Education Leadership: Ambiguity, Professionals and Managerialism


Eric Hoyle & Mike Wallace

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    Eric Hoyle is Emeritus Professor and Senior Fellow in the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol. His major interests are in organization theory, the professions and professional development. He is author of The Politics of School Management and (with Peter John) Professional Knowledge and Professional Practice.

    Mike Wallace is a Professor of Education in the Department of Education, University of Bath. His research interest is in the management of change in education and other public services. He is author (with Keith Pocklington) of Managing Complex Educational Change and editor (with Louise Poulson) of the teaching text Learning to Read Critically in Educational Leadership and Management.


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    List of Tables

    • 1.1 Evidence from PriceWaterhouseCoopers teachers' workload study 2
    • 1.2 Five intellectual projects pursued in the field of educational leadership and management 16
    • 2.1 Endemic internal organizational dilemmas 44
    • 2.2 Endemic external organizational dilemmas 45
    • 4.1 Characteristics of three ideal types of managerialism 69
    • 4.2 Opening up educational boundaries through school-based innovation 81
    • 4.3 An implicit HMI model of curriculum control in the ‘well-managed school’ 85
    • 4.4 The new ‘normal’ leadership and management in state-funded schools in England 92
    • 7.1 A continuum from transformational to laissez-faire leadership 133
    • 7.2 OFSTED criteria for judging school leadership and management effectiveness 137
    • 7.3 Impact of factors promoting environmental turbulence and stability on the planning process 149


    We have selected irony as the organizing concept of this book because it offers a link between our five main concerns.

    Our first concern is to bring to the fore a perspective on organizations that has existed for some time but has remained marginal to the prescriptive leadership and management literature. This perspective acknowledges that organizations are characterized by ambiguities, dilemmas and incommensurable values. It recognizes that such characteristics are endemic. This is particularly so in educational organizations, on which we focus. The goals of educational organizations are both diverse and diffuse. They lead inevitably to the irony of unintended (as well as intended) consequences of well-intentioned actions. In the past, leaders and managers in state-funded schools have been content to live with the ironies of organizational life. They now have less of an option since the underlying purpose of educational reforms has been to eliminate ambiguity through tightly specifying the work of headteachers and teachers, coupled with equally tight surveillance and punitive measures for failure to meet this specification.

    Our second concern is to engage with the unintended consequences of the prevailing approach to the management of change: policy initiatives promulgated by central government coupled with the expectation that they will be efficiently implemented through strengthened leadership and management at the school level. Policies may be designed to improve learning and teaching, or to strengthen organizational leadership and management as a means of improving the educational activity that leadership and management support. While the raft of policies has brought considerable changes in structures and procedures in the education system, the core of the educational enterprise – learning and teaching – has remained relatively untouched. The irony here lies in the fact that, as each successive policy initiative comes to be seen as having brought unintended consequences, the response has been to develop corrective policies – which have themselves generated further unintended consequences.

    Our third concern is to suggest that the rhetoric currently dominating the discourse of policy and of leadership and management, encapsulated in the term ‘transformation’, is largely a myth. The irony here is that school staff are being urged to be ‘transformational’, implying the achievement of radical change, under conditions that actually constrain their opportunities for achieving change. Transformation at the school level means, in practice, finding more efficient ways of implementing government policy.

    Our fourth concern is to suggest that most headteachers and teachers have not wholly rejected recent educational reforms nor offered overt resistance, but have mediated government policies to render them congruent with the needs of students in individual schools in particular contexts. The irony here is that headteachers and teachers, through a stance of principled infidelity, are implementing policies that would not have worked if their prescriptions had been faithfully followed. In the interests of their students, headteachers and teachers are moderating the negative unintended consequences of central government policies.

    Our fifth concern is to suggest that perhaps a majority of headteachers and teachers are bringing to their work a scepticism towards government policies, a pragmatic approach towards their implementation, a sense of contingency in their relevance, and a constructivist approach to learning and teaching collaboratively pursued. These are some of the manifestations of what we have termed an ‘ironic orientation’, an approach that we endorse.

    Having briefly set out our purposes, it is necessary to indicate some of the considerations that have gone into writing what is unapologetically a ‘position’ book. In no way do we pretend to offer a detached account of the contemporary educational scene. For this reason we have written in the first person plural throughout.

    Our stance is sceptical but not cynical. There are no villains in the book. We believe that politicians, government advisers, inspectors, administrators, headteachers and teachers generally act in good faith and with a genuine desire to improve educational quality. However, it will be clear that our sympathies lie with those headteachers and teachers who persist, despite the power of external forces, in doing their best for their students as far as circumstances allow. We want to celebrate their efforts and to rescue these from their samizdat status.

    The term ‘leadership’ has only recently overtaken the term ‘management’ in political and practitioner discourse as the main descriptor for what is entailed in running and improving public service organizations. We recognize the distinction between leadership (making new things happen) and management (keeping new and existing things on track). However, because of the ambiguity in meanings of leadership and management we have throughout used the two terms in conjunction except where we are specifically dealing with differences. The conjoined terms equate to the single term ‘administration’ as used in North America over a long period.

    We are not advancing a theory, constructing a model, reviewing a literature, presenting a body of research data, or offering a set of procedural recommendations. We are simply offering an invitation to engage in a discussion. Hence we draw on an eclectic range of data and on a range of personal experiences in telling our story. Our approach is one of informed speculation.

