Every public service organisation has the potential to forget its purpose – working for the people who use its services – and instead being run for the benefit of those who work for or lead it. This happens in poor services through incompetence or laziness, but it also happens in high performing services, which get seduced by their own reflection.
The recent scandal of St Olave’s school, found to be unlawfully expelling sixth formers whose first year results looked like they might bring down the school’s A level results and threaten its league table position, is an example of this phenomenon. This was a state school, spending public money, which was lauded as one of the best, but which was in fact becoming in some ways one of the worst: wilfully failing and damaging young people at a crucial time in their education. This now appears to have been the practice of a number of ‘top-performing’ schools, who presumably shared the view that their league table success, and accolades for their leaders, outweighed the importance of harming those pupils seen as inconvenient. Arguably, this ‘wheat from chaff’ view of children is just a reflection of a wider crisis of values within the education system, with its lingering fondness for selective schools.
The school system has some features of which make this ‘high-performance failure’ more likely. The head teacher and the education system places huge value on the ‘heroic leader’, with ‘super heads’ wielding unchecked power. 2016 Harvard Business Review research looking at hundreds of heads showed that the most lauded head teachers, who made dramatic short term gains in academic performance, often through excluding more pupils, left no lasting legacy of success, but probably a trail of destruction as they removed ‘problem’ pupils and staff who disagreed).
Governing boards can lack real power, with parental voice limited or non-existent. Despite talk of empowering pupils, the focus of most school policies is on their compliance to rules set by others. An extreme example of this was circulating the internet today: the behaviour policy of an academy school, which, whilst clearly starting with the laudable aim to raise young people’s level of ambition (speaking clearly and confidently in full sentences, for instance) had strayed into an Orwellian nightmare: shy pupils could expect to be punished for speaking too quietly (city hypothetical future job interviews, this would make them appear ‘not that bright’) or even failing to smile enough, which was ‘ungrateful’ and ‘negative’. Despite glib slogans about how successful this would make children (“We’re Charter. We’re smarter”), it’s hard to see what leadership or creativity skills could be learned from being subject to such a monoculture.
This is partly a product of the gap between simplistic notions of success and quality in the education system, and what makes a diverse group of children not just as academically successful as they can be, but also as happy, kind and resilient – which are outcomes either unmeasured or which take second place to results. We also see this gap in adults’ services which are ‘high-quality’ but fail to help people achieve wellbeing or build resilience.
One feature of those organisations which lose sight of their values through their success, rather than through failing, is that they tend to be big. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the least human-seeming schools are large secondary schools, not primary schools which tend to be much smaller. As a school becomes academically successful, it may well take in other schools, or become part of an academy chain, taking its leaders further away from the children and young people from whose success their elevated status derives.
I wouldn’t want my kids to go to a school with no grip on behaviour. But a school which rates them only in terms of their compliance to a narrow regime would be failing to see their whole potential: perhaps as people who could help to shape or share responsibility for building a community. The HBR research found that the best long term results came from ‘architects’ who saw the school as part of a wider community which would take time to build, and could only build itself, not be fixed from outside. These ‘humble’ leaders were the least likely to win awards and honours, but their legacies saw the best academic and financial results. In our sector, we might describe them as taking an asset-based approach, embracing coproduction and being willing to move slowly to begin with, to move fast later on.
I rarely blog about education, or children’s services, because, as some of readers may point out shortly, I don’t know anything about them. The divide between children’s and adults’ services is wide and hard to bridge. It’s increasingly apparent, however, that different generations can support and learn from each other, whether through intergenerational Homeshare living, or nurseries co-locating with care homes. So, as we grow Shared Lives support for young disabled people and for care leavers, I wonder what our respective sectors could learn from each other.