Decline and Fall: A reflection on school leadership
Evelyn Waugh's satirical novel, Decline and Fall, about the adventures of a young man sent down from Oxford, who ends up teaching as a down-and-out public school in North Wales, is full of nostalgia. However, it also makes some discussion worthy (if humorously made) points about leadership, which I am going to draw on for this blog.
Who are the clients?
Most of us who have ever worked in education, or been to a school, have met Heads who are more concerned with public perception than with the quality of education actually happening within the walls of their institution. In this conversation the eminent Doctor is instructing his daughter, Diana/Dingy, to get together all of the pomp for sports day the following afternoon:
'Well, we must buy more. No expense muse be spared.... And there must be flowers, Diana, banks of flowers,' said the Doctor, with an expansive gesture. 'The prizes will stand among banks of flowers. Do you think there ought to be a bouquet for Lady Circumference?'
'No,' said Dingy.
'Nonsense!' said the Doctor. 'Of course there must be a bouquet. It is rarely that the scholarly calm of Llanabba gives place to festival, but when it does taste and dignity shall go unhampered. It shall be an enormous bouquet, redolent of hospitality. You are to procure the most expensive bouquet that Wales can offer; do you understand? Flowers, youth, wisdom, the glitter of jewels, music,' said the Doctor, his imagination soaring to dizzy heights under the stimulus of the words; 'music! There must be a band.'
'I never head of such a thing,' said Dingy. 'A band, indeed! You'll be having fireworks next.'
'And fireworks' ...
Unsurprisingly, all the guests have gone home before the fireworks are lit. Furthermore, the prizes for the students who actually win their events, are the opposite of the lavishness of the treats laid on for their parents. The Doctor is very keen that the sons of the wealthy guests are awarded prizes, regardless of any sporting talent.
'I don't think there is any need for undue extravagance with the prizes... Utility, economy and apparent durability are the qualities to be sought for, I think.'
Now this obsession with fawning up to parents is something I recognise from my experiences in British boarding schools (as a student and a teacher), and in many other schools, no doubt.
The first is with regard to food. I cannot rationalise the obsession with feeding parents, and governors, impressive delicacies, while filling students with slop. In a previous job, the best food students ever got was leftovers from a visit by a governor, or if a VIP was coming for supper. I confess I found this appalling, and a mockery of the stated values of many boarding schools.
Parents and governors can eat delicious food when they go home that evening, but for the students they are eating the same thing day in, day out, potentially three times a day. It seems somewhat unfair that a higher budget goes in to feeding people who already have the opportunity to eat great food. It even seems that this practice is an act of admission that the ordinary school food is not really up to the standard it should be. And a public denial of that fact.
The second is a reflection on my own experiences as a student in a well-to-do prep school. It was a running joke that the students with wealthy parents won all of the school prizes, and the day students (who paid lower fees), and scholarship kids like me (who paid even less), never won a single thing. Somewhat ironic.
In another example, at a Saturday family fete event at school, various families competed in all sorts of village games for an overall prize. My family, the 'Damp Squibs' were rather better at the village sports that I think the organisers had anticipated (who would have thought that the village family would be skilled in village events, huh?), so when we won (my father is a champion welly boot thrower) the establishment refused to announce us by the team name we had chosen (I can only assume it was deemed unsuitable), and someone delivered us a box of celebrations in another room, out of sight of all of the more worthy (more wealthy) competitors.
In this area, Waugh's novel is so funny, because Heads really are often woefully misguided about who their clients are. I genuinely believe that the students are the clients. They are the ones with a stake in the outcome. Parents may foot the bill for a private education, but this is simply because their children cannot pay for themselves. They are paying on behalf of their children, not for their children.
And we have also all worked with leaders who only had one foot in reality. The Doctor in Waugh's novel, organises sports day on a whim because a couple of wealthy parents happen to be visiting that day anyway. The Doctor announces the event to the entire school at lunchtime.
'Boys,' said the Doctor, regarding them benignly, 'I have an announcement to make... Boys, the chief sporting event of the year will take place in the playing-fields tomorrow. I refer to the Annual School Sports, unfortunately postponed last year owing to the General Strike. Mr Pennyfeather, who, as you know, is himself a distinguished athlete, will be in charge of all arrangements. The preliminary heats will be run off today. All boys must compete in all events...'
Of course, Paul Pennyfeather has only been a teacher for a about three days, is no athlete whatsoever, and this is his first time hearing about sports day. In organising the event, Pennyfeather finds out that there aren't even any hurdles any more as they have been burned for firewood.
'Nothing seems to have been done about marking out the ground,' said Paul.
'No,' said the Doctor, turning his attention to the field for the first time, 'nothing. Well, you must do the best you can. They can't do everything.'
'I wonder if any hurdles have come?'
'They were ordered,' said the Doctor. 'I am certain of it. Philbrick, have any hurdles come?'
'Yes,' said Philbrick with a low chuckle.
'Why, pray, do you laugh at the mention of hurdles?'
'Just you look at them!' said Philbrick. 'They're behind the tea-house there.'
Paul and the Doctor went to look and found a pile of spiked iron railings in sections heaped up at the back of the marquee. They were each about five feet high and were painted green with gilt spikes.
'It seems to me they have sent the wrong sort,' said the Doctor.
... 'What else?'
'Somewhere to run,' suggested Paul.
'Why, God bless my soul, they've got the whole park! How did you manage yesterday for the heats?'
'We judged the distance by eye.'
'Then that us that we shall have to do today. Really, my dear Pennyfeather, it is quite unlike you to fabricate difficulties in this way.'
Of course, the events here are farcical. But, they have strong resemblances to the kind of bonkers leadership that happens in schools under constant pressure to react to this, that and the other. School leaders are constantly bringing in new innovations (like sports days) without any really thought about how it will take place. Completely inappropriate individuals are chosen to lead, simply because they are pushovers, and when the innovation doesn't work, it is simply shelved and replaced with another, rather than looking to the underlying reasons why it didn't work, a.k.a. no long term planning.
All of the research tells us that any kind of professional development needs to be ongoing, not a big idea here, and another one there, in the hope that we will all embed it into our practice effortlessly. Or because it is written into school policy.
Have I come a long way from the Doctor's sudden sports day? I don't think I have. Any kind of event in the school calendar needs planning and careful execution, simply because of the number of people involved. I have worked in schools where, because no-one had clocked this clash, or that clash, or that some students might be left unsupervised (in one case an entire year group while all the teachers were at parents' evening), or suchlike.
Leadership isn't about how many ideas you have, it's about which ones you decide to implement, and then how well you go about doing that. Obviously having lots of ideas to choose from widens the likelihood of trying something which might be really great, but a great leader can also take ideas from their staff as well, without feeling self-conscious about it.
There's lots more I want to say about this novel; sketches about teaching and learning that I think need to be shared, episodes about student-teacher relationships, etc. But for now this blog is long enough, so I will stop here.
Decline and Fall succeeds because it laughs at aspects of school life and leadership which, although ridiculous, have some genuine basis in reality. Even here. Even today.
And we need to keep satirising them.