Tips on flogging dead horses

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
THERE is nothing worse than an idea or an initiative which has had its day. Once the wretched thing has expired, no amount of chivvying or public relations guff will breathe life into it. Like the Monty Python parrot it is dead, deceased, a stiff.

The macho style of human management is just one such dead horse. It never really caught on at grassroots level in education, because most heads and other people in senior positions were far too smart to practise a style of control that was demeaning to professional people. Only the odd pompous prat could be seen strutting around, laying down the law, muttering vacuously about people needing "the smack of firm management".

The difficulty was that macho management became expected in the 1990s. It was assumed to be the norm, despite the embarrassing fact that it rarely worked. The central conviction was that Genghis knows best.

As a result, initiatives in education started to come from above. The Government dreamed them up, firm management was then expected to "deliver" them. Any head who appeared unwilling to order teachers around was a ninny.

This reliance on naked power has produced the greatest crisis in education for decades. Ask most teachers, especially those who come in from industry as mature entrants, why they originally wanted to teach and before long they will use words like "imagination", "initiative", "responsibility". People want the challenge, so no one talks the language of robots: "dependence", "blind obedience", "servility".

It was the nation's good fortune that two thirds of teachers were over 40 during the 1990s, so most managed to make even the most monumentally stupid initiatives work by using their professional experience to adapt them.

By the year 2006, however, half of teachers will be over 50. We will only recruit sufficient high-quality replacements if the job is clearly seen to be one for those with imagination and

initiative, and with their genitals intact. "Wanted: 200,000 castrati" is not likely to be a

successful advertising slogan.

Machomanagement may be a failed idea, but it is devilishly difficult to see it off. Accompanying structures and processes, like the crass style of school inspection and league tables, are firmly in place, difficult to dismantle without appearing to be a weed in the eyes of the public.

All the dead horses are lying there, just waiting to be flogged.

I have been looking at a set of strategies for rescuing the irredeemable which were originally compiled for American business. Here is my adaptation for education: 20 desperate ways forward, whenever flogging a dead horse appears not to be succeeding.

1. Set up a committee to revive the horse.

2. Put on an INSET day to improve teachers' riding ability.

3. Buy a bigger whip.

4. Sack the rider and hire a new one at a larger salary.

5. Say things like: "Funny, it's never done that before".

6. Get the children to write a poem about it.

7. Send it to a hotel for five days to train as an inspector.

8. Make reviving it a central part of the school's Citizenship plan.

9. See if it can pass the threshold assessment; everyone else did.

10. Arrange a visit to another school to see how they ride dead horses.

11. Ask it to chair the education committee.

12. Insist that the horse is not actually dead, just in need of performance management.

13. Pay a large fee to a private company to ride the dead horse.

14. Harness several dead horses together, see if that increases speed.

15. Establish a working party to draw up a list of uses for dead horses.

16. Squeeze it into the curriculum under "life and living processes" (dead version).

17. Rewrite the horse's job description, deleting any reference to "breathing".

18. Get OFSTED to label it as a "failing horse", then apply to become a Horse Reviving Action Zone with a special government grant.

19. Train it as a maths teacher; everyone has to be willing to teach maths nowadays.

20. If all else fails, try the usual solution: promote the dead horse to a senior position.

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