Surgeon General’s Warning: Wielding a Smoking Gun is Bad for Education

Posted on March 4, 2017


This is going to be ranty blogpost. You have been warned!!

This week I read (and largely welcomed the findings of) the Social Mobility Commission’s report into ‘Low income pupils’ progress at secondary school’ (link here). As a Headteacher of a school in an area that serves a large number of students from low income backgrounds who himself came from a low income background, why wouldn’t I?

The report, jointly constructed by authors from LKMco and Education Datalab, two organisations for which I have a very high regard, is largely excellent and – apart from the caveats that inform this post – required reading in my opinion. 

So, “where’s the rant?” my knowing authorial voice hears you say?  It is to do with the methodology employed by the report’s authors or, more importantly, how this methodology plays out in the write-up of its findings. The authors explain…

I have no substantial issues with the first part of this, the literature review, but I have some concerns about the ‘supplementing’ part drawn from only 8 self-selecting, self-evaluating and self-endorsing case study schools. The authors give a little more detail. 

Whilst the last sentence of this represents something of a ‘distancing’ there isn’t any explicit discussion of the potential methodological issues surrounding these transcriptions of telephone interviews, there is no exhortation to treat these case studies with caution and nor is there an qualifying statement that the case studies have been ‘screened’ in the same way that the 2,000+ pieces of literature have been. In short, there is no “surgeon general’s warning” regarding the most problematic aspect of the methodology underpinning this report. 

This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if the findings emerging from the case studies were, as many of them are, merely matters of preference or simply untested hypotheses put into practice in a methodologically flawed way (unsupported by literature, subject to confirmation bias, rigour-free evaluation of impact and the like). It’s a sad state of affairs but we are used to seeing such things as this in the countless ‘best practice’ literature that has underpinned governmental and systemic guidance down the years and decades. It can have longer-term problematic effects of the kind reflected in the bulk of this report – good intentions gone to waste, opportunity costs being negatively skewed and unintentional consequences abounding – but by and large these are broadly anodyne inefficiencies in terms of human wellbeing: soft rather than hard-edged discriminatory practice (albeit ones of which we need to rid ourselves to be worthy of the mantle ‘professionals’). 

But then, along came this rant-inducing statement from a leader of School 2. 

I literally (copyrighted from every Y7 ever) couldn’t believe my eyes. Here is a school leader boasting that “we have completely dismantled the school in the two years that we have been there”. Rather than test patience with my own take on that word ‘dismantled’ I’ll let the online thesaurus do my work for me. 

The thesaurus had me at ‘annihilate’, and this is backed up by the tawdry statistic that followed, a statistic that has clearly been much-used as a KPI by the school in the past to so easily be brought into a telephone interview. Converting it to a percentage 61 teachers of 68 dismantled gives you a whopping…

It all rather reminded me of the Harvard Business Review’s “The one type of leader who can turn around a failing school” (find here) which posited the notion of different types of school leaders related to other professions. The obvious one is the Surgeon.

But, given that the Social Mobility Commission’s report also warns of the dangers of our current funding climate…

…I couldn’t help but be drawn to one of the other types of leaders mentioned by HBR, the Soldier. 

There are many in the profession, mainly those on the standard rather than leadership scale, who worry that the financial challenges facing schools will be  (or indeed, already are) a ‘Trojan Horse’ for an assault on the pay and conditions of service for teachers, particularly those at the upper pay scale whose vast experience means that they are not cheap, who appear to be victims of the fetishisation of ‘dynamic’ (read ‘biddable’?) youth and who perhaps push back against the ‘innovative’ practices much cherished of school leaders determined to ‘make their mark’ as quickly as possible. 

But, even taking all of that deeply depressing educational leadership context into account (and glossing over the limitations of the HBR report somewhat), how on earth does a school and a school leadership team get to the position where they think that a 90% teacher attrition rate over only a two year period is ethical, permissible, sustainable or purposeful? How can they not have thought “if 9 out of every 10 teachers is underperforming, perhaps it is an institutional rather than an individual problem?  How could the governance of a school allow that to happen unchecked?  How could external agents of accountability not have it appear on their radars and act upon it? How could the unions of one of the most unionised professions in the country not respond to protect their members’ interest?  And how on earth can this make its way into a report into social mobility without someone thinking “this can’t be right and we can’t be seen to validate this by including it”. 

I have three levels of problems with this all-too-familiar approach to human resource management (emphasis on ‘resource’ for this school, clearly). 

