoxies about management and its relevance to education, fundamental questions about the purposes of schooling and the social role of teachers are raised. Not before time.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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