Wheels of industry can grind effectively;Platform;Opinion

8th January 1999 at 00:00
Colin Wakeling, a teacher turned bus driver, has some lessons for education

Prematurely retired, I have swapped the chalkface for the steering wheel of a bus.

Employed by one of the companies which has risen from the ashes of the Scottish Bus Group, my new working conditions are obviously quite different from my old ones. We do not have staff meetings, but canteen banter, even if more macho, resembles staff-room discussion.

Teachers will recognise many of the features of bus company-employee communications: regular memos, bulletins and glossy in-house magazines (relaunched with new logos from time to time, but usually management generated).

However, we also have an annual roadshow, worth attending not least because the free scoff is generally more appetising than what passed for scones at the in-service sessions I suffered as a teacher. Transport there and back is, needless to say, free.

The introductory "pep talk", liberally sprinkled with references to "budgets", "targets" and "plans", could easily be reworked to form the head's opening or valedictory remarks at any in-service session.

There superficial similarities end. The following question-and-answer sessions are altogether different. Chaired by the group managing or a senior director, no holds are barred.

No matter is too large or too small to be considered. Discussion of the mechanics of the stock market reflects driver concerns about the value of share allocations: employee participation is tangible. Our local managers have to render account, not just to their bosses but also to us lesser mortals.

What overall message the suits take away from the meeting is anyone's guess, but it is difficult to escape feeling that they are paying more than lip service to employee participation. I doubt the managing director of a multi-million pound concern would give up his Sunday to take part in a token exercise.

Would the leaders of Scottish education be seen dead at a similar event? After all, civil servants and deputies are there to protect their masters from mud. It is easier to blame "poor" teachers than question the management of the system. Token pupil democracy or recognition of "consumers" in education may be one thing, but genuine staff participation is an altogether different matter.

Now, mailed to our homes at considerable expense, is a staff survey. Individuals missed out have been keen to ensure they receive their copy. Completed forms earn local charities a pound;1 donation. The bus company wants our views. Presumably we will serve our customers better and increase company profitability if we feel valued. If this is true of public transport, why not education?

While some of the questions are bus focused, the sections on "My company" and "My manager" could well apply to education. How many teachers have been asked whether they were kept well informed about the plans of their organisation; whether they had confidence in their management; whether there was too much change for change's sake; whether morale was good; whether they felt safe when at work.

I am also asked whether my manager is ready to listen when I have a problem, cares about me, recognises when I do my job well, is good at managing people, is available when I need to speak to him, is honest with me. When are many teachers thanked for doing their job well, either individually or collectively?

Yet while my new employers are prepared to canvass my views on how far these desirable goals are attained, no one in authority in education ever involved me in a remotely similar exercise. Appraisal schemes, however disguised, are principally top-down processes. The view of the chalk-face practitioner is not directly, systematically or routinely sought.

I have no guarantee how much relative value will be placed on the results of our company survey, but we are enjoined to "make a real difference". There is a commitment to provide feedback. The process has stimulated considerable discussion within the depot.

We have a management robust enough to undertake the survey. It remains to be seen whether they are robust enough to take the results on board, but, having gone to the expense and trouble of commissioning it in the first place, chickening out at this stage would be a hell of a waste of cash and would damage morale.

A one-off survey is of very limited value, since it only provides a snapshot in time. Such exercises should measure and inform good practice and be a regular feature of management appraisal.

Many heads actively espouse their managerial role, but are remote from classroom realities. Some years ago, as part of an Open University course I examined the management of a Scottish secondary school.

The list of questions taken from the Scottish Office publication "Effective Secondary Schools" mirrored those in my company survey. On a five-point scale members of senior management rated themselves anything from 0.5 to 2.34 points more positively than teachers in the same institution. The recent "Quality in Education" findings suggest this is not a random result. There is all too often a worrying gulf between the perceptions of managers and managed in education.

My new employers are not altruistic. They are seeking to strengthen rather than weaken management. Heads have a lot to gain from listening to their staff and creating a climate of constructive involvement. A self-critical approach to management is enhanced by dialogue. Most teachers want their schools to be more effective. Effective schools benefit them just as much as the children.

We encourage children to debate and discuss, yet all too often such considerations do not apply to the governance of schools. It is time for educational management to join the mainstream.

Colin Wakeling was principal teacher of history at an Edinburgh high school for 25 years.

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