Should Managers Tell Teachers What To Do? Part 1

December 7, 2015

Every so often, for example, when I point out how heads cannot be trusted with PRP or when I describe bad management or how common it is, somebody will accuse me of believing that teachers should not be controlled by their managers. The accusation is that, given my contempt for the obstructions some SMT put in the way of teachers, I am challenging their authority rather than their competence. At times this sort of comment has comes from those on the right of the political spectrum, particularly those who have never worked in the classroom, who assume that I am complaining only about the normal practices of the workplace rather than the particular sickness of the bureaucracies that run our schools, or that I am speaking from an ideological conviction that the worker (and particularly their union) is always right and the boss is always wrong and the balance of power needs to be shifted accordingly. At other times, the accusation has come from members of SMT who, having implemented some ambitious new system and boasted about it on social media, can’t understand why there has been a hostile reaction. There is often uncertainty about how free teachers should be to criticise SMT, even when it is not necessarily their own SMT.

Some time ago, this sort of debate was touched on by the following section in a speech by Michael Wilshaw:

So – if leadership and headship is so important, especially in an increasingly autonomous system, does it receive the necessary level of support? Do heads and school leaders have the legitimacy to manage in a way their colleagues in other professions do? How many teachers not only grumble about their managers’ decisions (which is natural) but also question their right even to make them?

This is partly historical. In the past, some local authorities not only didn’t care about installing good heads, they actively undermined them if they offended vested interests. This was certainly the case in the disastrous decades of the 70s and 80s.

Even today, too many teachers still think that school leaders do not have the right to tell them how to teach or what to do. The staff room, in their minds, is just as capable of deciding the direction a school should take as the senior leadership team.

Now, I accept that some SLTs are not as good as they could be. I accept that too many implement the latest management gobbledygook without thinking things through. But I’ve come to the conclusion that many of their efforts are undermined by a pervasive resentment of all things managerial.

Some teachers simply will not accept that a school isn’t a collective but an organisation with clear hierarchies and separate duties. While it’s true that we all share a common purpose, our responsibilities are not the same.

What’s worse, far too many school leaders seem to believe that they don’t have a right to manage, either. They worry constantly about staff reaction. They hold endless meetings to curry favour. They seem to think they cannot act without their employees’ approval.

Yes, you should consult with staff. Yes, you should explain. But never confuse consultation with negotiation. We must take the staff with us at all costs, the misguided say. No, you mustn’t. Not if it means leaving the children behind.

Although there’s contentious stuff here, and inevitably some of the news reports at the time focused on it, I’m not as hostile to everything that was said as some might assume. The best heads I have worked for have been authoritarian in some respects. One had even, as I understand it, been responsible for attempting to dismiss a union rep who had publicly denounced a recently introduced school policy and, despite my natural sympathies, I cannot find any reason to think they did the wrong thing. Heads who set the rules clearly and expect people to follow them are generally a good thing and far better to work for than the sort of heads who have to be second-guessed the whole time because their instructions are unclear, inconsistent or impossible to follow or their priorities are utterly obscure. Also, if power is to be exercised it should be exercised by the legitimate authority. A school I know (but didn’t work in) backed off from changing the length of its lunch break because of the objections of a union rep. To me, this is ridiculous. Unless there are serious workload implications then union reps need not be consulted over this sort of thing, let alone hold sway. Wilshaw has a point. The head is the boss. They should be willing to tell people what to do.

However, there has to be a qualification here. Bosses should be willing to tell people what to do up to a point. All but the most crazy of free market loons accept this principle. Even in jobs where obeying orders is utterly vital then you cannot be expected to comply if you are ordered to sleep with your line manager, chop off your left hand or commit a criminal offence. The question is: where the line should be drawn? What sort of instructions should managers give teachers? What mechanisms should be in place for enforcing those instructions? What is or isn’t reasonable for managers to demand? I will explore these issues in the next few posts.



  1. Leadership as a concept in education is most seductive to people who aren’t natural leaders and this weakness has filtered up through the entire system for decades now. Which is one reason why so many young, potentially good NQTs, find their own in-school mentors (leaders) for themselves, informally.

  2. I look forward to this series. It is an extremely relevant issue…to what degree should we follow instructions from those who do not even stick to their own policies…

  3. https://SLTchallenge.wordpress.com/

  4. Looking forward to it. I throw a few thoughts into the hat/ring/pot.

    1. That in approaching this question, we always need to distinguish clearly between ends and means. In my view, schools are given far too much autonomy on ends. It is not for service providers in any field to decide what the purpose of their service is or what their success criteria are. So I would be happy to see much more autonomy on means (which I would call pedagogy), given *less* autonomy on ends (which I would call curriculum). My definitions are not uncontentious, I know, but that I put down to the failure of everyone else to use terminology that makes clear the vital distinctions between ends and means.

    2. Power should go with accountability. Power without responsibility is, after all, the prerogative of the harlot. If the Head devolves power (i.e. autonomy) to the teacher, then what corresponding accountability is also devolved? At secondary level, students don’t normally get any choice about which teacher they have to listen to ad nauseam, but they or their parents do get considerable choice about which school they attend.

    3. True accountability ultimately comes down to the ability to sack people – this is true both of Heads and of classroom teachers. Without that power, the claim to authority is empty and the underling can normally defy the overling with impunity and the overling who exercises power in an arbitrary way can also get away with it. The legitimacy of the Head to wield power is dependent on the extent to which the Head is accountable in turn. The power to sack depends on the power to replace – and we all know that in very many schools, this power is limited, both in the case of Heads and teachers. That is where real accountability falls down.

    4. A sensible Head would give plenty of autonomy to teachers with respect to pedagogy so long as they performed well with respect to outcomes. The final problem here is that we are very bad at describing our educational objectives in clear and consistent ways. See the failure of levels and the failure to put anything sensible in their place.

    I know sound like a broken record, but the answer to all of these problems is tech.

    1. Good understanding of data (especially assessment results and analytics) can help us describe more clearly our educational objectives, allowing us to make a clearer distinction between pedagogy and curriculum (I am preparing a series of posts on this over Xmas, starting with an analysis of the very disappointing report from the Commission on Assessment without Levels).

    2. By automating those parts of education that can be automated (and there are plenty), tech-enhanced instruction can (a) reduce workload, reducing the number of teachers required (let’s be honest about what the “workload” rhetoric means); (b) can make working conditions more attractive, both for teachers and Heads, increasing the supply of well qualified people into the profession. Teaching will become a more desirable job, it will be easier to sack & replace bad teachers, and proper lines of accountability will then be respected.

    That’s my take. I look forward to reading yours, Andrew.

  5. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  6. […] argued previously that heads are entitled to tell teaching staff what to do, but that there had to be limits to this. […]

  7. […] the difficult decisions and field the flak (though Old Andrew raised some pertinent concerns in his recent posts regarding the freedom of managers to do as they please). But there is something wrong in such career […]

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