Labour: House of Cards in the Staffroom

Yesterday two things happened. First I met up with my friend Helen who is involved with Young Labour up in Merseyside. We discussed the realities of a Corbyn-led party as opposed to what we had hoped, and we spoke about Momentum. We questioned whether Corbyn’s Labour will be able to deliver the goods come the next General Election. Secondly, when I got home, I just watched my box set of the original House of Cards and fell into the cold intoxicating Machiavelllian gaze of Francis Urquhart.

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As I watched Urquhart soliloquising his views of the prospective leaders of the Conservative Party and their relative merits or lack of, I couldn’t help but think of Labour. Whilst we aren’t in power any more, we are suffering from the same ailment of a crisis in leadership. I say this as somebody who voted for Corbyn too and who wants for it to work, but for a leader to be attacked from within his own cabinet whilst the media also tear him apart like it is a fox hunt… this is something of a crisis.

And then, confused edublogger wondering what this has to do with schools, it made me think of schools. We have a similar problem but on a pandemic scale, with the burgeoning dearth of headteachers raising the prospect of even greater crises.

When there is a lack of clear leadership, or a very small and shallow pool of talent from which to source it, certain things happen in Politics just as in schools. For one thing, promotion routes slicken and the gates become wider. As the need for leadership becomes more apparent, more people begin to consider themselves as possible leaders, justifying it in terms of institutional need rather than personal readiness. Similarly, individuals are pulled into leadership, or pushed into it by those below, often without the fully thought out consent of the individual.

To link the Labour Party situation to that of schools, let’s have a little thought experiment. The last battle for leadership between Corbyn, Burnham, Cooper and Kendall was one between people with a range of experiences.

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Jeremy Corbyn was the most experienced as an MP but without senior political leadership experience – he is the very capable but problematically idiosyncratic Head of Sociology, who riles up the managers every few years. He writes his lesson plans by hand, and carries them around in a cloth bag.

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Andy Burnham quickly made a name for himself and established himself as the popular frontrunner, emerging from the last disastrous Ofsted as though he was born to lead – he is the TeachFirster who, since being parachuted in, has spread good ideas, charmed everybody but also rubbed some up the wrong way because he looks like other TeachFirsters who were crap before him.

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Yvette Cooper has been in the party for a long time and has served in high office with diligence, persistence but without having made much of a public impression – she is the one in school who the headteacher steers the Ofsted inspectors towards, because she is, without sparkle or embellishment, simply someone who delivers consistently. She probably leaves at 4:30 without needing to fill the car boot with marking.

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Liz Kendall was relatively unknown before the election and was generally known to be running on the Blairite ticket – in school terms, she would be the one suggesting that this and that would work better if it was done like it was in her previous school, whilst everyone else eyerolls around her during the coffee break in the Staffroom. Her department probably has a private Whatsapp group to bitch about her.

Now, as we know, Corbyn the Head of Sociology won the election, and with John McDonnell as his Chancellor, he brought the NUT Rep in as his right hand (on the left wing) man.

Now for me, as somebody who loves sociology and the trade union movement, I ought to be more happy than I am. Leaders are installed who speak of the kinds of change I would like to see – when society is increasingly dysfunctional, the opposition should be offering an increasingly different alternative. But actually, the Staffroom is in such uproar, with Liz Kendall having gone to set up her own Staffroom in a vacant stock cupboard with Tristram Hunt (TeachFirst 2010) and Chuka Umunna (TeachFirst 2011), and with rumours that Mr Corbyn actually secretly dished out ballot papers to a group of sixth formers during the election… nobody is focusing on the world outside the Staffroom.

Policies are getting slack, behavioural standards are falling, staff are playing with their phones during INSET, the Year 10s have relaxed their uniforms and nobody has bothered to pull them up on it and teaching and learning is starting to suffer. Meanwhile, the Free School next door is rubbing its hands as it waits eagerly to see by how many points higher it is in the borough league table.

Both schools and the Labour Party perhaps ought to hold on more firmly to a few simple truths.

1. Being brilliant at one element of your job doesn’t mean you would be a good leader – this is as true of an ‘outstanding teacher’ or SENCO as it is of a campaigning backbencher or public speaker.
2. Desperate times often cause people to move up when they are not yet experienced enough or prepared enough for office.
3. In times of desperation, beware nepotism as people may be promoted up to support other leaders more than to become adept leaders themselves.
4. Leadership is something that should be inculcated and prepared for, and the Labour Party and schools alike should be fostering their future leaders before the desperate need for them exists.

Well, you may think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

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