Some days ago, ‘Disappointed Idealist’ posted a long polemic about the shortcomings of educational management. I commented on what I felt was a heartfelt and perceptive observation, since when a dialogue opened up between Ian Lynch and me on the comments section. I don’t think it is reasonable to conduct an extended discussion on the comments board of someone else’s blog, so I have moved here to continue my response. The following is therefore a specific reply to Ian Lynch’s comments, in effect an open letter. The previous discussion can be found here.
Have you come across Margaret Heffernan’s book Wilful Blindness? If not, I suggest you read it. It might explain some of my doubts about the efficacy (or should that be sanctity?) of management. I suggest you also look at Obliquity by John Kay, and Drive by Daniel Pink for why the current approach is wrong and doomed to failure. Details of all of these can be found on my reading page.
They represent, of course, just one world-view, but I think we can probably agree that management is a very complex matter. I will repeat: my objections are not some kind of a grudge. Indeed I have always tried to act in a constructive and professional way for the management of my school; they deserve respect for the difficult job they have undertaken. But equally, no one makes people take those jobs. Too many of them may have been taken due to personal ambition rather than aptitude. The view that you can do more good from higher up is, in my view, deeply flawed.
My own early attempts at entering management were, admittedly, unsuccessful; there may have been many reasons for that, but with the benefit of a lot of hindsight, I am greatly relieved that I never did so. I think I was not ready for it at the age when it was expected that one ought to be looking for junior management roles, and somewhere inside I knew that. I will admit that I would also find it very difficult to suppress my own strongly-held views and experiences just for the sake of holding the management line. Maybe, in the conventional sense, that made me unsuitable.
Teaching is a job where long service delivers perspectives that simply are not available to new entrants, no matter how talented they may be, and particularly if they flit from school to school. How much bad management is a result of people being pushed to take roles for which they have insufficient experience or perspective? Decades of doing the job throw a very different light on what is important and what is not. Young turks may not see this, instead being more anxious about making their mark. So much damage is done by actions that have little to do with education and everything to do with demonstrating the so-called effectiveness of the manager. As you say, this is made all the worse by the accountability trap.
My objection to management is not over-idealistic; it is born from two very practical considerations which relate to the assumptions made not only about its own potency, but about the real nature of the world we inhabit:
- Management as a concept is predicated on the belief that it is possible to control things centrally. This in turn is based on the view that things happen for identifiable cause-and-effect reasons. While this may be partly true in the material/mechanical world, it is not as directly so for the behavioural world, even in the commercial sector (think bankers’ behaviour). The causal density of human behaviour and interactions is so high that it is effectively impossible to identify, let alone anticipate, the actual effects of one’s actions. Therefore, management is doomed to failure because it is simply attempting too complex a task, to co-ordinate closely the real behaviour and motives of a hundred or more adults, let alone the children. This is all too visible in the amount of time people spend trying to circumvent imposed constraints on their actions and trying to cover their backsides from the perceived or real consequences of not doing what management wants. This is not productive activity.
- In any organisation, management is a construct. It does not produce anything of itself; it is not the core activity of any organisation. It therefore constantly needs to reinvent reasons for its own existence – and these largely consist of coming up with new ways of telling other people what to do and then checking up on them afterwards. Sometimes that may be helpful or necessary, but it all too easily becomes a self-serving activity the key purpose of which is to preserve its own raison d’etre, let alone the prestige of those in those roles. As I mentioned before, it sets up too many conflicts of interest ever to be otherwise.
I am an educated, thoughtful and conscientious individual, and I do not go to work to be patronised, or told what to think and do with no reason, like a mindless automaton. My loyalty is to be won, not demanded. I expect to work hard, but I do not expect to have the job made more difficult than it needs to be. I have a life beyond work to which I am entitled, and I do not expect to be condemned or criticised for protecting it. I do not expect to have it gratuitously invaded by people who seem to think they have unlimited rights to my time.
You may argue that such things are inevitable; be that as it may, the effect in terms of morale, let alone dehumanisation of the workplace, is still the same. You suggest that we need to accept that which we cannot change, but I see no reason why I should accept the distress and demoralisation of either me or my colleagues just because it seems that not much can be done about it because I am not powerful within my school. That is not the same as claiming that such things are done deliberately – though there are times, even in a good school like mine, when it comes close. There are some things that are simply wrong – and the way that too many people get treated in the workplace is one of them. It is not compatible with a modern, civilised country.
As for doing something about it, I have spent my career fully engaged in professional dialogue both within the school and more widely – but you cannot discuss things with people who are unwilling to listen, and who in effect consider they know better because they are somehow ‘more important’. You cannot change things from the inside if you cannot gain access to the inside because your ideas don’t ‘fit’. I have acted in numerous roles in an attempt to argue certain cases – always with the same conclusion: the default position of management seems to be to listen to nobody but itself – and to do what it wants regardless. Ironically, increased local freedoms only seem to have made this worse.
No matter how inevitable you think this is, the effect is too often a destructive culture within organisations whereby too much effort is expended on in-fighting and the them-and-us mentality which often exists. While there undoubtedly are individual teachers who hold grudges, I am genuinely not one of them – and I still feel I can say that over nearly thirty years, the divisions have been created more from above than below.
We would be much better off accepting the real limitations that exist on the ability of a few often-remote individuals to control the minds and actions of others; it is the inability of management to accept this fact that causes a lot of its problems.
Management would be more effective, if it accepted that its job was to establish minimum expectations, go about winning hearts and minds by creating a good ethos and then allowing people to operate within those basic expectations with as much freedom as possible. Tom Sherrington wrote as much a few months ago. Certainly there is a role to weed out the genuinely bad, but the constant drive to impose uniformity on people does nothing more than deny human variability and individuality and is guaranteed to cause dissatisfaction and demotivation.
You may claim this is idealistic – but there are countries where it works, such as Switzerland (as I have written before in these pages). I have seen teachers working in a genuinely collegiate manner, with a minimal flat management structure for overall coordination. It works fine – and it also used to work in this country – until the point when education caught management sickness and it became the only real route for ambitious teachers to ‘prove’ their worth. I have also worked in leaderless teams at times – and nothing ground to a halt. Belgium ran itself for many months without a government, while the Soviet Union collapsed under its management’s inability to control its citizens’ lives sufficiently closely to command their compliance. That is the reality of reality – it is oblique and polycentric; it does not work to centralised command, no matter how much some people might want it to.
The biggest obstacle to improving this situation in this country is the confirmation bias that tells managers that the only solution to poor management is more management. Certainly we need some – but not the debilitating parasite that it has been allowed to become. Until they accept that management is no more indispensible and no less fallible than the rest of us, we are not going to get far.