Is leadership actually a job for the boys?

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Bette Midler in the 1991 film For The Boys

Altruism has always been a problem of mine and I have to work hard to understand people, particularly teachers who don’t want to make a positive difference on the world around them. I do accept that, for some people, teaching is just a job and I respect that view. My most humble admiration is given to teachers who just want to teach, the people who spend 22 out of 25 hours a week at the chalkface. This is where the difference is made, not from the ivory towers of senior leadership which appears to be decorated in an abundance of non-contact time. I am a senior leader in a school, that is a fact, but I like to pride myself on never losing sight of what it’s like to be a classroom teacher.

For as long as I can remember, seeing the good in others and the desire to work toward a greater good has always been an overwhelming factor in my personal motivation. I guess my (generally) sunny disposition and positive outlook have made me somewhat blind to the prejudices and biases which exist or that I may have unwittingly experienced.  However, my ignorance as a result of personal outlook and experience does not mean that these biases do not exist. Furthermore, it is our role as gatekeepers of future generations to address the imbalances in opportunity which our students may encounter in their lives. Fortune may have favoured us but the children in our care may not have such a positive experience if we allow barriers to exist. This may also be the case for teachers in our care too.

Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion goes a long way to give psychological insight into why prejudices, social and cultural biases develop and grow. Some may conclude that I’ve led a life thus far of privilege, I have. I’m content and feel I’ve had a reasonably successful 36 years on this planet. However, birth rite and personal circumstance could have stacked the odds in favour of a different path. I was the original pupil premium poster girl and when I fill in an equal opportunities form I tend to run out of ink. A Venn diagram of all minority/disadvantaged groups that I could fit into would look like one of those magic eye puzzles which send your eyes funny.

I’m a passionate member of a teaching union and I am saddened that society is more increasingly adopting a self-first approach. The united we stand attitude is on the demise. I don’t agree with everything my union presents as members’ opinions, in fact some of the press releases from them drive me to distraction. There have been bad decisions made at times, which, we have to accept that all members have played a part in. Whether it be through lack of consideration of the matter at hand, abstinence or apathy. As with any high profile organisation, the media has played its part in painting a picture favoured by the direction of the political wind. What has been the result of bad publicity and decisions that have been controversial on its members? Some have chosen to leave, others to criticise publically, others privately, many perhaps to do nothing. Very few members attend regional or national meetings, participate proactively and try to influence change positively. Standing on the side-lines offering opinions, spouting evidence of why incorrect decisions have been made seems a much more favourable past time in society nowadays than actually rolling your sleeves up and mucking in to make things better.

So, let’s get to the point of my ramblings today. The College of Teaching and WomenEd seem to be getting a great deal of bad press on social media. From the off, there have been some damning criticisms of both (some of which have been valid and founded on sound evidence), the majority of which have failed offer any workable suggestions to improve these movements. I don’t know enough about The College of Teaching to give a balanced view so I’d rather focus on the WomenEd movement which I am happy to be part of. Let me be clear that I am not a man-hating feminist who longs for a world where female domination rules and men are no longer needed like in the Two Ronnies’ regular mini-series The Worm that Turned, nor do I agree with everything that is stated by the WomenEd movement. I do believe that, in essence, the ethos of the organisation is to make school leadership better (for both men and women). School leadership which puts the development of people first will surely create a better climate for everyone?
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Sometimes social media can be like a concert where the audience are heckling and chatting are so loud that it makes it difficult to focus on the performance. We’ve all been there, with a group of friends watching an artist whose material you’re unfamiliar with and you’ve only come for the company, so you choose to communicate with your group rather than listen to the person on the stage. Equally, I bet most of us have been on the flip side of that experience, you’ve got tickets to see your favourite artist and all through the gig there’s group of people spoiling it for you by talking and generally acting in a disruptive manner. Either way leads to frustration and an inability to form a balanced opinion of the gig itself.

The blogs and tweets that have been damning the WomenEd movement have been plentiful. They have caused the hairs on the back of my neck to bristle, not because of the male/female issue but more that they swiftly jump to discredit the work of people who want to make things better in an aspect of education which they feel passionate about. Initially these responses caused a knee-jerk reaction from me and I frantically scraped to find evidence to support my emotional response. Surely if I had facts to support my argument then obviously the people whose views I would be challenging would be proved wrong? Perhaps if I used statistical terms and words that would make them feel insecure in their own understanding they would realise the error of their ways and bow to my intellectual prowess? The more anecdotal evidence I found, the more I realised I was supporting precisely the cases I was trying to disprove but my experience of the world is very different to most of my counterparts in school leadership.

