I decided to go out on a Tuesday night in the middle of exam season. Before you get carried away with a largely inappropriate vision of me out on the proverbial, my days of wearing purple wigs and sashaying the night away to trance music are long behind me. My idea of a night out these days involves some sort of teaching event that carries the promise of a glass of wine or two and sure enough, one came along last week in the form of a panel event organised by Teach First on ‘Women in Leadership: Education, Business and Beyond’. I was happy to accept their invite to be a panel member, alongside Hannah Wilson, one of the co-founders of the WomenEd movement and Henrietta Baldock- Chairman of European Financial Institutions at Bank of America Merrill Lynch – one of Teach First’s partner organisations. We were ably chaired by Fiona Rawes, the Director of Community Impact at Teach First, who ensured that as many voices were heard as possible at this important event.
We dealt with two official questions on the night, as well as a raft of well-thought out and provoking ones from an audience that was made up of about 100 women in teaching and business and precisely 2 men. Hannah and I wryly noted that had the event been entitled: ‘Leadership: Education, Business and Beyond’, there may have been a greater balance between male and female delegates. I do wonder whether taking out the gendered title at these events is the right thing to do. We were due to talk about the lack of female headteachers and how to raise aspirations in the girls we teach. To me and many of the women in the room, this isn’t an exclusively female issue. As the night progressed, the ideas became more and more central: for more women to enter into positions of responsibility in schools, in businesses and in politics, support from male colleagues is essential.
When I left, I realised we had covered so much in the time given to us as panellists that it would be hard to capture all the ideas and questions in one place. What I can do is provide a run-down of my points in response to the main questions. And possibly leave with you with more questions to consider.
Recent figures, released by the Future Leaders Trust, show that the overall proportion of women taking on headteacher positions is not reflected by the number of women in the workforce. A government report on the school workforce in England, issued in 2014, showed that the state education sector is 74% female, yet only 65% of headteachers are women. If these percentages were equal, there would over 1,500 more female headteachers in the UK – a number that the Future Leaders Trust believes could potentially fill many long-standing headship vacancies.
Recent research by the Guardian showed there are more men called John running FTSE 100 companies than all the female bosses put together. Among chief executives and chairs of FTSE 100 companies, there were 17 men called John (or Jean) – and seven women.
What in your view is the most important way we could influence a change with leadership positions?
In a groundbreaking study in 1975, Don Zimmerman and Candace West tracked the interruption rates in conversations between men and women. The study can be read in its entirety at the link provided but the findings can be summarised succinctly in these tables:
Source: Zimmerman/West, 1975
Interruptions are interesting interaction mechanisms. They serve to assert dominance and control in a conversation. Ask a Year 10 student how Lady Macbeth asserts her dominance over her husband in Macbeth and she will tell you that she interrupts and questions. It is ironic that she is seen as a manifestation of a witch for doing so and ‘corrected’ at the end of the play for her foolish attempt to control her husband and usurp the Elizabethan natural order. The rota fortunae turns. Exit Lady Macbeth. And yet we have a study here that shows that mixed gender conversations are rife with interruption.
How does this contribute to our understanding of where all the female headteachers are? I explained that the results of this study, and all of the subsequent studies that proved the same phenomenon, are still being played out in education institutions and businesses today. Women make up the majority of the teaching workforce and disappear as you climb the ranks into senior leadership, headship and governance – a fact reinforced by Warwick Mansell in The Guardian here. If the daily experience of leadership in schools for women is working in environments not only physically, but verbally dominated by male colleagues, then why would anyone want to do it? It is exhausting and demoralising. And we might not even be aware of the issue and the reason why.
Rather than just pose the problem and pondered, I spoke about solutions. The solution doesn’t involve flinging down your meeting agenda and storming out of the room, neither does it involve shouting louder than your interruptor. It is the rain that grows flowers, not the thunder (thanks Rumi). Women have to train themselves to deal with interruption so they can be heard.
If this was the only problem then we’d be fine because women would just do this and make progress. I talked about ‘Askers and Guessers’ at the WomenEd Unconference in last year and I came back to the topic on Tuesday night. I read Oliver Burkeman’s article in The Guardian a long time ago and was citing the concept of Askers vs Guessers as his idea. Only on re-reading the article last week did I notice that the original idea came from Andrea Donderi, a woman, on a discussion forum. Irony klaxon.
The idea is simple. And it resonates with me as a female leader so completely because I am a Guesser. I have waited for promotion and hoped someone would notice my work and assumed that if I just worked harder, longer, better, then I would be promoted. And I stalled. This wasn’t a result of male oppression. This was me, not realising I could move into being an Asker.
