The cumulative radicalisation of school leadership.

Following on from my previous post on disciplinary thinking I wanted to try and explore a hunch I have around the connection between curriculum thinking and leadership practice. In this blog post I want to pose a tentative hypothesis on why I believe much thinking around school leadership is mistaken, or is at least putting the cart before the horse.

We often hear the cry from teachers about ‘SLT’ not being particularly good or the lack of respect – by respect I don’t mean doffing of a cap but more faith that they have the knowledge to make good decisions –  that is seen towards staff in senior leadership. Running a school is hugely complex and almost all decisions are 3 dimensional – if you change something in one place it will have at least two knock-on effects somewhere else.  Even if you try and run a school from the ground up and stay true to your core beliefs  – for me this is around the centrality of the curriculum to the school experience – things often don’t work out like that in practice and one hasty decision can undo a lot of goodwill or one change somewhere can pull in the opposite direction to your vision.

As time has gone on I have come to understand some of the reasons I believe this disconnect can exist between ‘SLT’ and the staff body as a whole. This is not to say that this is the case in all schools and nor that it is not the case in the schools where I have led; I just don’t think that this should be the case and so I want to reflect on this below and set out a tentative proposition. I should caveat this post by saying that I am not the leader I want to be that I reflect on below and that most of this thinking has arisen out of mistakes that I have made and problems I have created. So this blog is more of an introspective reflection rather than a clearly defined model. I should also point out that there are no new ideas in this post, just my reflections on the thinking of others and how they apply to me.

The catalyst for this existential crisis was twofold: I was recently speaking with a friend about her job as a hospital doctor. Doctors often grumble about management decisions that do not take into consideration or allow for the complex and imperfect reality of  clinical medicine. It is true to say that a real (yet unspoken) division exists between the managing team and the clinicians on the ground.  Hence the reason why managers often start a staff briefing by listing their clinical experience in an attempt to get people on side.

Happily this discussion went hand in hand with an article I read via TeacherTapp on the importance of domain-specific knowledge in effective leadership. The article from Harvard Business Review by Art Markman entitled ‘Can you be a great leader without technical expertise’ (HBR, 15/11/17) referenced the ideas that Hospitals run by doctors perform better. Happy to be able to move from personal anecdote to evidence-base, this then got me thinking about my own experiences of school leadership.

Like all school leaders I have made and continue to make catostrophic errors of judgement and poor decisions. This is just part of learning to do the job. However I have always felt very strongly that to be effective, school leaders must first and foremost be highly effective teachers with a deep knowledge of both their subject and how one ‘pedagogises'(?) that knowledge. I would argue that it is through reflecting on their disciplinary experience within that particular domain that they have a reference point for reflecting on school design at scale. To me this is far more complicated than just saying the Head should teach – this is about having deep technical knowledge. Having lived through the horror of triple-marking 400 History books every fortnight as a Head of Department and seen no impact of this on student thought I was clear about how I would want to try to design whole-school systems.

So 2 headships later on and I feel I am in a position to look back and reflect on some of the errors I have made. The problem for schools comes, I would argue, when leaders are more interested in notions of leadership over and above what they are leading on. An obsession with the roles and mannerisms of an ‘effective leader’ is a distraction from the core purpose of school leadership – enabling all teachers to be highly effective. (I will try to address this idea of effectiveness in a later blog.) Too many leadership programmes focus on ‘leadership’ over domain knowledge.

My hunch then is that it seems that hand in hand with the development and rise of genericist curriculum ideas came the growth in genericist leadership ideas in schools. Just as for a curriculum that foregrounds generic skills; subject information is simply the landscape within which to practice those skills, so in a generic leadership model the school is simply the arena in which to act out leadership skills or actions. Limited domain knowledge is required due to the mistaken belief that leadership is transferable and good leaders have a framework to follow. If I can switch between being ‘visionary’ or ‘directive’ based on my audience then I will be an effective leader. Thus knowledge of leadership models transcends knowledge of the domain within which I am operating. Although I don’t have any evidence to support this claim my thinking is that just as ‘skills’ don’t cross disciplinary thresholds, nor then, does leadership.

The vacuum that a lack of domain-specific knowledge creates is, I would argue, then often filled with graphs and spreadsheets. To offset or mask a gap in knowledge, a mechanism for capturing and presenting (often spurious) data is created. This data can then be used as a talking prompt for holding meetings and making decisions. It is this desire to create data that is in part, I would argue, responsible for the current workload issues in schools. This drive for data-led ‘solutions’ has led to the cumulative radicalisation of leadership where leaders find more and more radical solutions – triple marking, graded lesson observations, 1/2 termly book scrutinies, 6 data points a year – to address imagined problems or problems that require a deep knowledge of the domain to solve.

To give an example, if we take lesson observations. There is a wealth of data out there from the MET study or an entire chapter in ‘Creating the schools our children need.’ However, even if you take both these sets of data you still need to be able to reflect on and think hard about these findings to be able to take the conclusions and create a workable school-level system from them. This issue requires technical knowledge. Or lets look at in-year data at Key Stage 3. Is gathering ‘data’ every 1/2 term really enabling us to make evidence-led decisions?

So Senior Leaders need to have the specialised knowledge of the domain in order to cut through a lot of the nonsense driven by data presentation and focus on the 3 or 4 core things that should happen to enable all teachers to teach highly effectively. Just as a hospital that allows doctors to practice evidence-based medicine appear to have a lower mortality rate, a school that is designed around the curriculum experience will surely be a more effective school – and a more inspiring place to work. (By effective I would mean a school that foregrounds knowledge as the goal of teaching.)

A school leader who obsesses about the development and effectiveness of their staff over and above the way they deliver their morning briefings won’t go far wrong. This is not to say that style is irrelevant, more that your core ideas and purpose as an organisation must be at the forefront of all leadership decisions and actions – and in my view the core purpose should be built around disciplinary thinking. In my own headships I have definitely been guilty of generating excessive amounts of paperwork to hide behind and I think this came from both a lack of technical expertise and a lack of confidence to sweep away the nonsense and just focus on the core mission.

(I first came across the phrase ‘cumulative radicalisation’ from Sir Ian Kershaw when teaching the Nazi State at A Level and helpfully a quick Google and then Wikipedia has done the rest for me – Kershaw, Ian “‘Working Towards the Führer’. Reflections on the Nature of the Hitler Dictatorship” pages 231–252 from The Third Reich edited by Christian Leitz, London: Blackwill, 1999)

One response to “The cumulative radicalisation of school leadership.

  1. Pingback: The specific things that leaders do | Reflections on schools, teaching and education.·

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