Christopher Logue invites us to “come to the edge”. It can be a frightening or exhilarating place to stand; it depends on whether you think you are about to plummet or fly.
Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
Come to the edge!
And they came,
and he pushed,
And they flew.
The line “and he pushed” jars against my sensibilities; though being pushed we are. The force of successive governments, arguably the last six years has seen an accelerated use and increase, is being brought to bear. Mass possibly even total academisation of the system, the disappearance of local authorities, the rise of teaching schools and a self-improving school system, centrally driven concurrent curriculum and assessment changes are all impacting on those in schools. Politicians overriding aim appears to increasingly be their own manifesto or agenda; they mean and want to do well. Too often when we lead we can forget that people are more likely to follow us when we show “do with” rather than “do to” leadership. The extent to which you feel done to partially depends on your level of agreement with what is being proposed or implemented.
Welcome to liminal leadership; standing astride two different worlds, that which has been and that which will be. We stand at the threshold of a different kind of education system; it may be one in which the teaching profession is diminished or augmented. Along with other school leaders I will help form the bridge from one world to another; leaving the past but never really entering the future. It can be a disorientating or ambiguous existence but that’s liminality.
Ruling out plummeting as an option; the thought of flying appeals but has its dangers. The story of Icarus has a modern day analogy with Perry Beeches being the most recent and high profile example. Working with some great colleagues, to write Vision 2040, we predicted as much for people at a personal and system level.
“Just before the 2020 general election we lost our sponsor. It was explained to me at the time that there was an issue with a ‘connected party transaction’. I never did get to grips with the confusing jargon that masked outright financial mismanagement. It was one of many financial revelations to hit the news and the now infamous headline ‘Schools & taxpayers robbed in broad daylight’, with the then beleaguered education secretary shown in a Dick Turpin costume.”
A Vision for Education Beyond Five Year Policy Cycles (2015) SSAT
The start of the short booklet deliberately painted a bleak picture of what was about to happen
… it would be easy to be angry at the blitz of cuts and the lack of coherence within the school system. This haphazard change was created by constant government interference, initiatives and diktats
… The following few years of being sponsored were a blur: lots of ‘improvement’ activity but with limited impact on the children’s outcomes. In essence, we had two challenges: a norm-referenced examination system that actually maintained so-called pass rates, irrespective of whether the overall standards in schools were improving or in decline
… This state of affairs whittled away at me and I can recall far too many of my colleagues leaving education feeling it was a lost cause … The speedy demise of maintained schools, allied with the seemingly overnight formation of single academies, multi-academy trusts, federations, teaching school alliances and free schools, created a near chaotic structural situation. Schools and school leaders scrambled simply to survive the cuts and the swift changes
… The failure of successive governments to plan enough primary school places during the first part of the decade was predictably followed by a lack of secondary school places being available 5-10 years later. The retirement of the baby boomer generation, partly due to demographics and shadowy amendments to teachers’ pensions, was exacerbated by a pernicious accountability culture and excessive workload, from ill-thought-through changes to the examination system and the like. It created a recruitment and retention crisis.
Vision 2040 gets more positive but even in the bleak times it notes, “there were bright lights among the schools, their leaders and teachers, but this happened in spite of the system – not because of it.” The current approach of spending too much time, money and effort on distractions and irrelevances needs to be counterbalanced. Vic Goddard rightly says that head teachers “create the daily weather”; over time this adds up to produce the climate within the organisation, for better or worse. My strategy will be to focus on building a culture which is humane, ethical, informed and focused. These will be the cultural bridges that will help us cross the chaos of the years ahead.
I’m looking forward to meeting with and talking to colleagues in Wakefield, Sheffield and those on the SSAT Aspiring Senior Leaders Course over the coming month. Liminal Leadership will be my theme; thriving in the years ahead will be my message. There’s no guarantee I’m right; sometimes as leaders in the staff room as well as the class room (teachers) we just have to go with what their guts are telling them. My head and heart are telling me; get the culture right and riding the chaos might just be doable and even enjoyable.