There’s a story in our family which everyone loves as it proves how difficult I was as a child. It involves me being thrown out of The Brownies. The 8-year-old me, resplendent in brown and yellow uniform, apparently asked quite pointedly, why it was necessary for us to dance around a tin-foil pond when we could all see it was not real.
This search for truth was clearly not appropriate; it was quietly suggested to my mother I should not return. I’m not sure Damian Hinds would view this as admirable ‘character’ but clearly, my self-worth wasn’t destined to come from a long arm of badges. 10 years later, an inspirational A-Level History teacher made me realise that an innate instinct to question established practice was actually a strength; one I have been utilising to the annoyance of authority figures ever since.
The willingness to unquestioningly fit a particular tribe never settled and it concerns me now, looking around the world of education. I believe in and have thrived in teams at a high level my whole life, sporting and professional; I’m competitive but I have never believed that belonging to my team inherently makes you a better person than belonging to another. It is involvement in the whole, the greater collective good, that is beneficial.
So in the face of growing division, as our society crashes towards its unknown future, I sense a threat to the educational good we all set out to achieve. Barely any of us lie untainted by this trait; it creeps insidiously into our language and attitudes. Fear of our future, uncertainty of our influence leads us to seek reassurance that our gang is better than another; we are ‘right’, they are ‘deluded’. It plays out across our system bringing the death of collaboration and the exclusion of valuable talent. The ones who really suffer are the children we are raising and the children they will go on to influence.
Even if we ignore the obvious bitter examples of academies vs maintained or trads vs progs there are deeper elements of tribalism that prevent us sharing, learning and growing together. I hear the isolation of those leading disadvantaged communities feeling their challenges and realities have no relevance to the accountability system by which their career is defined. The desperation to help the families who have the least with shamefully reducing support services, whose only external assistance is the voice of those who’ve never trodden their path but believe they know better. I hear the frustration of those leading rural, underfunded schools with deprivation too varied to attract support, for whom recruitment has significant geographical challenges. They lie outside of any opportunity or target funded area, receiving no additional funding or help but the scorn of those who look from the outside and view it as “easy”. I understand the pain of both, but have heard each denigrate the other. We wear our badges of identity strongly.
There are those who’ve worked every trick in the book to acquire the badge of Outstanding. There are those who’ve acquired it as a by-product of doing the right thing over time for their students and staff. I’ve heard the status castigated, undermining the efforts and abilities of a community that may have strived for years. I’ve also heard it glorified, overlooking the off-rolling and other dubious practices that enabled required standards to be achieved. Schools labelled Requires Improvement have been subject to the same misrepresentation and categorisation. These badges do not help.
We say we believe in system leadership, we promote it as a “good thing”, yet there is a sub-text to that description. Only ‘this’ form of system leadership, only from ‘these’ locations, only from ‘those’ organisations. Fill out a bid, complete a form and if you hit the right criteria, your future is secured. If not, you are invisible. There are hundreds of talented and potential leaders whose progression or access to support is limited as they don’t work in the right area, for the right organisations or haven’t been on the right courses. In supporting one type of leader, we may have side-roaded hundreds of others who don’t wear the right badges.
Yet, eternal optimist, there’s always hope. There are groups bringing together leaders from across the system irrespective of background or classification; there are some issues that affect us all so strongly that we can speak with a common voice. Over 2000, very different Heads marched peacefully, harmoniously and with a clear message to demand better funding for all our students – not only those in a certain area, or type of school – for all.
If we can do this on one issue, we can do it on others. We can model and promote collaborative working, in and between organisations; we can value difference and the importance of context; we can demand support for all kinds of schools, teachers and leaders to be able to work across the system; we can ensure no child loses out no matter what school or background. A 10-year plan for education, with secured funding, removed from party political cycles would be revolutionary in this context.
In the absence of any current clear leadership, we are the duty grown-ups. It’s time to put down tribal badges and focus on commonality of purpose. We don’t have to hold hands, there’s no tin-foil pond in sight but there are children and teachers who surely deserve a better life, career and example than they are currently getting from some of their leaders.
Caroline Barlow is Headteacher of Heathfield Community College, East Sussex and a member of Headteachers’ Roundtable Core Group
Tagged: Ethical Leadership