Management by Disaster Area (with thanks to Douglas Adams)

Am I alone in detecting a change of style in school management? Several recently-heard anecdotes suggest otherwise. Time was when the senior staff at a school epitomised the school’s identity – and to do this they had to become in effect the embodiment of the school and its values, effectively the Head(s) of State. They were the leaders of a community of people who were travelling a complex, interwoven – but above all shared – route together.

In that sense, no doubt educational management remained in the dark ages, in an age where chief executives shift from one organisation to another with gay abandon, pursuing their own agendas – without, it has to be said, always distinguishing themselves in the process.  The emergence of the (self-defined?) super-executive elite has been widely observed – and it seems as though education is emulating it: I perceive the Disaster Area approach taking hold – of playing your instruments “ by remote control from within a heavily insulated spaceship which stayed in orbit around the planet – or more frequently around a completely different planet”.

Schools are not private commercial organisations but in managerial approach, it seems that they are catching up fast. Recent managers seem to be adopting a more detached position with respect to the schools they lead. Rather than becoming the embodiment of the establishment, the new style  it seems, is indeed more one of remote control, of management from a safe distance, of doing things to others, rather than running an establishment from the inside – and then perhaps moving on to higher things.

Schools, and those who staff them increasingly seem to be seen as problems to be solved, rather than communities to be led, and I think this is potentially deeply damaging to the notion of schools as societal role-models in which all people have, in one sense or another, a shared stake. The whole system will become denuded if it is allowed to become little more than the plaything of educational executives.

It also seems that the recruitment of managers revolves more closely around how to control conflict rather than how to maintain harmony. I appreciate that there are times when difficult decisions do need to be taken, and I suppose that maintaining a distance from those affected makes such actions easier to take. I can also appreciate why, when the jobs of senior staff are so dependent on the perceived success of their schools, they feel the need for total control over their decision-making. But the effect on the people who work under them can still be harmful: cold-blooded, arm’s length treatment cannot but have a disempowering effect on those on the receiving end.  I doubt whether the creation of fiefdoms is any more benign a model now than it ever was – and no matter how authoritarian the instinct, one cannot ultimately command the private thoughts and feelings of another.

Margaret Heffernan wrote some years ago of the risks of management blindness – of organisations whose top people become so infatuated with their own power that they neglect the basic issues that keep everyone else content, who get so used to pulling levers that they forget that the welfare of real human beings lies on the other end. Ultimately, such organisations can fail from the inside out as everyone else pulls up the metaphorical drawbridge too. And those that don’t, limp on for years, never fulfilling their potential, expending their energy fighting internal battles that make many miserable.

The ‘my way or highway’ school of management may present the apparent advantage of running a tight ship – but I deeply doubt whether it does much for the genuine loyalty that schools need their staff to have. If one feels like little more than a very small cog in someone else’s very large machine, whose wellbeing is nothing more than a very insignificant consideration in someone else’s mega game-plan, then it is hardly weak to start examining one’s loyalties. A like-it-or-lump-it attitude may command minds, but it is unlikely to win hearts.

I fear that this situation will only become worse as schools grow into even larger organisations through becoming chains – with so many individuals involved, the risk becomes real that those in charge will not even know their minions, let alone care for them, thus further eroding the human relationships upon which schools depend.

This seems widespread in the corporate sector, but the impact of the same situation arising in schools is arguably even more serious; where an organisation is basically cerebral in function, the scope for poor staff morale to harm its functioning is profound in a way that no amount of banging together of heads will correct; well-educated individuals are unlikely to stand for such treatment without some form of response in any case.

In teaching there has always been emotional blackmail to keep the staff in line: any curtailment of a teacher’s commitment was – of course – a dereliction of their duty to their pupils and therefore deeply unprofessional.The alternative, of moving to another school is not always possible, and in any case this may increasingly become Hobson’s choice.

But while it may often seem otherwise, there always remains a discretionary element to a teacher’s work – at very least the dedication that makes them ‘go the extra mile’ remains within their gift. Much though it would be to the detriment of our education system at large if teachers withdrew such goodwill, I would still advocate it in situations where there was felt  to be real disdain for people’s reasonable needs and interests by those have accepted the responsibility for maintaining effective organisations.

If the teachers are a school’s most important asset, then it follows that the maltreatment or neglect of that asset by management is the fault of the management, not the teachers. If people are pushed into defending even basic needs, then this is hardly unreasonable. And by extension, any detrimental effect on the pupils as a result is also the responsibility of the management for propagating the situation in the first place.

There is no avoiding the fact that the workforce needs due consideration; they are, after all, people not machines. Good managers, I suggest, never forget this and retain a humility that keeps their feet on the ground even while their heads are in the clouds. But the direction in which educational management is heading seems to be the opposite one – and ironically this still places it firmly in the dark ages, since the more enlightened of private sector employers have already gone to the other side of “treat ‘em mean to keep ‘em keen” and back, finding that it doesn’t ultimately work if you are in need of a skilled, committed and stable workforce.

So if the buck stops at management, then it has to do so consistently. If that position justifies elite treatment, then it also carries the other responsibilities of power as well. I doubt those who disagree will lose much sleep over this – but as they are fond of observing when taking harsh decisions, “It’s all for the children”. Just like those salaries, no doubt.


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