Whilst acknowledging all the criticisms of Dominic Cummings in regard to his recent behaviour, I’d prefer to reflect on his time at the Department for Education from 2011 – 2014 and use it as a trigger for a reflection on leadership. In this period, he and his boss Michael Gove ripped through the department, triggering some of the biggest reforms ever seen in education, arguably more widespread that the 1987 national curriculum reform, rivalling even the famous 1944 Education Act.
Rather than dwell on whether one agrees or disagrees with the contents of the reforms (I personally believe they have led to more harm than good) I’d prefer to concentrate on the leadership involved in prosecuting them. Or rather the lack of leadership.
Cummings left in 2014 in a fit of pique, annoyed that so many civil servants were complaining about him. He made no secret of saying that most people in the department were idiots. The then Prime Minister, David Cameron (now a less-famous DC), even described him as a ‘career psychopath’. Mr. Gove also ended up leaving the DfE because his presence there had become too toxic – he was making too many enemies. Both Cummings and Gove appeared almost to revel in this episode, as if their unpopularity lent greater credibility to their radical reforms.
However, one of the most fundamental features of effective leadership is the ability to take people with you on your journey. Related to this, good leaders yearn to leave a lasting legacy, creating the foundations on which others can come and build. Those that follow might improve and even alter the work, but they never destroy or forget.
As a headteacher throughout this period, my view is that DC and MG behaved less as builders or architects, but more like hooligans. It was as if they were fanatics visiting an away ground, where they ripped out the seats, spat on the pitch and snapped the goalposts, before hopping back on the train to go home. Sure, the stadium was transformed, but the pieces had not been put back together before they were off, as it turned out to a new and bigger reform, the world of Brexit.
Consequently, the duo have a devoted following, but really quite a small one. And getting smaller. For years, I would bristle at people who would defend Gove and Cummings by saying how brilliant their reforms had been at the DfE. It was always blind loyalty, I felt.
Surely, those same people must question this loyalty, if only based on their recent behaviour and competence.
That’s not to say that some of the reforms were not needed, nor that some of their ideas were without merit. Not at all. It’s more that a failure to embed reforms, a failure to stick around and see them through, a failure to take people with you, are all major failures of leadership.
In a parallel world, headteachers are now dealing with a leadership challenge of real complexity. The same headteachers who loyally enacted the aforementioned reforms, are now dealing with something that is completely new and unprecedented.
My guess is that those headteachers who are finding it easier are those who have done the hard yards over recent years, those that have built trust in, and around, their school community. They may have developed strong bonds with parents, a sense of shared purpose amongst staff, nurtured a good reputation with local community groups and partner organisations.
Basically, they have taken people with them.
They’ve provided leadership that has long-term objectives, a strong personal investment, and a commitment to shared values. So that now, as they wrestle with decisions such as which classes to open, which year groups to bring in, what routines to change, it is these leaders who will receive a positive response from staff, and murmurings of support from parents. All of this will assist them as they seek to put their schools back together again. This will be to the immense benefit of pupils, particularly important in those areas of socio-economic disadvantage where poverty, ill-health and anxiety are especially prevalent.
As, incidentally, is Covid-19.
Such leaders offer a level of transparency to their work that will serve them well. Despite the fact that English parents are still surprisingly deferential, (at least in my experience) they can be quite violent in their criticisms of schools in private, and very personal in their views on school leaders.
I don’t wish to set myself up here as a paragon of virtue, but I do make a concerted effort to be as transparent as I can. I believe it is crucial in developing trust. I remember, a few years ago, being criticised by a number of parents for ‘losing it’ in an assembly, shouting at the children over wasted food at lunchtime. They felt, with some justification, that it was exaggerated and over the top. Crucially, the criticisms were sent to me personally. Whilst they were troubled by my behaviour, they felt confident enough to tell me to my face (or my e-mail account).
(Interestingly, the above incident would not have been picked up if I hadn’t had parents actually sitting there during the assembly and witnessing me throw bread rolls on the floor.)
The Gove/Cummings double act provides us, I think, with a great lesson in leadership.
Arguably, they may have been right with their reforming actions at the DfE. Decisions need to be made by leaders, and it appears certain that they have deep ideological beliefs and a definite purpose, core features of leadership.
But I would argue, and evidence from recent weeks can only strengthen that argument, that they failed to take people with them, that they failed to stick around to see their big ideas through, and that they failed to secure trust.
I hope that all headteachers fare better over coming weeks. I hope that the trust and humility they have shown, all the hard yards they have walked, gives them the support and solace that will be sorely needed in these unnerving times.