If we want more women in headships, or being CEOs of MATs and global banking institutions, we have to coach and mentor them to be confident Askers.
“It takes two flints to make a fire.” –-Louisa May Alcott
You think you’re pretty good at your job, right? At Teach Meet London, I spoke about whether great teachers are born or made. I don’t have an answer; I want to ask the question to get people thinking about teaching and professional qualities that lead to outstanding outcomes for students. In my Teaching and Learning sessions, I want staff to consider how their professional qualities make them great – and I want them to be specific.
There are times when I will find myself seeing the qualities I have listed in people and I will be overwhelmed by how grateful I am to have them on my side. But, as with any job, I have been in situations where teams have become dysfunctional. One can use as many leadership models as one likes to analyse their staff – a team is only as strong as its weakest link. It takes individuals to step up and demonstrate professional qualities. If I was hiring a member of staff, I’d want to see the qualities I’ve listed because those are the qualities I want in myself. It’s no good as a leader writing a person specification that does not tie in with my own values.
Speaking of person specs – how many times have you seen the same qualities flagged up as essential? Organisations pilfer person and job specs, particularly in schools and end up being less than specific about the qualities they want in their teams. I’d like to actually see the list below on a person spec. At least it would be clear and precise. I want to poke out my own eyeballs when I see person specs that outline a requirement for a ‘good sense of humour’. The last thing I want on my team is someone who needs to be told how to do every part of their job, but does a stunning impression of Donald Trump in kindergarten.
The list below isn’t purely a wish list for the ideal team or team member, it’s a reminder to myself of all I want to be. I don’t think anyone can be all of the things below, all of the time – but it’s worth sharing with your teams to see whether they can remind themselves at intervals that the following qualities and professional skills make a team hum positively. And it’s worth having somewhere so you can remind yourself as a leader what you want to be as part of the team you are part of.
- Resilient – reflects on failure and self-motivates to move on
- Intuitive – senses when others are struggling and steps in
- Empathetic – is able to see the work environment from another’s perspective
- Pitches in – doesn’t need to be asked
- Optimistic – comes in with a smile and keeps shoulders up and head up
- Constructively critical – can spot where errors might be made and flags up
- Solutions focused – finds the problem and suggests the solution
- Determined – for students and the rest of the team
- Productive – often underrated – can get a lot done in the time given
- Anticipates problems – and finds ways around them before making mistakes
- Intellectual – you don’t have to be a genius, just someone who ponders, reads and knows their stuff
- Precise and careful – someone who proofreads, checks and double checks
- Independent – doesn’t need their hand holding beyond the start of a role
- Organised – plans, schedules, lists – throws them out – does it all again
When a team gets to the point where these qualities are not evident – or certainly not evident in the majority of team members, the only possible result is underperformance. And more pertinently, for education professionals, the result is good people leaving. Workload is intense, the external pressures on staff can make or break people – but in my experience as a school leader, what makes people leave is other people. That could be a member of Senior Leadership who forgets that they are part of the department team, whether they like it or not; it could be a staff member who doesn’t pull their weight, whose lack of enthusiasm for the job leads to tension and resentment; it could be that the middle leader isn’t precise and careful enough.
With a new half term about to swing into action – one that requires teams to be the best versions of themselves – I’m going to pin this up on my wall at work and give myself a daily reminder of the qualities I want to display. And then I think it is important to hold people to account – not in having these qualities instantly – but to hold people to account for working towards them. That’s professional development and quite often we forget as leaders that we have to develop the whole professional, not just their hard skills, knowledge and the mechanics of how they do their job. We owe it to the education sector, in any case. We need to develop good people. We want good people to stay.
In November 2014, Tristram Hunt warned of the impending catastrophe in teacher recruitment. In an article in The Guardian, he pointed out the shortfall in meeting the targets for teachers entering the profession – an article that can be read here. In March 2015, Mary Bousted of the ATL commented publicly on the numbers of teachers leaving the profession. In April 2015, The Independent ran this article highlighting again the potential for crisis in teacher recruitment and retention. We have been talking about a crisis on teacher recruitment for a while now. Whereas once, it was passing conversation – odd drops in the number of applicants for once popular posts, gentle musings even, combined with a sense of optimism that things would pick up – perhaps it was a funny time time of year to be recruiting, perhaps people were just staying put – now, it seems that educators are staring with alarm at a growing hole in the teaching profession. A growing hole in the shape of thousands of teachers we need, who just don’t appear to exist. Only a few days ago, this appeared in the TES by Ann Mroz, highlighting again Nicky Morgan’s toughest challenge. Getting teachers into the profession and getting them to stay.
