Athena versus The Machine: Values-led Leadership in a Time of Change


If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.” Charles Darwin: ‘Autobiography’.

Are a school’s values enfeebled by the never ending desire to change?

(This week the Guardian featured a report on what it thought the top thirty most important books for mankind were. The top two were The Bible and the Origin of the Species. Would you Adam and Eve it?)

Imagine a school…

What do you see? A building? A bunch of kids in uniform, gaily, miserably, joyfully, half heartedly, making their way to this building, on foot, on bikes, in cars, holding hands, running, dawdling, chewing, smoking, shouting, screaming, laughing, crying… And the staff, the staff, well… making their way to school, gaily, miserably, joyfully, half heartedly, on foot, on bikes, in cars, running, dawdling, chewing, smoking, shouting, screaming, laughing, crying…

And you… are you an observer here at this school, watching from afar? Are you a parent? Are you a new teacher, a head teacher, a leader, an old teacher, a retired teacher? Are you a school crossing patrol person? A bus driver? A shop keeper? Do you run the Fried Chicken takeaway around the corner? A dinner lady, a dinner gentleman, a taker of care, a van delivery driver…

Just imagine…?

And what do you think of this school? Is it a bad school, a great school, a school with redeeming features but not one you’d like your child to go to?

How do you know?

Is it changing? Why is it changing? It has to change it is such a crap school… Apparently there’s a new Head-teacher, Out with the old and in with the new…

The school has changed its name, its building, it’s now an academy, it has changed its uniform – new boots and panties, it wants to change its kids to make them more aspirational, it wants to change its kids’ parents too, make them take an interest, it has parenting classes. It has brought in a new ‘values’ statement, it is in the process of driving out old, decrepit, useless staff and bringing in new, young, dynamic staff singletons with their future ahead of them… look two of those teachers on the way to school are holding hands! Love is in the air…

New school dinners, new school dinner operatives… healthy, smiley, and a salad bar.
New targets. New initiatives. New exam results. New! And you knew it would work… You can’t stop progress, this is the 21st century! Old superstitions replaced by new certainties! Science united with business values, look at our vision statement brand spanking new targets, and new values…

New values…

‘I’m looking for one new value, but nothing comes my way…’ Sang Iggy Pop… Can one ever have ‘new values’? If you can jettison old values so easily what is to say you won’t jettison your new ones just as easily…?

As Groucho Marx nearly said These are my values and if you don’t like them, I’ve got others… Values are principles, morals, standards, we pass them on because they matter. If everything is changing including values you have no values… you have anarchy when you disrupt the culture. How does the new regime cope with this? They bring in the terror… They impose their new values by disrupting their new values…

To explore this further I want to ask a question, as a leader are you a complete Burke or an absolute Paine?


On July 10th 1789 the storming of the Bastille…

You are in England listening to the leader of the Whig Party Charles James Fox saying about the French Revolution: “How much the greatest event it is that ever happened in the world, and how much the best!” Thomas Paine was encouraged by the idea of establishing a new French identity from scratch, based on better principles, and new ways of organising the nation. This was to be the enlightenment personified, the rational over the traditional. As Paine wrote in Common Sense, sometime before the French Revolution: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

We need change so let’s start again! And it is completely right headed of course. Our structures, everything which is in our dominion in a school is man-made. We made it, and like a child with a lot of wooden blocks, it can be great fun to knock them all down and start again. The progressive, change-maker, realises the arbitrary nature of our stories, things don’t have to be this way…  we need 21st century skills, we need 21st century institutions, we need kids to be trained for the future, capitalism where ‘all that is solid melts into air’ is fetishised. The utilitarian view says we need 21st Century skills for jobs that, bizarrely, don’t yet exist Who knows what jobs will be needed in the future? There might be some great global calamity and we wake up from disaster in a post technological age needing to return to the skills of our ancestors. The Scouts are no longer learning how to tie knots, I mean, what is the point?!? Certain crafts are becoming very rare, Thatchers (I use that word with great sensitivity) Stone Masons, Bookbinders, these are dying crafts no longer needed in our concrete, kindled age. How many crafts are becoming extinct? How many of us children know how to do what our parents could do? But forget the past! We need to harness the technical know how, the computer age, all has changed! Bliss that it is in this dawn to be alive!

We are all futurologists now…

Burke put it in this way: “…you began by despising everything that belonged to you…” He went on to talk about how the old ways had faults but also within their ways is the seeds of possible improvement, he talks of ancestors: “… your imaginations would have realised in them a standard of virtue and wisdom, beyond the vulgar practice of the hour… respecting your forefathers, you would have been taught to respect yourselves.”

