“Stop Boiling the Frog” by @duncanspalding

Lifeworld and systemworld.

The following blog is taken from the work that I recently did for my MEd course. In researching values driven leadership in English co-operative secondary schools, I explored ethical leadership and school culture in some detail. In doing so I came across the work of Thomas Sergiovanni and in particular his thinking about the elements that go together to help create school culture and ethos.

Culture is the ‘normative glue’ that holds a school community together (Sergiovanni, 2004, p. 1). Strong and principled leadership is central to creating the cultural and normative framework for a school and providing a common vision and direction for everyone in that school community. This direction needs to be more than just a statement of rhetorical intent. It must translate into action on the ground and into impact on learning for young people. Sergiovanni (2004), drawing on Habermas’ work (1992), describes this balance between the cultural and operational side of a school as the relationship between the ‘lifeworld’ and ‘systemworld’, or between culture and strategy. For a school to thrive culture and strategy need to be wholly aligned, with culture setting the pace and strategy providing the means of realising that culture. Fullan (2011, p. 10) reinforces this thinking by emphasising that moral purpose is meaningless if it is not “actualized on a very large scale” via clear strategic action.

This division exemplifies the tension currently inherent in many education systems between the systemworld driven agenda of outcomes based accountability and the lifeworld vision of providing a ‘good’ education (Biesta, 2011). Sergiovanni (2004, p. xvii) states unambiguously that, “in good schools the lifeworld is alive and well.” The table below outlines Sergiovanni’s conception of lifeworld and systemworld actions:

Lifeworld and systemworld actions (Sergiovanni, 2004)

Lifeworld Actions  Systemworld Actions 
Expressive action 

  • Parents, students and staff needs linked to school context 
  • Vision 
  • Values 
  • Beliefs about learning
Teleological action 

  • Setting objectives 
  • Creating systems 
Normative action 

  • Acting in a way that embodies the school’s shared values, vision and beliefs about learning 
Strategic action 

  • Making appropriate choices among alternatives courses of action 
  • Maximising value 

To establish the lifeworld of a school, values need to underpin the expressive actions taken by leaders in setting the right vision (telos) and curriculum for their students in their school context. Normative actions must create a strong sense of shared culture or ‘lived-ideology’ (Billig, Condor, Edwards, & Gane, 1988). All members of the community must behave in a way that is consistent with the values and purposes of the school.

The systemworld must then help to make a vision become a reality. Teleological actions help schools set objectives and create systems focused on achieving their expressive actions and vision. Strategic action helps to ensure the right choices are taken for the right reasons to achieve those aims by establishing decision making frameworks.

Without balance, the systemworld begins driving or ‘colonising’ the lifeworld. This resonates strongly with my experiences of the pressures of the accountability framework as a school leader. Sergiovanni (2004, p. 7) suggests colonisation is a slow process, akin to “the proverbial frog sitting in the soon to be boiling pot of water.” The eventual consequence is that in the ‘standard stampede’ (2004, p. 77) schools no longer act in the best interests of the students and communities they serve. Strong values frameworks have the potential to help keep these the lifeworld and systemworld in balance and focused on learning and the best interests of students.

Stevenson (2007, p. 774) suggests ethical schools are able, “to develop an institutional policy framework that reflect policy as ‘operational statements of values’.” It is better to create a deeply cohesive culture within a school that reflects its lived-ideology daily than one that pays more heed to the needs of policy delivery and ends up ‘rationing’ the education it provides for students (Ball, Maguire, Braun, Perryman, & Hoskins, 2012; Stevenson, 2007).

How is this relevant to HTRT?

As a group the Headteachers’ Roundtable is focused on “putting children’s learning at the centre of the education debate.” In other words, we are driven by the lifeworld of school leadership. As a group we are committed to challenging the dominance of systemworld practices that cause leaders to lose sight of what is in the best interests of their students, and to take decisions that reflect the best interests of institutions or leaders themselves. In other words, to behave unethically.

From my discussions with school leaders, teachers, governors, politicians, journalists and policy makers everyone knows what the main current unethical behaviours in English state education are. They know where the systemworld has colonised the lifeworld. I am of course talking about practices such as off-rolling, illegal exclusions, and the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) dissuasion of parents of SEND students from applying by some schools. The data is there in national datasets waiting to be gathered, scrutinised and analysed. Maybe there is a reluctance to dig too deep as there are major players who might not come out too well.

Yet these unethical practices do not feature in any of the current audit processes and are not signalled nationally or to parents locally. There has been a recent change of rhetoric from Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman (Adams, 2017) who has suggested that schools will be robustly challenged for practices that are not in the best interests of students. I welcome the advocacy of transparency on ethical issues relating to the curriculum, admissions, and exclusions but will wait to see if it is anything more than just laudable rhetoric. Parents need to know their local school is run in the best interests of students and to the highest ethical standards rather than simply chasing measures of performativity.

What was revealed, during my research interviews with school leaders, was a deep malaise about the way accountability has come to distort practices and the vulnerability we feel as leaders about doing the right thing or even knowing what the right thing is. Worse still the sense of injustice we feel when those we know are doing the wrong thing are seemingly lauded for doing so. We need to have the confidence to take a stand and to reject what we know to be wrong rather than going somewhat meekly along with whatever is launched in our direction from the likes of the DfE and Ofsted.

So, let’s have a lust for lifeworld. Choose lifeworld. Choose the best interests of students. Choose to be inclusive. Choose to lead ethically. Choose learning.

Duncan Spalding is the Executive Headteacher of Aylsham Learning Federation and is a core member of the Heads’ Roundtable.

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