What makes these seniors our betters?

Issues of rank are not helped by unsubtle approaches to the use of language, says Tom Greene

ven the most superficial examination of Scottish education in the past 30 years or so reveals a pattern of change which has, arguably, been breathtaking in its magnitude. But something has not changed over these 30 or so years that should be changed and that is the somewhat anachronistic expression used to describe those who have the collective responsibility for the day-to-day affairs of schools - the senior management team (SMT) or, to use the colloquial expression, the senior team.

Leaving aside the vexed and sometimes perplexing arguments which surround the issue of whether or not what passes for management in schools is in fact management and not administration, the point is that such nomenclature is out of time. This is certainly the case insofar as the word "senior" is concerned; in the post-McCrone era, it could be considered to be vaguely insulting to the other professionals working in our schools.

What does "senior" mean? In what sense or senses can it be argued that those who occupy senior management positions be thought of as senior to others who work in schools? In my Collins Concise English Dictionary, senior is summarised in the following ways: "1. The older; 2. Of higher rank or longer service." Etymology, of course, can only take us so far and, while there are indicators here of why some colleagues might be considered to be senior, I am not sure that descriptions of this sort provide convincing enough evidence for the continuance of the acronym SMT.

The subtleties of language can have a persuasive influence and the epithet "senior management team" has, it could be argued, an unfortunate connotation: by implication, it suggests that those colleagues who are part of these teams in schools are somehow a distinct or separate entity from the rest. Of course, given that such positions can only be attained after competitive interview, it would appear self-evident that those who aspire to and succeed in gaining senior management posts have qualities which set them apart from their colleagues and I would not wish to challenge this assumption. Evidence of these qualities is implicit, one would suppose, in the additional responsibilities colleagues embrace and in the functions they perform.

While there can be little doubt of the importance of these tasks in the day-to-day running of our schools, most senior managers would agree that the raison d'etre for schooling is learning and teaching. To this extent, there is at least some mileage in suggesting that the most important functionary in any school is the classroom teacher and that they therefore have the foremost responsibility. All of us who work in schools are equally important: it is just that some have different responsibilities from others.

Why, though, should those who shoulder these responsibilities be considered senior to the rest? If we start with the notion from my Collins dictionary that senior means older, the question which we must ask is to what extent those colleagues who populate senior management teams are older than the rest? Experience tells us that sometimes this is the case and sometimes it is not. In effect, therefore, in terms of the first criteria - the notion of age - it would appear that in many instances colleagues on senior management teams cannot actually be considered senior.

The issue of rank is a more straightforward proposition. The nature of the promotion and reward system which presently exists in education in Scotland has established, and largely authenticated, a hierarchical structure in schools which has never really been subjected to critique. Nevertheless it is what we have and therefore it seems safe to conclude that colleagues in senior management teams must be thought of as senior. Insofar as longer service is concerned, it is fairly clear that there is a wide variation in the number of years served by those who have ascended to senior management positions. Some have been in the profession for many years, some not so many and there are teachers who have served many more years in the profession than some of those on senior management teams. In respect of longer service, many colleagues cannot really be described as senior.

A dictionary, of course, offers only a limited understanding of particular words or dispositions; perhaps there are other ways in which these colleagues could be considered senior. To establish this, some or all of the following questions might be applied to the concept:

* Are these colleagues superior in terms of intellect?

* Do they work harder than the normal classroom teacher?

* Are they better at dealing with children?

* Are they better people managers?

* Are they more skilled in dealing with outside agencies?

Definitive answers for any, or all, of these questions would be difficult to find and so I return to a point made earlier. All of those who work in schools, teaching and non-teaching, are, in my view, of equal importance in the journey of development which education should be for our young people.

They have different, but related, responsibilities: to use a term such as senior to differentiate between levels of those who support and educate youngsters is, I would venture, insulting to many who strive day-to-day to fulfil their professional purpose.

My suggestion is that the acronym SMT should remain but that it should in future stand for school management team. Such a term has a much more inclusive ring to it, with little sense of division. It seems to me that if we who are classroom practitioners are to have any confidence in the notion of consensual decision-making, as a first step authorities and schools should act to rid the system of outdated nomenclatures.

Tom Greene teaches at St Ambrose High in Coatbridge.

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