Tom Paine, thought we should replace the wrong of the past with right. Paine insists that the forces of tradition, the old regime, “Tremble at the approach of principles, and dread the precedent that threatens their overthrow…” And this is powerful. If the past is wrong then we need to ensure the future is right. Paine pitches thought against tradition: “I scarcely ever quote; the reason is, I always think…” oh the paradox… Here he makes an appeal to principles rather than precedent, his values are about change. He argues for a scientific, individual liberalism, against Burke’s authority laden habit and traditionalism. For Paine reason stands as a beacon against ignorance, he says about the founding of ‘America’: “…By the simple operation of constructing government on the principles of society and the rights of man, every difficulty retires, and all parts are brought into cordial unison. The poor are not oppressed, the rich are not privileged… and as there is nothing to render them wretched, there is nothing to engender riots and tumults.” Ha, yes, this is the problem, the continuous thrust into the golden future is uncertain, we think we have the answer, we think we know what we are changing things for but we really don’t. Nowadays the market becomes the justification for all sorts of crimes against learning perpetrated onto unfulfilled school kids. There are some progressives who just want to reject all that is old because it is old. This is not education it is euthanasia.

But what if our old school and our ancien regime is corrupt or useless, is that not a reason for tearing it all down? It might indeed be, so many wrong turns might have been made… but just think for a moment what message this sends out: when we have made a mess of things we must destroy the past. We should forget our identity and like a notorious prisoner on release we need to have a new identity forged for us. We know the past is full of mistakes and accidents but so will the future. As GK Chesterton wrote: “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins.” This is the balance, Education is a place where the generations, past and future meet, the teacher representing the past meets the pupil who will make the future and they meet, crucially, in the present.

In his book ‘How to Think Seriously About the Planet’ Conservative Philosopher Roger Scruton writes: “Environmentalists and conservatives are both in search of the motives that will defend a shared but threatened legacy from predation by its current trustees.” Scruton sees the importance of civic associations like the National Trust and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England in the way that they quietly go about environmental stewardship. Scruton sees the danger of centralized planning both from big Government but also rampant free marketeers. For it is when our institutions interact with humanity that we find out their worth. How does your school interact with the great swell of humanity that come through its doors?

If some change-maker educationalists were town planners they would be knocking down Victorian houses and concreting over vast swathes of the green and pleasant. Just as a true environmentalist would never concrete over their back garden so should a true educationalist never desecrate our cultural inheritance. Yes tend the land for new blooms, cut out some dead wood and even dig in a good dollop of manure, but overall care for the aesthetic and tranquil in the face of the dark and satanic tarmac connecting glass towers and future runways.

Some people hate ‘education’ just because it looks old fashioned, they want to throw technology at it and argue for a future where all teachers have been successfully replaced by hole in the wall machines or computer games that entertain the child by developing her marketable skills. The future deems that we should all be autonomous individuals buffeted by the global utilitarian market and our schools should train people in these skills. Not values, skills. And in the next thirty years the schools that we currently see, imagine, will be disbanded. In the age of individualism we will have no need of these institutions, we will finally be free! Free from uniformity, no more school, no more teachers, school’s out for a permanent summer fed by wikipedia.

In the golden future our values will be bought and sold on the amazon market place and delivered by drones. Placeless, faceless, looking for the values that most suit us at a certain time, we don’t want to be marked by the past, we want to escape it. Blessed are the change makers for they will free the world. But what is lost? What is lost?

As Keats wrote in an ode on a Grecian Urn: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” For Keats: “Negative Capability, is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason… the sense of Beauty… obliterates all consideration… the willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity. Thus, the conflicting nature of things must be understood to reach the imagination, where one can create…”  ‘The concept of negative capability is the ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects or fit it into closed and rational systems.’ (For Keats to create poetry he believed, “One had to remain in states of conflict without irritably looking towards reason, instead of putting yourselves on one side of conflict or the other, he wanted to open up the imaginative space,and by being able to see from the other point of view, he thought things could be resolved through creative ways rather than logical ones.”)

The progressive Brazilian philosopher Roberto Unger thinks we, mummified by the past, die many deaths. He thinks we must dispel the illusions and change the way we live, he sees the actual and the possible, the machine and the imagination, as allies. I see the constraints offered by the past as enabling us to both reimagine it and ourselves in the present by telling, retelling and reshaping our stories. Unger points out that progressives used to believe in blueprints, now they don’t believe in anything, but in education this is, unfortunately, not true. The blueprints of the future drive the progressive change machine. We become mummified by the future! Unger says the goal should be to overthrow the rule of the dead over the living, I believe we should converse with the dead… The change makers want us to be ruled by the unborn, I believe we should write our stories for the unborn and pass them on. Unger talks about bringing in a ‘structure revising structure,’ he thinks all we have for sure is life in the present and in seeking to change the world, we can change ourselves, by moving away from the idols (of the past and of the future?) and by moving closer together in the present, and therefore we, in Unger’s mortal phrase, die only once…

