Barely a Christmas has gone by, over the last two decades, when a pair of small hands hasn’t presented me with a box of foil-wrapped nuggets. Though usually repelled by the ‘sausage’ principal that decrees every leftover nose and bum be put to use, I am occasionally partial to this confection, which fashions sweepings from the factory floor into something halfway toothsome. Deep inside each cardboard-wafer shell, a lone nut lurks within a mighty dollop of more-ish gloop, like an existentialist in a sea of angst or an assassin in a book depository.
As aspirational marketing strategies go, those could, perhaps, do with a bit of work. Which is why a masterstroke of kitsch advertising has instead insisted, for years, that an item cheap enough to be piled into towers resembling Marge Simpson’s hair is the real, luxurious deal – a vital widget in the diplomatic toolbag of canny ambassadors, no less. Helped along by its golden packaging, the possessors of little hands are among those who have learned to agree – for which I and my dentist are, in different ways, grateful.
And so, a new crop of Future Leaders joins the profession, tipped out of the perspex box in which they were lined up in neat rows and clad in the appropriate garb. No gold lame wrappers, sadly, even though dressing like members of ABC could be justifiable in an educational context. Rather, dark suits to convey gravity of purpose. Like my own dental integrity, the extent to which you may find yourself toothless one day could depend on your consumption of the offerings from the Future Leaders conveyor belt.
I once worked in a school where the deputy head was in his mid-twenties. With the job description having been hastily rewritten to reduce the amount of experience required, we were assured that he was qualified for the post. Still, the damp patches behind his ears were hard to ignore as he clodhopped his way through his professional interactions, littering his wake with the alienated. It takes time, don’t you know, to develop the knack of communicating with all comers while inciting none to assemble a firing squad. I’ve heard of other places in which head teachers have been appointed to their posts before they’ve turned thirty. In some cases, they are still incumbent; in others, it took mere months for the introductory fanfare’s brassy blare to dwindle into a fly’s fart.
I’ve written about ageism in teaching before and yet here I am, guilty of the very same. Or am I? I would prefer to think of my grumps as experience-ism, if they didn’t create such a sibilant mouthful. Like others in my area, I could moan for England about the principal appointed to run a local free school, with barely half a dozen years in the profession under her belt. She was about 40 – not 27, like the unfortunate Anneliese Briggs – and a career-switcher who’d been fast-tracked into senior management after just a year of writing garbled learning objectives on a whiteboard.
These leadership programmes have lots of friends in loud places: ARK, E-Act, that nice Bert Wingnutz from Teach First Then Run Like A Demon’s Exploded Into Your Underpants. In short, the usual suspects, who happily catapult their charges into overseeing the welfare of entire institutions. Don’t get me wrong, here: I’m as partial as the next dolt to hurling myself at a trampoline in search of maximum elevation. I spent a significant portion of my youth (alleged adulthood, too) jumping up and down on parents’ and friends’ mattresses, only halting my quest for aerospatial glory after an incident involving a crack like the dad of all thunderclaps, a broken bedframe and my head jammed inside a pendant lightshade from Peter Jones. If nothing else, I learned that an excessively quick rise can be followed by a comparably swift plummet. And that Heals might be a better option for domestic sundries.
Why this desire, on the part of leadership training programmes, to so reduce the time spent at that most important location – the front line? Is it an attempt to conserve the vigour and zeal with which successful applicants embark on their mission, perhaps? Perhaps, perhaps. Or, maybe, a strategy to hone the skills of creating and implementing overarching policy? Or, possibly, a way of reducing the degree of identification – nay, solidarity – between leaders and the led: so much the easier to make idiotic demands of your staff and your students, while caring not a jot about the lasting consequences. Teaching has never, in my experience, been a non-hierarchical profession. But I don’t recall there being such a marked asymmetry of power within schools. Not in my looong lifetime.
I’ve heard it said that leadership is what one engages in with people; management, with tasks. If that’s true, an awful lot of educational leadership actually amounts to management, as the people on whom schools depend most are reduced to chattels fit only for programming. Leadership involves the vision to think big, and the practical and persuasive nous to realise ideas while minimizing the casualties along the way. With the vision bit now taken care of, after a fashion, in Great Smith Street, schools have become teetering pyramids of factota. I include the leaders in that fractal picture, even if they don’t include themselves.
So, no gold lame and, possibly, not the level of quality we are led to believe. Until you encourage your proteges to get in touch with their inner nuts, messieurs, you’ll really be spoiling us. Goodness, how my teeth hurt.