School Leadership: Mourinho versus Solskjaer

Sulky Jose…?

This was, originally,  going to start with the question, “Do you want to be led in your school by Jose Mourinho or Ole Gunar Solskjaer?” Imagine a situation where the interview process for the new Headship at your school has got through to the last stage and there are only two candidates chosen for final interview. The two surprise candidates, disillusioned with the world of top flight football management, have decided it’s time to “give something back” and devote themselves to State school leadership. Mourinho and Solskjaer have polished their Powerpoints, rehearsed their assembly and have mugged up on everything there is to know about Knowledge-Rich curricula, Zero Tolerance behaviour approaches and direct instruction. The staff room waits with bated breath. Which one would you rather have as your leader?

Or, smiley softie Ole?

Bloody Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Everything was going so well after he took over the reins at Manchester United from Jose Mourinho in December last year. The scowling, miserable, sour faced bad loser Mourinho was finally despatched, though not, disappointingly, on Christmas Eve. It would have been fitting to have seen him trudge homeward through the snowy streets of Manchester, in time to spend a grudging Christmas with his nearest and dearest, complaining about the inadequate presents he had been bought. (“What? A pair of socks? Don’t you know my record? Three Premier League titles. Three. Respect. Respect.”)

Mourinho had turned Manchester United into the Theresa May of English football: cautious, wooden, frightened, ineffective. For May, that was no great tragedy. There was no fall from a great height, no previous evidence of charisma or invention or audacity. She had always been distinguished by her mediocrity. But United had flair and panache in their DNA. The team of Edwards, Charlton, Best, Law, Giggs and Cantona had been reduced to shuffling, shabby incompetence. It was embarrassing.

And then the Roundhead was replaced by the Cavalier. Mercifully released from Mourinho’s stifling safety first approach, where players operated under a culture of fear, they responded to Solskjaer’s reign like cattle let out of the winter sheds into Spring pasture. They gambolled. They leaped. They  ran friskily. They played games with a sense of joy rediscovered. Pogba once again was the midfield colossus from the French World Cup winning side. Lukaku looked like a forward who knew how to terrorise defences and score goals. Rashford tore into teams  with direct running and close control. And they won.

And for the blogger always on the lookout for the easy metaphor, it was a gift from heaven. The parallel with the current two tribes approach to School Leadership was uncanny. You could either have the New Brutalism, in the form of Mourinho, or the person-centered, relationship-nurturer of Solskjaer. And with Mourinho, and the Zero Tolerance advocates, you got systems, functionalism, fear and compliance. But no love. No passion. No commitment. And, as a direct result of that, no long term performance. No personal growth. No sustainability. The Roundhead Mourinho was yesterday’s man, old fashioned virtues repackaged for the modern age. You blame everyone else when things go wrong. Demonise the previous regime for sloppy, muddle headed progressivism. Blame the players, or the kids. Or the teachers. How wonderful when it didn’t work and it seemed that Mourinho had been comprehensively found out.

And at first, the human face that was Solskjaer worked brilliantly. They began to win again. Words of confidence worked their magic and players began to express themselves and their innate talent blossomed again. Trust the players, treat them like adults, listen to them and all will be well. Just like in schools. Fear will never produce anything more than compliance. Love and loyalty, on the other hand, move mountains.

And then they gave him a full time contract and the wheels fell off again.

Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn. My beautiful school leadership metaphor shrivelling up on the vine with every passing game. The players, like the naughty kids, started taking the piss again, presumably because they knew that nice Ole wouldn’t do anything about it. Not even give them a bollocking. There seemed to be no consequence for their actions, so why not mess around until the end of the season, picking up a huge pay check and knowing that you’d be off to better club in the summer. So what if Alan Shearer calls you out on Match of the Day on Saturday night for not working hard enough? Big deal. You could buy Alan Shearer ten times over.

And I recalled an incident from my time as a Deputy Head, watching a crowd of naughty Year 10 kids summoned to the head’s office, exclusions pending. With my adjacent office door ajar, I listened, fascinated, to their conversation. It was like the scene from “Kes” with the smokers outside the head’s door, except this time without the sweet, innocent lad who gets the cane for nothing and without the swivel eyed psychopathic headteacher wielding his cane like a light sabre.

As the Head breezed into his office past them, inviting them in as he passed, one lad turned to his mates and said, sotto voce, “Watch me get out of this.” And he did. Ten minutes later he walked out, having given an Oscar winning performance as the contrite sinner who had seen the error of his ways, the head’s chummy words of encouragement ringing in his ears. As he turned to go down the corridor, I caught, through the crack in my office door, the smirk the lad gave his fellow ne’er-do-wells. It was chilling.

The Head went home that day feeling good about himself. He’d shown his human side. He’d connected with a difficult child in difficult circumstances. He’d established a relationship and saved the child from another exclusion. But actually, he’d let the child and the family down and the rest of the school who had to field the consequences of his maximum tolerance everyday in the corridors and the classrooms.

Most of the time the guy was a great head. He did a very good job at a difficult school. He emphasised relationships at the same time as cracking down on behaviour issues and he definitely improved the school. If you had to categorise him according to the metaphor, he would definitely be a Solskjaer rather than a Mourinho.

You remember that wonderful piece of research about school leaders from a couple of years ago that categorised Heads as Architects, Surgeons, Philosophers, Soldiers and Accountants? The one that disappeared without trace because the coming wave of movers and shakers didn’t like the conclusions? All classroom teachers would have been able to recognise the categories. Many headteachers would have raised a sceptical eyebrow because they like to think of themselves as visionaries or missionaries or messiahs. Sorry Heads – gross and cheap stereotyping there. I know many of you are fabulous human beings, particularly those of you who are reading this blog. Follow the link below. It deserves to be resurrected and followed up because it’s never been more important than now, when Surgeons bestride the Education Stage, lionised, rewarded. Mourinhos all of them, at the height of his powers, before he got found out.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-37717211

There is another way to do it. Not Mourinho or Solskjaer. Not iron discipline or trendy, progressive  chaos. There is no need to polarise in this way. Let’s have ethical leadership that consults, engages, trusts staff, listens to students. That establishes and maintains good behaviour without treating children like convicts. That takes learning seriously without being enslaved by examination outcomes. That has a curriculum that serves the children, not the floor targets.