As Mroz states, there are distinct and tangible reasons why teachers are in short supply. An increase in demand for places due to population increases could be one huge factor in the need for a greater number of teachers. However, combine that with the spreading thin of current teachers across an explosion of new free schools and academies and the lure of overseas teaching posts (with the almost opiate promise of tax free income and accommodation provided for free against the backdrop of austerity in the UK) and suddenly the maths doesn’t add up. More institutions dilute the pool of teachers we already have.
And then we have the leavers. Those who pack up their whiteboard markers with regret (for I have never met a teacher who left the profession without a wistful thought as to what could have been) and carry their stained coffee cups into the day to do other things. Why would they stay? One can only guess at the damage done to the teaching profession in the last five years by the Apollyonic Gove, dragging the profession through a valley of humiliation. When the rhetoric is against the Blob, when the implication is that teachers are somehow lacking in the desire to improve – why would anyone be attracted into a one-way ticket to flagellation? When the curriculum doesn’t stay still long enough to allow anyone to gather expertise, why would someone choose to place themselves into this educational Charybdis? Even when there is a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of Nicky Morgan, she chooses – on the day before the return to work – to announce her campaign against “coasting” schools. The collective groan from my Twitter timeline cannot be ignored.
Her announcement today is offensive. It implies that teachers and leaders are happy with average. I have never worked with or in a leadership team where I heard the words: “Yes, I think our results will do just fine. Let’s have the same results next year, in fact!” If anything, decent results breed an intense pressure to increase in the following year a percentage pass rate that was hard won in the first place, particularly in inner city schools with challenging intakes.
We know we need more teachers. It is undeniable that greater numbers of teachers are required in English, Maths and Science. In 2003, the Labour government attempted to solve this shortage by introducing the Repayment of Teacher Loans Scheme. It did not last long enough as an incentive and a study by Professor Coe of the University of Durham found that if teachers were leaving due to the pressures of workload and its adverse effect on personal well-being, the financial incentive to stay wasn’t great enough.
I absolutely believe that schools should pay to recruit outstanding teachers, but that can only happen without detrimental effect if there is a steady stream of talented people entering the profession. As a senior leader in an inner city school, I have become increasingly aware of another consequence of the marketisation of education. Now that we have schools able to set their own pay scales, the savvy teacher knows to negotiate. Recruitment in shortage subjects has become an auction-process of staff going to the highest bidder. How does a school, with no stream of private funding, compete with large chains who have salary points and incentives set above and beyond other schools in the local area? Experienced staff come at an absolute premium. Unfortunately, that premium is out of reach for some schools.
And this is another gift of Conservative policy: increased pressure on school budgets. Changes to Post-16 funding, changes to criteria in funding for pupil premium students, a commitment to only ‘maintaining’ year-on year funding overall – in real terms a reduction in per pupil funding – and changes to pension contributions have meant that schools face serious financial challenges. How, in that context, does a school compete to recruit the best teachers and keep them? One solution is in increase in pupil numbers. Do we want schools to be busting at the seams with more students than the building can safely hold? Some school buildings are not fit for the numbers as it is, especially in inner city areas. Catering for more pupils becomes a Sisyphean task – more teachers needed to teach, bigger buildings needed to accommodate, more resources and still, in the heart and soul of this – not enough money.
The end result is not sustainable for a country that wants to compete internationally for educational acclaim. To save money, you recruit (where you can) young, expendable and cheap staff that you can wear out with increased responsibility on top of teaching load. These teachers have a life span of four or five years, which again, is fine and dandy if you have en endless supply of new teachers. But we don’t. And I don’t believe teacher burn out is an acceptable side-effect of poor funding policy.
It takes a brave government to step in and deal with the burgeoning issue of teacher recruitment and challenges to education funding. I look at this Conservative government, as I did here in 2011, and I am not sure they are up to that task.
When you look at data, the figures are large, but they turn into rows of numbers on a website. Wasn’t it wonderful news that the number of NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training) in England dropped in 2011? That must mean that we have some sort of brilliant system that supports those who, for some reason or another, don’t have anything to go into after they get their GCSEs. In 2011 only 958,000 young people were classed at NEET, according to the Guardian datablog. Brilliant. No news when the figures went back up in the first quarter of 2012.
The trouble with the numbers, as always, is that they hide the human face behind the acronym. The NEET discussion is not about people, with lives and circumstances, it is a political football used to score points across a debate chamber. The NEET figures are a measuring stick of success for men in suits in Westminster, when ironically, the figures are a damning indictment of their inherent failure to address the issue with any real gusto.
