In England, the tendency to identify leaders as a separate focus seems to me to have emerged as a direct result of the Education Reform Act in 1988. This legislation fundamentally altered the structure and processes of education and set them on a course towards marketisation, competition, and hyper-accountability. The role of head teachers altered in this evolving climate from ‘head’ teachers, towards those in charge of accountability and strategy. The move towards a quasi-market system, driven by accountability, reached a critical point with the introduction of a process called the Self-Evaluation Form (SEF) a process which compelled head teachers to collect a series of data sets to demonstrate to Ofsted (the schools inspectorate) that they were working efficiently and to full potential. Introduced in 2005, the SEF essentially turned the head teacher and their senior leadership team into an internal inspection team, leading to continuous surveillance, and in many cases, creating a fault line between leaders and teachers, the former the inspectors, the latter the inspected. To further emphasise the chasm between leaders and teachers, whilst the latter were given little in the way of major pay rises, or better working conditions, New Labour solidified the position of the former with big wage hikes, a clever way of tying them into the new accountability and leadership frameworks.
Higher education has followed a similar trajectory, with the creation of the ‘third-space’ of academic/professional managers leading to large central management teams which have become increasingly remote from academic departments. They have increasingly, as in schools, become focused on accountability, setting the strategic direction and making the important decisions within the university. With the introduction of the REF (Research excellence framework), and more recently the TEF (teaching excellence framework) and the KEF (knowledge exchange framework), senior leaders have plenty of data to work towards, increasingly driving the way they think and act. And increasingly, the work of academics and administrators becomes attuned to supplying the required activities and outcomes to feed these frameworks.
Obviously, some educational organisations have avoided the dichotomy of leaders and ‘others’, retaining a community approach to education, but this philosophy has slowly started to ebb away as older leaders retire and new individuals take their place, many of whom are more attuned to marketised and individualistic philosophies. Indeed, the situation is now such that those who do run their schools or universities in a democratic, community driven way are heralded as the experimental exception rather than the expected rule.
These changes have led to leaders as somehow being in the organisation, but also beyond it. This split has been further solidified by an educational research tradition which isolates and focuses on ‘leadership and management’ as a core issue considered in its own right. Yet elsewhere, whilst leaders are seen as crucial, they are also seen more as an embedded element of a wider narrative – the most obvious example being organisational sciences. But what is the result of focusing on leaders as in a sense ‘above’ the organisation within the research literature and the culture of many educational organisations?
In The Republic, Plato outlines the main features of a ‘utopian’ state which he names Kallipolis. This city is ruled over by the philosopher king, an individual who having been raised as a philosopher can see the world as it really is, the result of their wisdom and knowledge gained through their philosophical pursuit. Th e philosopher king has both the wisdom and the ethical responsibility to develop the strategies and make the decisions which lead and manage the city. Plato sees this as a selfless act, the philosopher king focusing all their energy on the successful running of the city. Sitting below the philosopher king are the guardians, the ‘enforcers’ of the policies and decisions made, acting as a police and military force. Finally, at the bottom of the hierarchy are the artisans, the ‘workers’ who are expected to discharge their artisanal skills to their best abilities but who cannot be trusted to make important decisions due to their predominantly experience-driven nature. This outline characterises a strict hierarchy, where important civic decisions are left to the individual who has the wisdom to make good and ethical decisions, decisions which are then enforced by the guardians who are fully beholden to the philosopher king. This leaves the artisans to carry out the wishes of the philosopher king, well trained, practical individuals who can carry out their duties with experience and skill, but who are trapped by their understanding of life through experience rather than wisdom and a philosophical view of the world. It might be argued that this same hierarchical view is now a characteristic of many educational organisations.
To what degree have educational leaders become philosopher kings? In universities, vice chancellors are often somewhat remote to the establishments they lead. Many spend much of their time surrounded by the upper-levels of management and administration (the guardians), deciding on policy, on strategy, reliant upon their ‘wisdom’ of the sector. They and the guardians then disseminate these insights and actions to the academics and administrators further down the organisational chain of command. This, in some cases, leads to decisions remote from the staff who are responsible for instigating them. In addition, where the wished-for outcomes are not forthcoming, the guardians are those who then ‘enforce’ the original decisions made by the vice chancellor.
A similar hierarchical process occurs in some schools and academy chains, in this case, the head teacher or CEO acting as the philosopher king, with the senior leadership team acting as the guardians. Teachers are the artisans, charged with making the decisions from above work. Their role is not to question, to suggest alternatives, as they do not have the wisdom or ‘true’ knowledge of the philosopher king.
It is important to recognise that this is a pattern which does not occur across the educational sector, there are other ways of working which occur in many schools. However, this is a pattern which occurs all too often. Is such an authoritarian system sustainable? And does the fixation with leadership in the educational research field help or hinder when considering how to develop sustainable organisations environments?
The main problem with an authoritarian view of leadership is that it rests on the assumption that a single person, or a small group of individuals, can control what happens in an organisation. As I outlined in an earlier post Streatfield (2001) argues that organisations are too complex and messy to allow for a single person to ‘control’ what happens across the piece. This means that those leading organisations need to be willing to relinquish some of their power, allowing others to have freedom and an ability to affect the running and direction of the organisation. This is what Streatfield calls the paradox of being in control and not being in control at the same time. This suggests the need to loosen the hierarchy, taking seriously the wide spectrum of other ways of running an organisation. Trying to run everything, trying to enforce particular ways of working unless agreed and embraced across an organisation, will only lead to conflict and trouble. Resistance can begin to build, often carried out quietly, but effectively, something I’ve referred to elsewhere as ‘zombie innovation’ (Wood, 2016: 34)
‘Another potential problem which can occur during a change process where teachers become the implementers but are not involved in the creation of the innovation is that solutions may be viewed as remote and divorced from the contexts and complexity of practice. Newton (2003) suggests that where solutions appear to be too simplistic, teachers can give the illusion of change without real engagement in the process. This can lead to innovations which exist in strategic plans, which are shown to be successful in evaluations, and which are recorded in set piece observations but which are absent in day-to-day practice. I characterize this as a form of ‘zombie innovation’, where a change process carries on lifeless, sometimes for years, in the twilight of official documents, plans and quality assurance reports, but never lives in the normalized practices of the organization.’
Therefore, I would argue that we need to begin to change our perceptions. Education cannot make space for philosopher-kings. Leaders are essential, but they are only part of an organisation, and there needs to be as large a flow of ideas, information and critique going up the organisation as down, and there needs to be an understanding that in schools and universities there is as much wisdom at the bottom of the organisation as at the top. As I’ve said already, some schools and universities already understand this, but all too many don’t.
Finally, I want to quickly consider the role of research in the creation of the philosopher king. Education has a large, and ever expanding, research focus on leadership and management. In some respects, this should not be an issue, but all too often it leads to an isolated worldview. Leadership becomes a topic for research in its own right and can become dangerously divorced from the wider notion of organisation. Over the past couple of years, however, I have spent a lot of time reading literature from organisational studies. As might be expected, the most important unit of analysis is the organisation; leaders are important, but integral, to wider issues.
I would argue that we need to see a serious shift in education, abandoning the idea that leadership and management is the most important focus for the successful running of schools and universities. We need to refocus onto organisations as the main unit of analysis and activity, considering how the different groups involved can work together to create great environments for teaching, learning and in the case of universities, research. This means we need to downplay the idea of ‘transformative’ leaders (surely an insult to the multitude of others in an organisation how put in the hard work to make transformation happen), or the cult of the philosopher king, and instead talk of organisations and communities of which leaders are an integral part.