Death by Management

This is a cross-post from my new general-interest blog which can be found at https://sprezzatura.blog

I’ve been dabbling on the fringes of local democracy. The small town where I live is noted for its outstanding heritage and excellent quality of life, but like many such places, it presently faces multiple challenges from various forms of development that are closing in. In the case of housing, the big builders frequently target such places because homes sell quickly there for a premium. But in the process, they very often ruin what was attractive in the first place.

Neighbourhood plans were a political initiative to give at least a semblance of local self-determination – it depends on how cynical you want to be. But my impression is that these activities are suffering from the same malaise that seems to afflict all of modern life – over-management.

I will hasten to say that I am sure those heading in this direction mean only well; it is just that for many people, professional life has become about little more than committee meetings. It seems that nothing in modern organisations can move without a pile of policy objectives, dozens of meetings and tome of paperwork.

There are some people who glory in all of this – and I have met my fair share of professional committee-sitters in my time. The Healthy Schools Initiative was one; I spent a fair amount of time in meetings with people who seemed far more concerned with ticking boxes, writing policies and acquiring accreditation logos than actually effecting real change. And for all that the logos were indeed acquired, very little of real use actually changed. Certainly nothing that justified all the expensive professional hours spent in those meetings.

If local democracy is to mean anything, be it in schools or entire communities, it is surely about giving people the ability to make a real impact on the places where they live and work. That should not require dozens of sub-committees and expensive consultants and analysts. And when I put some practical ideas forward, it seemed as though, being ‘projects’ – as opposed to policies – they have to go in the box marked ‘aspirational’, for attention only at some ill-defined moment in the far future.

The cynic in me says that death-by-management is a product of a society that struggles to create enough ‘real’ jobs for its people. Equally, I know that communal activities do need to be co-ordinated, money accounted for, and democracy observed. Good managers facilitate that. But on that last point, the triumph of the professional committee-member is not democratic, for it excludes a whole tranche of people who do not operate in that way.

Furthermore, such hidebound procedure strangles the ability of the doers to operate in their own, possibly rather esoteric ways; policy by definition does not cope easily with diversity. Bureaucracy and committee work is not known for its creativity and imagination, and history is littered with influential people who revolutionised their fields precisely by not following the rules.

Over-management kills stone dead the ability of such people actually to bring about real, on-the-ground improvements.

All the Aitches

I knew about the Danish notion of Hygge a long time before it became trendy. The Welsh also have a word, Hiraeth, which (being Welsh) is a rather more melancholy version. The Germans use the word Heimat to express an untranslatable sense of belonging to one’s roots. The English have no such word.

It was once suggested to me that in the lengthy exchange of words between English and French, the French take practical words from us (le parking) and we take abstract words from them (sang-froid). The Brits, it sometimes seems, are not much good at the intangibles of life.

If there remains anyone who does not now know, hygge expresses the sense of warmth and belonging, a sense of security and nearness to people and places one cares about. And what happened when the word arrived in England? It was turned into a retail concept, thereby instantaneously becoming a pale, insincere shadow of its authentic self.

For hygge, read education. Sitting as I am at a distance from the chalk face, but reading the occasional blog post as and when my addled brain will allow, I see another concept that has been debased almost beyond salvation. The British crave education – even as many seem to have little real understanding of what it is and how it is acquired.

The thing is, of course, education cannot be traded or turned into a retail concept – but that hasn’t stopped us from having a darned good try.

Grades can be subject to targets, production lines and ‘interventions’. Time lines and tick lists can be devised to demonstrate (as I saw on a recent Australian example) that Jonny ‘knows what he thinks about’ something (What? All the time? Without a shadow of reflective doubt?) – and can thus be given a grade for it. Job done.

But by quantifying the thing we think we want, its very essence slips away. We are no closer to educational Nirvana than ever, perhaps even further away. More bits of paper to our name, but no more enlightened about the world – or even about why those bits of paper are, in their own right, meaningless. A bit like Quantitative Easing – money with nothing to back it.

All because The System cannot see that the best things in life need to be left to just happen – cultivated, yes – but not commanded; they cannot be produced to order.

Undervalued and outcast

I have never been good at this time of year. No teacher is going to win much sympathy for coming to the end of six weeks’ paid holiday – but that doesn’t negate the difficulty of switching from one mode of life to the other. I am dedicated to my teaching, but I am not one who can’t wait to get back to work. Our profession may be important, but it is still subsidiary to the living of life as a whole.