Unger calls for decentralisation, he sees wage labour as a compromised transitory form, tainted by slavery, replaced gradually by free labour – self employment and co-operation. He wants a revolution in education that privileges co-operation in teaching and learning rather than individualism and authoritarianism. He thinks teaching should be dialectical from at least two points of view, where the mind is both a machine and an anti machine, it has negative capability, and so should our institutions. This way, he believes, change can be substantial but it should be gradualist and experimental. Permanent vanguardist innovation, innovation led by and for the ubermensch excludes most people whereas Unger believes we need to disseminate the ability to change their circumstances to the very people involved. To Unger Progressives should not be about some supreme objective of equality, rather they should look at raising ordinary humanity to a higher plane of life, of capability, of experience, of scope in the here and now. And, in this he is right. We can keep our values by enacting our values, by allowing staff to be the drivers of their lives. The machine of the school needs to free the imaginations of its staff!

The controversial and eccentric scientist James Lovelock talks about the rational side of science and the intuitive side, he argues that we should encompass both the rational and the irrational and one side we can control and explain but the other side is self regulating and dynamic: it is about humanity itself. If we want a great education we must include this side, not in our calculations but in our ability to encompass its uncertainty and beauty. He calls the Earth, our great self regulating and dynamic system, Gaia.

What if education rather than being a problem to solve was thought of as something living, something, if you like, human… let us give this type of humane education a reason: the pursuit of wisdom, let us give her a name, Athena, the Goddess of wisdom. And this education, this humane education is self-regulating and dynamic, it shares this with all living things… It is consciousness…

Do we want revolution or reform? Do we want change to be gradual and human scaled or instant and imposed? The pursuit of wisdom learning to be alive, learning to be human should occur in the space where we come together in common, where we make sense in common, where we converse… Some have tried to deliver a form of freedom to pupils, student voice, child centred learning but what of freeing the teacher? What if we talked about the importance of ‘teacher voice’? The teacher allowed to co-operate and be the purveyor of gradualist and experimental change? Instead of being the problem the teacher might, indeed, be the solution. The free thinking teacher holds Athena to her heart, it is in her imagination that we find the pursuit of wisdom and by investing in our teachers they will invest their time in our pupils.

Instead of layers of middle management all chasing after data to justify their existence, instead of the poor bloodied classroom teacher having to fill in sheets of bureaucracy’s finest paper pushing, instead of money being spent on many TLRs, give staff what they really need: time. Invest in more staff rather than more middle management. Introduce a flatter management structure and trust teachers more. Instead of  the latest technology, gathering dust, have more free periods for classroom teachers. Introduce the old Japanese art of lesson study allowing for the humane organic growth of staff generated CPD, around a simple structure (like the trivium) upon which teachers can build their own classroom methodology, informed by research rather than led by it.

Burke talks about how: “The old building stands well enough, though part gothic, part Grecian, and part Chinese, until an attempt is made to square it into uniformity. Then it may come down upon our heads altogether, in much uniformity of ruin.” The wisdom of our institutions might be in their very bricks, in the arts that are taught within and the lives of the people who teach, learn and support within them. How to make each flourish and engage with the other is the job of management, not to impose a dogma from above but to release and enable the conditions to help the flourishing and interaction of all.

As a Leader are you a complete Burke or a total Paine?

Great leadership needs roots especially if it is arguing for change. We need to take a lead from the great English Garden designer, Capability Brown. Instead of imposing wholesale change he perfected what was already there by: “Judicious manipulation of its components, adding a tree here or a concealed head of water there. His art attended to the formal potential of ground, water, trees and so gave to English landscape its ideal forms. For some, with an untrained eye, the difference could be imperceptible, but what a legacy he has left us!

The art of school leadership should attend to the formal potential of your landscape. Nurture your landscape, and the greatest ‘oaks’ are your staff.

Let us look at one example, using architecture as our metaphor: how to set up a new ‘innovative’ school in a new building:

Last year I had the honour of visiting the building site that was to become ‘The Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form college’ a new Maths and Science free school. What was fascinating to me is that the building was not starting from scratch, rather the construction was taking place in Norwich’s Old Fire Station, which was built in the 1930s. Architects Pick Everard and construction team Willmott Dixon were ‘changing’ the Grade II listed buildings whilst being sensitive to the tradition and ‘values’ of the old buildings, they were in the process of converting the former fire station, a civic weights & measures building and tower into a 21st century education centre with nine science laboratories and 10 classrooms.

