Category Archives: management theory

My Worst Job Interview

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I was running late, grabbed some toast, said goodbye “good luck!” came the reply and with that I set off, no worries I thought, the school will offer me coffee…

I arrived at the school on a drizzly summer day and pressed the buzzer, the door opened and in I went. Reception was packed with kids being dealt with, I was at the back of the queue, fifteen minutes later I was able to sign in and taken to a small, stuffy, room in which there were 12 chairs. I had been the first to arrive at 8am, my allotted time, I was told the others would be arriving at half hourly intervals and, yes, there were to be twelve of us. By 9am, gasping for a coffee, I and my two fellow interviewees asked whether there was any chance of a cup? No, we were told, but there was water. Grateful for anything we accepted. Water it was.

One of my fellow interviewees had stayed over in a hotel the night before and the other had come by train, that morning, from Bristol to London. Another arrived, newly flown in via London City airport from Scotland, it was 9.30 am and we were shown around the school by a couple of year 9 pupils who didn’t think much of the school.

When we got back from our travels we were handed a timetable for the day and my main interview, because my surname was R and there were no Smiths or Taylors, would not be until the end of the day.

We condemned interviewees sat in our stuffy room, chatting, wondering what to do and a new applicant arrived with the news that they had heard there was an internal candidate. A deputy head arrived to take someone up for interview, a candidate who had yet to have the inspirational look around the school, we asked whether it was true and we were told yes it was true and that he currently had the role on an ‘acting’ basis, he had had the role for the year and he was applying for the permanent position. At that point the person from Scotland withdrew and looked mightily relieved.

My tummy was rumbling, the others went off for dinner but it was time for me to do ‘the test’, I was taken to the library, given a ‘test paper’ with various questions about what I would do if…. The test was timed, I was hungry, pleased with my answers… But hungry…

I returned from the test and was immediately taken along to the dreaded pupil panel. This consisted of eight year 9 pupils who asked a variety of pertinent questions if they had been asked by adults, they were probably penned with the help of adults, but elicited awkward responses from me as I felt nervous about divulging personal details about my life and experiences to a group of thirteen year olds. I had to stop myself for asking for some chewing gum that most of them clearly had access to…

Beyond hunger I returned to the ‘room’, others talked about the poor quality lunch and I asked the receptionist when I could have mine, only to be informed I had missed it. I enquired as to whether there was a shop nearby and she informed me it was half an hour’s walk away and that my presentation ‘preparation’ time began in twenty minutes. I felt imprisoned by some bizarre regime whose job was to torture me in a variety of ingenious ways.

I asked for some water.

I watched as a plate of sandwiches were taken in to the main ‘interview room’.

Why did I stay? God knows.

I prepared a presentation on a given topic in my allotted half hour and was told to wait until the panel were ready.

Then, finally, it was my time to be interviewed. There were twelve people on the panel and a rather unassuming person introduced themselves as the Head teacher but only after the student voice rep had introduced herself, a parent governor, a teacher governor, assorted deputies of this and that and the other, a union official, and an interested parent observer and a couple of heads of department.

They had empty plates in front of them, coffee cups…

I did a great presentation but as the interview progressed I began to fall apart, hungry, feeling like an idiot for not withdrawing, upset with the way I had been treated, I felt angry and tearful. I didn’t want to show it, but my answers became more and more wild and ill considered, I was past caring.

But I still cared, I needed a job.

That evening I was rung up by the Head who told me I hadn’t got the job. I asked him who had, he said they had decided to offer the job to the internal candidate and had decided they didn’t need to interview him. I was apoplectic I gave the Head teacher a piece of my mind about how awful the whole day had been and how he could improve the whole process coffee and food featured highly in my feedback. He said he didn’t have to listen to this and put the phone down on me.

At the end of the following Autumn term I heard that the Head had been dismissed, suddenly, for unknown reasons. This gave me the opportunity for a wry smile, I wonder what had gone wrong?