While it is probably true that the thought of returning is worse that the doing, I nonetheless find it difficult to remain upbeat over the few days before the old routine re-establishes itself. And this year my feeling is somewhat heavier than usual because I am no longer convinced that my school values or supports my presence. Last year definitely qualified as my annus horribilis, and while the new prospects ought to be brighter, certain circumstances have created a gnawing doubt, despite the results being fine. Maybe mud sticks…

But I think the end-of-holiday sensation is about more than that. Dr. Giles Fraser summed it up well in ‘Thought for the Day’ on Radio Four’s Today Programme a few days ago (can be heard here, at least in the U.K., for the next seventeen days). Even leaving aside the religious overtones, his suggestion that work is about Doing while play (and by extension holidays) are about Being sums it up neatly. Importing the workplace ethic into leisure time is fruitless: the notion that leisure ought to be professionally or economically productive alters its very nature. Or put another way, replacing its intrinsic value with extrinsic aspiration destroys it. True leisure is not about doing things that have external value, or even being loosely competitive (except possibly with oneself); one’s other obligations accepted, it is about a simple state of Being for its own sake, something akin to Flow. This is a counter-establishment wisdom worth striving for, and certainly passing on to the next generation: leisure is a valuable part of life.

I’m just not persuaded by those who imply that the sole purpose of life is to be economically productive. Were I to follow that doctrine, much of what makes my own life worth living would simply disappear. I don’t see much evidence around me that a life devoted solely to economic functioning is healthy, socially beneficial, or popular – and what’s more, the self-evident recharging of the batteries, and the visible increase in life-satisfaction that comes from leisure would just not exist.

This is why this transition is hard. But as with so many non-material things, it has become harder as the purpose of education became more economically-driven. When teachers were largely autonomous and intellect-driven, it was probably easier to import some of that sense of Being into one’s work too. But in these days of accountability and hard-headed management, there are just too many external, uncontrollable factors dictating one’s day-to-day functioning. The attendant loss of autonomy, as compared with holiday times, makes the transition from one to the other harsher, no matter how inevitable.

I am certainly not idle in my holidays: apart from time spent abroad, much has been done in terms of home improvement and in fulfilling various other roles. But the flexibility largely to follow one’s own schedule is priceless – as is the mental space it creates for an amount of day-dreaming – for which read Big Picture Thinking. These are the conditions I need for thinking about the underlying principles behind things I do, be they the next projects in my various hobbies, my responsibilities as Chair of the mutual company that runs the old building in which I live, and yes, to some extent my profession and the lives which it is supposed to enrich. There has just been the simple pleasure of doing things without too much need to watch the clock or to follow someone else’s diktat.

I have serendipitously researched a completely new avenue within one of my hobbies – and as my last two posts described, very unexpectedly got entangled in the political debate within the Labour Party.

In some ways, that last experience sums it all up: as a columnist in The Independent wrote a few days ago, the establishment backlash against Corbyn shows what happens to people who dare to question supposedly-accepted norms, of which the primacy of Work and The Economy are the sirens of our time. The out-casting of reactionaries is hardly new, but the implication that anyone who proposes something different can only be a naive idiot has, in its own right made me all the more convinced that Corbyns are very necessary. So has the implication that there are some world-views which “we all know” are now beyond thoughtful debate. Like the fact that it is possible to create a kinder society.

Corbyn is a symbol of anti-managerialism – or the view that we already have the best of all possible worlds and therefore nothing can or should ever be different – precisely the unambitious ‘realism’ of the other Labour candidates. Managerialism can afflict anyone: it is a state of mind borne from a defeatist, utilitarian view of the world where all we can do is tinker around the edges. The fact that it reinforces the status quo is of course as coincidental as it is ironic that the same message is pedalled by authoritarian regimes around the world. And the same could be said for Education, which itself increasingly functions in a similarly autocratic manner…

In a society that claims to be democratic and educated, the right to disagree has to be worth defending in its own right.

The suggestion that people who put their principles first are somehow naive or otherwise unrealistic is a criticism that has come my own way more than once. But the view that contemporary politics, education and indeed life, can be about nothing more than bland, unimaginative pragmatism creates a false dichotomy – vested interest wrapped up as supposedly hard-headed realism; whether of the Left or the Right barely matters. This is not an inspiring message for the next generation, so it is perhaps not surprising that many of Corbyn’s supporters are young.

