Why education is 'riding the tiger'


The Chinese idiom ‘riding a tiger’ relates to being stuck in a difficult position with no way out. Bruce Sheppy, Paul Evans and Bryan McIntosh discuss why this might apply to political leadership in education.

In many ways, prime minister Cameron’s coalition government is “riding a tiger” in relation to change, leadership and education.

This is part of the on-going change process whereby major structural, policy, financial and managerial reforms are continually initiated in order to promote competition, provide enhanced performance information, and to create a new educational paradigm.

The previous New Labour government’s policies placed increased pressure on school leadership through its endorsement of a quasi-market system that encouraged co-operation, diversity and choice (Exworthy & Halford, 2002 & Boyce et al, 2003).

However publications such as Initial Training of Further Education Teachers (Ofsted, 2010) and more recently Skills for Sustainable Growth (BIS, 2012) have all stressed revised training protocols and standards, quality assurance mechanisms and performance management at both instructional and at an administrative level, which has raised questions as to whether the collective needs of students are being met.

Traditionally, administration in education has been the management of structures and processes around instruction and not the management of instruction itself (Elmore, 2000 & Lucas, Nasta & Rogers, 2011). The current government’s ongoing reforms has further informed professional autonomy and transformed accountability within the profession through devolution of power and authority (IPP, 2012).

These tensions within management, especially with relation to performance concerning results and league tables, are evidenced by the Ofqual report in November into the GCSE English grading issue, which suggested pressure created by performance measures created perverse incentives to significant over-marking of controlled assessments to meet grade boundary targets.

Fundamental changes in the organisation of the educational system have moved from what was a “loose-coupled”, fragmented system to an integrated control system based on classroom activity, which was previously under the independent control of the professional teacher.

This system proposes that because teachers are competent professionals, they should be sole custodians of the profession with limited to no interference. Principals had limited involvement in improving instructional effectiveness but were rather focused on education management (Riley, 2003; Timperley, 2005).

As Hatcher (2005) argues: “Government is engaged in a profound transformation of the school system from a social democratic to a neoliberal system whose primary objective is the production of human capital for economic competitiveness. This in turn requires the replacement of the old bureaucratic-professional system of management by a regime of performativity.”

This transformation has produced a drive towards standards-based reform by inspection, and performance management leading to school-level accountability, and requires significant changes in leadership and management styles to give effect to that policy.

However there are two further and distinct challenges facing education, the first is financial (both for the student and the institution), the second is an equal and opposite pressure of expectation that education be viewed as an agent of social transformation.

This requires a shift in attitudes and organisational culture within the profession and an increasing requirement for the management of cultural change in institutions to meet the needs of the external and internal stakeholders.

The administrative superstructure has tended to buffer the potentially weak technical core of teaching from external scrutiny and there are now fundamental questions about teachers’ roles as professionals, and principals’ roles as leaders and managers of education institutions.

Unfortunately, given the almost “revolutionary” nature of reform, there is also the need for rapid change – despite the historical “cultural” entrenchment of the established way of doing things. This presents educational leadership with a unique set of challenges. The education secretary Michael Gove in June 2011 in an address to the National College for School Leadership suggested “empowering school leaders to innovate” by “handing you control of the education system … set free from bureaucratic control”.

This devolution of power and authority with a commitant change in role suggests a requirement for new leadership and managerial skills paradigm. The previous Labour government stressed the transformational role of a principal as a “leader of leaders” whereby teachers were presented as leaders in the classroom led by principals of schools.

Research from diverse countries has confirmed the role of leadership in securing development and change and hence influencing the effectiveness of education delivery and the achievement of students, but argues that contemporary leadership models are limited in their ability to explain school and classroom level change.

Apart from managerial skills, principals have therefore been expected to master skills and knowledge ranging from leadership and political expertise to deal with community demands, to instructional roles to managers dealing with finance, contracts, and operations.

The differentiation between leaders and managers suggests different sets of behaviours and characteristics with an emphasis on the notion of contrasting free will relationships with followers versus contracts with subordinates. Also policy is often not predicated on the successful application of leadership principles, but rather through a range of regulatory and performance management mechanisms to ensure compliance. The leader therefore has to work effectively within this policy “scaffold”.

However, there are further difficulties with this requirement as leadership is informed both by the resources of the organisations they lead and by the focus towards leadership “orthodoxy” concerned with the capabilities of an individual (Elmore, 2000), as opposed to transformational leader “outputs”.

This presents a unique and pressing challenge in relation to leadership; however how this response is framed is a challenge within itself. The reality of a ready supply of strong leaders with a capability of providing epistemological and pedagogical excellence and direction to their charges and faculty, who are also capable of transforming failing schools, marketing their “product”, managing micro and macro stakeholders, all while dealing with day-to-day routines, is a fallacy.

The real challenge facing educational leadership is to involve stakeholders fully and without bias in this process while being pragmatic enough to develop ideas, theories and techniques that practically deliver within a constantly changing external environment. 

  • Bruce Sheppy and Bryan McIntosh are associate professors at Richmond University, The American International University in London. Paul Evans is the Director of Programmes at BPP University College, London.

  • BIS (2010) Skills for Sustainable Growth, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
  • Boyce, G, Farrell, C, Law, J, Powell, M & Walker, R (2003) Evaluating Public Sector Reforms. Open University Press, Buckingham.
  • Elmore, R (2000) Building a New Structure for School Leadership, The Albert Shanker Institute.
  • Exworthy, M & Halford S (2002) Professionals and the New Managerialism in the Public Sector, Open University Press, Buckingham.
  • Hatcher, R (2005) The Distribution of Leadership and Power in Schools, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 26 (2).
  • IPP (2012) Professionalism in Further Education, Interim Report of the Independent Review Panel Established by the Minister of State for Further Education, March 2012.
  • Lucas, N., Nasta, T. And Rogers, L (2011) From Fragmentation to Chaos? The regulation of initial teacher training in further education, British Educational Research Journal, Routledge, London
  • Riley, K (2003) Democratic Leadership – A Contradiction in Terms? Leadership and Policy in Schools, 2 (2).
  • Timperley, H (2005) Distributed Leadership: Developing Theory from Practice, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 37 (4).


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