“Leaders” – look away now

I’ve been putting off writing this blog, largely because every time I started thinking about it, my prose quickly descended into a sweary litany of terrible examples of crassly incompetent “leaders” which have been gleaned from all over the educational system via various means. However, I had a brief twitter conversation with a like-minded soul (@little-mavis), and also read an article which finally tipped the balance in favour of proceeding. More about the article on another occasion, but it’s time to take the opportunity to vent. This will be a lengthy rant. Make yourself a cup of tea.

Before we start I also need to be very clear : there are plenty of people occupying leadership roles in schools to whom none of this criticism applies. For my own job security, can I be clear in saying that no personal criticism is intended towards anybody in my own line-management tree, all of whom are paragons of leading virtue ! There will be Heads and Deputies who read this and say “But I don’t do that!”, and who are indeed the sort of people who should be leading our schools. Great! Here’s one example http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2013/jul/01/school-staff-wellbeing-headteacher-leaders and I should also add that whenever I read anything by the Guardian BTL commentator “DissentingVoice”, I wish he’d come out of retirement. I also think @TeacherToolkit on twitter sounds like an excellent kind of guy, amongst many others in the twitter/blogosphere. I hope you good people enjoy reading about the cack-handed incompetence of people who aren’t as effective as you. This is not a criticism of all leadership, or of all leaders. It is, however, a criticism of some practices which seem to me to be both increasing in prevalence and which are encouraged by a truly catastrophic leadership of the entire education system, from Ofsted to the NCTL and the DFE.

If you, dear reader, are a “leader” and are at all sensitive to perceived criticism, then please look away now…

When did senior colleagues become senior leaders ?

“No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself, or to get all the credit for doing it.”

Andrew Carnegie

Far too much pontification about “leadership” goes on generally in the world at large, but perhaps the English education system at this time has caught a really bad case of “leaderitis”. Politicians seem incapable of delivering a speech without some reference to “leadership”; Ofsted measure “leadership” as something worthy of judging a school upon, and see no contradiction in measuring leadership as “good” or “outstanding” even if the rest of the school is considered “requires improvement” – as if they could be separated; Twitter buzzes to pithy slogans about leadership of the sort which could be placed on laminated cards and stuck on the wall alongside the “You don’t have to be crazy to work here….” variety of empty nonsense. Everywhere we look there are “leaders”, referring to themselves as such with an almost complete lack of self-awareness.

Invariably, these “leaders” are portrayed as noble, far-sighted beings, equipped with the sort of superior intellectual and moral qualities which will allow them to rescue the rest of us from the disastrous mess the world would be in were it not for the “leaders”. The leadership role model adopted by the more intellectually challenged cretins of the educational world is that of Clint Eastwood – the lone cowboy coming into town to sort out the bad guys and organise the hopeless citizens. Others prefer to think of themselves as some sort of 19th Century Victorian industrialist, graciously agreeing to provide the factory workers with an extra 5 minute break in their 12 hour day, but only to undertake directed self-improving bible study before getting back to the machines. Yet others seem to model themselves on the leaders of C.S. Forester’s novels, such as Horatio Hornblower, presenting a hard face to the world despite their obvious inner humanity and generosity, and explaining to the soon-to-be-flogged underlings that duty and leadership compels them to flog, and that they, the flogger, will be suffering more than the flogged.

This has given rise to a rather widespread approach to leadership in education which might best be summed up not by the various inspirational quotes often to be found online, but by the approach of one previous Great Leader :

“Consensus: The process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner: ‘I stand for consensus?’ ”

Margaret Thatcher

You can probably guess that I rather disagree with Thatcher. This macho, I-know-better-than-everyone-else style of leadership is clearly the model for Wilshaw and Ofsted, but it certainly shouldn’t be the model for the senior leadership teams of our schools. Not unless they want to preside over fearful, inefficient, miserable organisations.

Why are there so many tales of terrible leadership in education ?

“Leaders are made, they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price which all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.”

Vince Lombardi

As a career-changer, I worked for the first 15 years of my professional life in the adult workplace, for both private and public sector employers. I also myself became what in education today would be called “a leader” (although the term was rarely used), managing multiple teams of staff engaged in trying to deliver various projects or manage various caseloads. I prepared for this role by learning from my own managers, some of whom were fantastic, and a variety of CPD, some of which was useful. All of this was in the adult world, working in teams with adults, managing increasing numbers of adults, managed by adults further up the chain, for adult client and stakeholder groups.

Now consider the career path of a typical educational “leader”. They may never actually work in an adult-only workplace. The closest some get to an environment which isn’t overwhelmingly populated by children, is university, which is overwhelmingly populated by away-from-home-for-first-time 18-21 year-olds. Then they re-enter schools as teachers. From the beginning of their professional life, they are in a primary working relationship which involves them, the sole adult, trying to force an often reluctant group of children to follow instructions. Questioning from the group is only allowed within certain limits defined by the teacher, dissent is strongly discouraged, while opposition or non-compliance must be crushed. This experience probably defines the first 5-10 years of their professional life, even as they gravitate to Head of Department/Year roles, and many AHT jobs also still require a half-taught timetable. Then those “leaders” reach Deputy Head, and suddenly find that nearly their whole job involves managing adults, while the great majority of their previous ten years’ experience involved commanding children. Bugger.

Of course, some people will still be able to rise to that challenge, and there were some people in the adult workplaces I’ve experienced who couldn’t. But perhaps, given that career trajectory, we shouldn’t be so surprised that so many educational “leaders” seem to have a real difficulty in treating adult staff very differently from the way they treat children. Fortunately, I’m here to help with some handy tips.


Firstly, stop calling yourself a bloody “leader”

“What you are speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you are saying.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Seriously. Leaders don’t need to be called “leaders”. Leaders can be easily identified by grown-ups by the fact that they occupy jobs with titles such as “Headteacher” or “Deputy Headteacher”. Another way of identifying leaders is that they actually lead in a noticeable and useful way. Do you really think that people wouldn’t notice you’re in that leadership position, unless you tell them you are a leader ? Repeatedly ? And if you do think that the teachers aren’t aware of your position, then doesn’t that raise a few questions for you which probably won’t be answered by self-referencing as a “leader” every sentence ? Hmm ?

In many schools, we now have :

  • Senior leaders
  • Pastoral leaders
  • Subject leaders
  • Faculty leaders
  • Line leaders
  • Lead practitioners
  • Community leaders
  • Cross-curricular leaders

Teachers attend courses on “Leading from the middle”, and obtain the National Qualification for Senior Leaders, from the National College of Teaching and Leadership.

Stop it. Just STOP IT !

The fundamental problem I have with leaders is this: leaders require followers. After all, a leader without followers is just a guy on his own. Here’s a trick I’ve used in classes which you might want to try : ask your assembled student body who wants to be a leader of some sort when they grow up. Quite a few hands will go up. Now ask them who wants to be a follower. Go on, have a guess at the result.

That fundamental dynamic doesn’t change in adulthood. Not many people want to be a follower, even if we all accept at some level that we will have to follow instructions from someone else. Yet every time you refer to yourself as a “leader”, you are effectively labelling every one of your staff as a “follower”. Leaders are great, superior beings. Followers are the chaff. You diminish your colleagues every single time you self-describe in such a way. This terminology really matters. It matters especially in a school – an institution built on words and their meanings. What’s worse, by repeatedly labelling yourself a “leader”, there’s a good chance that you will yourself, at some level, begin to think of the rest of your colleagues, outside of your group of fellow superior beings, as “followers”, and that is not good, for it leads to many of the outcomes of terrible leadership which I’m about to go on to.

