An accident waiting to happen?

Written by: David Dixon | Published:
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Are we sleep-walking into privatisation? Are we as school leaders complicit? David Dixon fears the state system may collapse under the weight of its own complexity and bureaucracy

In my first headship in 1995, I first encountered grant maintained (GM) schools. My local colleagues were against them. This was in stark contrast to the heads in a neighbouring authority where they were able to expand their provision and improve their facilities due to a much more favourable funding formula.

This meant that middle class parents with their new rights of “choice”, voted with their feet and caused a pupil movement across the border to the “better” schools.

As a result, some of the secondary schools in my local authority withered as they leaked more academically able pupils and were left with higher proportions of “problem” SEND pupils. This was the precursor to the marketisation of education through the academy and free school programme that we have today. It also included Local Management of Schools (LMS).

Leading a school in London from 2011, I was shocked at how staff and children wasted resources. At the end of each term a large skip would arrive and so-called defunct equipment would be deposited in it. I took to climbing in it to retrieve items which could be repaired or utilised by others. This was the cause of much amusement for staff.

Doors would be left open and lights and unused computers left on with abandon and staff had the habit of going to meetings in taxis. Expensive agency supply staff were used instead of any attempt at internal cover.

It is time for a rethink.

I am advocating a fresh look at what the aims of education need to be as we enter a very unsure future. For example, should education merely serve the Neoliberal agenda of “raising GDP”, or should it pay more attention to other aspects of learning? By Neoliberal I also mean the belief in “small government, individual freedom of choice and out-sourcing of public services”. It should also involve a rethink of what resources schools consume and how staff are deployed.

Like the health service, education has succumbed to Managerialism – i.e. there are various layers of control which are above and beyond teaching and learning. For example, we have a proliferation of assistant heads, executive heads and other staff with “special responsibilities” for things such as data, welfare and behaviour. If some of these were stripped out and teachers were better trained and trusted would standards fall?

ICT in schools has burgeoned and become part of the “essentials” list when budgeting. But how far is this necessary? When I visit schools in France, their ICT provision is minuscule compared to ours, yet their basic standards are at least comparable.

LMS devolved most of the budget and a wide variety of administrative duties to schools. The early days of LMS were relatively straightforward as we “bought back” services exclusively from the local authority. It also provided a pool of supply teachers which was much more cost-effective than those on offer from the commercial agencies of today.

My long-serving business manager started out as the sole school secretary and admin person for a large infant school in the early 1980s. She answered the phone, did filing and typed the odd letter. In between this she would do some knitting. By the end of my headship she was managing an admin team of six and helping me to administer a budget of more than a £1 million.

Some schools constructed under the Building School for the Future (BSF) were poorly designed and built and are now becoming expensive to maintain. Many are very expensive to run in terms of energy consumption and maintenance contracts. All his undermines LMS philosophy.

We seem to be sleep-walking into privatisation. Some education leaders have been complicit in creating this situation. The heads who pushed for GM status were dazzled by the extra funding on offer, so were those who pushed for academy status. They were happy to go along with performance-related pay, extra managerialism and boosted personal salaries, particularly as executive headteachers. They were also happy to accept easily measurable outcomes and league tables as the crucial measures of success and to use this as a way of brow-beating teachers into compliance, which in turn contributed to teacher deprofessionalisation, workload and stress.

The historian Joseph Tainter says that societies eventually collapse under the weight of their own accumulated complexity and bureaucracy. One measure of increasing complexity is called Energy Return on Investment (EROI).

This refers to the ratio between the amount of energy produced by a resource relative to the energy needed to obtain it. If teachers spend all their energy jumping through hoops to obtain “approval” from a mechanistic system steeped in bureaucracy, then they have less energy to optimise the learning of their pupils. Similarly, education leaders are afflicted with diminishing returns related to top-heavy leadership teams, unnecessary bureaucracy and valueless meetings.

If teachers were more “professionalised” by having a wider range of knowledge and skills, then there is less need to monitor them and thus a whole raft of systems could be dispensed with. It should be remembered that the private sector has the real freedom.

Why not base the whole system on this private provision where there is more emphasis on personal development, sports, arts and entrepreneurship without the spectre of unnecessary managerial layers? This delivers the easily measurable as well as producing people who have the confidence and aspiration for life in our complex world.

Much of this is counter-intuitive, but you never know, it might actually be better and cheaper! We don’t have to simply accept the Invisible Hand of the Market. Let’s look for radical alternatives which confound neoliberal economics rather than pandering to it.

One definition of austerity is “the condition for living without unnecessary things”. An audit of these things in education might be just the ticket and by this process of elimination, we might highlight what is really essential.

  • David Dixon is a former headteacher (1995 to 2016), Doctorate in Education Leadership, consultant and researcher.


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