in Education

Politics: the biggest problem in education

The biggest problem in education is political interference in the work of classroom teachers. This post has been brewing for a while. One long-term influence is dissatisfaction with the current education system. This dissatisfaction is one of the reasons I entered the teaching profession in the first place, and also a reason I’m in favour of the Conservatives’ idea of independent state schools under the Swedish model. More short-term influences include Vicki Davis’ excellent blog post Administration Should Be Like The ‘Pit Crew’ and a meeting/confrontation I had today. As usual on this blog, I’m not going to mention where I work nor individual names there.

Although with the recent financial turmoil this is turning into a less illustrative example, the delegation of responsibility by the UK government to the Bank of England for some financial matters I see to be a great idea. It puts those with the greatest knowledge and experience in charge of something very important. Education, on the other hand, is a very party political matter with endless tinkering of the system to attempt to win the support of middle-class voters. I’m a believer in government being as small as possible: whilst the state needs to intervene in the ‘big picture’ of education, I think there are other organizations and bodies eminently more suitable to deal with assessment and examinations, for example.

Ever since the Conservatives introduced a free market into UK education in 1990, schools have become more and more like businesses. I’ve seen the good and bad side of this system. In 1990, the new rules allowed my parents to take me out of the local, very poor, middle school (at my request) and install me at a much better school. I’m not against parental choice, per se, but I’m certainly against the endless analogies and comparisons of schools to businesses. Educating children is not like making products to sell at a profit. Instead, I think a better model is schools as charities.

If schools were seen as charities they would be:

  • Independent
  • Able to raise money from various other organizations
  • Focused on process as well as results
  • Diverse in nature

The type of leaders needed in charities and NGOs are different from those required by business. I’m generalising monumentally here, but those at the helm of the former tend to have inspiration and drive quite unlike those in the latter group.

So those in charge in schools shouldn’t be good managers, they should be great leaders. Instead of flaunting their power within the ‘corporate hierarchy’ they should, as Vicki Davis states, support teachers – those on the front line:

To me, times are lean and mean.  The classroom should be like a well maintained car and administration should be like the pit crew. They should give the classroom the tools they need, encouragement, a mission, and quick “pit stops” to improve and keep them going…

If you’re not helping the cause of education, you’re hurting it.  And with times being tough, those who count themselves leaders need to take a hard look at their own rolls when asking teachers to make cuts.  For, to ask teachers to make sacrifices when you aren’t willing is unfair and breeds contempt.

Although I’ve been accused of it for the first time today, I’m not one for manipulating others and playing politics within my organization. Not at all: I’m there to make things better for the system – locally, nationally and internationally. The problem with a strictly hierarchical system is that it is nothing like a meritocracy. I’m certainly not questioning the overall ability of the senior management at my school, but I have felt, at times, and in my career overall, times when my ability as a professional to make decisions and put forward opinions has been undermined somewhat.

I’d like, as Vicki again mentions, school hierarchies to be as ‘flat’ as possible. Obviously, there’s a need for management. But now, more than ever, teachers need to be given freedom and be shown trust to exercise their professional judgement over issues affecting them. Not to do so would be to play politics for politics’ sake and to undermine potential educational experiences for a great number of children.

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  • http://fiendishlyclever.com/ fiendishlyclever

    Unfortunately as you move up the ladders of education you see more and more of politics. It’s impossible to get away from – everyone has their own ideas of what a good school should look like, and they canvas support from other staff to make it a reality. Not ideal but I can’t see it changing. (It’s one of the reasons I decided to postpone climbing the career ladder after my NPQH – I’m more interested in making a difference in the classroom at the moment).

    • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

      But that’s the problem, isn’t it? As you get older and have dependants, you need more income. Despite AST roles and so on, quickest route to that is to get *out* of the classroom and, unfortunately, into politics…

  • http://www.sheffnersweb.net/wordpress/ shefi

    “The biggest problem in education is political interference in the work of classroom teachers. ” ROFL!!
    “the delegation of responsibility by the UK government to the Bank of England for some financial matters I see to be a great idea. “LMFAO!!!!!!
    Here in Japan, the highschool boys actually wear a modified Prussian military uniform! So, even if you don’t know your history of compulsory education, the meaning of it is right there in front of your eyes!