Let me just ask this : if you stopped referring to yourself, and your senior colleagues, as “leaders”, then what would happen ? Would the teachers in your school start ignoring you in staff meetings? Would the students refuse to sit quietly when you spoke to them? Would the school cease to function because nobody any longer knew who made which decisions ? No, none of these things would happen. In an adult workplace, people with leadership roles do not feel the need to bang on about their status, because adults accept that different people have different responsibilities, and the various bucks stop at different desks. Grown-ups can manage that without being forever told that the guy who just asked them to do X is their “leader”.

At some point last year, my school began referring to Heads of Department as “Subject Leaders”. My Department of incredibly effective, highly-educated, professional adults immediately began to ask me questions like “Can I have a cup of tea now, my leader?” and “Should I have a chocolate biscuit, or a jammy dodger ? I need your leadership”. Sarcastic buggers. I am not the bloody “Subject Leader”! I’m the guy who gets an insultingly small TLR allowance in order to do the admin, pretend to be scary to students as the first line of behaviour policy, try to ensure everything which needs to happen actually happens, and ultimately make the final calls on decisions if we don’t reach consensus. The Head once, apropos of nothing, complimented me on the Department, noting that the historians always seemed happy and well-motivated, as well as getting superb results. I agreed wholeheartedly. He then added “You must lead them well”. I disagreed vehemently. I don’t lead them anywhere (except that I would always recommend a chocolate biscuit over a jammy dodger). I manage the department, and I make their professional lives as pleasant and smooth as possible by putting up my shit umbrella (see below, confused people). My general reasoning is that a happy department is an effective department, and that’s it. Quite apart from that, if I ever tried to start imitating the Wilshaw model of leader (pretending to be Clint Eastwood, bossing people around, going on about my way or the highway), then not only would I be roundly mocked, but I’d soon find myself losing the excellent, well-motivated, highly effective colleagues I work with. Bah. “Subject Leader”, my arse.

It’s fine to have a “leadership group”, and it’s fine to be a member of the “senior leadership team”. But stop, in the name of God, calling yourself, personally, a “leader”. The more you have to say it, the less of one you are.

You are not infallible

“We should never pretend to know what we don’t know, we should not feel ashamed to ask and learn from people below, and we should listen carefully to the views of the cadres at the lowest levels. Be a pupil before you become a teacher; learn from the cadres at the lower levels before you issue orders.”

Mao Tse Tung

Twitter is full of guff about “leadership”. I read a tweet last week from some shiny-eyed new self-declared “leader”, who wrote that a mark of true leaders is to “consult with the staff, but if you know it’s right, you press ahead anyway”. This redefines the word “consult” in a way which I think Mark Steel nails here, also in an educational context :

http://brightonandhoveindependent.co.uk/mark-steel-democratic-consultation-meaning-hove-park-school-must-become-academy/ .

No, my self-important little friend, that is NOT leadership. That is tyranny, or dictatorship. The key difference here is that you may have the authority to force people to do what you demand, but if you are forcing them to do so against their will, then you have not demonstrated leadership. Leaders take their people with them towards the enemy machine-guns, they don’t force them on ahead while waving their revolver threateningly.

I heard of a deputy head – who worked at a Harris school, so maybe this is understandable – who was asked by a friend how they would define “leadership”. They replied “Telling people what to do and making sure they bloody well do it”. When he told me this, we shared a moment of stunned incredulity. Surely, surely, this had to be a joke ? Alas, it was not. I think it was that moment which first interested me in digging up information about the atrocious Harris empire https://disidealist.wordpress.com/2014/07/24/harris-the-hero/ . However, it was also pre-Wilshaw, and when the Great Oaf himself arrived as HMCI, I soon saw that this Deputy was not an isolated case of what one might generously describe as the “Leadership as heroic, macho bollocks” approach.

There are so many things wrong with this approach that to list them all would break the internet, but perhaps the most serious is this : you are not infallible. None of us are. I know Wilshaw thinks he’s God, but as his quick volte-face over the schools in the Birmingham Trojan Horse scandal shows, he’s as likely to balls-up as the rest of us (I’m being generous here, he’s much more likely to balls up than the rest of us, the stupid, pompous, egomaniacal, oafish great clown that he is).

There is this awful school of thought in current educational “leadership” guff: that the best leaders are in opposition to their staff. You can see it in Wilshaw’s oft-cited nonsense that “If anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’ you know you are doing something right”. This is a model of “leadership” which assumes that all leaders are isolated heroic figures working against the incompetent, misguided or malevolent masses to bring light to the darkness. People who subscribe to this, like the two people I’ve mentioned above, see themselves as Vesalius opening everyone’s eyes to Galen’s mistakes, or as Columbus proving the world was round. How grateful we should be for their clear-eyed leadership, as we scrabble around in our fog of ignorance.

If I have an idea, and take it to my team, and they all tell me it’s a daft idea, or suggest changing it like so, or suggest a different, but even better idea, then I listen. And this is the difference between consulting in the way some of these godawful new “leaders” mean, and consulting in a way which good leaders do : consulting involves both asking, and listening. It does not involve telling and then doing. The people I work with are clever people, and I respect their views. Just because I have the authority to make the final call does not mean that I have the right to ignore their considered views. More importantly, I owe it to my students to listen to them, for three simple reasons :

  1. Their ideas might be better than mine. There aren’t many Galens or flat earths left to disprove. If you’re in a room with four highly intelligent people and they all disagree with you, then the chances are that you are wrong, not them. Have some bloody humility. Otherwise, you might as well call yourself Michael Gove and start denouncing everyone who disagrees with you as an “enemy of promise”.
  2. Even if I remain convinced of my view, then I have to ask how useful it will be to impose it on reluctant colleagues. After all, for anything to work, they will have to implement it, and if they’re not sold on it, then they won’t implement it effectively – that’s the nature of a profession like teaching. So as a good leader, I need to do less telling and more persuading : perhaps by asking them to watch me do it, or running a time-limited trial with a promise to review results. The point is, I need to take them with me.
  3. If you ignore your staff, they will become cynical and detached, and will stop offering views at all, leading to a serious reduction in problem-solving ability in your institution. Let me give you an example from a school I heard of. Last year, like many schools, they did a Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Threat analysis. Departments filled it in, and then the SLT collated that into a document of what the staff, collectively, thought. On the day, one teacher noticed that a new policy the SLT had introduced that year was listed as a Strength. She was a bit surprised, as all the colleagues she’d spoken to had expressed concern over this policy’s ineffectiveness. So she started asking around. By the time she’d worked her way through nearly every department in the school, and discovered that none had placed the policy as a Strength, while several had placed it as a weakness or threat, you could say that she was feeling a little disenchanted with the “consultation” process. The SLT had discovered that none of their expert practitioners and classroom-deliverers had considered their policy useful, and many considered it damaging, but they went ahead and listed it as an identified strength anyway ! Recently, the same school did a staff welfare questionnaire. Of more than 100 teachers, only a handful replied. The Head apparently thought that this showed that staff were generally content. Maybe. Or maybe it could be a sign that those staff now thought that what they say will never be taken into account, so why bother?

Leaders, you are not infallible, and your students will not be best-served by enforcing your personal dictatorship on unwilling teachers. We tell students that they’ll learn better if they speak less and listen more. There’s a lesson there.

Decide what you’re going to do with the shit

 “That is what is called, in the British Army, the chain of responsibility, which means that all responsibility, for the errors of their superior officers, is borne eventually by private soldiers in the ranks.”

Frederic Manning “Her Privates We”

The best manager I ever worked for told me that in all organisations, no matter what they do, there’s a certain amount of shit which flows down from the top. The role, he said, of a good manager, is to be a shit umbrella, not a shit funnel. I loved that man, and would have done anything for him, which largely meant working hard and loyally to try and achieve his goals. You might have called him a good “leader”.

