Where are we Headed?

Is it an admission of my unacceptably fixed mindset to say that I think there are some things that are just plain impossible? Adding the word ‘yet’ to someone’s failing aspiration to fly unassisted isn’t really going to be of much help. And claiming to know beyond a shadow of doubt what is good for the future of the education system probably falls into the same basket. And just as with my suspicion that unaided flight will never happen, I get an instinctive bad feeling about the way the organisation of schools is going.

Perhaps those who control these things really do benefit from insights that I, with the limited horizons of my classroom don’t  – but the past few decades are strewn with the detritus of abandoned schemes, failed initiatives and abrupt changes of direction left by people who claimed they knew where we were heading, and this hardly inspires confidence.

So what are we to make of the current crop of developments, and in particular the Academies programme? The Independent today reports the case of Sir Greg Martin, about whom the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has expressed concern. He is director of an Academies Trust in south London, for which he is paid £229,000 per year. In addition, he received £160,000 for a leisure company he ran using school facilities, and more from a dating agency he initially also ran from the school premises. Despite the concern, there is, apparently, no suggestion of ‘improper conduct’ by Sir Greg.

It looks pretty much like improper conduct to me. Maybe I simply don’t have access to the sort of information available on the courses that head teachers attend; maybe there really are grounds for arguing that not only academies, but what are in all but name corporate enterprises providing state education thorough chains of schools, is in fact a good idea. Quite where the supreme confidence comes from in those who promote and operate such schemes I don’t know, but despite the fact that I fail to see how, perhaps sometime in the future the scheme will be judged to have been an outstanding educational success.

But to me, it feels wrong. With my fixed mindset, I fail to see how the real needs of children – particularly those of primary age – are best delivered through such huge organisations. I question what such an immense remove from those at the bottom to those at the top is really meant to achieve – and how likely it is that their interests will remain congruent.

Moreover, I fail to understand why it is necessary to pay those who run such organisations such huge sums to do so, when they claim educational altruism as their cause. My doubt only grows when I ponder the motives of such people for feeling they need to ‘reward’ themselves with such large amounts from the education budget at a time when that budget is already squeezed, and when their colleagues’ pay has barely changed for a number of years. That doubt reaches a peak when I read of what I cannot help but consider being incompatible activities being run from school premises. Granted, some of the proceeds may have been ploughed back into the education system – but clearly not at the expense of the salary of the top bod(s). Is this really how we wish to fund education in the U.K.? To me, it is too redolent of what is happening in other, more mainstream businesses.

This is not an objection of envy; it is born of a genuine professional concern, whereby I cannot reconcile the education of the young with the emergence of a kind of Academies Baron whose concern seems to be more the building of a corporate empire (using taxpayers’ money) than a humane, necessarily small-scale concern for the wellbeing of children. In fairness, if a school really is a good ‘brand’ – and if that really does lead to the improvement of education for other children elsewhere, then maybe it really is justified – but I doubt it comes without a cost attached.

Instinct tells me that those who run schools need to be much more closely engaged with their establishment than can be practically possible if you are  running several. Maybe there really are brilliant individuals who can pull this off (though Duncan Watts in Everything is Obvious refutes the claims made for the impact of ‘star individuals’). Logistics alone suggests that a considerable degree of delegation will be necessary, as it is impossible for even the best to be in several places at once.

In the impact one has on young people, nothing beats real live interaction with them – and the same can probably be said for one’s staff – if one cares about them as individuals. I have my doubts that absentee head teachers bring no drawbacks purely on account of that status, no matter how well they delegate. And if delegation does take place, one is left wondering precisely what the bod at the top is really for…

It seems likely that the kind of individual disposed to take this route may well be brilliant at the short-term reversal of failing schools – but less interested in the long-term sustenance of good cultures, once the banging-together of heads has ceased. For that, one needs a much more subtle approach, the construction and active maintenance of a deeply embedded ethos, which staff and students can continually draw on when the short-term goals have disappeared and they are wondering what to do next. This can really only derive from the personal values and qualities that one transmits to those in one’s charge, and to achieve this I think one really does need to be present full-time, and in a way that permits a direct personal impact on each and every individual in that establishment. To be the leader of a huge and dispersed organisation inevitably removes one from such day-to-day contact in a way that cuts the possibility for the transmission of such human values. It also carries the well-known risk of management blindness.

Above all, schools need to be humane establishments, wherein the welfare of both adults and children is given high enough –and individual enough – priority that they can function intellectually and personally to their best ability. It takes surprisingly little to leave people with a recurrent ‘bad taste’ in their mouths. Turning the education system into a set of huge corporations risks depersonalising it, even when it does not result in overtly harsh or unkind treatment of the ‘pawns’ who constitute the majority of it.

But one kind of knowable certainty that it does increasingly deliver is that of high incomes and significant power for a certain kind of ambitious educationalist, who may in fact value such things more highly than the ultimately fairly humdrum, low-key activity of actually educating children. The opportunity for local management and the creation of Academies has unleashed such individuals – but to what long-term effect as yet we know not.

This is yet another development that may make economic or ideological sense – but as to its educational, let alone humane benefit, only time will tell. The fact that it feels distinctly wrong that people can operate in the manner of Greg Martin, may not be as unimportant as it might seem.

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3 thoughts on “Where are we Headed?

  1. Thank you – this is a very thoughtful and carefully nuanced post, with an excellent point at its core about the importance of day-to-day relationships in how we teach children, lead teachers, and build the overall culture of a school.

    • Thanks. One thing that is often overlooked is that winning hearts may be very different from winning minds, and it occurs more by dint of humane example than logistical efficiency or corporate ambition.

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