    It must be stressed that we believe in the importance of school leadership and management. Schools need positive leadership and it is vital that they are effectively managed. We are concerned that school leaders and managers should have a suitable preparation for their difficult roles. But while we have no reservations about the importance of effective leadership and management, we do have reservations about managerialism – leadership and management to excess – because it is more likely to create problems for headteachers and teachers than to solve them.

    We fully recognize both that central government has a mandate to improve state funded education, and that attempting to bring about the necessary large-scale change is highly complex. But in our view the prevailing strategy is flawed because it underestimates the importance of headteacher and teacher agency and limits room for manoeuvre in school settings.

    Our approach is somewhat downbeat in that we do not prescribe what should be done. We offer no ‘magic bullet’ in the mode of many books to be found on airport bookstalls – most of which are probably abandoned by their purchasers on the arrival of the drinks trolley. In fact, our underlying argument is that the idea that there could be a ‘magic bullet’ for solving educational problems is wishful thinking. It follows that there is a need for a massive scaling down of the number and frequency of policy initiatives designed to eradicate ambiguity, and a complementary need to search for ways of reducing the press of leadership and management in schools.

    We are very conscious of the forces that would have to be overcome in reducing managerialism. We identify two in particular. One is the decline of trust within society. What might be called ‘the tragedy of the professions’ is that they have clung to their self-interested practices for so long that politicians have over-reacted in their mistrust of professions, and clients have become over-ready to turn to litigation. Yet we do not abandon the possibility of sustaining a principled professionalism. The other barrier is the effect of career patterns favouring those who can display managerial credentials and fluency in the managerial discourse, which understandably makes it difficult for many to deviate from managerialist expectations.

    Our ‘case’ is state funded schooling within the educational system of England and Wales, the source of most of our examples. But our account could equally apply to other public – and perhaps private – services in Britain and in other countries. Ambiguity is endemic in all organizations. Out of ambiguity arises irony. Overzealous attempts to remove ambiguities make life more difficult for front-line practitioners. An ironic orientation allows them to live with the external pressures imposed upon them. They continue to obtain job satisfaction, not from attending the ever-increasing number of committee meetings or completing ever-growing amounts of paperwork, but from doing their best for the people they serve in their contingent circumstances. We hope to contribute to the growing discussion of these issues.

    The book is timely. There are signs of a growing recognition of the dysfunctions of managerialism, particularly in terms of its impact on the workload of teachers, growing work-dissatisfaction, and the consequent problems of teacher recruitment and retention. Some politicians are coming to realize that the huge expenditure on accountability is having at best only a marginal impact on learning and teaching. It is thus highly cost ineffective, since the investment is largely in structural change and in accountability procedures. On the other hand, we accept that many politicians may find it difficult to abandon the belief that yet another policy initiative will put matters right. We aspire therefore to offer reassurance to those headteachers and teachers whose method of coping with current pressures is through what we term an ironic orientation.

    Our concerns are addressed in the book through a four-part structure. Part One introduces our approach to irony and demonstrates its generic applicability to education. Chapter 1 conceives irony in terms of unintended consequences and defines the key concepts of our ironic perspective. Chapter 2 explores diverse sources of endemic ambiguity, and their exacerbation by change, constituting preconditions of irony in schools as organizations. Chapter 3 adopts a complementary focus, showing how parallel sources of ambiguity stimulate equivalent ironies in the implementation of improvement policies across administrative system levels in education.

    Part Two introduces the notion of managerialism as excessive leadership and management. It traces ironies generated unwittingly by the implementation of central government managerialist policies that militate against educational improvement, especially those connected with reforms. Chapter 4 looks historically at the early and more recent rise of managerialism in school education, portraying how its promise radically to reduce ambiguity has been belied by the resultant ironic consequences. Chapter 5critically examines how managerialism threatens to produce self-serving leadership and management at the expense of educational activity.

    Part Three takes our critique of managerialism further by deconstructing the rhetoric of educational crisis and the urgency of system transformation which underpins managerialist reforms. Chapter 6 reveals ambiguities and associated ironies engendered by the gap between aspects of the mythical discourse of transformation and externally imposed constraints which leave school staff with little scope for transforming learning and teaching. Chapter 7 similarly scrutinizes the discourse of organizational leadership as a means of promoting educational transformation and the ambiguities and ironies that in reality restrict leadership to the transmission of centrally specified reforms.

    Part Four examines the ironies of school staff responses to managerialism and builds the case for more temperate approaches to educational administration. Chapter 8 looks at evidence that many, perhaps most, school staff are mediating reforms rather than endorsing them. Chapter 9 hypothesizes that most school staff have adopted an ironic orientation towards managerialism, which is actually highly appropriate for professional practice in relatively ambiguous circumstances. Chapter 10 sketches out what temperate educational administration and incremental improvement efforts might look like, supported by wise policies that are accepting of ambiguities and return professional practice in leading, managing and teaching to the heart of the service of education.



    We owe a considerable intellectual debt to Professor James March, whose writings and conversations have strongly influenced our thinking. Mike Wallace was awarded a Senior Fellowship within the AIM (Advanced Institute of Management Research) initiative during 2003–05, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (award number RES-331-25-0011). His fellowship was focused on managing complex and programmatic change in the public services, and included exploring ambiguity in the change process and implications for coping effectively with it. Ideas and opinions expressed in this book are those of the authors and do not represent the view of the ESRC.

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