The Leaders, The Hydra and Managerialism


“Princes should devolve on others those matters that entail responsibility, and reserve to themselves those that relate to grace and favour.”

― Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

It is useful to surround oneself with people to do thy bidding, especially if the bidding be somewhat awkward or controversial. Sometimes, jobs are awarded to staff for very good reasons, because they need a challenge, or their career needs a boost, but whatever the reasoning behind an appointment the more leaders in a school the more difficult it might be to fully realise a clarity of purpose. A hierarchical structure around a supreme and unimpeachable leader can be away of protecting the throne and like the multi headed hydra it can be a formidable force, keeping the underlings busy. Sometimes it can be the reason for good management and sometimes it can sew the seeds of a school’s march into mediocrity. A Hydra has unity of purpose, each head is attached to the same body, but too many heads of whatever in a school the more the likelihood that a unity of purpose will be lost.

Here’s what can happen: appoint a leader, ask them to manage others, give them performance management targets for the year, measure their success, ask them to justify their wage by introducing initiatives which form the basis of their performance management targets for the next year, ask them to gather data through which they measure their success, applaud them publicly or give them enough rope to hang themselves, they justify their  successes and excuse their failures… and managerialism takes over the school.

The more people appointed to leadership roles, the more they are asked to justify their position through initiatives and accrue data, the more that those at the chalk face will have to do. Pulled this way and that, by initiatives that might contradict other initiatives, compiling data all calmly broken down by gender, race, and target grade, the front line teacher is but a tool to justify partial gains, from very little information.

If a school has too many middle leaders all competing with each other for gold stars from the central office, a culture of back biting and resentment can grow. Each leader finds themselves a leader to the other leaders and also finds that the other leaders are, in turn, leading them. For every bit of data they collect, a bit of statistical spin here and there, they can show what a dreadful job someone is doing and how good someone else is doing. Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. As Niccolò Machiavelli put it in The Prince: “For whoever believes that great advancement and new benefits make men forget old injuries is mistaken.” As some climb up the pole others slide down, or remain stalled, ‘having found their level’.  Old scores will be settled, and the politics of the staff room takes over from the teaching of children.

For this reason and in these days of austere budgeting, how many leaders are needed? The plethora of Teaching and Learning positions that began a few years ago are at the root of the problem. Should senior leaders hesitate before they award members of staff a position which carries little weight but might need a lot of data?  Directors of Progress, Heads of Innovation, Assistant Heads of Data, Leaders of Achievement, Assistant Heads of Ethos, Vice Principals for Dealing With Underperformance, Heads of Creativity, Leaders of Leadership Development, Heads of Quality Assurance, all could be vying with each other to be noticed, or all could be introducing initiatives to justify their salaries.  A major problem with performance management is that it can be an annual invitation to introduce even more initiatives: initiativitis is a well known institutional disease.

Questions to ask: instead of creating a climate of managerialism by awarding lots of middle leading jobs, is a flatter management structure better? Are the jobs we say that we want doing all necessary? Can we have a few years embedding what we do well and abandoning all the initiatives that make us too busy for little purpose? What are our core messages and how are these strengthened through our staffing and our core policies? Instead of up to three performance targets per leader per year, how about just one for the whole school? Whatever the reasoning, the more middle leaders a school has, the more likely that different messages will abound. A good headteacher leads with a clear purpose and inspires confidence in her staff, pupils and parents. Good teams can be organised through curriculum, pastoral and administrative structures, which has always been at the core of good organisational structure in schools, any role beyond this, should be thought about very carefully before it is introduced. Teaching and Learning roles must enhance the core purpose of the school and not detract from it and not be so numerous as to completely detract from what good initiatives there are.

One thought on “The Leaders, The Hydra and Managerialism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s