  • http://www.fiendishlyclever.com fiendishlyclever

    Unfortunately as you move up the ladders of education you see more and more of politics. It's impossible to get away from – everyone has their own ideas of what a good school should look like, and they canvas support from other staff to make it a reality. Not ideal but I can't see it changing. (It's one of the reasons I decided to postpone climbing the career ladder after my NPQH – I'm more interested in making a difference in the classroom at the moment).

  • http://www.sheffnersweb.net/wordpress/ shefi

    “The biggest problem in education is political interference in the work of classroom teachers. ” ROFL!! “the delegation of responsibility by the UK government to the Bank of England for some financial matters I see to be a great idea. “LMFAO!!!!!! Here in Japan, the highschool boys actually wear a modified Prussian military uniform! So, even if you don't know your history of compulsory education, the meaning of it is right there in front of your eyes!

  • http://rsaeducation.wordpress.com Ian

    Interesting post, Doug.

    Just of the Politics of this rather than the politics for a second, I think the Conservative’s message of increasing school freedoms is an encouraging one for lots of the reasons you suggest. I will be keen to understand more about how it fits with the other part of their message which emphasises a traditional academic curriculum, and their desire to see what they see as ‘proven’ techniques implemented in all schools.

    • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

      Well obviously some of it isn’t going to mesh entirely. I would love to work in an ‘independent’ state school. Although ‘trust’ status, which is what my school is going for, should give a degree of that anyway!

  • http://rsaeducation.wordpress.com Ian

    Interesting post, Doug. Just of the Politics of this rather than the politics for a second, I think the Conservative's message of increasing school freedoms is an encouraging one for lots of the reasons you suggest. I will be keen to understand more about how it fits with the other part of their message which emphasises a traditional academic curriculum, and their desire to see what they see as 'proven' techniques implemented in all schools.

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  • Anonymous

    I’ve heard recommendations that schools be run more like business to improve accountability and increase efficiency. These are not bad initiatives, but they are not the best characteristics that the free-market business world has to offer.

    Successful businesses have to stay tightly focused on their core mission to continue making money. Traditionally in the U.S., public schools have not been required to focus so tightly on a single goal in order to retain market share. This is slowly changing as open-enrollment and tuition vouchers gain in popularity.

    A public school must distinguish itself from competitors in order to stay viable (one of the largest districts in Arizona, USA, nearly closed four elementary schools this year because of low enrollment).

    The short description of the process for a school distinguishing itself comes from Jim Collins’s book “Good to Great.” First, find the single common answer to three questions: 1. What are we deeply passionate about? 2. What can we do better than anyone in the world? 3. What drives our economic engine? Then, make everything your school does work toward that goal.

    • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

      That’s true, Joel – great businesses are focused on customer satisfaction anyway. The problem comes when students have been brainwashed by the media/parents to think that grades (i.e. the outcome) are more important that the process of learning. :-(

      • Anonymous

        I wouldn’t blame the brainwashing on media/parents. The blame should rest on educators who have failed to make promises they can keep (or make any promises at all). Teachers have failed to define a compelling purpose/vision for education in our society, so others have stepped in to cast their own vision.

        If we don’t like the story being told about education, then we need to tell a different story.

        • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

          Yes, Joel, but you’re treating teachers as professionals who work together.
          By and large, they don’t. What goes on in each classroom is varied and
          disparate. We need teachers to come together more to claim that vision and
          provide a grassroots alternative.

  • http://joelzehring.edublogs.org/ Joel Zehring

    I've heard recommendations that schools be run more like business to improve accountability and increase efficiency. These are not bad initiatives, but they are not the best characteristics that the free-market business world has to offer.Successful businesses have to stay tightly focused on their core mission to continue making money. Traditionally in the U.S., public schools have not been required to focus so tightly on a single goal in order to retain market share. This is slowly changing as open-enrollment and tuition vouchers gain in popularity.A public school must distinguish itself from competitors in order to stay viable (one of the largest districts in Arizona, USA, nearly closed four elementary schools this year because of low enrollment).The short description of the process for a school distinguishing itself comes from Jim Collins's book "Good to Great." First, find the single common answer to three questions: 1. What are we deeply passionate about? 2. What can we do better than anyone in the world? 3. What drives our economic engine? Then, make everything your school does work toward that goal.

  • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

    But that's the problem, isn't it? As you get older and have dependants, you need more income. Despite AST roles and so on, quickest route to that is to get *out* of the classroom and, unfortunately, into politics…

  • Rim D Timber

    Interesting blog Doug.
    I can see how you can make the system better locally and if you have great influence nationally, could you run past me how you are making thigs better internationally?

    • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

      I’m in contact with many educators around the world, and if you look at the map to the right, many people read this blog. There’s a global network of educators. If I (we) can use that as a force for good, *that’s* what I mean by ‘making things better internationally’… :-)

  • Teacher24

    Many educators I know try to stay away from the politics but unfortunately sometime you do get caught up in it when decisions are being made etc. In my situation it depends on the Superintendent and what their objectives are. Schools are not businesses. We have a job to do but we are not running a company. Adjustments need to be made daily for our customers- students, parents, and families. It is not about us as administrators and teachers , it is about our costomers Without them, we wouldn’t have our schools. It take management but in a very different developmmental appropriate caring way to eduate and learn. Learning is the only goal.

    • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

      Exactly. Attitudes and beliefs are more important than track records, IMHO. I don’t care *how* many years’ experience you’ve got ‘running’ things, if you don’t believe in learning being the top priority.

  • Rim D Timber

    Interesting blog Doug.I can see how you can make the system better locally and if you have great influence nationally, could you run past me how you are making thigs better internationally?

  • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

    Well obviously some of it isn't going to mesh entirely. I would love to work in an 'independent' state school. Although 'trust' status, which is what my school is going for, should give a degree of that anyway!

  • Teacher24

    Many educators I know try to stay away from the politics but unfortunately sometime you do get caught up in it when decisions are being made etc. In my situation it depends on the Superintendent and what their objectives are. Schools are not businesses. We have a job to do but we are not running a company. Adjustments need to be made daily for our customers- students, parents, and families. It is not about us as administrators and teachers , it is about our costomers Without them, we wouldn't have our schools. It take management but in a very different developmmental appropriate caring way to eduate and learn. Learning is the only goal.

  • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

    That's true, Joel – great businesses are focused on customer satisfaction anyway. The problem comes when students have been brainwashed by the media/parents to think that grades (i.e. the outcome) are more important that the process of learning. :-(

  • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

    I'm in contact with many educators around the world, and if you look at the map to the right, many people read this blog. There's a global network of educators. If I (we) can use that as a force for good, *that's* what I mean by 'making things better internationally'… :-)

  • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

    Exactly. Attitudes and beliefs are more important than track records, IMHO. I don't care *how* many years' experience you've got 'running' things, if you don't believe in learning being the top priority.

  • http://fiendishlyclever.com/ fiendishlyclever

    Of course leaders are going to be paid more – if they weren’t where would be the incentive to move up. If the quickest way to more money was to stop in the classroom we wouldn’t have anyone taking responsibility for the collective actions of the staff.

    I wouldn’t say it’s out of the classroom unless you are a non-teaching head. I would say that your priorities change when you enter leadership and that you have less time to devote to your teaching.

    The resulting situation is only a problem if your leader’s vision, ideals and strategies are different from your own. Reading between the lines I’d say that is the case where you work – I’m fortunate that it isn’t in my school.

    I do think that your viewpoint changes as you move up the school and understand more of the challenges that schools face. NPQH was a real eye-opener for me (that and having a sister who is a head), and I’ve never viewed school leadership in the same light since.

    • Anonymous

      Is it possible that we ask school principals (“heads” in UK?) to do too much? Managers do not usually make the best visionaries.

      Additionally, I believe effective, powerful vision is not the edict of an administrator, but the result of a careful process of individual, small group, and whole-school examination where teachers, support staff, and admins answer those three questions I mentioned previously.

      Good vision is always rooted in reality, and a large chunk of school reality is the classroom. We need teachers to bring their experience and passion to the vision discussion if we want them to buy in.

