Bob Bowie, an expert on Religion and education, asks whether a new style of leadership is developing, one that might have positive consequences for education.
The arrival of Jeremy Corbyn as a political leader of a mainstream British political party feels like a big change. He’s not the usual kind of politician, careful to avoid difficult questions, keen to project a certain kind of business-like image. He seems informal, far more open to discussing differences within his own party, and happier to acknowledge uncertainties. This is a big change in an era where big parties are particularly keen to manage information carefully. It’s really easy for a casual remark to be replayed across the media endlessly, and there has been an emphasis of making sure everyone is ‘on message’ and disagreements are kept hidden from public gaze.
This has led to a game where everyone knows there are disagreements and differences going on, but officially everyone denies such things exist. Perhaps this has eroded the public trust on politics, perhaps we have grown tired of this kind of way of doing things. Maybe Corbyn has decided to try and pop that bubble with a party conference which had sparky disagreement in public, rather than one dominated by tidy formula authorised phrases.
Oddly enough, a very similar sort of change has happened in the Catholic Church. Up until a short while ago there was a clear definitive doctrinal position on everything. The Pope would read from approved texts that maintained the key dogmas, and when interviewed Bishops would reject the language of traditional or liberal, with an emphasis on maintaining a unified front face.
But Pope Francis is not like that. He speaks casually sometimes without prepared notes, and sometimes deviating from them. He is more open about differences across the Church and is much more keen to encourage open discussion and debates about difficult issues. As the Catholic Synod of the Family opens, sparky debate is likely after a period of some of the most open debate and discussion about the life of families and relationships the Catholic Church has seen in the modern era.
Just as Labour experiments with a much more open policy discussion, be it about re-nationalisation, or nuclear deterrents, so the Catholic Church is exploring issues of family life in a far more open way than ever before, listening to a wider number of people, even conducting a mass survey opinion. Genuine attentive and thoughtful listening is surely a virtue all organisations need to practice.
In terms of leadership, perhaps we have reached a dead end when it comes to maintaining the appearance of unity on all things, with leaders who only ever speak from approved scripts, in language that never touches the vital experiences which frame our lives and concern us most.
So what has all this got to do with Education?
For many years there has been a tendency for schools to receive edicts on certain issues, certain approaches to teaching, certain approaches to moral issues like community cohesion, or fundamental British values. With each Ofsted Framework new language is deployed and expected to cascade down through the system like champagne flowing down tiers of flutes from a single glass at the top to the many schools in the levels of glasses below – empty vessels filled with knowledge and authorised and approved language about what matters and ‘what works’.
Maybe it’s time to be a little more open, a little more honest and a little more discursive about the differences that exist in our schools, the uncertainties and the challenges. Maybe the language needs to flow up those champagne flutes. Maybe in an era of devolution we can also have an era of attentive listening. Perhaps it is time to step back from centralised approaches to organizing our communities, be it around Supreme Pontiffs, Party Leaders, Secretary of States or Chief Inspectors. Could it be possible to have leaders who are truly servants of those they lead?
Perhaps the schooling system should take a page out of Pope Francis’ and Jeremy Corbyn’s book and be most focussed on the least and poorest and most disaffected, and to practice a kindness and an attentive listening with the many pupils, teachers and families that constitute its communities.