Over the last month or so I have been mulling over the role of servant leaders in a school context, ideas also addressed in the most recent issue of IMPACT magazine from the Chartered College of Teachers,which includes an article on different leadership approaches and equity of career progression.
At my school we have established a culture of coaching for middle leaders. I am fortunate enough to be coached by John Crittenden, On top of being a part-time teacher he also works as a coach for a large number of institutions including Youth Sports Trust.
Our topic of discussion this time was accountability. We were discussing my level of discomfort with accountability. My default is one of relatively low accountability and high trust. This might stem from my desire to treat all teachers as professionals, my recognition that certainty in education is often hard to come by, or quite possibly just the simple fact that I don’t enjoy conflict.
He explained to me that recently there has been a boom in servant leadership in the private sector. Servant leadership is a term used to describe leaders who go out of their way to ensure staff satisfaction. The leader’s primary role is to ensure their teams have everything they need, not everything they want. This prevents the idea of the leader’s primary role being to placate staff egos or to bend to the whims of individuals. The main skills a servant leader requires are:
- commitment to the growth of people
- building community.
If you look past the standard leadership drivel then this seems like a pretty good list for a middle leader. You can see why big companies like Starbucks and Marriott have emphasised using servant leadership. It also makes sense that companies would want to make their organisations as appealing as possible in the employment market. It is paramount for schools to recruit and retain the best staff, so why isn’t this approach more prevalent in all schools?
We definitely see a lot of talk about wellbeing, CPD and professional dialogue. There are even schools that pride themselves on these aspects. Yet accountability for teachers is generally very high. Most schools still make performance management and pay progression explicitly linked to student outcomes, and quality assurance is often synonymous with a process of evaluation and data gathering.
The system has an unspoken assumption that without accountability the default position of teachers is one of laziness and incompetence. I wonder if this is the case in other graduate professions? Do accountants have to be regularly inspected by their superiors? What about doctors?
I imagine part of the explanation is because of the nature of education. There is a high level of uncertainty in education, with many factors contributing to the outcomes of a student, some of which are out of the school’s control. Often outcomes are used as the gold standard for teacher performance.
The culture of accountability poisons the well of any strategies of continuous improvement a school designs. I understand the desire for high accountability in education as the stakes are so high. There is a moral obligation to ensu-re we do the best for our students. The problem is that determining the quality of teaching is so incredibly difficult and humans are so prone to judgement errors that it is hard to separate objective judgements from personal preferences.
So where does this culture of the feckless teacher and the need to keep them on track come from? Well, to reassure you, I don’t think it comes from middle leaders. I don’t think it comes from school leaders or even MAT CEOs. The blame for this squarely lies at the feet of the government. Through language and actions that imply ‘teachers are lazy’, the (false) conclusion is that leaders cannot trust teachers. A good recent example of this was the time the DfE threatened legal action against schools who were switching to remote learning just before Christmas. If that does not imply that they view the education sector as lazy I don’t know what does!
Structurally the advent of performance-related pay means that all observations and CPD comes with a subtext of evaluation. While performance-related pay has some evidence to support it, crucially it works best when output is easily measured and responsibility for the output rests on a single employee. Education fails to fulfil both of these criteria.
Schools try to balance this out by building a culture of low stakes and trust. This can often fail as it takes an incredibly strong culture to soften learning walks enough to make them truly developmental and focussed on marginal gains. There is always a need to fix everything now and to prove it with evidence. There are always metrics to be collected to reassure those above in the food chain that there is no need to panic. The more removed a leader becomes, the more reliant they are on the metrics and the more the system is tilted to create more metrics. This leads to a climate whereby consistency is the most important thing, because it makes measurement more accessible and convenient.
So does servant leadership have a place in school leadership? Well, yes. Middle leaders carve out time to support their teams. They resist the pressures of the system above to protect their team from the more disillusioning aspects of the system. The problem we have is while servant leadership can flourish at the department level, at a school leader level the way the systems of accountability are constructed means that it often ends up mutating into easier, more tokenistic measures that often get labelled as ‘wellbeing’ but miss the most important aspect: trust.