    • Scarter

      I think I have come to the spot as a superintendent where I am going to put less effort into changing the current system, and all the teachers, to meet the needs of a 21st century learners. My efforts are now shifting to developing a parallel system within the public system that is less teacher centric and more technology driven. My hope is that over time more students will choose the new system and the old one will die from lack of demand. additional benefits are that , as Jim Collins would say, I get to choose who is on the bus right from the start.

      • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

        I’m intrigued and would love some more detail on how you’re going to
        do that! Are you a Head? I’m all for teachers ‘buying in’ to a system
        because they see the merits of it, but you need the right people in
        your core team from the start. :-)

      • Anonymous

        Jim Collins! Yeah! We don’t talk enough about “Good to Great” on this big, bad edublogosphere.

        Technology-driven? I’m not convinced technology is a sufficient foundation for an educational system. If we stay true to the “Good to Great” principles, then tech is an accelerator in turning the fly-wheel. We still need people (teachers, staff, admins, etc.) that practice disciplined thought and disciplined action to drive an organization toward achieving a great goal.

        Oh yeah, we also need a great goal. I haven’t seen one of those in education yet. I’ve only been in the game five years, though.

  • http://www.fiendishlyclever.com fiendishlyclever

    Of course leaders are going to be paid more – if they weren't where would be the incentive to move up. If the quickest way to more money was to stop in the classroom we wouldn't have anyone taking responsibility for the collective actions of the staff.I wouldn't say it's out of the classroom unless you are a non-teaching head. I would say that your priorities change when you enter leadership and that you have less time to devote to your teaching.The resulting situation is only a problem if your leader’s vision, ideals and strategies are different from your own. Reading between the lines I'd say that is the case where you work – I'm fortunate that it isn't in my school. I do think that your viewpoint changes as you move up the school and understand more of the challenges that schools face. NPQH was a real eye-opener for me (that and having a sister who is a head), and I've never viewed school leadership in the same light since.

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  • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

    Yes, Joel, but you're treating teachers as professionals who work together.By and large, they don't. What goes on in each classroom is varied anddisparate. We need teachers to come together more to claim that vision andprovide a grassroots alternative.

  • http://joelzehring.edublogs.org/ Joel Zehring

    Is it possible that we ask school principals (“heads” in UK?) to do too much? Managers do not usually make the best visionaries.Additionally, I believe effective, powerful vision is not the edict of an administrator, but the result of a careful process of individual, small group, and whole-school examination where teachers, support staff, and admins answer those three questions I mentioned previously.Good vision is always rooted in reality, and a large chunk of school reality is the classroom. We need teachers to bring their experience and passion to the vision discussion if we want them to buy in.

  • http://joelzehring.edublogs.org/ Joel Zehring

    I wouldn't blame the brainwashing on media/parents. The blame should rest on educators who have failed to make promises they can keep (or make any promises at all). Teachers have failed to define a compelling purpose/vision for education in our society, so others have stepped in to cast their own vision.If we don't like the story being told about education, then we need to tell a different story.

  • Scarter

    I think I have come to the spot as a superintendent where I am going to put less effort into changing the current system, and all the teachers, to meet the needs of a 21st century learners. My efforts are now shifting to developing a parallel system within the public system that is less teacher centric and more technology driven. My hope is that over time more students will choose the new system and the old one will die from lack of demand. additional benefits are that , as Jim Collins would say, I get to choose who is on the bus right from the start.

  • http://dougbelshaw.com Doug Belshaw

    I'm intrigued and would love some more detail on how you're going todo that! Are you a Head? I'm all for teachers 'buying in' to a systembecause they see the merits of it, but you need the right people inyour core team from the start. :-)

  • http://joelzehring.edublogs.org/ Joel Zehring

    Jim Collins! Yeah! We don't talk enough about “Good to Great” on this big, bad edublogosphere.Technology-driven? I'm not convinced technology is a sufficient foundation for an educational system. If we stay true to the “Good to Great” principles, then tech is an accelerator in turning the fly-wheel. We still need people (teachers, staff, admins, etc.) that practice disciplined thought and disciplined action to drive an organization toward achieving a great goal.Oh yeah, we also need a great goal. I haven't seen one of those in education yet. I've only been in the game five years, though.

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  • http://sain-web.com Traveller

    Great post, really help me alot. Thanks.

    Cheers,
    Blog Review