Egalité

Earlier this week, on April 4th, the world reflected on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. It also happened to be the day when new rules were introduced to advance more equal pay for women in the UK. So a big day for equality. I don’t know if it was intended, but there was some neat symmetry. The vivid documentary I watched on BBC2, telling the story of MLK’s fateful visit to Memphis, showed several images of the ‘negro’ sanitary workers out on strike, with boards around their necks proclaiming, ‘I am a man.’

50 years later, it’s ‘I am a woman.’

Now, I’m all for equal treatment, but I do feel that our predilection for data has yet again been used to make sweeping generalisations about the behaviour of public services, businesses and organisations.  People who should know better are manipulating flawed information to draw spurious conclusions. Even I can see that gender pay is a highly nuanced issue. A woman in a part-time job on the lower rung of the ladder in an organisation may be exercising her preferences for a part-time contract or unpaid leave, and be highly satisfied with the arrangements. Whilst the same job and the same arrangements for another woman, in another organisation, may be highly inequitable and deeply unfair. My reading of this is that each case should be analysed on its own merits or otherwise. But of course this is far too complicated, boring and time-consuming in our ‘age of outrage’.

Once again, bad data is being used lazily to promote a particular argument. The American academic Yong Zhao sums this up beautifully when he warns against the pernicious use of PISA data to measure educational advancements of whole countries. He says, ‘PISA is a good servant, but a bad master.’ Vulgar data should not be used to make policy, but to contribute to a measured debate.

Surely, the focus of the gender pay debate should instead be on the equality of opportunity for all, the thrust of many of Dr King’s utterances. As long as everyone has the opportunity to become a cabinet minister, we should be satisfied. Ensuring that there are ‘50% women in the cabinet’, as Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero did when taking over as President in Spain, is just silly.

Last week, I visited the Ecole Rosa Parks in Rouen, France. Again, there is some serendipidy here as Rosa Parks is another whose name is synonymous with equality. The French secular education system places great emphasis on figures of social change to be their figureheads. The school gym, used by the local community, is named after Nelson Mandela. Egalité, fraternité,  liberté is emblazoned across the interior walls.

Inside, I was struck by how the headteacher, Charlotte, is very much an equal member of staff. When I met her, she was marking a pile of books and sitting with her colleagues, eating a lunch from the school kitchen. No special office or personalised parking place (she walks to school). No personal coffee machine or PA (do headteachers really need personal assistants?). She receives a tiny salary uplift each month for her headteacher duties.

I’m not sure that this continental system is the right one. Passionate and talented leaders – and I think that Charlotte fits this category – have little authority or power to effect improvements for their pupils and staff. I would get so frustrated. Having seen it also in Belgium and in Spain, I’m convinced it needs reform.

But, on the other hand, we may have overdone it in the UK, with some headteachers, dare I say it, concentrating a little too much on the trappings of autorité, and less on the egalité. I’ve been in some UK headteacher offices that are larger than a classroom, their trendy furniture and multiple screens more akin to a city boardroom. Come on, surely there’s no need for that.

Thanks to the excellent Erasmus+ funding, two of my staff, Claire and Laura, spent the week at Ecole Rosa Parks, learning the language, getting to know the staff, and the historic city of Rouen, home of one of the most famous strong women of all time, Joan of Arc.

Charlotte was highly impressed by them, as I continue to be.

Maybe I should pay them more.

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