I did not comprehend the corrosive influence of the ethos of managerialism on British education until last year, when I came across an advert encouraging university students to opt for a career as a physics teacher. I was expecting the advert to appeal to the undergraduates’ love of the subject of physics and to their aspiration to do some good in the classroom. However the authors of the advert appeared indifferent to winning would-be physics teachers over to the values of their future profession. Instead, it sought to tempt students into the profession by drawing attention to the possibility of earning a high salary. It indicated that those who possessed initiative could become school leaders after a few years in the classroom. A bright future awaits young graduates who opt to be fast-tracked to a leadership position.
At the time, I thought it was bizarre that a campaign to recruit physics teachers held out the prospect of a fast route into management as the incentive. Those interested in becoming physics teachers are principally motivated by the challenge of educating young people in their discipline. But, in effect, the advert implicitly communicated the idea that teaching in a classroom is second best – it is simply the means for getting on track to a really important career as a school leader.
Now, of course, I realise that the advert was not a one-off initiative. Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, has recently called for a national system for identifying and training teachers with leadership potential. Sir Michael believes that the future of education depends on good leaders and he wants the attractive pay that they will receive to be advertised to graduates. Speaking to the Commons Education Select Committee, he stated that school leaders could earn more than £100,000 a year and that leaders of multi-academy trusts could be "very wealthy individuals". Sir Michael stated that, "We should publicise that if you’re good and you want to make teaching your career, leadership your career, you can do very well financially."
There are many problems with Sir Michael’s fetish of leadership. The first and most obvious point is that good graduates will be drawn to teaching because of their idealism, not because of the appeal of a managerial lifestyle. To attract good graduates, the best thing that Ofsted could do is to promote the professional status of teaching. Its focus on leadership threatens to have the opposite effect.
The current fad of isolating leadership as a stand-alone accomplishment is likely to have a damaging effect on education. Contrary to current managerial wisdom, leadership is not a generic skill that can be imported into any institutional setting. The use of administrators with MBAs and other ‘leadership’ qualifications in US schools or in higher education has done nothing to improve the quality of education. Efficient administrators and managers are vital for the accomplishment of essential technical tasks. But schools need direction from experienced and inspiring educators who are thoroughly immersed in the day-to-day issues confronting classrooms.
Leadership in the context of primary and secondary schools has its foundation in the experience of education and on the authority that a teacher has gained through that practice. As Aristotle argued in his discussion of virtue of phronesis – the practical wisdom that is gained from experience – leadership requires the capacity to make judgement calls. In the context of education, that demands the cultivation of professional judgement. If British society wants its school and department heads to be authoritative and inspirational individuals, it needs to provide far greater latitude for teachers to develop the virtue of phronesis. They need far greater encouragement to exercise initiative and to make judgement calls.
The capacity to give a lead is integral to the vocation of teaching. That is why throughout history teachers have made inspiring leaders. It is worth remembering that they did not used to be called leaders – just authoritative teachers.
I think that Sir Michael would do far better if he threw away his collection of Harvard Business Review journals and embraced the words of that famous thought-leader Bob Dylan in Subterranean Blues: "Don’t follow leaders; Watch the parkin’ meters."