Saturday, 8 October 2016

Flying too high?

In my book I talk a lot about issues around bureaucracy and post-bureaucracy, and make the point (p.86) that for all that post-bureaucracy arguably allows freedom and innovation it necessarily entails additional risks when the checks and procedures of bureaucracy are done away with.

The British education system has been a particular site for the application of the idea that the shackles of bureaucracy should be thrown off and head teachers – or school leaders as they are more likely to be called within post-bureaucratic discourse – given freedom from rules. Indeed ‘academy schools’ and ‘free schools’ – exempt from the national curriculum and from local authority control – have been a flagship policy since 2010. It is therefore unsurprising that schools have become vulnerable to malpractice. If you strip away controls it does not make malpractice inevitable, but it increases the likelihood that it will occur.

In a post on this blog back in June 2013 I drew attention to the case of a head teacher who was at that time accused of (and in 2014 admitted) misconduct in the form of abuse of funds. This case was significant because she had hitherto been lauded as an outstanding head teacher, headed an academy school, and was widely praised by politicians including Tony Blair.

I'm returning to this theme following the news that on 30 September another free school head, again the subject of Prime Ministerial praise (this time from David Cameron), has been jailed for fraud, along with two other staff members. I wondered if there was a pattern in this and I think there is. An internet search of ‘head teacher fraud’ throws up an enormous number of cases. Some of them do not result in criminal trials (being rather professional malpractice cases), and some which go to trial do not result in convictions – but even in these cases there is evidence of lax accounting and monitoring. Not all of the cases are about money – many seem to be about employing family members who should not have been employed, the kind of nepotism that Weberian bureaucracy stamps out. Many of the cases involve academy and free schools.

It’s important to keep monitoring such cases because the effects of public policy are long term, and it is therefore easy to view them as isolated events rather than systemic changes. There is of course a need for caution here. I do not know whether fraud and malpractice amongst head teachers is more frequent than before schools were given more freedom from central and local government and control. I don’t recall there being so many cases in the past, but that is only an impression. Moreover, the fact that many of the schools involved are free schools or academy schools might just reflect the fact that so many schools now have this status. Nevertheless, the recurring theme in many of the cases is the way that the head teachers involved were able to treat their schools and budgets as personal possessions rather than acting as public custodians, and that I think does reflect the lack of the ‘ethics of due process’ that Paul du Gay (2000) argues are the hallmark of bureaucracy (see p.24-25 of the book).

But I wonder if there is not something else, related but slightly different, going on here. In the specific cases referenced above the head teachers involved had been regarded as exemplary and had attracted high level praise, awards and adulation. In another case, an “inspirational super head” knighted for his services to education (though subsequently stripped of his award) admitted false accounting and in 2013 received a suspended prison sentence.

Is it possible that somehow these things are linked? That those who are lauded are somehow given licence by themselves and by others to behave as they wish, to be above and beyond the normal rules? That is to say, the issue is not just the suspension of bureaucratic, organizational rules of conduct but a kind of Icarus complex (these are related, since, in Weberian terms, the erosion of rational-legal authority and the rise of charismatic authority are linked). Immune, apparently, from the earth-bound constraints, these high-flying leaders - super heads, no less! - fly too close to the sun and crash. I haven’t mentioned the names of the individuals in these cases because, if that analysis is right, the fault lies not so much, or not simply, with those individuals as with those of us who adulate them.

Du Gay, P. (2000) In Praise of Bureaucracy. London: Sage.

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