Students will miss out if we blindly follow the flock

7th December 2018 at 00:00
Scottish education is being stifled by a culture of uniformity and conformity, warns one headteacher. As the business world shows us, schools should dare to be different and give staff the freedom to innovate

I was very interested to read Angus Tulloch’s Tes Scotland article “Here’s a bright idea: empower heads to innovate” (15 June). The theme resonated with me after almost 25 years as a headteacher – 20 in a local authority secondary school and almost five in the independent sector.

It is true that parallels can be drawn between the local authority education sector and the business sector around governance and management. And I, too, believe that greater school autonomy and diversity would lead to improvements in both the system and outcomes for individual children.

I also agree that education would benefit from looking at business models. In 1993, I was given the opportunity by the old Strathclyde Region to go to the Rank Xerox Training Centre in Reading for a week. Along with a group of deputy heads from English schools, I received training in Total Quality Management (TQM), which was standard for the company’s executives at the time.

The experience complemented my reading about the concept of “kaizen” – a Japanese word for improvement – and the “total quality” programmes that had grown from the ideas of American engineer and management consultant W Edwards Deming, as initially applied in Japan.

Looking back, the training week was a watershed experience. I left questioning the management world as I knew it, as well as the impact that hierarchical structures and operations had on the culture of schools and their ability to ensure members of staff were motivated in their jobs.

The training was big on the principle of devolving decision-making and authority to the most appropriate levels in the organisation. This makes real sense: changes can be made quickly for a positive impact. People who are dealing with the situations day by day drive the changes. They know the job and the challenges. Let them get on with it – the question of accountability can be dealt with through a reporting system that is light-touch and not bogged down by bureaucratic form-filling.

‘Facilitate and enable’

This leadership style adopts the “facilitate and enable” approach, rather than command and control. I have steadily applied these principles over my years as a depute and a head. People working with me have liked it. They have felt real ownership of their ideas because they have taken them through the stages of development right up to implementation. With this sort of buy-in, “that’s not my job” becomes a thing of the past – a huge benefit.

I have never asked anybody to do more than their contractual obligations. Yet, consistently, many people have gone the extra mile of their own volition. They have been motivated within a culture, and a way of working – motivated to deliver for the school but, much more importantly, for the students. In TQM, the focus is on the customer and customer satisfaction; I see the students as being the customer equivalent within the school.

Since 1993, I have spent much of my CPD time with business community leaders and development experts, often travelling down south to hear them speak. Their insight has spurred me on to dare to be different as a leader, and to lead organisations that are different. This hasn’t been easy.

I believe that the culture of uniformity and conformity in the Scottish system and its local authority schools is unhealthy. It means the needs and aspirations of individual students and communities cannot be met. This is particularly true of those who do not warm to the inflexible regime of the typical secondary school.

It has long been difficult to be creative and different in the Scottish local authority system. Since around 1996, when How Good is Our School? was published in its first iteration, this has become even harder.

The student population of a school should determine the nature of its provision. The school should be there for them. Yet there has been a formulaic approach to curriculum planning and structures, with guidelines being seen as absolute imperatives. Curriculum for Excellence, it seems, is bringing as much pressure to conform as ever. With top-down regulation in the system, be it from government inspectors or local authorities, this pressure is huge. As entrepreneur Sir Tom Farmer has said, “We spend too much time valuing targets and not enough time targeting values.”

Relishing independence

In the past four years, I have seen a startling contrast to this after moving to the independent sector. When I started, an independent school head said to me, “The biggest thing that you’ll need to get used to is the freedom.” This has proved to be my experience.

Working for a board of trustees, and within wide parameters, it was a refreshing change to be told, “Just get on with it.” And we do. We are accountable to the board, which meets four times a year. I report to its members at these meetings and at the session end. That is the scheme of accountability. Paradoxically, despite this greater freedom, I feel infinitely more accountable now than I ever did in my previous life, with all its inspections, reviews and visits from quality improvement officers.

A tenet of TQM is that “you cannot inspect quality into a system”. Would that the Scottish public education system could get to grips with this concept.

Getting back to the issue of conformity and uniformity, I love what Tom Peters says in his book Re-imagine! Business excellence in a disruptive age: “Yes, there are great teachers and great principals. But they fail to have much sustained impact on the entire system. Therein lies the problem. It isn’t so in the private sector. When a ‘revolutionary’ comes along … a Dell, a Schwab, a Walmart … the rest of the world stands up and takes notice … or gets beaned. In the school system, it’s the ‘revolutionary’ who gets beaned.”

In my experience, he’s right. Look what happened to the modestly ambitious Education Bill, shelved earlier this year, perhaps never to see the light of day again – and it was hardly revolutionary.

Iain White is an independent school headteacher in Scotland, and is writing in a personal capacity

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