Politicians live in a world apart from the rest of us, don’t they? They urge pay restraint for everyone else, while proposing salary hikes for themselves. Probity and social responsibility are supposed to govern our actions; yet, there they are, renting out duck houses to mallards at extortionate rates. It’s a whole other universe, I swear. There is, however, one government department whose culture seems remarkably resonant with that in the institutions it oversees. One in which the pace never lets up, where striving for greatness is a 27-hour-a day occupation, and where time and tide wait for no duck in the relentless bid to turn every bus shelter and manhole cover into an academy. Yes, it’s the DfE.
Over the last fortnight, it’s not only been revealed that a senior civil servant in the same department has been awarded £25,000, following claims of bullying by two of Michael Gove’s special advisers. The low morale uncovered by a recent survey of departmental staff has also been described as “a disaster situation” by a cross-party select committee:
“With four in five staff believing change to be managed poorly, and only half believing the department to be well run, this looks complacent…we recommend the department adopt a little more urgency in dealing with staff morale.”
Welcome to my world and, quite possibly, yours, given how applicable these words are to schools.
Morale’s a scarcity in education these days but, as our Chief Inspector has reminded us, its absence need not worry school leaders unduly: it’s a sign, apparently, that they’re doing their jobs well. How warming, then, to hear that the Education Secretary has taken these words to heart and based his managerial ethos on them. I hope it’s not spoiling the party to suggest that, however shiny it looks at the moment, viewed through those special shiny glasses, it’s a strategy with the potential to backfire rather spectacularly (pun entirely intended).
I can’t say that morale has never been lower in teaching because although I look antediluvian, I’ve only been alive for a few decades. I can, however, state with little fear of contradiction that morale is at its worst in the profession since I started teaching in the early nineties. The reasons are many and varied, although the general dynamic is, to my mind, summarised pretty accurately by the select committee’s words: poor change management, and a head-in-the-sand policy of denial that anything’s wrong.
Its virtually impossible to avoid piling some blame on the DfE’s doorstep, given the amount of change-management generated by its policies. However, the ham-fisted manner in which relentless change is implemented in schools goes a long way towards explaining the malaise that’s such a huge blight on the quality of education they can provide. And yet, and yet. One headteacher I worked for would bang his fist on the table and yell that morale had never been higher. The staff corps, meanwhile, looked like it had booked an all-inclusive break at Dignitas.
The last two schools in which I’ve worked have been beset by plummeting morale, brought about by the desire of their headteachers for personal glory and untold riches. Their quests have involved implementing every ill-conceived government policy to the nth degree, regardless of its – usually negative – impact on teachers’ ability to, um, plan lessons and teach them. Much of this was enabled by reducing the consultation process to one in which only senior managers had a say. Particularly the really quiet ones.
The inevitable upshot of all this is a high turnover of staff, many of whom leave trailing the whiff of disaffection behind them. When I say ‘high turnover’, I’m talking about a third to a half of staff leaving each year, for several years in succession. Governing bodies, fed endless stories about shorter journeys to new schools or promotional opportunities, do not always think to ask why teachers are leaving like hankies pulled from a magician’s sleeve. For, as most in the know know, the narratives spun around staff departures rarely, if ever, touch upon the place being left behind.
I’ve been part of such an exodus. With my unerring nose for a jolly jape, I handed in a resignation letter, in which I wished the head all the best and hoped the school would recover from “the crisis of morale that has beset it in recent years”. My attempt at a wake-up call was met with the kind of snarling beloved of uncastrated cats playing ‘I’ll name that tune after I’ve pissed on three doorsteps’. The caretaker, meanwhile, was surreptitiously trying to calculate whether the dinky foyer could accommodate a revolving door. He’s no longer there either.
Of course students, being more resilient than we often choose to imagine, can handle changes in school personnel. This does not, however, mean that schools should presume the inevitability or desirability of every departure, nor that continuity should be pathologised or dressed down as an indicator of atrophy. If Michael Gove is ignoring the question of morale in his department, he does so at his peril, as do headteachers everywhere. Because unhappy staff will move and, once out of earshot, may make a loud noise about why they did so. And if you have no staff willing to invest of themselves, you have no school or government department – the instrument with which you might get to tattoo your name onto the arse of history.
Pens really could prove mightier than swords.