I’ve been doing more reading and listening than talking recently, particularly to those whose views may challenge my own. Thanks to David Didau, I’m beginning to entertain the notion that I could occasionally be wrong. David addresses the danger of cognitive bias brilliantly in his book What if everything you knew about education was wrong? and how we can always find evidence to support our own opinion. One of the most vocal critics of WomenEd has been Andrew Old, he has been clear to state that he does not oppose the movement, more the statistics that they have used to support their cause. He has written a series of blogs explaining his point of view here, here and here. This has, in turn, provoked a number of supporting blogs, one of the most recent being from Rory Gribell here. I have to say, I find myself agreeing with some of both bloggers’ points. However, the reality is that some women experience leadership that is very much a man’s world. Not just in respect to their movement into leadership but also in the way they are treated once they are there (and arguably the way in which they sometimes choose to perpetuate this with their own actions). My own observations (which obviously bare no weight because they are not in a table of numbers obtained under controlled conditions) are that leadership teams favour men because “we need good male role models in education”, of policies which favour the recruitment of males if both candidates score the same on interview points, of staff interacting very differently with male headteachers than they do female heads, of people in senior positions in the LA telling female headteachers that they are “beginning to look like a headteacher now”.  I have also experienced bad leadership from both women and men. This is something which the WomenEd movement is keen to prevent and address through better CPD but this honourable plight is being lost in the argument over numbers, facts and statistics. I don’t think anyone would disagree with a move to get school leaders to focus on what really matters? So let’s look at the cause of the outrage:

There is a smaller proportion of women promoted to leadership roles than men.

In an effort to discredit this claim there was a flurry of evidence to the contrary, the workforce survey taken from 2014 was banded about liberally. There was a drilling down of specific groups: primary and secondary etc. to further dismiss claims of imbalance. Then there was the ridiculous argument that leadership should reflect the school population rather than the teaching population, which in itself is an absurd example of how statistics can be used to mislead. Based on the workforce survey, the claims that Andrew makes are founded, however, the data is two years out of date. Maybe some more current data would be useful here since I have known a number of male senior leaders progressing further in the last couple of years and very few female senior leaders. However, I’m still inclined to believe that there are healthy numbers of women in senior leadership if I base my opinion on my own setting. We have a female headteacher (the only female headteacher appointment that I am aware of within our LA in the past twelve months), a senior leadership team that is weighted in favour of females to males 5:1 (including the head). So there isn’t a problem of women in leadership positions from where I’m sitting. Life is rosy. It’s those poor blokes I feel sorry for! However, I’ve said it before, the school I work in is different, very different. We are the anomaly in almost every case. We are unique. I would be a fool to think that we are an accurate representation of the male/female leadership population in secondary schools.

Then there’s the use of a credible organisation like the NASUWT to add support to the case made by both Andrew and Rory. A lovely table is used to show that there is very little difference between male and female promotions “up the leadership ladder”. Some of the examples in the table actually favour women! There’s a couple of issues with the data here: one is sample size, the other is relevance. For example, they found their mean average (which in itself would be a bad choice for the average here) of headteacher interviews attended before appointment from 24 male secondary heads and 27 female secondary heads. This in itself is not a useful sample size and could then beg the question is this a biased sample? What if female members of the NASUWT are more successful than the rest of us? Overall, the secondary sample was 319 for interview and 338 for application. On conservative estimates of my own local authority, we have 16 secondary headteachers and approximately 950 teaching staff, if we then look at all the LAs across the country we then realise that this sample size is not really a realistic representation of the picture. Then there’s relevance, Andrew states that the NASUWT did their survey a “few years back”, it was published in 2010 and copyrighted in 2008. The report is available via Andrew’s blog here if you find yourself encountering insomnia and in need of an alternative to counting sheep anytime soon. If you look back 6 – 8 years in your teaching career, I’m sure you’ll agree that a great deal has happened in that time and professional climate is pretty much unrecognisable from what it was then (the halcyon days where learning styles were still in fashion). Perhaps it would reasonable to challenge the data for its validity in this case? Prudence would suggest to step out of the greenhouse before throwing stones. My preference would be to put the stones down and get my hands dirty by influencing the plants’ growth in the right direction before passing judgement.

As much as it pains me to say it, I agree with the points Andrew makes in his latest blog Is promoting women really the issue? Data can sometimes send us in the wrong direction especially when we apply a whole-sale approach to subsets. David Didau articulates this beautifully in his recollection of the science teacher who continually disproves the SLT-identified issue with evidence to the contrary in What if everything you knew about education was wrong? Andrew sums up his blog by saying:

“Instead of setting up campaigns and organisations to advance the careers of ambitious women, how about we start looking to advance the interests and status of unpromoted classroom teachers, most of whom happen to be women? This should help narrow some of the gender gaps that do exist, but it might also help rebalance our schools, by encouraging less micromanagement, less bureaucracy and better teamwork.”

I find myself in complete agreement with him on raising the profile of the classroom teacher but surely the best way to address this is by having advocates for this movement in a position of influence? I would not describe myself as ambitious, I didn’t start my career wanting to be a headteacher and there’s a large part of me which questions whether I would ever want to be the skipper of a ship weighted with such responsibility. I never wanted to be anything more than a classroom teacher that prepared her students for life as best as she could. There have been points in my career where I understood the limitations of my influence and realised that if I wanted things to change I needed to be proactive and get in there with my sleeves rolled up influencing the change not standing on the side-lines shouting criticisms loudly.

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The truth is, I want to be part of a team investing in the solution not be part of the problem. I don’t have to agree with everything my captain says (I have often disagreed with my headteachers behind closed door) but I have to be proactive if I’m going to make a difference. The will be evidence to support inequality in school leadership, there will be evidence to contradict it. In spending all of our energies debating this we are focussing on the wrong things. Let’s just go to the gig, experience what we’ve come to see without interruption and form our opinions afterwards. Whether we like it or not, these organisations exist so let’s work together to make them better. Don’t stand on the side-lines, be part of a team.

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