The first is at a human scale. What on earth kind of damage has been done to the 61 teachers who were euphemistically “moved on” (note here that the report’s authors echo the words of the school)?  How many of them suffered psychological harm in the process?  How many of them suffered reputational harm at the outcome? How many are suffering financial harm because of the impact on their future employability after this ‘moving on’?  Most importantly, how many of them can any of us truly believe deserved such an ignominious fate at the hands of a clearly rampant leadership team?
The second layer of problems I have is about the school itself. What messages has this mass sacking (oops, sorry, ‘moving on’) sent to the children in their care about how we treat one another in the face of adversity?  What messages has it sent them about their own underperformance and how it will be tackled by their school’s leaders and, for that matter, society at large?  What does it mean for their own attitudes, both now with their own replacement (and presumably replaceable) teachers and in the future when they become leaders within organisations?  What has been lost to the school community with 61 teachers’ worth of experience and knowledge by a leadership with only 2 years of such experience and knowledge?

The third layer of problems I have with this mass sacking (let’s not grace it with the euphemism) of 61 professionals are systemic. At the time of a recruitment crisis, how many of these sacked teachers have left the profession?  How many have told anyone who listens to them that this is how our profession behaves and, in doing so, put them off joining it?  Most pertinently in the case of this case study appearing in this report, how many school leaders in the present and in the future will think that this is an acceptable way to treat people in our schools? How many will go on to see the phrase ‘moving people on’ as being all about moving them towards the exit door rather than being all about moving them forward through the provision of professional learning within a stable and secure professional environment? How normalised will such abnormal behaviour become and, as a result, how many people will be repulsed by the very thought of becoming a school leader?

The report itself acknowledges the importance of the “actions taken by schools” upon low income pupils, and its analysis is good. 

I can’t disagree that ‘school culture is important’, the need for ‘flexible’ intervention and the importance of recruitment of teachers, although I would also add that their retention, motivation and development are equally important. What I profoundly disagree with is that any of this can be achieved through actions such as those outlined by the school case study as it is unmediatedly transcribed by the authors: indeed the school goes on to talk about the problematic nature of recruitment in their area (hollow laughter greeted that in my home). And what I have no hesitation in saying is that to have to ‘move on’ a single teacher is a failure of leadership, let alone choosing to ‘move on’ ninety percent of a teacher workforce within the space of six terms. School leaders should be shoulder-to-shoulder with middle leader and classroom based colleagues in saying “we stand or fall as a team”.  The failure of one is the failure of all and the only way to turn such failure into success is through collaborative support and challenge: to each other and of ourselves. 

The HBR article recognised this and articulated the view that there was only one type of leader who managed to achieve long-term successes with schools (as opposed to the fly by night successes of Surgeons and Soldiers). 

The emphasis upon the school community and the need for the “right environment for its teachers” are striking, as is the long-termism of this kind of leadership orientation. The same emphasis is to be found in the Social Mobility Commission’s report. 

It is time to stop “perpetuating the injustices” that we hope to challenge and that starts with all of us standing up against blatantly bad practice and injustice wherever we see it, hear about it or read about it. That is the essence of this post. If we do not, then as well as giving up on teachers we are giving up on schools and the education system at large. In doing so we would be giving up on children and, because it is the way of these things that children from poorer backgrounds always get the worst of any deal (bad or good), giving up on the low income pupils at the heart of this report. 

There are two types of Surgeon Generals.  One of them, the compound of the HBR Surgeon and Soldier leaders, we need fewer of in education. It’s time to call their bad practices out and place them in the full glare of critical scrutiny. In this instance, the report’s authors should have sought conclusive evidence that sacking 90% of a school’s teachers has had a positive and sustained impact on the outcomes for students with no harmful side effects.  Without that assurance, such an obviously radical departure from the norm’s of good employment and school leadership practice should never have been allowed to see the light of day in a report this important for social mobility. 

Which brings me to the type of Surgeon General we do need in education, the kind that places health warnings on disturbing leadership practices whenever they appear in print. We would never allow cigarette manufacturers to write their own messages on their product’s boxes, so why would we let leadership practices that appear to have been scribbled on the back of a fag packet see the light of day in any academic paper or any report that comes with a government crest in its top left corner. 

Perhaps it’s time for a school leadership and educational academic kitemark to assure us that all published material that could promote certain leadership behaviours has been subjected to rigorous and critical peer review and scrutiny. Perhaps it’s time for any  school leadership claims made without this kitemark to be accompanied by a health warning that says “not supported by externally-validated evidence”. Until then, perhaps it’s time for all of us to dismantle the ‘fake news’ of leadership BS by donning the mantle of this second type of Surgeon General. After all, life is too short to put up with the first type of Surgeon General, and calling them out on their dodgy practices makes it worth living. 

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