During my whole career, I’ve tried to emulate that approach: to be the umbrella, not the funnel. As a result, I always find that when I need my colleagues, they’re there. There’s an awful lot of shit falling down in education : from Gove/Morgan; from Ofsted; from exam boards; from whatever wacky latest idea the plonkers at Policy Exchange have just foisted on the DFE; not to mention the occasional shit shower sent up from below from students or parents. A good leader protects their colleagues from as much as possible. The extra pay you get – however scrawny it may be – is in part because you’re expected to deal with more shit. Moreover, this is actual leadership. Two key components of leadership are taking decisions and motivating your team. So when the shit starts to fly, you take the decision not to simply dump it on your people, and in return you’ll find that they are much more motivated to work towards your common goals.

However, we are starting to see, in education, the arrival of a culture of “leadership-as-shit-funnels”. These are the “leaders” who think leadership is simply passing on unreasonable demands untouched, unamended and unapologetically, then monitoring compliance for the benefit of the people dropping the turds in the first place.

Let me give an example : in the last 12 months, the latest Ofsted flavour of the month is double-marking (mentioned here https://disidealist.wordpress.com/2014/08/25/best-practice-is-only-best-practice-if-you-can-practice-it/ ). This can represent a huge increase in teacher workload, for gains which are perhaps supported more by assertion than by evidence. A good leadership team might look at this, consider its merits and disadvantages, and do something similar to the following :

  • Work with staff to devise ways of delivering the extra marking using time-saving methods
  • Consider whether greater non-contact time can be offered in compensation
  • Make it clear that not all marking has to be so onerous, so just do this variety once a term
  • Note that the evidence behind the effectiveness of this is, at best, patchy, and make the collective decision that a staff body not suffering from exhaustion is better for the students than an extra bit of red pen on their books.
  • Tell the rest of the staff, regretfully, that those buggers in Ofsted are forcing this one on us, but we’re going to drop this other existing burdensome requirement in order to allow you the time to do the new one.

There are, of course other options. In all those situations, the leadership team is trying to act as an umbrella. The result will be motivated, responsive staff who might actually have the energy to do this.

Now, here’s what a lot of “leaders” have done according to the Twitterati and online community :

  • Ofsted say you now have to mark twice as much
  • No, there’s no decrease in existing responsibilities
  • No, you have to do it exactly the way they say, because we’re afraid to make decisions
  • Also, we want you to record examples of you doing it for proof, because we don’t trust you
  • If you don’t do it, we’ll use it against you in capability procedures

Hello there, Funnel Leaders.

Result : exhausted staff, worse lessons, demoralization and a growing sense of alienation between classroom teachers and “leaders”. Good job, funnels.

Add value, don’t be a postbox

“Try not to become a man of success but rather to become a man of value.”

Albert Einstein

One of my previous adult workplaces really majored on this. I was private secretary to a Minister, and much of that role involved acting as the bulwark between several thousand civil servants and a single busy politician. When first in the job, the tendency is to be over-cautious, and pass on every submission, every “for information” note, and every report, in fear that you might fail to inform the Minister of the policy which will lead the tabloids next week. Red boxes bulge, the light burns in the Minister’s office until the wee hours, and soon your exhausted Minister is forgetting Cabinet meetings and turning up to public speaking engagements with egg on their jacket. The Principal Private Secretary (another manager I admired and loyally served), explained to me that my job was to add value. I had to exercise judgements – what to reject, what to put through, what to bump off to junior ministers, when to seek a redraft etc; and I had to ease the burden – summarising twelve dense pages of civil service jargon into one pithy paragraph, or redrafting a speech based on what the Minister would do if they had time. Not rocket science, but it’s how you justified your salary.

Good leaders need to do the same. They earn a lot more than teachers – in the case of heads, it’s now increasingly distant multiples of classroom pay, but that’s another blog – and yet DHTs and HTs rarely teach more than a token number of classes, if any. So they have to add a lot of value in other ways. One way is by being the shit umbrella, as above, but there are many more. Let me give just one example.

The Pupil Premium is theoretically a good idea. A good leadership team will consider how much cash they’re getting, consider which students require the additional assistance, and develop a school-wide approach, in consultation with staff, about how best to spend the cash to provide the best impact. Only non-teaching people with responsibility across the school for all subjects and years can really do this. It involves those “leaders” in doing actual, real work – adding value.

Yet I’ve heard of more than a few schools where the “leaders’” response to the Pupil Premium has been roughly this :

  • Email all HoDs and demand to know what extra things departments are doing with Pupil Premium students, without actually delegating any additional funding, or timetabling any additional time
  • Make individual departments write a “strategy” for Pupil Premium students, as if twelve different and uncoordinated departmental approaches are a really good way forward for those students
  • Collect the results on a spreadsheet (because we all know spreadsheets and leadership are the same thing)
  • Report back to Governors/Ofsted that the leadership is fully on top of Pupil Premium provision : look at all these activities in each department !

That’s not leadership. That’s not adding value. That’s being a bloody postbox and simply passing a responsibility straight down, and then straight back up again. Leadership is not just collating information on work that other people have done.


You’re not in the sodding Army

“The best leader is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and the self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”

Theodore Roosevelt

Look, I know Wilshaw, the impossibly dense buffoon that he is, thinks that everyone should stand to attention, salute and suchlike, but you don’t have to be as pompous and deluded as him. A school is not a regiment. The “leaders” are not privately educated Sandhurst officers, and the teachers are not school-drop-out squaddies. You are a graduate who has taught in a school, and they are graduates who have taught in schools. It’s quite possible that both you and they have other experience too. What’s more, you taught maths, while they teach French. You’ve never taught a French lesson in your life, and you wouldn’t know how to. You can’t even speak French. That person knows more about how to do their job than you ever will, so why the hell do you think you should be telling them exactly how to do it ? Eh? Eh?

A school is a college of professionals, all of whom need to work towards the same goal : the students. Moreover, like many professional workplaces, the key delivery staff have to work largely autonomously. They have undertaken degrees, and then further training, to be in that role, and if you don’t trust them enough to act as professionals, then you shouldn’t have bloody recruited them, you pillock. They have the right to expect to be treated in the same way as similarly educated people in similar professional jobs. That means giving them freedom to make choices about how they go about their tasks (I’ve lost that Harris management job at this point, I’m aware). For example :

  • Teachers are more constrained than many professionals in the rigidity of their time commitments (they don’t get to cancel meetings with 30 students!), but there are periods when they could be granted flexibility – subject to adult:child ratios, there’s no reason why teachers shouldn’t come to school later if they have no first lesson, or go home earlier if they have no afternoon lessons. There’s no particular gain in forcing them to be in the school buildings to mark books they could mark at home. Give them as much control as possible over their time, to compensate for the very time-restrictive nature of their roles.
  • I have no problem with teachers being expected to dress smartly, but there are a creeping number of schools defining smart as “1950s Conservative County Councillor”, and establishing a staff uniform as strict as the children’s. Last year I looked at a job advert for a school I was interested in working in. Then I realised that one whole third of the three page information pack was dedicated to dictating exactly how I should dress. It didn’t matter that I already did dress that way by choice, the fact is that school didn’t treat its staff as professional adults, so I didn’t apply.
  • Do not, under any circumstances, make them refer to you by your job title. I met a lot of titled people when I worked in the political world, and it is an absolute hard and fast rule that anybody outside of the military who requires a fellow professional to address them by their title, is an arse.
  • Add your own here, whether it’s drinking tea in the classroom, sharing a joke with students, decorating the office with tinsel at Christmas – just butt out. You might need to control the students – but you don’t need to control the staff. The clue is that the staff are grown-ups: they have paunches and bald spots and wrinkles and adult-sized backsides and THEY REALLY DON’T LIKE BEING TREATED LIKE THE CHILDREN. Capiche ?

Leadership is about outcomes, not inputs

“When I give a minister an order, I leave it to him to find the means to carry it out.”

