When power struggles

20th February 2015 at 00:00

"Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown," says Henry IV in Shakespeare's play. Leaders don't have it easy; perhaps their heads are heavy because they so frequently get it in the neck. Alas, I come to bury Caesar, so get your ruffs on.

This week's sermon settles on something that has needled me sore these many years: why is it that in order to climb ranks in education, it isn't necessary to demonstrate proficiency in the incumbent role? Or, to put it another way, why is it possible to become a middle, senior and then supreme leader in a school without strong classroom skills?

This isn't boss-bashing; there are line managers of every flavour who are the most marvellous pedagogues. But here's the inconvenient truth: you frequently don't have to be either in order to be promoted.

The most obvious example of this is behaviour management, and it's also the most dangerous of things to fumble. I've been in scores of schools and answered countless behaviour queries on the TES forum, and I am staggered by how regularly I encounter senior leaders who aren't sure how to run a challenging class; who don't know how to give a bog-standard ticking-off; who don't appreciate the effect their ineffectiveness has on the school.

And, more worryingly, this is often because they simply never knew; they have been poorly trained. This situation can only occur and reoccur because systems of advancement frequently focus too much on operational and systematic faithfulness, on the ability to administrate and monitor.

Bureaucrats, it seems, love to promote bureaucrats, and that's fatal in the ecosystem of a school, which needs bureaucrats of course but also rabbis and captains. Few things are more fundamental to teaching than being able to run a room with civility and authority, for the benefit of all.

The best classrooms run on invisible tracks, laid down with certainty by the teacher. Why should anyone who hasn't demonstrated this aptitude be allowed to manage anything more than a filing cabinet?

Yet that's what often happens: the tragicomedy of the line manager who needs assistance from the people they manage more than vice versa; the deputy head who returns removed children to the classroom, undermining the teacher; the headteacher who refuses to ever exclude and is openly mocked by the children. The tragedy is that when people in such positions flounder and flap, their incapacity is magnified and broadcast, dissolving the authority of everyone else. Kids pick up on it quicker than canaries in a mine.

It's far easier to forgive a crime against another than it is one against yourself: the first week I ever taught, a pupil told me to eff off; he got a day out for his trouble. The next week, another student said the same thing to the headteacher, who doled out two weeks in the sin bin. The difference in the crime still escapes me.

Sanctions easily melt away when their execution lies in the hands of someone who rarely experiences the reasons for them.

Tom Bennett teaches at the Jo Richardson Community School in Essex and is director of the ResearchED conference

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