Tag Archives: Future Leaders

Pedigree Chums

A friend of my mother used to have a pure-bred dog. I didn’t much care for him but, sure as eggs is both subject and predicate noun in an ungrammatical sentence, I felt sorry for the little beast on account of his physiognomy. With his flat nose and attendant respiratory problems, he looked as pissed off as I would if my every attempt at a surprise entrance was thwarted by the necessity of exhalation.

On the whole, inbreeding isn’t our friend. It’s often borne of unlovely motives, and it often births unfortunate forms – things, for instance, that look vegetable when they be animal. Just in case you’re feeling contrary, consider the evidence: some of the offspring of Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche’s Nueva Germanica project; the hillbillies in Deliverance, with their crossbows and toothless gums and squealin’ pigs; even more alarming, generations of royals.

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner. Born within the city, it’s been impossible to spend 84% of my life there and not shudder a little at the contraction of its social ‘gene pool’. And not just in those central parts, where oligarchs keep their gardening tools in penthouses overlooking Her Madge’s potting shed. The creep of so-called gentrification into the unlikeliest corners continues to force to the outskirts almost anyone unable to afford extortionate rents or house prices that look as if a button on a calculator has been held down too long. Those in social housing, especially, are being removed to the outskirts of the outskirts.

As an illustration of the homogeneity in some London boroughs, consider my own circumstances. With a pretty solidly middle-class background (a slightly posh education and a trickle of money in the family) I’m a bit of an anomaly in the area where I live. When I speak, I use consonants as well as vowels. By not installing plantation shutters, I have resisted pretending that the Empire still exists. And my name doesn’t end in ‘o’, like all the Ivos, Hugos and Jagos in the surrounding streets (‘Psycho’ not being eligible for consideration, apparently). None of this would have been remarkable, say, twenty years ago – but it’s becoming so.

Maybe it’s because I’m an educator. I worry about other, comparably diminishing ‘gene pools’ – professional ones, for instance – which are, sometimes, a consequence of the social apartheid outlined above. When I started this teaching malarkey, I was taken (but not aback) by the diversity of the workforce in schools. It was a mongrel profession, boasting the kind of vigorously heterogeneous constitution that prevented it from being congenitally boss-eyed. To be fair, that is still largely the case among the rank-and-file. What is less clear is whether it is so among the movers, shakers and policy-makers who, following intense training in a narrow set of pedagogic ideas, have been invited to help lay the path down which education is to skip.

Few classroom teachers are permitted a say in policy decisions, so I should welcome anything that reverses this dynamic. However, I cannot help but have misgivings when our frighteningly variegated government extends such opportunities only to those who entered teaching via certain routes, such as Teach First and Future Leaders, while withholding them from the overwhelming majority of the workforce – many of whom have a far wider, deeper bedrock of experience on which to mount their criticisms and suggestions. While no passage into the profession is devoid of ideological bias, it does appear that a particular weltanschauung is being promoted above all others.

The airtime given to this band of, no doubt well-intentioned, leader-followers exacerbates the problem. Some have become conference speakers and go-to talking heads within a year of achieving Qualified Teacher Status. Just last week, for instance, I read a piece of punditry in an online publication which, to ensure its anonymity, I shall call the Puffington Host. I recognised the author as a graduate of an ‘elite’ training programme and marvelled when, over the course of his article, he lauded KIPP, cheered on charter schools and admiringly name-checked a small coterie of individuals who, it turned out, were also graduates of the same scheme. Who’d-a-guessed?

So effusive was the writer’s enthusiasm for a particular free school that I was compelled to peruse its website, as a result of which I found that its teaching staff consisted, almost entirely, of the programme’s alumnae: shiny-white, neatly-scrubbed, very young graduates of a few universities that, perhaps, tend to attract those who, in addition to being bright, play by/perpetuate existing rules. One is married to a very young, neatly scrubbed and shiny-white head teacher at another school that is staffed, almost entirely, by more of the same. The effect was like that achieved in a room full of mirrors, with the same image repeated ad infinitum. I was subjected to such an experience while relieving myself in the looking-glass loos of a posh restaurant. Not recommended.

Lest such an accusation be levelled, m’lud, let the record show that my words are not the result of imbibing a cellarful of sour grapes. I have, in other posts, alluded immodestly to some rather good qualifications, and I remain unplagued by hankerings after glory in the guise of promotion – as amply corroborated/thwarted by other posts on this site. And, on no account, should whatever emerges when I’ve plonked at my laptop like Scott Joplin on a massive bender be seen as punditry (though it may be covered by the UN Convention against Torture). I’m just not sure that schools benefit much when their staff photos look like Osmonds album covers.

Or, to put it another away, the preceding paragraphs emerge from empirical knowledge that schools function at their best when populated by clever staff with a range of ideas and histories. They also emerge from concerns similar to those of, among others, Chris Bryant MoP and Dame Julie of Walters: that certain professions are so heavily dominated by a tiny and privileged sector of society as to be almost prohibitive to anyone else. Education leadership simply cannot afford to become another of those spheres, if only to ensure the (continued) existence of a capacity for debate, and the strength to occasionally ask itself some bloody awkward questions.

Because, without those qualities, we’re purdy much on our way to the dawgs.


Quality Street

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.