When will they ever learn?

I’m not generally given to anger – but reading a number of blogs and other reports in recent days, I have felt my hackles rising. A consensus seems to be developing amongst even quite senior individuals that grading lessons has (you can almost hear the nervous laughter) been a bad idea all along; that its days as a practice may be numbered. The dialogue would continue… “Well we knew that all the time of course…but we had no choice (voices quaver)…Ofsted made us do it…”

The contingent behaviour that the use of false targets promotes has been exposed; there is evidence of targets being fiddled, of teachers doing whatever it takes just to get the dreaded grading system off their backs. It is belatedly being realised that the occasional lesson grading reflects neither the real quality of the teacher nor the quality of the learning. I have witnessed this at first hand, and have even been instructed to behave in a similarly contingent way myself. My refusal to do so on what I considered to be professional ethical grounds created more than one anxious and distinctly uncomfortable experience for me in recent years. It did my morale and indeed general state of mind no good at all. That people are realising these things is good; why it has taken so long to spot the obvious is another matter.

I have nothing against managers per se. Clearly there are situations when co-ordination and an overview – not to mention vision – are necessary, for example in financial procedures or the operation of the school timetable. But extending this from logistical into behavioural control is much less reliable and more likely to be counter-productive, not least because it is less likely to achieve the consensus and consent required for it to work effectively.

I am certainly not going to take a pop at individuals, who in my experience largely believe in what they are doing and try to do it well; I won’t hold it against them that they never seem to ask themselves whether so much management is really necessary, whether prevailing management culture is actually helpful, or whether they are really making as much difference as they seem to think (there is plenty of research that dismisses the idea of the key individual).  Indeed management as a whole is such an easy but unproductive target that I thought long and hard before writing about it at all. That said, the power-politics of the workplace not infrequently cause people to behave towards others in ways they would elsewhere consider unacceptable – and in my view this is inexcusable. The idea and exercise of control has grown out of all proportion to its usefulness – and that is without the (fortunately few) who seem to get a vindictive kick out of power.

Management very easily becomes a sickness, a self-serving parasite that feeds off those who actually perform the core function. The reasons for its growth seem clear: as the scope for productive work has been reduced by technology and global shift, something was needed to increase employment opportunities. The great thing about management from the economist’s point of view is that because it requires no raw materials and creates no product, but simply relies on supervising what others are doing – no matter how unnecessarily – it is almost infinitely expandable. You can go on creating non-jobs pretty much forever. This is also the way in which teachers have been seduced with the prospect of great careers, when the actual job of teaching requires you simply to remain in a classroom day in, day out, with a finite number of groups of children. Big Management is the capitalist equivalent of Soviet job creation programmes.

I’m not sure who first said, “Hire great people and get out of their way” – but it sounds like a good policy to me. By all means be there when something needs fixing, and certainly give praise when merited – but STOP there! There comes a point when management ceases to facilitate usefully, detaches itself from the reality of the activity it supposedly supports, and becomes a self-perpetuating entity all of its own. A key symptom of this is when those involved have clearly lost precise knowledge of how their organisation actually functions, and are making decisions based on at best patchy information and at worst clear conflicts of (self-)interest.

Principal amongst these is the need for management to justify its own continued existence. So I suspect we are currently beginning to see what may be the next reincarnation of the management Dr. Who: lesson grading is dead; long live teacher accountability by other (yet to be developed) means. For without such devices, what precisely does a lot of management really exist for?  I’m sure the desire for reform is genuine – but why then the urgent need to start discussing what should be put in its place? Are all these structures really needed – or should we not be taking the opportunity simply to jettison something that has been shown to be unhelpful? In my experience, many management structures actually make life more difficult for the people being managed – and the notion of friction cost says that the harder you make it for people to do things, the less likely it is that they will do them. Then you, as a manager, have to step in and apply sanctions further to justify your existence. Neat.

Yes, I am being deliberately cynical, but there’s more than a grain of truth in it – and I thought we appointed managers because their insight is greater than ours…

No matter that there really is no way to ‘make’ someone into a good teacher: the carrot being discussed will be little more effective than the stick, if less unpleasant. People can only become good teachers for and by themselves, if they have the requisite qualities and disposition. Management simply cannot do that for or to them: to think otherwise is simply a delusion of  power – so why not accept that fact? The best good managers might do is be gently supportive if and when difficulties arise. Too much of the ‘intervention’ (and I include here ordinary teachers with respect to their pupils) actually gets in the way of people finding their own solutions; it imposes someone else’s will where it may not be needed. Again, it makes life more, not less difficult.

But the day that management en masse accepts such arguments will be the day it disappears in a puff of blue smoke – so it isn’t going to happen.

It wouldn’t be such a difficult issue if the consequences of  management sickness were harmless, but they are not. The real issue here is not the teetering of the management class when finding that yet another rug is being pulled from under their feet, but the hours of over-work, stress, anxiety and the demotivation that have been visited over the years on the foot-soldiers of the profession – and those close to them –  in the name of those policies. It’s easy to do a policy volte-face when needed – but the price paid by those on the receiving end was and is real, and it cannot be undone by a simple change of heart. Especially when they may already be dreaming up the next grand folly: Gone to Flowers, Every One.

It is not as though people do not point these things out; at very least managements should be more circumspect, more sceptical – and more prepared to act as a shelter for those in their charge from the more haphazard winds blowing in from above; in my view, that’s how they can best earn their money. Then we could get on with delivering what they say they want.

That this is often not so does indeed make me angry.

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