Napoleon Bonaparte

I went for an interview at a school once, but from the moment I got there I realised I didn’t want to work there. Just the wrong feel. So I was very relaxed when it came to the interview. It started with the head asking “So where do you sit on ICT?”, to which I replied “Usually in front of a keyboard”. Tumbleweed rolled across the room, and then the head said, disapprovingly, “I see you have a sense of humour”, after which point I really relaxed. One of the subsequent questions was “What would you do if you had a teacher in your department who was not teaching the way you wanted them to?” The answer I gave was that it depended on their results. If the outcomes they were achieving weren’t what I thought were achievable, I’d work with them to make changes as appropriate. But if their outcomes were great, then why would I want to change what they did ? At this point, the three “leaders” in the room began frowning at each other. It was not the right answer for them, yet in any other field, it would be exactly the right answer. Only in education in recent years has conformity of inputs begun to assume greater importance than quality of outcomes.

A good leader sees their role as inspiring/allowing/freeing/supporting their team to achieve the best possible outcomes. This is not the same thing as insisting on identical inputs. Children are not identical. Teachers are not identical. Each class I have is different, and I therefore approach them differently. If I approached all classes and all children exactly the same way, irrespective of age, ability, temperament, time of day, subject matter etc, then I’d be a terrible teacher. So in what mad world is it a good idea to take a range of variables and insist that all teachers do exactly the same no matter what ? That’s not leadership, that’s just fear. If I’m being generous, it’s a crashing lack of imagination of such magnitude that anyone with that mindset should never be allowed to enter a school, let alone run one.

A bad leader finds colleagues with unorthodox inputs, and says “you must do as I say”, despite consistently good outcomes.

A good leader finds those colleagues producing consistently good outcomes, and asks, “what can I learn from them ?”, irrespective of their unorthodox inputs.


You are never indispensible

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Lao Tzu

Here’s the thing : if you take the entire SLT out of a school for a day, or a week, it will continue to function. Classes will be taught, books will be marked, behaviour will be managed. Children will come, and go, oblivious to the missing leadership layer. You could probably sustain this absence for a half-term, or even a term, although things may start to fall apart a bit as time goes on. But if you remove all the teachers for an hour, you have chaos. Never forget that, leaders.

Nobody is indispensible. How many people, leaving their jobs, have thought, either sadly, or triumphantly : “They’ll never manage without me”? Yet they do. We leave organisations, and colleagues express great regret, or paint pictures of the sky falling in, yet after the warm wine is drunk, and the not-as-funny-as-intended leaving speech is complete, we leave, and the organisation continues without us.

This is also true for all “leaders”. In fact, it must be true, because if it isn’t, then the leader in question must be truly dreadful. In a complex organisation like a school, one must delegate. One must rely on those aforementioned professionals to do their jobs. One must make arrangements so that schools can function in the event of an unavoidable absence. A school which could not cope with the absence of a headteacher would be a school with a terrible headteacher. I’m not sure Wilshaw, that contemptible megalomaniac, would understand this, but it is nevertheless true.

So good leadership is not having to be there all the time. You don’t have to be there because you’ve recruited and promoted competent people, and you’ve established robust operational systems, and you’ve agreed goals for the organisation which all are clear about, and you have sufficient confidence in your team that they can get on with it without you trying to do everything for them. It doesn’t mean you can spend all term in the Caribbean, but it does mean that when you have to be somewhere else, it’s ok.

That’s an important lesson, because when a “leader” starts to think they’re indispensible, then they’re essentially thinking that their colleagues are incapable. You’re a cog in the machine – an important one too, but remember that any of the teachers will have a greater direct impact on the students they teach, and most kids would rank the canteen staff higher than any leaders in their list of people important to them on any given school day.

If you find that people are refusing to make decisions themselves, and everything is piling on to your desk so that you believe you truly are irreplaceable, then one of two things has happened : either you’ve recruited and promoted incompetent fools and sycophants as your senior colleagues; or you’re such a Wilshaw that people are frightened to do anything without your direct agreement. In both these cases, it’s your fault. In the latter case, the staff also call you “Kim Jong-un” behind your back.

You are an employee with a leadership role. You are not a separate class of employee.

“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”

Henry Ford

This is linked with the first point about the inappropriate overuse of the term “leader”. Last year, a nearby school sent a letter to parents. The letter told parents that “The school’s students, staff, and leaders, will all continue to blah blah blah”. I’ll be honest, I can’t recall what it was about, because by the time I’d finished that sentence, the red mist had descended. How dare these people make a distinction, to me as a parent, between “leaders” and the “staff”, as if they were a separate species! Absolutely no purpose is served by making this distinction to parents other than to attempt to distinguish between the masters and the servants in a transparently self-aggrandising way. If the letter had simply said “The school’s students and staff will all continue…” then do you think parents would have rung in anxiously asking “The staff are committed, but what about the leaders?”.

This is a poor example of people calling themselves “leaders”, and removing themselves from the collective term “staff”. There are three audiences for such a letter : the parents, who don’t care at all; the staff, who are publicly diminished; and the egos of the “leaders”, who purr with publicly-stated self-importance.

Let me put this very plainly : the Headteacher, the Deputy Heads, and the Assistant Heads, are staff, just like the teachers are staff. Everyone, no matter where or how many times the word “leader” appears in their job title, is staff. You work for the school. Your employer is the same as the lowliest NQT, and you are subject to the same policies and procedures as they are.  So do not, ever, tell parents that you consider the staff to be some form of lesser adult between the great “leaders” and the students. Not least because the teachers are much more important to most parents’ school experience than the “leaders” are ever likely to be.

Ask yourself – are there any other industries or sectors where the term “leader” has become so commonly bandied about as a distinction from staff ? When I get letters from my dentists, I’ve never yet seen one that says “All our staff, and leaders, are committed to your dental hygiene”. Nor do local estate agents litter my porch with flyers promising that “Our helpful staff, and their leaders, will sell your house fast”. When my council sends me a public notice, it does not promise that “With this new contract, your waste disposal operatives, and their leaders, will ensure your bins are promptly collected.” So why do it with sodding schools ?

Put your egos away and remember who you are – staff.


What do I want from leaders ?

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”

Dwight D Eisenhower

Ok, let’s not be wholly negative (although I’ve popped in some hopefully constructive suggestions along the way). It’s all very well pointing out the flaws of bad leadership, but what should a good leader do ?

That’s fairly simple. The primary relationship in any school is between teacher and students in the classroom. That is the relationship which matters, from which learning emerges. School management needs to ensure that that both sides of that relationship are as willing and able to foster learning as possible. So that means, from the perspective of a classroom teacher, and in no particular order :

  • I need as much non-contact time as possible, so that I’m as fresh and energetic as possible – I’ve heard of Heads deliberately trying to fill up teachers’ timetables with meaningless extra stuff, just because they’re considered “light”. That’s insane – you should be trying to reduce ALL your teachers’ timetables within budget.
  • I need autonomy in my classroom in proportion to results. I can’t teach your lessons, I can only teach my own.  If my results are good, then let me get on with it. If my results are poor, then by all means come and talk/intervene/suggest/even dictate.
  • I need to feel like a valued member of a professional team, not a fearful underling. If I need to tell you how to do this, you’re lost already. Read above !
  • I need the budget to ensure the resources we need are there
  • I need things to work : behaviour support, doors and windows, SEN information, online register, whiteboards, the bell etc – all those things which make my job smoother and easier so I can concentrate on teaching well, and not on changing the bloody toner and opening fifteen fiddly little compartments to remove shredded worksheets from the endlessly broken bastard photocopier.
  • Put your umbrella up, and deflect all but the most inescapable shit from above
  • I need a curriculum which meets the needs of students so there are fewer demotivated refuseniks forced into subjects they never wanted to do
  • I need timetabling which works well and minimizes classes as much as possible
  • I need a classroom which is safe, comfortable and has enough chairs
  • I need to be able to access the CPD which will help me, not be forced into CPD which won’t.
  • I need motivating realistic goals, negotiated with me, which I feel can be achieved; not demotivating panglossian madness assuming every child is a genius, supported by greeting card platitudes about a “no excuses culture”

Essentially, a leader’s job is to provide the functioning institution which will allow me, the front-line provider, to do the best job I possibly can. Do that, for me and all my teaching colleagues, and there’s a pretty good chance that they’ll get rather better results than if they simply try to dictate their own model to all of us.

