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.”
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?’ ”
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.”
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 :
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 :
- 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”.
- 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.
- 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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 :
- If you did ok in the classroom, then if you can make everyone else teach like you did, maybe they’ll do ok too?
- 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.