Expel the middle managers from UK schools

Labour’s targets culture in schools means hefty salaries for managers and uninspiring education for kids.

David Perks

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Topics Politics

After more than three weeks of watching British MPs rip themselves apart, it should be no surprise to find out that the same disease seems to have spread to other areas of public life.

The head of Copland Community College in Wembley, London, Sir Alan Davies, has recently been suspended after it was revealed he received £130,000 in bonuses over two years (1). He was also awarded £231,000 for project managing the redevelopment of his school on top of his annual salary of more than £100,000. The temptation to put one’s hand in the cookie jar would seem to have become almost irresistible to those in positions of authority.

But is this just the fault of avarice or is something else going on? Sir Alan claims he has done nothing wrong and that he earned his bonuses for the improved performance of the school after seeing a 10 per cent rise in GCSE performance over the past three years. The chair of governors at the school, Dr Indravadan Purshottamdas Patel, went so far as to say Sir Alan was worth ‘every penny’. The question remains: how could the school management and the governing body have convinced themselves that it is okay to act in such a cavalier fashion?

A clue to explaining how Copland went off the rails can be found in the response of government ministers to the situation. When the scandal emerged at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers conference in April, Ed Balls, the secretary of state for children, schools and families, commented: ‘There should be pay for headteachers taking on greater responsibilities. In general, the idea of us rewarding strong leaders who take on wider responsibilities in pay is something I support.’ (2) In fact, as the school made clear, the local authority had already audited the school’s budget and not raised any problems with the pay of senior management. Balls had even congratulated the school on being ‘good value for money’. So what went wrong?

What this story indicates is that the culture at the heart of education is now so distorted by targets, accountability and a cult of managerialism that any remnants of an ethos of public service has been lost. You might think teachers are in the job to educate children and hopefully give them a better chance in life than their parents had. In which case, you might expect education to be at the heart of what schools do. Nothing could be further from the truth. In its obsession with using schools as vehicles for pushing its political agenda on to children, the government has come to see education as an inconvenient obstacle to getting things done.

The idea that children need teaching by well-qualified professionals has given way to an obsession with micro-managing every aspect of school life, from what is eaten at lunchtime to what subjects it is worth teaching pupils. But in order to force its priorities into the classroom, government has had to convince schools to follow blindly the dictates of central targets and accountability. Schools have acquiesced under the threat of external inspections and increasingly complicated sets of performance targets upon which they are judged by local authorities.

The pressure to match inspection criteria means that even successful schools now operate a perpetual internal inspection regime. The sight of school managers wandering down corridors with clipboards checking the performance of staff is now a daily sight. The consequence of this has been the de-professionalisation of teachers and the eradication of any dialogue about the nature of education from schools. If you are being judged on whether you meet a checklist of criteria in delivering your lesson, intellectually engaging with your pupils is pushed to the sidelines.

However, threats are not enough to inculcate a culture of acceptance. The corollary to the threat of a bad school inspection report is the opportunity to earn performance-related pay. Fast-tracking teachers into management and rewarding success are now part and parcel of how schools work. Unsurprisingly, this has given rise to a new breed of middle managers. Along with this change of guard has come a growing belief that it is management itself that is the most effective way to make things happen in schools, and that experienced classroom teachers are almost an unnecessary burden to the efficient running of a school.

But achieving targets and management objectives is not the same thing as improving education. In fact, given the systemic problems apparent in the state school sector, it is asking the impossible to make some schools appear to improve year-on-year. The temptation to massage figures and claim success where it patently does not exist becomes all too real. The government has made this situation commonplace by insisting on the equivalence of examination results between different qualifications. For instance, by counting ‘C’ grades and not distinguishing either which subject, tier of entry or type of assessment is undertaken, a school can claim fantastic GCSE results when no children sit GCSEs in a particular subject. This has led to the trend to enter many pupils for qualifications assessed entirely by coursework rather than the more examination-based GCSEs.

When such blatant fudging of the facts is encouraged in the name of school improvement, it is obvious to see where this will lead. In the Soviet Union, factory managers claimed to meet targets for shoe production by making only left shoes. The systematic education of pupils in useless qualifications is, if anything, even worse.

Set adrift by a government that has no idea of the worth of education, it is easy to see how schools can lose any sense of perspective. Achieving anything, no matter how minor, can lead to schools acquiring an over-inflated sense of their own importance. The Copland school held an annual dinner at the House of Lords with guest speakers, like pop star Sting, in attendance. This is a state school with 51 per cent A*-C grades (including English and mathematics), which is below the average performance (55 per cent) of the London borough of Brent where it is based. No one could quite explain why they felt they should be celebrating this mediocre performance, but the staff by all accounts seemed to enjoy the occasions.

Even though it is tempting to ascribe this to a ‘bonus culture, which has blighted our banks’, as Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers union, put it, the problem at the heart of education is the absence of any leadership from a political elite that sees no worth in education. Leaving schools to work it out for themselves just enshrines failure into the system.

David Perks is head of physics at Graveney School, London. He is the co-author of What is Science Education For?. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

David Perks showed how school exams are used to micro-manage schools and argued that education is now a sideshow in British schools. Jennie Bristow said national school tests are not child abuse and urged: Forget this endless exam reform – bring back education. Emily Hill said that, when it comes to school tests, a bit of stress is good for you. Joanna Williams wrote about teachers, targets and theatre trips. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

(1) Investigation: Pupils taught in huts as head pockets £400,000, London Evening Standard, 20 May 2009

(2) City greed and bonus culture ‘infecting state schools’, Guardian, 7 April 2009

(3) Balls blunder over ‘unlawful’ bonuses for headteachers, London Evening Standard, 22 April 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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