While debates about which subjects merit membership of the exclusive English Baccalaureate club are lively and necessary, they have reminded me of why I never once questioned the value of teaching English literature to children. Journalists everywhere have been rooting through their rusty recollections of real literature in search of literary allusions to help us understand the leadership crises that have followed the referendum.
Personally, I hope one positive side effect of the nation’s current obsession with leadership (article free for subscribers), or lack thereof, will be a far more intelligent and well-informed consideration of what it means to lead a school successfully.
That I’m not the only one with these concerns is apparent from research recently published by the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education (CMRE). With help from Professor Daniel Mujis, from the University of Southampton’s Education School, the centre’s most recent report shows how: "the convictions of politicians, regulators, and professional development bodies about what leadership looks like, how it contributes to school improvement, and what really counts (personalities, traits, or practices?)…are not well grounded." Rather politely put, given that the fetishisation of leadership has been plaguing school improvement policy and practice for decades now.
Great men and heroic theories of leadership are most popular with, and widely disseminated by, neither great men nor heroes. We have quite an interesting palette of organisations working in education claiming to be appropriately staffed, knowledgeable and able to train up whole layers of school leaders. Curious when you discover from the CMRE’s report that: "Few studies have attempted to quantify the contribution of school leadership," or that "organisational success (and failure) is attributed to individual competence on the basis of virtually no evidence at all".
Speaking about this, Professor Mujis had earned my attention the moment he pointed to the track record of Leicester City’s hero manager, Claudio Ranieri, who was, for example, sacked as manager of the Greek national team after only four months, following a defeat by the Faroe Islands, with a population about the same as Inverness. I’m always impressed when a successful individual in any field uses the word luck frankly and openly. It speaks volumes about their experience and ability.
Leadership in schools is undoubtedly a complex and poorly understood research field but the report also helpfully alerts us to the importance of the local conditions and context in which school leaders work. Which in itself clouds the entire notion that individual leaders are either transposable or even that they are in a strong position to instruct others, unless they face similar or identical contextual conditions. Which in turn should give the CEOs of many multi-academy trusts pause for thought, since so much of what they are trying to achieve is predicated in both these doubtful assertions.
'We don't know enough'
One of the report’s key conclusions is that: "We simply do not know enough about what particular practices are impactful, learnable and transferable, to require participation of leadership programmes…there is no robust evidence to support claims that professional qualifications make a difference to the quality of leadership."
Anyone who has ever held down a shop-floor job or been paid to do any kind of physical labour will be quick to complete the phrase, "too many chiefs…" Ironically, what William Morris (spirit guide to so many politicians today) would call artisanal work, teaches you a lot about leadership. I’ve little doubt one of the driving forces behind working class men who voted to leave the EU was precisely this native sentiment, writ large.
Self-aggrandisesment and guesswork
Outside the new age pandemonium that is the European parliament, the fetishisation of leadership has led to a growth industry in CPD and associated activity, all promising to deliver a better classroom experience for UK schoolchildren, but all built on little more than self-aggrandisement and guesswork. For anyone considering leadership training or who might already be in the throes of it, here are a few tips of what not to swallow.
- As literary critic I know far more about what alliteration can and cannot accomplish than most, so whereas as a marketing tool it has a perfectly legitimate and practical value, when you find it featuring prominently in CPD material, either challenge it or run a mile. It’s use in that kind of context is both glib and lazy. The secrets to becoming a great school leader are not going to fit neatly into anyone’s alliterative to-do list.
- Self-proclaimed leaders are usually far more interested in where that epithet can take them, than in where it might take those they lead.
- High-tech presentations do not make up for a lack of informed or trustworthy content. Those glossy, expensive animations or polished digressions into and out of multimedia are usually a sign that the presenter is far more interested in their personal, immediate impact than in conveying useful knowledge or experience.
- And finally, motivational talks from ex-detergent salesmen about how what they learned from Masai warriors made them the leaders they are today, offer you precisely nothing about the job you are presumably hoping to one day exceed at, leading a school.
And if you think I might be exhibiting the same kind of marketing ploy I warn against by using hyperbole merely for effect, I can assure you, I didn’t make up that last one.
Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author