Have I finished beating the leaders yet ?

Sorry leaders, I’ve given you a very hard time. Let me be clear, I do understand where most of the bad leadership comes from : fear. Fear of Ofsted. Fear of your own job loss. Fear of the fact that the further you get from the classroom, the less direct influence you feel you have on the outcomes. In such circumstances, I understand why many “leaders” choose the dictatorial line :

  1. If you did ok in the classroom, then if you can make everyone else teach like you did, maybe they’ll do ok too?
  2. If you make everyone do exactly what Ofsted just vomited out in the latest draft of the inspection handbook, then you can’t be blamed if it all goes arse over tit. Right ?

But understanding and sympathising are two different things. I hear of far too many loudly self-proclaimed “leaders” who talk endlessly about the need to make “tough decisions”, and then make no decisions at all – they simply funnel the shit from above onto the poor saps down below, adding no value along the way.

Good leadership is hard, and possibly the hardest part is realizing that in a school you can’t – and shouldn’t – simply dictate everything that a thousand kids and a hundred adults do. You have to establish trust, and support – and contingency plans – and then let go, and hope that the magic of learning sparkles in all your classrooms, rather than exploding messily all over the science block. Then you have to take responsibility for the cumulative results of literally millions of individual interactions between teachers and students during the course of each year, none of which you’ve been part of.  But if you’re good, and if you avoid the egomania, and the macho bollocks, and your growing desire to dress everyone in khaki… if you’re good, you can ensure that your school is the sort of place teachers and students will be well-supported, happy and inspired – not because you tell them to be, but because you enable them to be. And that is true leadership.


56 thoughts on ““Leaders” – look away now

  1. I normally hate these type of blogs which can descend into a rant, but I really enjoyed yours – and I read all the way to the very end!

    My favourite bits were
    “Collect the results on a spreadsheet (because we all know spreadsheets and leadership are the same thing)”
    “A good leader finds those colleagues producing consistently good outcomes, and asks, “what can I learn from them ?”, irrespective of their unorthodox inputs.”
    Thanks for posting!


    • Many thanks for your comment Trevor. I did try to warn people at the start this was a rant.

      The serious point underlying the attempt to prick the pomposity of people who love to call themselves “leaders”, is that the Cult of The Leader is very much, in my opinion, part of the deprofessionalisation of teaching. It fits right in alongside ever more prescriptive approaches to pedagogy, behaviour management – you name it, we’re losing autonomy and choice.

      It seems to me that the increasing division into “leaders” – who often don’t actually lead, but merely enforce DFE/Ofsted policies – and the “other ranks”, is extremely helpful for those who distrust teachers and dislike them using their professional judgement.

      “Leaders” should resist the temptation.


      Liked by 1 person

  2. Just discovered this – via the link in the blog Harry Fletcher-Wood recommended in this week’s Academies Week review.

    I do a lot of work with leaders and potential leaders (all levels) in schools and think this is something all should read and reflect on. Leadership is HARD, and sometimes we try and fail, but thinking about the issues you raise and guarding against the traps leaders fall into is crucial, I reckon, and this is a good cautionary tale for all who aspire to leadership, or gain it.

    It’s a USEFUL rant! Thank you.


      • Thanks for your comments Jill. I hope it didn’t come across that I think ALL leaders are rubbish and ALL leadership is bogus. This was an article attacking bad leadership (and leaders). I have worked for several excellent people in my career, and seen much good practice. However, too much of what I see and hear about in education nationally promotes a model of superficial, autocratic leadership which involves much posturing and self-referencing as “leaders”, but not enough adding actual value (usual proviso about not my own school applies).

        What I worry about, fundamentally, is that like all professions, a proportion of teachers are simply ambitious careerists, who will happily say and do anything to advance themselves and land a bigger wedge. These people will happily “spill blood on the carpet”, demand 180 degree policy u-turns overnight, and even cause harm to students, if they think such actions will benefit them.

        The profession also contains a larger (I think) proportion of people who are vocationally driven – they’d like to be a head not because they want a huge pay packet, but because they think they can apply their skills to make a difference to a school. This latter group are much more likely to have their own views, be keen to steer a steady ship without Ofsted vacillation, and understand the deeply human dimension of running a school, as opposed to the content-free vacuous jargon of the former group of wannabe management-consultants. Often they don’t want to be a head. They want to be the head of their school, and have devoted their lives to a particular institution. I know that the current orthodoxy is that moving around a lot is good, but I see real advantages in old-fashioned longevity, dedication and knowing the very bricks of a school.

        But I am concerned that while it’s the latter group we want running our schools, it is this very group who are ruling themselves out of contention, because they think that it is now impossible to be a vaguely independent head running a school in a real-world context. They view what is happening and decide that the impossible demands made of schools, the lack of discretion over so many aspects of school life, and the occasional direct orders to treat colleagues atrociously (Ofsted demanding to see people’s pay withheld, for example, to show “leadership”), are simply not worth the candle. Meanwhile, ambitious, thoughtless people, who are entirely happy seeing the job as just enforcing the will of DFE/Ofsted, are not put off by this at all.

        I hope I’m wrong, but I genuinely fear for the education system if NCTL are truly churning out a new generation of personally ambitious compliance enforcers, rather than seeing the natural replacement of experienced independence with more experienced independence.

        And yes, I do loathe Wilshaw. There are some things that are unforgivable: Gove called teachers “enemies of promise”, which was one of the most outrageous things any Minister has ever said about a group of public servants. For that alone, let alone his actions, he deserves nothing but contempt, and it’s one of the reasons I occasionally react with great hostility to those who defend the odious little runt.

        As for Wilshaw, there are many reasons he deserves the contempt heaped upon him : his ego (I liked to do this, therefore everyone must do this); the fact he runs a corrupt institution (forced academization favours for Harris, dodgy tip-offs to the well-connected, spurious political investigations in Birmingham etc); and his endless work as a useful idiot for the right, in reinforcing the inaccurate tabloid message that school “failure” is widespread.

        However, he also said, publicly, that in his view, the job of a headteacher should be to lower the morale of teachers. That statement combines such incredible egotism, stupidity and contempt for half a million largely dedicated professionals, that it should on its own have prompted his immediate sacking. The fact that he remained in post, and actually continues to push a model of “leadership” which sees himself (or his ciphers) as the lone protectors of children’s interests against ill-intentioned, useless or lazy teachers, is abhorrent to me. It takes a lot to make me agree with the ideological monkeys in the Policy Exchange, but their view that Wilshaw is an incompetent fool is one I share.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Just revisiting this and rereading your comment here. I’m not a Wilshaw fan either but I wouldn’t agree with your statement that “he also said, publicly, that in his view, the job of a headteacher should be to lower the morale of teachers”. He was taken to task about that at a Conference I attended shortly after he’d said it. He’d actually said something like, “When someone tells you the morale of the staff is at an all-time low, you know you’re probably doing something right!” It was a throw-away comment (and an ill-advised one) which reminded me of when someone comes into your office and says, “You need to know that all the staff feel that…” – the one thing you do know is that all the staff definitely DON’T feel that. He explained the context of the statement and that was what he meant, not a serious suggestion that heads should erode staff morale.

          The quotation has been cited, and misinterpreted, so many times since. I’m sure he realises now what a mistake it was. I’d have expected him to realise that, just as when he was a head, you can’t make “throw-away” comments any more!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Blimey Jill, what are you doing still reading the back catalogue ? This is dead now.

