Tools of the trade

We need to keep our eyes on educational developments in England, to watch, analyse and learn.

In April the Governors of Pimlico Primary, a newly established ‘free school’ in Westminster, appointed a new headteacher.  Annaliese Briggs was appointed as the head while still studying for her postgraduate certificate in education.

Ms Briggs may never have taught but she was not entirely without experience in educational policy.  She formerly worked as Curriculum Project Coordinator for the right-wing think-tank, Civitas, which advised the coalition government on its national primary curriculum.  Pimlico Primary is sponsored by Future, a charity founded by John Nash, the Tory donor and former venture capitalist, who was appointed schools minister in the Westminster coalition in January.

Ms Briggs had stated that she would ignore the national curriculum and teach lessons “inspired by the tried and tested methods of E D Hirsch Jr”, the controversial American academic behind what he calls “content-rich” learning.

Six months later Ms Briggs has resigned.

Schools are complex human institutions, each with a unique culture, which require empathetic human beings who care for the learners and the staff and are committed to learning.  There are no grand theories which can be applied to a given school irrespective of the community it serves, its history, staff or traditions.

Press comments have speculated that Ms Briggs could not cope with the daily stress of the post.  No experienced school leader would be surprised at that.  I almost sympathise with her.  Hers must have been a lonely and frustrating task.  It is something to her credit that she resigned.

This tale should engender a barrage of questions south of the border on the so-called ‘free schools’ policy.  Why was what appears to have been an overtly political appointment made in the first place? What connection had Nash, a government minister, with the appointment? What was the role of the Governors?  What does the present UK government see as the essential professional qualifications for teaching and for school leadership?

We should however beware.  The denial however that training and experience in education are prerequisites for successfully operating as a headteacher might not be the exclusive property of a few mad-cap, new right English politicians.

The modern managerial culture in the public sector, including in Scotland, is increasingly challenging the concept of specific professional expertise.  Financial management comes high on the list of essential characteristics for any headteacher’s post.

Other key skills and attributes required now seem to be a willingness to accept unquestioningly the line from on high, command of a meaningless managerial jargon, a capacity to pursue ever more meaningless ‘output’ targets and the enthusiastic sacrifice of every educational value ever held.

If that is true of schools, it is even more the case for local authorities.  One Scottish local authority now has its schools and education managed by a senior executive recruited from retail management with a national superstore.   The leading officers in several Scottish local authority education departments (although of course few phenomena of that name remain in the new corporate Utopia) are overwhelmingly without experience in managing schools.

Of course the management of schools and of education departments requires more than pedagogic expertise.  It requires legal, financial and personnel skills.  At council level it requires a small-p political awareness.

Above all however it requires professionals who know, understand and value children, learning, teaching and teachers and who have the human skills to make schools and education departments work.

There’s no reason to believe that Gove will learn that lesson but here in Scotland we should.

 

The above article was first published in Holyrood Magazine on21 october 2013

 

 

 

1 Comment
  1. I agree absolutely. Having been a casualty of corporatism, that is hardly surprising. The moment when I was told that all of the Directors’ Posts in Stirling would be replaced by “Assistant Chief Executives with broad strategic remits aligned with key strands and priorities within the Single Outcome Agreement” was the moment when redundancy suddenly looked attractive. Better to have to find other work than to commit to a system that believed that understanding of an area of responsibility was not necessary in leading it. I support integrated working and believe that one should not stand behind one’s professionalism, but that seems a million miles from a sense that professionalism is not necessary.
    Your logic is irrefutable – if you don’t need to be an educationalist to lead an education service, why is it a requirement within school?
    I accept that we need a debate on how we structure our services and that we need to be open to change, but too many appointments are ideologically driven or economically convenient and ignore the need to understand that which you wish to change

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