Unstoppable Forces

If, say, one hundred headteachers in a town or city wanted to stand up for something reasonable, I don’t think anything could stop them. 

The power of collective action is clear. I don’t need to belabour that. Yet this level of unity is rare – believe me, I never really managed to generate it when I worked for a union. So, the more interesting question is ‘What are the barriers to unified action among school leaders?’ I count six main ones:

  • The fear of defection – people drop out of a cause because they fear other people will drop out of the cause, causing a spiral of collapse. 
  • Competition for resources – particularly funding and pupil numbers, but also attention. 
  • Freeriding – if someone else is campaigning for something, you can let them do the work without sticking your head over the parapet. 
  • Isolation – heads are busy; they may not know what others are thinking or doing. There may not be one hundred heads nearby. 
  • Divide and conquer – opponents of the action can offer incentives or threats to individual members to split them off. 
  • Genuine disagreement – heads think for themselves and naturally have very different views on what is the right thing to do. This is also a reason to work in smaller groups. 

All these are common forces. From my experience, the fear of defection is the most common barrier. For example, targets are often set initially to some reasonable level. If everyone aimed for that level, everything would be manageable. But the fear that the school down the road will go that little bit higher drives you to do the same thing. And, of course, the school down the road fears that you will do the same thing. Straight away, we get into an ‘arms race’ where everyone strives not to be last and which drives staff and students to exhaustion. 

A particular example of this is the way school leaders often seem to accidentally endorse and amplify the accountability regimes they suffer under. The Ofsted banner on the gates, for example. I’m sure that many would be happy to ditch that, but they would want to be confident that everyone was doing the same thing. 

Mutual trust is the start of unity. If a group of school leaders wanted to increase their ability to act collectively, they would do well to develop procedures around:

  • Total transparency – the equivalent of arms inspection treaties, so you can be sure that colleagues are honouring commitments. 
  • Mutual defense – a protocol to come to the aid of any school suffering difficulties or threats. Tricky inspection? Suddenly there are a dozen colleagues at your door. A sudden key resignation – a secondment is immediately available. 
  • A process for sharing resources equitably and resolving conflicts between schools. 
  • Moderate aims that command the consent of the majority. 
  • Regular communications and contact, including noticing and reaching out to colleagues who ‘disappear’ from discussions and meetings due to workload and pressure. 
  • A requirement of collective responsibility, so that everyone who benefits from the actions of the group publicly endorses the group. 

Put another way: all schools must care about the results of each school, and no school can regard itself as successful if a neighbour is failing.

These are classic problems of collective action, explored by activists, organisers and trade unionists through the centuries. They are classic problems because they are hard to crack. They require long, slow investment to build trust and habits. Unflinching solidarity can be a harsh discipline. Maybe start on something small and relatively uncontroversial to build confidence. 

Beyond unity, heads are also most influential when they are seen to act in the interests of children and young people. Everything should be about the students, not you. You do work hard under enormous pressure, but that doesn’t motivate the wider public or colleagues. In the long run is no greater asset than a just cause. 

Derek, a former colleagues of mine at NAHT, beloved of north London school leaders, once described a head teacher’s authority as a stool with three legs. When all three legs are strong, you can stand firm. When one leg is weak, the authority starts to wobble too.  

Heads are therefore also most secure when they have the enthusiastic backing of three groups: parents, staff and governors. A leader with these three firmly behind them can weather a great deal of controversy and conflict. Any group of heads looking to extend their influence should consider working closely with each of these groups. 

A unified body of schools leaders acting in pursuit of a just and moderate cause is an unstoppable force. This unity is precious and fragile, however. It must be nurtured through transparency, conflict resolution and mutual support. It can be amplified by working with the right allies. 

The education system will not inevitably be different after Covid-19. I think we’ll be shocked by how quickly things snap back to ‘normal’. In fact, we’ll welcome some of that normal – like the sound of children in the corridors be playgrounds. So if you want something to change, you will need to work for it and, given the forces inertia, you will need to work together to succeed. Unity is the essential ingredient of a different future. 

By Russell Hobby

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