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How many people does it take to turn round a Merchant oil tanker? - an educational analogy.

Steve Waters

Founder/Director Teach Well Alliance

22nd June, 2018

As the picture shows, the typical Merchant oil tanker has between 20-25 crew members, ranging in rank from the Captain to the Mess man (it is still a very male-oriented profession). There might also be one or two deck and engine cadets or additional watch keeping officers. So, the answer to the question should be equal to the number of the crew, right?

Let’s consider the same question in relation to a passenger plane, say a Boeing 747. How many people does it take to turn round a Boeing 747? When we board the plane, often its nose is pointed towards the terminal building. Planes can’t reverse so they need help to be pointed in the right direction to reach the runway. When the captain announces, ‘We will shortly be pushing back from the stand’, we know that a towing vehicle will be used until the plane can make a forward turn. Also involved in that turn is air traffic control, the captain who has control of the plane, the co-pilot, the engineers who checked the plane over and the ground staff who refuelled it. At least, 6 people make it possible for the Boeing to make the turn.

So, I hear you ask, what have these two questions to do with education?

In today’s Times Educational Supplement (22nd June, 2018), there is an article about Sir Steve Lancashire, the CEO of REAch2, an academy trust of 60 primary schools. I have never met Sir Steve but I warmed to his quirky, personable humour and his commitment to schools in deprived areas. He speaks of the ‘moral duty’ of academy trusts to help such schools and makes clear that he is committed to ‘tough schools where you can make a real difference’. If my children were of primary age, I believe that they would be looked after and receive a good education in one of Sir Steve Lancashire’s schools.

However, If I was to ask the question ‘How many people does it take to turn round a school?’ and use only this article to answer it, I would be hard-pressed to find any evidence that it was anyone but Sir Steve Lancashire. There is a reference from Martin George, the writer of the article, to how, ‘As a headteacher, he had a record of helping to turn around troubled schools…’ but nothing else. The final column addresses the controversial matter of Sir Steve Lancashire’s salary of between £240,000 - £250,000 for the year 2016-17, including a bonus from the previous year. In replying to Martin George’s question to the reader, ‘Is he worth it?’, Sir Steve Lancashire replies that he gives value for what he earns. He presents evidence to support his view:

“I can look myself in the mirror and I can think to myself, ‘You are responsible for 20,000 children, you have taken 60 schools, 17 per cent of which were ‘good’, and now towards 80 per cent of them are ‘good’. REAch2 has a £120 million turnover, it has an estate worth £0.5 billion”.

By now – if not before – you will understand the implications of my questions about the number of people it takes to turn round the oil tanker and the Boeing 747.

Since the Academisation of schools, there has emerged the phenomenon described as ‘superhead’. Superheads are regarded as ‘fixers’, replacing the leaders of failing schools, mainly in Special Measures, with the overriding aim of improving results. Leaving aside the the fact that results usually decline once the superhead has moved on, usually to rescue another school, a mythology has been created that the responsibility for turning round the school resides in one person. The language to describe the process reinforces this perception, often used by the superhead themselves.

To his credit, Sir Steve Lancashire has taken a career decision to commit himself long-term to REAch2 and, from Martin George’s description, I don’t believe he would relish the term ‘superhead’. But he did not single-handedly take “60 schools, 17 per cent of which were ‘good’, and now towards 80 per cent of them are good”. His headteachers and their teaching staff, support staff and non-teaching staff did that, under his leadership. While he may technically be ‘responsible for 20,000 children’, the day-to-day responsibility for the children rests with the headteacher and teaching staff in each school.

I believe that Sir Steve Lancashire did not intentionally omit to recognise the hundreds of teaching and non-teaching staff who increase the life chances of the many disadvantaged children he serves. But the language he uses pervades press reports and articles such as this in educational publications. It is one of the many factors that contribute to teachers feeling unappreciated and unrewarded for the part they play in turning a school round. And a lack of reward is one of the 6 causes of Burnout identified by Christina Maslach, who has been studying Burnout since the ‘70s.

Like turning round the oil tanker and the Boeing, turning a school round is a team effort and that is why the answer to both questions is not ‘The captain’.

Steve Waters is the founder and director of the Teach Well Alliance which is dedicated to reducing teacher workload, preventing and tackling Burnout and working in partnership to create a school culture of staff wellbeing. His specialisms are mental health and Burnout.

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