brutal – and unworkable

This morning @HeatherBellaF posted an example on Twitter of what the principal of a high profile ‘flagship’ academy called her “direct style of management”. @HeatherBellaF’s comment was “Flippin’ heck! Brutal!”

In her first week at the academy, the principal says she asked the senior leadership team to “list those who they thought were inadequate teachers”. The names of almost a third of the 60+ teachers at the school came up. (We’re not told if the list included any of the senior leadership team.) A frank interview with each member of staff on the list followed. Within a year almost all had left.

Tales of ‘new brooms’ are a popular feature of management periodicals. Typically they mention the unsentimental removal of ‘dead wood’, the introduction of ‘new blood’ and the organisation in question being ‘turned around’ as a consequence. Such strategies are sometimes necessary, but most chief executives of private companies the size of the academy in question would think long and hard before replacing a third of their workforce in the space of a few months.

Private companies have responsibilities towards several groups of people. Shareholders, who provide capital; customers, the main source of income; their workforce, who enable them to operate; and taxpayers, who provide the infrastructure the company needs to function. All those groups of people need to be kept happy, or things go badly wrong. If a lot of shareholders sell their shares the company could go under; if customers go elsewhere, income dries up; if there’s high staff turnover productivity plummets; and if the firm avoids paying taxes the national infrastructure can suffer – and then everybody suffers.

For a private company, the strategy adopted by the academy principal would be a risky one. Leaving aside issues like whether senior managers would comply, the impact on the remaining staff or the union’s view, the outcome is unpredictable. In a best case, all those listed might see the error of their ways and pull up their socks and their performance. At the other extreme, all the staff in question might exit ASAP. That could be a problem for a medium-sized private company, because replacing staff costs money and time. Productivity and cashflow could suffer during those few months and if the company was struggling financially anyway, it could be the last straw. So most managers would adopt this approach only as a last resort, or would make sure the company could survive a few turbulent months before grasping the nettle.

Traditionally, state schools haven’t had to worry about the impact of recruitment costs on cashflow because they’ve had LEAs to fall back on, though questions would have been asked about a secondary school with a 30% staff turnover. But for a showcase academy, stumping up the cash to make sure teachers are top-notch and on message isn’t only good for the kids, it’s a sound marketing strategy.

The market economy model adopted by successive UK governments assumes that competition is a good thing because it fosters excellence. What this model conveniently overlooks is that the private sector looks healthy because we see only the companies that survive; not the 50% that don’t make it through the first three years. It also overlooks the fact that private companies can do whatever it takes to make a (legal) profit; if a particular type of customer isn’t profitable, the company can change its target demographic – unlike public education, health and social care that have to provide services for everybody.

It’s possible that all the teachers deemed ‘inadequate’ were simply not suited to that particular challenging academy and that the principal was right when she calmed her ‘moral qualms’ by hoping that the teachers who moved on would “succeed in a smaller, more orderly school”. That’s possible, but what if every ‘challenging’ school did the same? And what about the teachers who left having been told that “you (sic) have been identified by the leadership team as inadequate”?

Teacher training, recruitment and professional development are funded by all of us and it’s in all our interests to ensure that that investment is a productive one. The strategy of replacing teachers who are not up to the task might benefit a particular school, but the cost is borne by the community. So is the cost of another school recruiting them. So are the costs of teachers leaving the profession because having heard that they, personally, have been deemed inadequate has prompted them to think that making the ‘right decision about their career’ is to get out of teaching.

Many private companies, given the opportunity to replace ‘inadequate’ staff at no cost, would do so in a heartbeat because that would likely result in a rapid, substantial improvement in performance. So although the academy’s human resources management approach was effective, it was effective only because the costs were passed on to others, notably taxpayers. And the strategy won’t scale up; it will be effective for a few early adopters, but the pool of superlative teachers willing and able to work in a challenging school and have frank conversations with the principal isn’t a bottomless one.

It might have been more cost-effective in the long-term to have put in place a robust training programme that enabled the ‘inadequate’ teachers to become ‘adequate’. Or even ‘outstanding’.

This approach to teacher recruitment and retention isn’t just brutal – it’s unworkable.

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