And, to finally flog my football metaphor to death, the beautiful game has, as it always does, the answers. Or some of them at least. There are four English teams in the two major European finals this year. And guess what? Three of them are managed by outstanding leaders: Guardiola, Klopp, and Pochettino. (Sorry Sarri – that chainsmoking hiding your tab from the cameras is just too Andy Capp and 1970s for you to be a serious candidate).

All lead by example, know their players, treat them like adults, give them responsibility, insist on the highest standards, allow people the space to make a mistake, turn them into better players. So no, my original question was wrong. Do you want to be led in your school by Mourinho or Solskjaer? Neither. Give us a version of Guardiola, Klopp or Pochettino instead. And watch everybody fly.

Group Think

The blind leading the blind………..

The grass flattening takes my mind back nearly twenty years ago when I was on the Deputy head interview treadmill. At one gruelling interview process lasting three days (including an evening meeting the Governors, who appeared to be the Tory Party at play in deepest Surrey. The point of this bit seemed to be to see whether you could hold a plate of canapes, a glass of dry white wine and still engage in small talk about property prices and skiing holidays) I found myself in a group of five candidates sitting in a circle. There was an outer circle, accommodating members of the panel with clipboards, frantically scribbling notes as we all strutted our stuff. We were meant to be members of the Senior Leadership group and, at intervals, we were given a little slip of paper with a hot educational topic on it. Each candidate took it in turns to introduce and chair the discussion of the topic.

All was going well until a new topic was introduced. To combat vandalism and poor behaviour in the toilets, the school was going to introduce CCTV cameras inside the toilets and the cubicles. Three of the candidates fell over themselves in their eagerness to demonstrate their toughness. Nothing would stand in their way of stamping out bad behaviour. Their proposals got wilder and wilder as they tried to trump each other’s hardman credentials. I felt increasingly uncomfortable as this authoritarian auction proceeded, but shamefully, I kept my counsel. But then, the fifth candidate, a young woman who had been under the radar until this point, interjected and gently pointed out that perhaps the issue of privacy had not been given a proper airing. Silence filled the room and a look of horror spread across the faces as they all realised that they had just made themselves look rather foolish. It would be lovely to report that the young woman got the job, but I’m afraid this story does not have a fairytale ending, not even for me. One of the brutalist, authoritarian, sharp suited chaps got it, despite not having uttered a word of sense nor imagination throughout the three days. I’m pretty sure that he would have been first in the queue for grass flattening had it been around back in the day. He’s probably advising them on it now.

“Flattening the grass” and the ethics of behaviour management

It sounds like the sort of thing the servants might have been tasked to do before a nice picnic on the lawn in gentler times, but the metaphor conceals a more sinister practice. In the last week, allegations have emerged of Academy Chains using this tactic to establish new zero tolerance regimes in recently taken over schools. John Tomsett, Headteacher of Huntingdon school in York, posted, “ Later in the week I heard of a MAT-endorsed behaviour ethos-setting exercise called “flattening the grass” rolling assemblies. Allegedly, this involves the MAT executives visiting the school, en masse, to stand around the edge of the assembly hall whilst the head of school outlines, in emphatic terms to year group after year group, the MAT’s expectations of students’ behaviour. Before the assemblies begin, individual students are identified for the head of school to single out in front of their peers until they cry. If the head of school is not emphatic enough, the MAT CEO walks forward, replaces the head of school and concludes the assembly in a more suitably emphatic manner. The students are the “grass” which is “flattened” by the experience.” https://johntomsett.com/2019/02/03/this-much-i-know-about-behaviour-management-flattening-the-grass-and-mary-myatt/

This allegation, condemned for a while on Twitter until it all went quiet, has resurfaced in Schools Week in an article by John Dickens which accuses The Outward Grange Trust and the Delta Academies Trust, both of which run many schools in the north of England, of routinely adopting these practices. The article quotes unnamed employees of the OGAT trust and the allegations are backed up by testimony from parents and students. When the TES asked OGAT to respond to the allegations they were not denied and subsequently they have employed a “political and media relations firm”, Abzed, to handle the fallout.

What madness is this? How have we got to this point? The response to these allegations by critics thus far has been wholly inadequate: mild, tentative and questioning. A raised eyebrow rather than a full-throated roar of condemnation. “Flattening” students until they cry? This is a practice with more in common with psychological torture and interrogation techniques than with school behaviour management. They are children for goodness sake, children for whom the organisations in question have a duty of care. I’m sure that every member of staff in these schools wears their ID lanyard (too fearful of being “flattened” themselves, no doubt) and they have been granted the Ofsted tick for safeguarding. But I have no doubt that the pupils at these schools are far from being “safe”.

The real tragedy here is that we have constructed a culture where this is no longer remarkable. The smack of firm leadership is de rigeur these days. The “I make no apologies for insisting on the highest standards” brigade have been allowed to chip away at civilized norms of institutional practice so that just about anything goes. The end justifies the means it seems and anyone who challenges that is dismissed as a bleeding -heart liberal. And so these ghastly practices spread slowly and insidiously until the fabric of the system is riddled with them.

It has to stop. Now. There needs to be an immediate official enquiry and a statement from the DfE condemning these practices in the strongest possible terms.