How dare you?

I think Sir Michael Wilshaw must have been reading my blog. (“Teachers saying good things about me. Hmm, must fix that…”) His latest speech  ‘warned’ that too many teachers have no respect for authority and are hampering schools’ attempts to improve standards.

He spoke of head teachers being “undermined by a pervasive resentment of all things managerial by some of their teaching staff” and that “some teachers simply will not accept that a school isn’t a collective but an organisation with clear hierarchies and separate duties.”

He went on, “…many teachers still think that school leaders do not have the right to tell them how to teach or what to do.” And just as I was thinking about beginning to start warming to the guy…

Well, we all know about leopards and spots, I suppose. This man appears to have no understanding whatsoever of what it means to be a professional (as opposed to act like one), or to have a brain of one’s own – let alone of the concept of Motivation. He seems never to have heard of the notion of professional scepticism, or think it might apply to education. This pro-management view that ‘wisdom can only descend from on high’ is sharply at odds with much of what Ofsted preaches with respect to children.

By nature, I’m a resolutely non-confrontational person. I could not remotely be personified as the archetypal hard-left ideologist. I believe that management and staff should work in a consensual way, and I certainly don’t consider ‘them’ to be the spawn of the devil. But I also know that when that doesn’t happen, the fault is by no means always on one side.

These are graduate professionals we are talking about – the successful products of the very process Wilshaw supposedly champions – and he’s telling us we’re fit for nothing more than blind obedience? The man who supposedly advocates higher professional standards in schools seems to equate this with a workforce of unthinking zombies who unquestioningly obey their managers’ every diktat, no matter how ill-advised or unworkable. And we have all seen plenty of those; staff rooms and the teacher blogosphere resonate with them.

Even the most enlightened of school managers has not been immune to the perverse incentives that exist in modern education – many of which are the consequences of the policies of Wilshaw’s own organisation. Does he not expect people to react to impossible demands and unreasonable impacts they encounter, let alone plain bad education? Maybe he would drum all such people out of the profession – but he would be left with a rather large teacher shortage.

Intelligent, reflective professionals need be given as much space as possible to be self-directed, to be given credit for having a vocation of their own, and indeed for a modicum of intelligence to work out what does and doesn’t make sense. Neither does being a professional somehow insulate you from the vagaries of morale and motivation, even if it does you oblige you to combat them more resolutely. Understanding that is not wishy-washy idealism, just perceptive management.

Willshaw might also consider that far from all managers are the enlightened, highly-insightful individuals he seems to believe. It is perfectly possible for them to be causing more damage than they cure (no matter how unintentionally). If you find a consensus of people questioning the wisdom of something, then maybe – just maybe – it might be worth listening. It  is surely the duty of professional individuals to speak out, to be the eyes and ears that combat management blindness – and if (as is often the case) they are not listened to,  in extremis to act to preserve the best interests of their pupils, schools, and yes, themselves.

Wilshaw should realise that not all sceptical teachers are anti-establishment radicals – I am the living proof of that, as hopefully are blogs such as this – and he might want to reflect on why conscientious individuals feel the need to question these things in the first place. Insofar as they dictate policy, and thereby alienate even moderate people, such criticisms are self-fulfilling. The fundamental assumption is that teachers can’t be trusted – and I consider this an affront to my personal and professional integrity.

History is littered with the chaos and destruction caused by blind mass-obedience.

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4 thoughts on “How dare you?

  1. Two things that strike me about this. The slightly snarky one is that one big example of a gap between leadership and led is Ofsted itself. Sir Michael speaks along the lines of “if it leads to good learning, it is good teaching”, and yet plenty of inspectors still seem to be demanding one specific sort of teaching as the only good one.
    More constructively… is the issue that the right way to manage depends on the situation. There are situations where the structure has broken down, and things can be improved by highly directive management; at least it gives everyone a chance to hear themselves think. What seems to be broken in some ed-management thinking is the assumption that if lots of close direction can get a school from poor to OK, then the way to get from OK to great is lots and lots and lots of the same.
    It’s 1980s/90s pop psychology, but the Robin Skinner/John Cleese “Life and how to survive it” books are interesting on this from the point of view of family therapy. With really messed up families, you get improvement in health by putting someone in charge; with most families, you get improvement by increasing the degree of consultation and flexibility. To be fair, lots of really good schools do work on that basis.
    People stay where they feel appreciated, and if a school treats its teachers too badly, they won’t hold on to so many good ones for long (I admit: I teach a shortage subject, so I can have a bit of that attitude…). In the longer run- and assuming the current Govey model of autonomous schools holds- that might be what eventually puts limits on the attitude of school managements towards their staff. It’s just rubbish for people caught in the middle while schools learn that lesson.

  2. Yes, I think you’re right on both counts. I would like to know whether MW is being disingenuous when he talks of teaching freedoms, or whether the message just hasn’t got through to the foot soldiers.

    To be fair, in those comments I suspect he is also referring to an awkward minority (at least I hope so) – but as with talking to pupils, you need to be careful what blanket judgments you make.

    Yes, also to point two – emergencies requiring intensive care do sometimes require extreme measures, but as you say, that isn’t most of us, most of the time.I think some managements have got themselves into such a situation of tunnel vision that they know no other way. Perhaps I can refer you back to my earlier post ‘Beyond Outstanding’?

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