It is not as though the current incumbency (in education or politics) has delivered bounty to all: the narrowing of acceptable values, priorities and occupations has hardly made for an inclusive, democratic society; one might have expected that the realists would have spotted that exclusion is the surest way of breeding rebellion, of pushing moderates towards the extremes – but that is clearly an abstract too far…

Ideals are a much-undervalued asset. They are the soil within which tolerance should grow, where day-to-day actions are informed by bigger intentions and insights rather than the unquestioning ‘busy-work’ demanded by small-minded managerialsm. That is equally true in politics, day-to-day lives – and education.

Its enforced loss reduces potentially rich lives to mere existence – we all need greater and more humane things to strive for, however incomprehensible they may seem to our critics. Destroying them is counter-productive: it is in such situations, where people no longer feel they have a meaningful stake or purpose that they turn from would-be loyal employees/citizens/members into sceptics, if not cynics. Of all the professions, Teaching ought to understand that.

In the final reckoning, the end-of-holiday blues comes from the knowledge that the Being of the last six weeks now has to go back in the box, to be replaced by the Doing of a system that (like the political system that directs it) now largely involves the ideal-less busy-work of managerialism. As though there were no alternative.

What Money Can’t Buy

I often struggle with educational initiatives. I’ve always been fiercely independent-minded, and I take exception to people telling me what to think, at least when convincing reasoning is not forthcoming. I’m not entirely sure whether this is helpful or not, but I suspect it may be a by-product of owning the kind of restless mind that education arguably seeks to foster – and perhaps those years of knowing just how crucial autonomy is to the classroom teacher.

Nonetheless, one has a professional duty to take reasoned view, and this I always try to do. And one does, to some extent, have to operate within the system one finds, even it is not entirely to one’s liking. Yet as time progresses, I am increasingly confident that my professional instinct is true; I know I have the moral motives of the educator truly at heart – but this only makes it all the harder when, as not-frequently happens, I recoil instinctively from the directive that is being ordained.

Rationalising one’s instinct is not always easy. This is why I think it is essential that teachers look as widely as possible for their perspectives, including the realms of psychology and philosophy. As I suggested in a previous post, I think it is impossible for a teacher to operate fully within the ethical remit of the profession without a degree of moral idealism.

Michael J. Sandel’s book What Money Can’t Buy is therefore very helpful.  This considers the moral limits of markets – the critical distinction being between a market economy as means of distributing goods, and a market society, where everything (and everyone) has their price. Sandel argues that the effect of this is the erosion of the moral settlement upon which societies function, and the eclipsing of other more benign behaviour.

Sandel’s arguments are elegantly simple, and offer a clear rationale for anyone who like me, has instinctive misgivings over the application of commercial principles to areas of life where they don’t seem appropriate. They can be summed up as follows:

  1. Intrinsic nature of the ‘commodity’.
  2. The Fairness Principle
  3. The Corruption Argument
  4. The Crowding Effect

The intrinsic nature of the commodity.

There are some qualities in life which naturally resist commercialisation. For example, the essential nature of friendship is altruistic and voluntary, not contingent on financial gain. It is possible to purchase the services of someone who will act in all the ways that a personal friend would, but the presence of a payment corrupts the substance of the relationship. Applying the price mechanism to such activities diminishes them, not the converse.

Education is similar: it too is not a commodity but a quality; not mass-replicable, but unique in each person’s experience. Setting targets for its acquisition, character, delivery and application deny the essential nature of the matter and risk narrowing how and why it is experienced.

The Fairness Principle.

Economics argues that the market is the most efficient way of reconciling supply and demand; Sandel counters that demand cannot be fully expressed through the price mechanism. The willingness to pay is an expression not only of the desire but also the ability to pay – and people do not have this equally, for reasons not always within their control; those who cannot pay are disenfranchised. People who pay premium prices may not be expressing the strongest demand or greatest appreciation, but simply the ability their wealth confers for casual trophy-hunting.  Those who pay to by-pass queues may not be expressing the greatest need, but simply their disdain for social justice.

Sandel argues that fairness is an essential societal construct, which explains why people feel outrage towards those who, for example buy access to politicians, or who engage in other nepotistic behaviour. One might observe this in the way rising property prices within the catchments of popular schools exclude those on lower incomes, thus restricting fair access to what is presented as a universal entitlement – let alone the deceit some will resort to in order to secure a place.