Remove Managerialism from the Classroom

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Managerialism is the idea that quantifiable administrative approaches are the correct way to run institutions. Efficiency is all and it can sometimes be value free in that what works becomes more important than what’s right. Employees become pawns in the game of delivery and the idea of management as neutral and post-ideological holds sway. The sociologist Max Weber referred to this idea as the iron cage of rationality, where measurable control of goals shape the lives of people and institutions. The use of technology, bureaucracy, and targets ensures all become slaves to the machine with the manager, their flow chart and tick box being the lynchpin around whom all must be busy.

Managerialism is an ideology that pretends not to be one and although a maverick leader might say they are not interested in such things they often put in place people who are wedded to efficient processing as important parts of their leadership teams.

Weber thought the iron cage was the inevitable result of enlightenment thinking that greater wisdom and freedom will result from rationalisation, he wrote that:

For the “last man” (letzten Mensches  of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: “Specialist without spirit, sensualist without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of humanity (Menschentums) never before achieved”  (1904)

Disempowered individuals become cogs in the machine. In schools these cogs are pupils and staff and, indeed, leaders. The questions to ask are: Is managerialism the main way schools are run? If so, at what cost? Are there any alternatives? What different way could schools be run?

My answers to these questions would be a resounding yes to managerialism being the default mode of school leadership and that this is at a cost to those who work and study in the institutions and also to the qualitative experience of studying itself. Yes, there are alternatives, and that amongst these alternatives is the need for the experience in the classroom to be one where the study of the subject reigns supreme rather than the needs of the bureaucracy. The pursuit of wisdom through the art of learning about the best that has been thought and said should be paramount and any managerialist desire to infect that is a breaking of the spirit of education.

The Banality of Character Education

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In her Essay on the Banality of Evil Hannah Arendt wrote that:

The nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them.

Now, I’m not meaning to imply that bureaucrats are evil, but  looking at this quote, away from its context, is useful for what I wish to say about ‘Character Education’. By trying to make Character Ed a thing that can be taught explicitly, measured, reported on, with data collected and dispersed to all and sundry, it could be said that the very idea of ‘character’ is transmuted from being a collection of difficult to define human traits that might emerge over time, to that of a bureaucrat’s idea of character. They apply, what Theodore Dalrymple calls: ‘a thin veneer of science’ to make character part of the administrative machine: Let’s call something ‘Grit’; let’s define it, measure it, report on it and collect vast amounts of data to show that a child’s ‘grit’ score has increased by 7% over the past year and celebrate this. By doing this we dehumanise the subject.

Character, taken as a whole, can be talked about but in the way that someone might talk about art – what they like about some work and what they don’t, it is through the conversations of people by which we judge ourselves and each other. We change as we respond to our daily habits and our daily tribulations, and how we meet those imposters triumph and defeat, illness and wellness, love and despair, and when we give succour and need it for ourselves. Through all this our character builds, breaks and builds again. Give it a score, a flow chart or a graph and it’s no longer character, it is its opposite – it is the dehumanised picture of what someone with a measuring tape and a calculator thinks character is. It isn’t.

I have long argued that by teaching a rich thought-through curriculum, involving a wealth of experiences and a rich access to the arts and humanities, indeed, a good number of subjects taught by teachers who invest their pupils’ time in the pursuit of wisdom that ‘character’ is developed. Here is a video in which I argue this very thing in a debate at Policy Exchange. So, it was gratifying to read this piece by Paul Tough, author of ‘How Children Succeed’, in which he writes:

No child ever learned curiosity by filling out curiosity worksheets; hearing lectures on perseverance doesn’t seem to have much impact on the extent to which young people persevere… there is growing evidence that even in middle and high school, children’s non-cognitive capacities are primarily a reflection of the environments in which they are embedded, including, centrally, their school environment.

Can we make all schools life-affirming and avoid turning them into banal little offices run by petty bureaucrats?

 

The Leaders, The Hydra and Managerialism

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“Princes should devolve on others those matters that entail responsibility, and reserve to themselves those that relate to grace and favour.”

― Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

It is useful to surround oneself with people to do thy bidding, especially if the bidding be somewhat awkward or controversial. Sometimes, jobs are awarded to staff for very good reasons, because they need a challenge, or their career needs a boost, but whatever the reasoning behind an appointment the more leaders in a school the more difficult it might be to fully realise a clarity of purpose. A hierarchical structure around a supreme and unimpeachable leader can be away of protecting the throne and like the multi headed hydra it can be a formidable force, keeping the underlings busy. Sometimes it can be the reason for good management and sometimes it can sew the seeds of a school’s march into mediocrity. A Hydra has unity of purpose, each head is attached to the same body, but too many heads of whatever in a school the more the likelihood that a unity of purpose will be lost.

Here’s what can happen: appoint a leader, ask them to manage others, give them performance management targets for the year, measure their success, ask them to justify their wage by introducing initiatives which form the basis of their performance management targets for the next year, ask them to gather data through which they measure their success, applaud them publicly or give them enough rope to hang themselves, they justify their  successes and excuse their failures… and managerialism takes over the school.

The more people appointed to leadership roles, the more they are asked to justify their position through initiatives and accrue data, the more that those at the chalk face will have to do. Pulled this way and that, by initiatives that might contradict other initiatives, compiling data all calmly broken down by gender, race, and target grade, the front line teacher is but a tool to justify partial gains, from very little information.

If a school has too many middle leaders all competing with each other for gold stars from the central office, a culture of back biting and resentment can grow. Each leader finds themselves a leader to the other leaders and also finds that the other leaders are, in turn, leading them. For every bit of data they collect, a bit of statistical spin here and there, they can show what a dreadful job someone is doing and how good someone else is doing. Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. As Niccolò Machiavelli put it in The Prince: “For whoever believes that great advancement and new benefits make men forget old injuries is mistaken.” As some climb up the pole others slide down, or remain stalled, ‘having found their level’.  Old scores will be settled, and the politics of the staff room takes over from the teaching of children.

For this reason and in these days of austere budgeting, how many leaders are needed? The plethora of Teaching and Learning positions that began a few years ago are at the root of the problem. Should senior leaders hesitate before they award members of staff a position which carries little weight but might need a lot of data?  Directors of Progress, Heads of Innovation, Assistant Heads of Data, Leaders of Achievement, Assistant Heads of Ethos, Vice Principals for Dealing With Underperformance, Heads of Creativity, Leaders of Leadership Development, Heads of Quality Assurance, all could be vying with each other to be noticed, or all could be introducing initiatives to justify their salaries.  A major problem with performance management is that it can be an annual invitation to introduce even more initiatives: initiativitis is a well known institutional disease.

Questions to ask: instead of creating a climate of managerialism by awarding lots of middle leading jobs, is a flatter management structure better? Are the jobs we say that we want doing all necessary? Can we have a few years embedding what we do well and abandoning all the initiatives that make us too busy for little purpose? What are our core messages and how are these strengthened through our staffing and our core policies? Instead of up to three performance targets per leader per year, how about just one for the whole school? Whatever the reasoning, the more middle leaders a school has, the more likely that different messages will abound. A good headteacher leads with a clear purpose and inspires confidence in her staff, pupils and parents. Good teams can be organised through curriculum, pastoral and administrative structures, which has always been at the core of good organisational structure in schools, any role beyond this, should be thought about very carefully before it is introduced. Teaching and Learning roles must enhance the core purpose of the school and not detract from it and not be so numerous as to completely detract from what good initiatives there are.

When Things Go Mad: The Destructive Power of Ideas

Over a hundred years ago, the German poet Heine warned the French not to underestimate the power of ideas: philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor’s study could destroy a civilisation.  Isaiah Berlin
Yesterday I read a post by @teachertoolkit about a measure he employs in his school called ‘book look’. In his blog he wrote that the measure was to check on: “…marking, workload and quality assurance of feedback and assessment” As my main teaching subject is a practical one I thought I would ask the perfectly reasonable question:

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My thought being that in subjects where much of the feedback, teacher, self and peer assessment is done verbally that instead of demanding those subjects should do unnecessary written work to fit in with the book look system, that the system might bend in a way to recognise the richness of this type of assessment.