As it says on their website: ‘The external facades remain largely unaltered and original architectural features retained.  The old fire tender hall has become a multi-purpose hall for assemblies, lectures and performances for students. The original features of the recreation room; wood panelling, clock, two billiard scoreboards, coved ceiling, window pelmets and timber flooring have been retained in the traditional library – the Franklin Room. Original staircases and balustrades have been kept, as well as fireman’s poles at each end of the building. The Principal’s office has the words “Chief Fire Officer” written above the door. Rachel de Souza, the Chief Executive who oversees the school, said: “This iconic building is a showcase sixth-form college. Our plans respect the past but look to the future with cutting-edge facilities to support our students win places at Britain’s best universities.’ There is something beautifully bonkers about a school with billiard score boards in the library and a couple of fireman’s poles, must be wonderfully quick getting to staff meetings! This can serve as our metaphor for this is ‘Athena’ in all her pomp, we don’t know why, but we feel that the ‘poetic’ is important, it raises our sights beyond the data sheets, it offers something else than the machine. The poetic butterfly, Athena, can easily be destroyed by the wheels of the machine. We must not let this happen

We need to use constraints intelligently to nurture the freedom of our staff. We need values based on tradition and entertain ideas that can challenge that tradition, not ideas distorted through the dogma of a grand future but rooted in the relationships which we have in the here and now. Here we are heirs of the past and makers of the future, but we are of the present… in the now, working collegiately in doubt, and hope and love.
[some of the above may appear slightly different to the words as spoken on the day]

9 thoughts on “Athena versus The Machine: Values-led Leadership in a Time of Change

  1. Bravo! To be reminded of negative capability and see it so eloquently applied to break the dichotomy between progress and tradition is a joy. This is why I believe the art of debate should be one of the pillars of a wholesome education. Through argument we learn to enjoy argument and appreciate ambiguity. That’s not tk say that we should all be relativists, but that truth lies in the dance between two truths: the push and pull between now and then.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. These are my quick thoughts. A stream of consciousness ramble that is inspired by rather than in opposition to the article

    The purpose of power in society is to avoid change. There are two hues of power in our politics today that largely conforms to the two types of Liberalism; positive and negative. The constructs of progressive (Labour) and Conservatives are there to articulate this schism.

    Fundamentally both sides want the same outcomes they just believe that there are different ways of achieving it. I think that is why even though the two sides are articulating different arguments, people believe that they are the same.

    It seems to me that when people, or rather power, because people in power, without ideology, are simply conduits of the will-to-power, call for change they are really asking for the same.

    Politicians want to change because natural change, that which occurs as a consequence of a complex existence meandering it’s way through time and space exists external to the control of politicians and forces those who don’t want change, to change.

    In this circumstance change, though, is not change, or rather, it is change but with the intention of staying the same.

    The mantra of the will to change is underpinned by a desire to control change, that is fundamentally uncontrollable. Underpinning all this is the belief that if there isn’t change then things cannot stay the same.

    Power, which has no intrinsic ethical values then goes into overdrive to achieve the change that is required to stay the same.

    So what is my point. Perhaps it is this, though, still not completely formed, that change does not impact on values it is what we are prepared to do to achieve change that impacts upon our values.

    Utilitarianism gives an excuse for those who want change to jetison ethics and values.but perhaps the truth is that the reason why ethics and values are discarded so easily is because they were not deeply embedded in the first place.

    Progressives believe that real change, not that which is required to maintain what is, real change, is necessary to further protect those ethics and values albeit that this has been subverted by crude political correctness and equalities dogma.

    And therein lies the (crudely stated) fault line between Conservatives and Progressives. The former believe that ethics and values exist in the past and the latter think they exist in the future.

    The dialectic negotiates between the two but the dialectic itself is, of the past and will-to-power is so desperate to cling onto the past that the dialectic becomes so toxic, that it itself, is seen as part of the problem. The future becomes disentangled from the past.

    As a consequence the present becomes a polemical shouting match disengaged from anything that is..!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Who are these people who think they know the future? The future, based on past experience, is very likely to be pretty much the same – with a few surprises. But we will not know what the surprises are until they happen. All the best intelligence – a strange word indeed – will only prepare us to a very small degree. When a surprise happens, at first we don’t believe it – how could this happen? These things don’t happen to me! So at first we eliminate it, deny its existence, bury our head in the sand. It’s called cognitive dissonance. Only when the enormity of the surprise grabs us by the throat do we take notice. If it’s too big to hide under the carpet, the elephant in the room needs to be addressed. So how do we do that, and maintain our equilibrium, the status quo, the things that really matter to us?

    If we have had some kind of previous practice in dealing with surprises – and most of us still fumble here – will we snap into action and engage in suitable activities to deal with the surprise in a way we think will make a difference. But our experience shows us that most of what we do actually produces the opposite of what we want, that our best intentions only make things worse; that doing nothing is often the best solution.

    Can we do nothing? Is that allowed? We have been told that we should take appropriate action – but as none of us can foresee the consequences of our actions, except in the narrow short-term, we blunder on regardless, hoping that others, or technology, or some deus ex machina will eventually save us, sort out the mess we so gladly create, in some unknown future.


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