            Anyway, for the record, I think you’re being a lot more generous to Wilshaw’s attempt to “contextualise” his statement than I would. I think when he said that, he genuinely meant exactly what he was saying – he thinks that a good headteacher lowers staff morale. I understand why someone such as yourself – or indeed any decent human – would look for alternative spins on that, because it’s so crassly stupid. But unfortunately, the evidence tends to stack up against Wilshaw being in that “decent human” club.

            It fits neatly with many of his other pronouncements in which he has likened himself to a lone cowboy, cleaning up the town (presumably those teachers in the classrooms wear the black hats, and he has to save the children from them). It also corresponds with his various statements demonstrating contempt for the idea that classroom teachers might have lives outside school (criticising those who dare work their contracted hours and try to see their own children, for example), and his Monty Python “Yorkshiremen” sketch about how teachers today don’t know they’re born etc etc. It also fits in very nicely with his willingness to repeatedly criticise teachers and the teaching profession in the media, offering endless quotes about teachers “failing” their students – presumably just waiting for a Great Leader to come along and whip them into line, the lazy incompetent scum.

            Wilshaw is the epitome of the self-serving practitioner of the Cult of the Great Leader, and he’s not the first massive ego to believe the hype about how important “leaders” are, and thus adopt a contemptuous attitude towards the inferior “followers”. No, I suspect all the context you need for that quote was that he thought he was in friendly company (other important people), was having his ego massaged, and forgot to hide his true beliefs for a few seconds, thus revealing publicly the attitudes which such grand panjandrums normally keep hidden from the little people.

            It’s all moot, of course. Sadly, the damage his Ofsted has caused to the careers of tens of thousands of professionals, and to the education of hundreds of thousands of children, not to mention the support he has provided to the covert privatization of state education, is already done. Knowing people like Wilshaw as I do, I suspect his knighthood and the adulation of the jackals in the right-wing press weigh rather more heavily with him than any hostility from those useless teachers he used to save the children from.


  3. Long, but definitely worth the read. You have explained beautifully how those that fail at leadership can micromanage and make things unbearable whilst those who don’t think of themselves as leaders are often the best examples.


  4. Leadership is simple, it’s about providing focus and direction. What matters is the outcome. Obfuscation and management process are not leadership because they do not provide focus or direction. Distasteful as it might seem, most people are keen to be led. Why do teachers moan about the DfE for removing the very assessment structures they were saying caused them extra work? Why do people base their lives on the superficial activities of celebrities? Why do people follow their favourite team rather than getting out and playing the game themselves? People love to be led. Leadership is hard and few people actively seek out stuff that is difficult. That’s why leaders get paid the most and are given social status, because most people will only do it for additional rewards and that might well be part of the problem.


    • I think, Ian, I don’t take quite such a pessimistic view of human nature as you. But then, I play sport, despise celebrity culture, and am quite happy to exercise my own discretion. 🙂

      The problem with “focus and direction” in a school is that it’s actually pretty obvious what the focus and direction of every school is : to get as good an outcome as possible (not necessarily just exams) for as many children as possible. I’m not sure many teachers ever wander into a classroom and wonder “Now, why are we all here, again?”. So given that every teacher knows they’re there to teach, and would have to be pretty daft not to understand that there are certain goals to aim at (which are set outside the school in terms of exams/tests etc), then what “focus and direction” does that really leave which isn’t pretty peripheral ?

      What those teachers – all graduate professionals – want, is not to be “led” in the sense of policy statements and endless documents about “ethos” and “mission”. Rather, I’d wager that what they want is an institution which provides them, their colleagues and the students with as much support as possible to ensure that they can get on with doing what they all already know they’re there to do. That’s not wanting to be led, so much as wanting to be enabled. It’s a slightly different slant, but one which I guess requires rather more hard work and rather less pompous speechifying from some “leaders”.


  5. An incredibly well-articulated response to the culture of bureaucracy, micromanagement and fear (what a cocktail!) that continues to grip modern education.

    Many thanks for writing and sharing.


  6. I’m only describing what is there outside the education employment domain. Of course many people do play sport but there is good evidence from empirical experiments that most people are more inclined to be led than to lead (David Mclelland for example). I was really agreeing with the main thrust of what you have written which is that leadership is important and often badly implemented. That seems to me to imply learning about leadership is important. There is masses of research so it seems to me that stereotypical anecdotes are not necessary.

    The direction and focus needed is in raising standards in learning and that is clearly not a peripheral issue in most schools. Ask people that have spent extensive time in many schools and especially ones that are failing. Now of course all people like to believe they would simply gain that collective coordination of effort anyway but I doubt there is any group situation where leadership within that group is not important. It happens in sport with team captains, managers and coaches and in pretty well every other group social activity so why should schools and learning be different? Bad leaders can of course do more harm than good and focusing on bureaucracy and procedures at the expense of raising levels of attainment is a good example of poor leadership. Discrediting leadership is not the answer, we need better leaders, not no leaders and to do that more time and effort needs to go into learning about what is effective leadership and what isn’t and in what context. After all if we believe in education, learning about how to do it better should be at the heart of everything we do. One way to be sure to get the right head is to go and do it yourself 😉


    • Thanks Ian for your comment. I hope you didn’t think I was having a pop at you! I agree wholeheartedly that good leadership is needed. I guess I just have a view of what constitutes good leadership which is a very long way from the status-obsessed, heirarchical micromanaging model pushed by Wilshaw, NCTL etc. I wasn’t intending to discredit leadership as a whole – as I wrote, there are good leaders out there.

      I wrote on my blog about workload that I think school autonomy is at its lowest point for three decades, largely because of hugely increased diktat from Ofsted, DFE and (where relevant) academy chains. In such circumstances, even the very best people are going to struggle to have the impact they might otherwise have. However, it is possible even within the limitations imposed externally on all schools, to treat staff as professional colleagues as opposed to talentless underlings, and to put up that umbrella !

      As for going ahead and doing it myself, I fear that boat has sailed for me. Probably not a bad thing, first because the bit of the job I actually enjoy is teaching kids, and secondly because in the current climate, any school I led would be so different from the Ofsted model that I’d be out on my ear after the first inspection, leaving the poor staff vulnerable to a Harris takeover. Shudder.


      • I think perceptions of leadership depends on which side of the telescope you are on :-). I’m not a leader in a school so my context is different. I did talk to a very successful head a while ago who said he worked for Wilshaw in a school when Wilshaw was head and that he (Wilshaw) was the best school leader he had ever known. The problem for Wilshaw is he is in a highly politicised role so probably whatever he does he is going to get flack from someone. I wonder how many people would stand up to the pressure he has on him in his role? I’m not defending his actions here just saying that it is easier to find faults than it is to fix them. That’s one aspect of OfSTED that is legitimate to criticise. Ok, you found the problem so you tell us how to fix it and you accept accountability for that. Failings in leadership are not uncommon, probably indicating it’s difficult to do and probably indicating that most people need to learn more about it – the social psychology associated with it is quite interesting and there has been a lot written about it. Woodhead was Senior Advisor in Shropshire when I was a HOD Science there. Then I met him again when he was at NCC and I was at the CTC Trust. I think he tended to reflect his political masters at the time rather than being an extraordinarily good or bad leader, more an effective policy executor from the political leaders point of view. But the head of OfSTED is always likely to be a bête noire for teachers. It would be a very extraordinary person who managed not to be and was still able to satisfy their political masters. Probably impossible to do.


  7. An absolutely fabulous article. Summarised beautifully with enough vehemence and fact to make it required reading. I have met and worked with many of these people and they act as a giant human brake. The hair shirt theory of leadership originally outlined by Chris Woodhead and now running around on steroids in the form of Wilshaw.
    Great read!