Strangely, before I was able to receive an answer, this happened:

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This was an odd diversion. Clearly Paul, who is an Ofsted inspector, had been into Teacher Toolkit’s school and had seen the ‘book look’ in practice, he implies here that he likes it. He also makes a leap from my tweet to imply that I meant practical subjects don’t mark. No matter, I had a right of reply:

 

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And I expected it to be left there, after all, I was asking a question to which I hadn’t received an answer. My ulterior motive is to avoid subjects with a large practical component having to write everything down – where currently they are more effective by not having to log everything.

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Now Paul has begun to question my understanding of ‘practical subjects’ – I have taught drama for twenty-five years, so this certainly ‘bristled’ with me. All I can think is that Paul is deliberately misunderstanding me because I’m asking about the practical component of practical subjects.

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I know they all do written work. I am waiting for an answer from Mr. Toolkit about how they approach practical subjects, in other words do they want ‘everything’ logged in written form?

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This is where things went mad and we went into meltdown. I had spent the day leading a course on the new exam specs for drama so Paul’s comment that I need to look at the exam specs was particularly hilarious.

The meltdown:

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From this point the whole discussion went even further down hill, it is on twitter for those you who wish to see a spat about ‘you said this’, ‘you said that’.

There is something far more important going on here, the original book look idea is a bureaucrat’s dream but it falls apart when faced with practical subjects. Either it means that subjects with a sizeable practical  component will be asked to do more, unnecessary, writing or the system that has been brought in will miss the feedback given verbally and understood physically in, say, drama and PE.  Will this result in teachers at the school putting too much emphasis on written feedback and ignoring the richness of other ways of teaching and assessing?

Paul Garvey clearly thought I had no idea what I was talking about and the best I can think of him is that he misunderstood the nuance of my question. He seems to have a huge vested interest in ‘book look’. As a consultant he had visited Teacher Toolkit’s school and, as mentioned above:

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has given ‘book look’ his blessing. As an Ofsted inspector his word carries power, I can see many schools jumping on the book look book check and adapting it for use in their schools. This would be a disaster for practical subjects and, I would venture, for all subjects. Read this excellent blog from Greg Ashman where he examines the thinking behind ‘book look’.

Since I pointed out the problem with practical subjects Teacher Toolkit has removed the bit of the blog where he wrote about checking: “…marking, workload and quality assurance of feedback and assessment” maybe because it doesn’t work for a large part of the feedback that is done in practical subjects. However, the tool doesn’t cover practical elements.

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The ‘yellow box’ areas don’t help for practical work – how could a ‘diagnosis’ of books pick up the improvement in a girl’s ball skills in football or a boy’s vocal quality in drama unless it is written down? The point is the writing down of these things interrupts the teaching of these things in the subject, slows them down,  and, in all likelihood, lowers the standards of teaching and learning in the practical element of practical subjects. By writing about your practical work, you cease to truly understand it. It would be like teaching a child to walk by insisting she wrote all the stages down, set targets etc. when, in real life, the understanding of how to do these things is quite mysterious to us. Each child is different, they respond, in practical work, to coaching in real time, not to stopping and starting and writing about it.

That this check seems to expect teachers to spend a lot of time giving written feedback, and what is assessed will be what is done, I think the above book checking tool will mean that staff will have to spend more and more effort and time with written work and feedback and reduce the time and the quality of verbal feedback. This excellent blog by Andy Day reflects on how these checks distort education. What a pity  to put all the effort into written feedback especially if verbal feedback is a far more effective method of raising standards.

Ideas nurtured in the stillness of a senior leader’s study could destroy the quality of education in a school. Unnecessary writing of targets etc. is the bane of practical work please stop it happening in schools just so that a leadership team needing something to do can check it and Ofsted inspectors needing to justify their consulting business sidelines can tweet about it. Hopefully the book look tool will ignore practical work and, maybe, ignore books.