First come first served – or even, dare I say, selection on the grounds of exceptional aptitude – is arguably a fairer way to allocate scarce resources than recourse to the depth of people’s pockets.

The Corruption Argument.

Market principles argue that people should be able to buy and sell anything so long as it does not violate the interests of others. But the corruption argument questions the genuine free will of those who sell things such as their bodily organs, against their own deeper interests. Thus the market can operate counter to human wellbeing, and it tends to discriminate against those with lesser means and fewer choices. Education should not endorse this.

Furthermore, putting a price on priceless things (such as education) changes their nature, and with it the way people value them. Paying for private access to politicians, for example, corrupts the nature of (supposed) democracy; paying for kidneys changes the way people regard their bodies. Sandel argues that this is morally wrong, even in a secular sense, as it inequitably redistributes human wellbeing.

Worst of all, the application of price changes incentives – for example, paying people for hitherto selfless acts alters their motives. Sometimes it even results in less action; for example, paying people to donate blood has been shown to reduce the amount given as people feel their altruism has been corrupted.

Similarly, paying pupils and teachers by results subverts their motives, and in the case of teachers divides their loyalties; just about any other incentive given to teachers to ‘perform’ will compromise their integrity in some way. Furthermore, incentives do not always achieve the desired outcome: the market in carbon offsets does not inevitably change the amount of pollution, simply its source – and there is little evidence that payment significantly boosts exam results.

Compromising the altruism of teachers may have serious effects. Applying market principles to education risks valuing the marketable trappings of education (exam grades) over the more elusive cerebral qualities, which cannot be priced. And the more this happens, the more people will concentrate on the tradable facsimiles at the expense of the real thing.

The crowding principle.

Very simply, given its chance, selfish behaviour can easily displace other more socially desirable motives and actions. I would argue that the self-interest/self-protection instinct created by the regime of inspection, quantification and accountability has crowded out the time-honoured, altruistic principles of teaching.

Sandel argues that while moral arguments remain hard to substantiate, it is inescapable that flourishing human life does depend on attributes such as health, friendship, wisdom and trust that are impossible to price. In fact, applying a price simply dissolves their benefit. He argues that this is a fundamental human experience, which is governed by ethical principles, not economic ones.

I suspect that the greatest objection is to the unprincipled acquisition and (ab)use of wealth, rather than wealth itself. But applying the price mechanism more widely just makes its unscrupulous use all the easier, and in areas where the consequences may be more malign. Sandel’s book explains why I recoil from directives that push education further in an economised direction: they taint the honest principles of this vocation – and with it my own professional ethic.

Good for Business?

One of the worst accusations in Britain today, it seems, is to be ‘anti-business’. It comes with associated overtones of luddism, of being anti-wealth, anti-opportunity and out-of-date. And worst of all, it supposedly betrays the heresy of being anti-capitalist, a give-away for old-style socialism, the last retreat of duffle-coat-wearing, stony-faced hard-leftists whose world-view was discredited three decades ago.

It is also an insult still regularly thrown at the teaching profession by those in the business world, often accompanied by complaints that teachers have an easy life, fail to prepare young people for the ‘world of work’ etc. etc. Most regrettably, it  comes in the same breath that also denounces academics for being ‘ivory tower’ (i.e. useless) and that propounds the ‘University of Life’, school of hard knocks and the rest of it – ad nauseam. As if a life of undeserved hard knocks is anything worth advocating  – or indeed the kind of society that dispenses them.

A letter was sent this week by a hundred ‘business leaders’ to The Daily Telegraph, urging people to vote Conservative for the good of business; it was widely covered across the media at large. Were we supposed to see this as anything other than an expression of sheer self-interest by those who in recent years have rewarded themselves so handsomely at everyone else’s expense? Who is most likely to gain from Britain being ‘Open for Business’? Was the hint of the loss of the low-wage, insecure jobs that employers increasingly demand really meant to scare us into obedience?

So I was extremely pleased to see a letter in The Independent (Keep business out of politics) objecting to the assumption that business leaders should have any more call on people’s voting instincts than anyone else.