  8. Genuinely engaging polemic that applies to all sorts of schools, and institutions, more generally. I don’t work at a typical school by any stretch of the imagination but the same applies. The fundamental problem lies in the fact that schools operate largely independent of workplace norms – often managers have no interest in what management is or the difference between management and leadership. Furthermore, when they do, they operate on the basis of received wisdom that is already a decade out of date.

    Your point about the endless promotion of the ever-moving is a case in point. Most contemporary thinking in this field is about promoting those people who’ve stayed at an institution for a period of time and developed a visceral understanding of its rhythms etc. The notion that someone can be parachuted in is an utter nonsense, it is people who have stayed in situ but importantly, continued to do different things, continued to experiment and who continually strive to improve that add value. If the ever-moving were genuinely any good, then why hasn’t anywhere they’ve worked created a role for them?

    The other major problem with management is ‘ego’. I wholeheartedly recommend “Give and Take” by Adam Grant as regards this. Alternatively, the utterly stupendous “On the Psychology of Military Incompetence” by Norman Dixon is also worth a read – both get to the very nub of the personality type that aspires to management…


  9. Thought this was a brilliant, entertaining and well-thought through post. Thank you for taking the time to voice so much so eloquently.

    I stepped down from HoD a few years ago. On reason was because I’d had two children in three years and personally, I couldn’t see how I could manage the role alongside this new set of commitments, but another was that I really wasn’t very good at it, and doing something your not good at is misery-inducing. As you Identify, training for roles outside of the classroom is minimal and often unrelated to reality and I can say on reflection my main issue was that I didn’t have a clue. Since then, back at ‘just-teaching’ level, I’ve had time to reflect on what the role requires and I’ve been squirrelling away good practice and good ideas. The shit umbrella is definitely a keeper 🙂


  10. A fascinating and insightful article on disidealist’s perceptions of leadership. I also do a lot of work with staff in schools either wishing to prepare for leadership roles or who are already in those roles and are wanting to become even better.

    Di Baker’s example above seems to me to be a sad indictment of a lack of quality professional development and preparation for the HOD role from those who should have been supporting her in that new challenge. I see this all the time in my work. Yes, a certain amount of what you have to do is learning on the job, but where were Di’s leaders in ensuring that she was ‘enabled’ to succeed. ( I love and totally agree with this as a definition of good leadership disidealist). Maybe your conclusion that ‘you weren’t any good’ Di was a personal reflection because you felt you didn’t have a clue – this goes back to my first point in this paragraph. Too many ” next stage” promotions happen in schools without investing in the necessary training/preparation that a new and demanding role needs. Who was responsible for your professional development in school other than yourself? Who was mentoring or coaching you?

    Surely, one of the true marks of leadership is the ability to develop and build those with whom you work and to take them with you, ensuring that you create the consultative and empathic environment where they can thrive. It’s not about being ‘nice’ – it’s about giving opportunities to become great through challenge and support- rather like all those inspirational teachers who do this day in day out in the classroom.


    • I’m sorry, but I completely disagree with that.

      I am sure you mean well, but teaching/education simply is not the kind of field where grown adults need to be ‘taken with you’. This is precisely the kind of management-think that disidealist seems to object to – and so do I. Either people have it in *themselves* or they don’t – be that the motivation or that actual skills/knowledge/intelligence to teach in the first place. They all have their own motivations – and need to be left to realise them as best they can. At best, managers can create an ethos for others to opt into – they don’t need the kind of interference you seem to be advocating. At best it is patronising and at worst downright destructive to morale and self-esteem.

      As educational management has grown, so have the woes of the profession – and the difficulties put in the way of our doing the best job we can with the pupils – which is surely all you can ask of anyone. That is no coincidence.


      • Thanks for your response Ijstock.

        We disagree but hopefully not about the passion we have for developing people nor our purpose for being in education. Investing in pupils and staff, enabling them to grow and develop beyond anything they could realise will always be for me one of the distinguishers between being a good leader and not. I have been fortunate through my work to see so many, real examples of growth both in the classroom and in colleagues, some of whom would never have thought “they had it in themselves” and therefore would never have impacted on the pupils and school in the fabulous way they did. The issue is we don’t always know if we have it in us or indeed if others have it in themselves, which is surely the whole point of good education and good leadership – to create the conditions for professional/personal growth and learning but with humility, understanding and enthusiasm. In my view, learning and personal/professional growth never stop and that is as true of pupils as it is of teachers, support staff, those in leadership roles and governors.


    • I’m not really annoyed with anyone except myself. As ijstock says below, we are grown adults. With several more years under my belt I think the following:

      1. Some people are just really good at managing stuff which involves other adults from the off. They are rare.
      2. There are some tricks and techniques that can help, and people should be offered guidance where this is true but…
      3. …there is a hell of a lot of value in experience. Having been there and done that (or working with someone who has) significantly increases the chances of success where you are once more there and doing it again.
      4. Blaming the rest of the world/those above you might be a short term salve, but in the end it’s up to each individual to identify their strengths and weaknesses and work it out for themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mightn’t we find more people who are ‘just good at managing stuff’ if we didn’t cling to such rigid preconceptions about the methods they might use for doing so?


  11. Educational management? That is management that educates? The management of education is not so different in principle from any other management. If you organise services in large bureaucratic systems management is inevitable and so are the tensions between those managing and those being managed. The alternative is to dismantle the organisations and do something like I describe in my blog entry http://thelearningmachine.co.uk/how-to-pay-teachers-100k-per-year/. And management and leadership are as different but complementary to each other as administration and teaching. Perhaps the real issue is accountability. Accountability drives behaviours and it’s always someone else that needs to be accountable 🙂


  12. With respect, the two errors managers (collectively) seem to make is 1) to assume that they are more indispensable and more powerful than they actually are, and 2) to forget that there is a difference between ‘managing’ a machine/budget/building and managing a living person.

    Of course large organisations need management – someone has to set the budget, pay the bills, fix the buildings and buy the equipment. And yes, there will always be conflicts that need resolution.

    The problem comes where managers see their job as to sweat the assets – or as they would probably see it, ‘secure maximum efficiency’. The trouble is, securing efficient functioning from *people* – particularly high-functioning professionals – requires an entirely different and much more subtle skill set than most managers seem to realise. Then there are the people who are simply out for the power kick – oh yes, they exist, even in teaching.

    We then take those people away from the work-face, put them in comfortable offices where they can easily forget the realities of day-to-day front-line work, bump up their egos by encouraging them think how important they are – and then provide them with ample vested interests in the form of high-stakes accountability and high salaries pretty much to guarantee they face constant conflicts of interest.

    I have seen this in numerous places, not just schools – and no matter what the theories might say, the result is ALWAYS unhappy, frustrated, demotivated, poorly treated main-grade staff. And when, as in a school the success of that institution intimately depends on the morale of the workforce, this strikes me as the height of folly.

    I am no gratuitous management-basher, simply someone who has been made cynical/sceptical by bitter experience over a long period of time.You may be right that management is inevitable – but so, it often seems, are its adverse effects.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Thanks for your reply, Alison Goodwin. I appreciate your idealism and positivity, but please see my reply to Ian Lynch above for why I disagreed. The theory is good, but far too often the practice is completely the opposite. As for finding what we didn’t know we had in us, well I suspect that most teachers do know what they have within them – it’s not the kind of job you can do without passion. I know (and always have) full-well what I have to offer, even if experience has made me more adept at delivering it. That experience came by doing the job – not by having someone telling me how to do it. Most of my most committed colleagues are the same.

    And for most of the past thirty years, I have been trying to bring it out in the face of systems managed by people who felt they knew better what I should be offering than I did. The result has been quite the opposite of what you describe.