Yes, there is a strategy for NEETs – one Google search and you’re there, reading Deputy Prime Minister’s reassuring speeches about how we need to treat people like individuals – “We can’t treat them like round pegs being forced into square holes – if you’re young and have got to the point where you feel on the scrapheap, you need extra help to succeed in life,” he says. Always an analogy without a real directive, without a real answer to the problem. Government data on NEETs shows that the number of 16 year old NEETs pales in comparison to the number of NEETs who are over 18. These “round pegs”, if they aren’t dealt with properly at 16 or 17 – the age at which you qualify for help as a NEET – then there is nothing. The void widens and swallows you whole. That’s when not even an acronym can save you.
Meet a former student of mine – let’s call her Kim, for the sake of her anonymity. Kim is highly intelligent – and through no fault of her own, is unemployed. She dropped out of her A-Level course – not because she wasn’t smart enough to complete it, it’s just that the odds were entirely stacked against her from the start. At 12, she lost her father to a drug overdose. She managed to pick herself up again. At 14, she realised that she was gay. Her strict Greek family – with a mother that didn’t ever really cope with being a single parent – rejected her sexuality and her identity. She was in and out of counselling, Connexions tried to help her. She self harmed, she threatened to commit suicide. She picked herself up again.
At 16, she got her GCSEs – a decent set, considering her recent history. At one point, we discussed where she was to live. She was offered temporary accommodation, but had to leave because of the cockroaches and drug addicts – at 16 years old, that’s a not a life to be exposed to. After months of uncertainty, she moved back in with her mother – with whom her relationship was fragile at best.
The Sixth Form college she was at decided that she could not study her A-Levels anymore – citing her difficult behaviour and her lack of attendance. They missed the fact that she had no money, no way of getting there, nowhere to live. She dropped out and looked for work. For the past three years, she has been odd-jobbing in coffee shops and milkshake bars – part time, minimum wage. She lives alone after her partner left her for good one day. She doesn’t think she can afford the rent and her mother has said that she cannot go home again – it’s time to stand on your own two feet, Kim.
She is 20 and very much alone in the world and yet still young enough to achieve something and to be directed to a better life. Her daily trips to the Job Centre are soul-destroying. She fills in forms for whatever work she can get. There is no return. The fact is that she is a 20 year old woman, with no extended family who can help her, with a history of depression and rejection. Just because she isn’t 17 anymore doesn’t mean that as a society, we should abandon her to the clutches of a city that will, eventually, eat her alive.
And why can’t she get a job? That’s what people really think, isn’t it? She must be choosy – she must be illiterate, she must be lazy. The thoughts aren’t spoken aloud, but one look at the press and you see the attitude to unemployed young people – the scroungers, the lazy, the entitled, the leeches. The dailymailification of our opinions means that we overlook the reality behind the tags we so easily give to those less fortunate than us. Kim was always at risk of becoming a a NEET, even though she was literate and intelligent – and someone missed it. Her family history marked her out, her mental health marked her out, her sexuality marked her out and most shockingly, in the 21st century, her gender marked her out. The statistics show that for the past ten years, girls are much more likely to be NEET than boys.
Some people are sympathetic to the plight of the young without jobs. But asking them to put their money where their mouth is becomes a litmus test of their ability to truly empathise. A weekend job request is met with: “But, she’ll want a full time job eventually and we’ll have trained her up and then we’ll lose her to something else,” or “Is minimum wage going to really support her? She should try and get something that pays more.” All understandable – a small business cannot prop up the parts of society that are broken. If you are 20 and still looking to forge a career, there are very few options. Particularly if you are a woman. Apprenticeships are widely touted as the solution – anyone who has ever tried to get one will know that the competition for places is fierce and often not available outside of large cities.
There is a huge gap in government policy when it comes to slightly older NEETs. A sustainable and wide-ranging scheme to employ young people who are no longer 16 or 17 is absolutely essential. Some may argue that these schemes exist – and there are initiatives available to encourage youth employment. The problem comes when small businesses aren’t kept in the loop about the schemes – how many people actually know about youth employment schemes and the available funding? A straw poll of local businesses will give you that answer straight away. Is it not in our interest to heavily publicise these schemes? Do we not think we, as a society, will benefit from local businesses becoming more aware of the opportunities they could be providing for those aged between 16-24?
In the meantime, more and more young people slip through that net and become the forgotten generation whose only answer is to start fires in their own community and to steal trainers from sports shops. And then we disapprove. That’s when we start to notice.