This is the sixth richest nation on the planet, and yet we have a programme of austerity that is cutting into the marrow of our public realm. Whether the neglect is ideologically driven or not, civic amenities in the U.K. are a disgrace, and the state of the infrastructure (at least outside the capital) falls far short of that which I see in my frequent travels around other European countries. Support for people on ordinary means is evaporating, even as the rich force up the general cost of living; the ability to pool resources is being curtailed by pro-business legislation.

‘Good for business’ has entailed the de-recognition of representation for employees in large parts of the workplace, increasing job insecurity, reduced pension-provision and more. ‘Good for business’ has resulted in zero-hours contracts, and abuses of the minimum wage in areas such as the restaurant trade. Will Hutton’s most persuasive argument is that ‘good for business’ has led to the U.K. having the lowest levels of R&D in the developed world, while companies have largely become a means of extracting wealth for shareholders from existing assets, rather than investing in the economy of the future. If Hutton is correct, fewer than 20% of companies are actively involved in offering work experience or apprenticeships to young people.

‘Good for business’ has resulted in the U.K. economy becoming little more than a shareholder’s bargaining chip on the financial markets, further enriching the top 1% at the expense of the rest. It has meant the failure to pursue corporate and top-end tax avoidance. Having a friend whose company is currently being asset-stripped after an aggressive take-over, with his job at risk, I know this is not fiction. This is sharp contrast to many of our competitor-countries such s Germany and Switzerland (hardly a hotbed of leftism) who retain a much more balanced social contract.

And ‘good for business’ has seen the misappropriation of the education sector – whose moral remit remains, through the development of the intellect, the preparation of young people for all aspects of life – into a mere tool of economic policy, whose purpose is to deliver workplace-ready fodder to employers, in order to save them the expense of training them properly themselves.

But concurrent with the above, the teaching profession has been busy getting itself a bad name again – hardly conducive to balancing the sirens of the business faction. Once again, the spring conferences are advocating strike action, this time to boycott baseline tests of children entering the education system. While this is a sensitive issue, the old-left instinct to strike over every issue does nothing to dispel the public impression of teachers as old-left dinosaurs. I support the principle of representation – indeed want it enhanced to mirror the German system of a legal requirement for employee representation at Board level – but I despair of the actions the profession’s (un)representative bodies, which certainly do not reflect my outlook. More specifically, when most Union policy still expounds ‘progressive’ views, it makes it very difficult to know where to turn if one wants to stand up and be counted.

Nonetheless, I am proud to record that I will most definitely not be casting my vote for the good of business. I entered teaching because of my desire to live in a civilised society, which presents its people with maximum enfranchisement and the opportunity to live a good life – and my wish actively to contribute to that.  I see my role as building social capital – of which economic capital is only one part – one that if not balanced by other civic considerations leads to a fragmented and polarised society. Regrettably, it is becoming ever-clearer that this is precisely what is emerging in Britain as a result of the ideologies of the past few decades, and one does not need to be on the hard-left to see it.

The track record of the business-led society in Britain in recent times is one of raw self-interest. Too much of what has been allowed to happen (with political complicity) operates in the narrow interest of those who own it, with far too little sense of social obligation to create wealth for society at large. The signs of this are everywhere to be seen, from income disparities to my friend’s predicament, to the state of our roads. The demonisation of the public sector (mostly led by the business community) has eroded public provision to an unacceptable extent, while the beneficiaries of the business-friendly climate have increasingly bought themselves out of the society that hosts them. Where opportunity and investment do occur, they often come with a free-market price-tag that excludes many.

Will Hutton’s book offers some interesting solutions to this impasse, which I will discuss in a forthcoming post. This is not, however, to cast myself as just another old-leftie. I remember the decay and disruption of the Seventies and would not wish to repeat that. So I am not anti-business – but I am most definitely anti- tax-avoidance, low-wages, executive incomes, low-investment and asset-stripping. I am anti business having any special consideration within wider society. And I am most definitely anti the way in which that corner-stone of civil society – our education system – is increasingly being modelled along similar lines.

I am pro-democracy, pro-civil society and pro-fairness. I am also pro-opportunity – but not only of a narrowly economic sort. Good business actually means precisely those things too – because it would invest in a wider fair and prosperous society and this is it patently failing to do; what the signatories of the Telegraph letter actually meant was ‘good for profits’.

Before making either special claims on voters’ loyalties – or its regular attacks on those, notably in the public sector, whose humane values do not support its often-rapacious ways – the business sector needs to clean up its own act.