    I agree, good leadership should be about creating belief in a shared purpose – but that is achieved by bringing out what people already have, not stifling it of imposing something else entirely, which seems to be what most often happens. The problem is, leadership requires vision that is in too short supply, and which cannot be identified on a job-description. The people who truly have it are simply in too short supply.


  14. The reason practice is often different from theory is a) because the practitioners don’t know the theory and/or b) they are unable to implement it. a) Is relatively easy to fix, b) is much more difficult. I don’t disagree that people with the necessary attributes are in short supply which is why we should be giving management training to all at a much earlier stage. It would benefit those being managed because they would better understand wider perspectives and it would result in better prepare people to come forward and do it well. The person most likely to lose their job as a result of inspection is the head.


  15. I don’t want just to be managed with more finesse. I just want to be given the autonomy I need to get on with the job I joined the profession to do. Unless you consider those to be the same thing, of course. I understand that there are wider perspectives (which would indeed be more easily appreciated if they were ever explained) and I understand the pressure on heads – which is all to easily funnelled the way the OP mentioned.

    As for the skills required to manage, I really don’t see that a bit of basic consideration, compassion and empathy are really things that further training can deliver. The ‘hard decisions’ school of management is too often just a smoke screen for being unnecessarily hard on people for convenience’s sake.


  16. In that case you need to set up your own business and do it your way then you don’t need dependencies on any managers at all, you just have to ensure enough people want what you have to offer in competition with all others trying to sell them similar things.


  17. …and there in a nutshell, I would suggest, lies the gulf of misunderstanding that has given rise to so many problems within the educational world.


    • No misunderstanding, at least not on my part, just the reality of how the world works. Anyone that wants their personal circumstances to change by waiting for other people or “the system” to change is likely to be disappointed, idealists especially ;-). It seems very unlikely that in a managed system as complex as the education world, that any individual teacher will be left to just “manage themselves”, it does not happen anywhere in the world and is a good deal more constrained in many other countries than it is here. One reason why I chose personally not to remain in that environment. You might have a particularly bad set of circumstances, in which case commiserations, I’m not condoning that, I’m just being realistic about why things are as they are and some things that might help a bit but while education is a regulated public service with a political profile the fundamentals are not going to change any time soon.


      • The misunderstanding is, I think more general, between those who think that more management is the answer and those who want less. I think you have to be something of an idealist to teach – and all I really want is to be allowed to do my job as well as I can. I have had too many years of people imposing things that have acted as nothing more than an impediment – and which have wasted far too much of my life. I know I speak for a good number of others too.

        I would not wish to say too much specifically about my own experience, but suffice it to say we have our own nightmare. It is having real, harmful effects on people, including me particularly right now, and there is nothing that seems can be done about it. It is utterly demoralising.

        As for other countries, it seems to me that many, including some I know well, have much more effective systems with much *less* management. There is nothing inevitable about BIG management, and my experience suggests that bigger management often leads to bigger problems. The education world is only complex because people (usually managers, including politicians) have made it such.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I don’t think it’s about more, it’s about better in complex bureaucracies. I think idealism needs to be tempered with realism to teach effectively. The ability to accept the things you can’t change, change the things you can and the wisdom to know the difference. The only way to get rid of people getting in the way is to become independent of them. If you can’t do that you have to accept it. That is just simple logic. The status quo is inevitable unless someone changes it. Is that someone going to be you? Or will you just wait and hope someone does it for you?


  18. An interesting post. For me the issues are many.

    You can appoint someone as a manager but you cannot appoint someone as a leader. Leadership is a slippery little bugger which will surely be different things in different situations. A leader may succeed in one situation but fail in another.

    The best and most experienced know how to lead in a variety of situations. When you take a bunch of dedicated, skilled and passionate professionals and stick them together in an organisation delivering a professional service there will likely be trouble. Ensure that the most powerful stakeholders are not the recipient of the professional service themselves and the potential for trouble becomes just a little bit worse.

    I disagree with Ian above. I believe that the best leaders do actually achieve what isn’t possible, they manage to change what is unchangeable. Not realising that the system cannot be changed is one of the leaders most powerful resources.

    I think I sort of agree with much of the original post although it did duck and dive a bit so I wasn’t sure at times. When the original poster says quite passionately that they simply manage their department, they do not lead I think their view of leadership is quite narrow.

    However I do think that a leader does not need the term leader in their job title to be an effective leader, and having it there in no way ensures successful leadership and in this I agree with the original post.

    Maybe there should be 360 degree appraisal and those who are considered by people to have led should be given the title. The rest should be called managers.


  19. People are appointed as leaders all the time. Politicians are the obvious ones but football managers and startup entrepreneurs are clearly more than just managers. I think you don’t really understand the point I was making. Sure leaders do sometimes make a very big difference initiating change. I have no argument with that. However if we look at the broad evidence of the education system at large there is not much that is very likely to change the things complained about in this discussion short of a radical change to the bureaucracy itself. Someone might have the political leadership to achieve that but it doesn’t seem very likely on track record so far. Mostly at school level the leadership is constrained by the wider culture – again a few exceptional people transcend that but you can’t really build a successful national service if it requires exceptional people because there are simply not enough of them. The snag with a laissez-faire approach is that it might work in some environments but if you happen to be a head in one that it doesn’t it’s probably you that will be out of work after OFSTED visit and leave a judgement of weak leadership and/or ineffective management.


    • All of which makes good sense – so why create a system that is so focused on so-called leaders when there are so few available? Better to empower people more widely, in my view.


      • Good leaders empower, poor leaders constrain or do nothing. Probably if there are too few competent leaders at SLT there is not a lot of confidence that there will be a better situation lower down. The system is created by the politicians and the DfE, the SLT secondary school system is a consequence of that. Primary is perhaps less so because the organisations are smaller.


        • Good leaders empower, poor leaders constrain or do nothing

          Just a thought, but I think it’s quite possible that a good leader does nothing, when nothing needs to be done. The reason why I prefer the term manager to leader, is that a “manager” has discretion to act or not act – seeing their role as ensuring that everything runs as well as it can. There’s something of the machismo about the word “leader”, and I can’t help thinking it might be responsible for people feeling that they have to always be seen to be trying to “do something”, no matter what that something is, and no matter whether it needs doing.


          • Strange issue of semantics (?) here… Nonetheless a point that indicates the value of such discussions.

            In my understanding, it is managers who always need to be intervening; leadership is an inspirational quality which motivates people to the ‘bigger picture’ issues, largely by example and often implicitly rather than by direct intervention. Managers on the other hand are just concerned with compliance, and too often constitute the ‘dead hand’.

            I agree, a great leader may well decide that their own action is not required – particularly if they have faith in their staff. Managers on the other hand, always need to be checking what people have done to justify their own existence.

            I can’t remember the source of these, but they’ve stayed in my mind:

            “Leaders lead, managers follow”.

            “Leadership can be shown by anyone in an organisation; management can only be shown by those with it in their job description”.

            I have had my fill of managers; I’m still waiting for a leader to inspire me….


            • Anyone can be a leader. That’s the point really. It might be easier in a role culture to do it from a dominant role but it’s not an absolute. In task focused cultures leadership comes from those that are most adept at getting stuff done. This tends to be small businesses and groups working more or less autonomously. A culture where it is ingrained that certain roles lead and others are followers is never likely to become an environment where all players lead on different aspects of the work based on competence alone.


  20. I entered teaching after working in varied roles, including management, as a civil servant and then doing part time, low status, work while raising my children. I agree with this blog post. I feel rage often. I see good staff demotivated often. I see teachers poor performance blamed on them when they have been given appalling conditions to work in. I also see bad decision making have very negative impacts on the student experience. Sometimes the justifications for these decisions have been completely contradictory; citing a need to change to fit with government policy one minute and a need to stick to progressive principals the next. I could go on, as you have, my rant is as long as yours. I am glad much of it has been said here in the right way. Management is a means to an end, to be a manager should not be a goal in its own right.


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