“That would be my red line”
An analysis of headteachers’ resistance of neoliberal education reforms
Headteachers are not generally known for being a bolshie lot. Unlike, for example, coalminers, dockers, Oxbridge professors and, more recently, Amazon employees.
Indeed, are headteachers not the epitome of conservative social values, or at least meant to be?
Sure, over the years I’ve come across a number of far-left revolutionaries who also happened to be teachers, but none made it to Headship.
Indeed, none made it very far at all.
That said, push even the most compliant beast too hard and its likely to turn and bite you. And such is the case with headteachers, at least according to this article by Kay Fuller.
And as no one can deny, not least Ms Fuller, headteachers have certainly been whipped along this past few decades:
‘In neo-liberal times, marketisation, managerialism and performativity suggest a values-free approach to educational leadership. School leaders, tasked with driving educational reforms, have not always resisted the reforms they find unpalatable, such as standards agenda, prescribed curricula, high stakes testing and the fragmentation of the education system. By virtue of their long service, it might be assumed that experienced headteacher/principals are largely compliant having successfully managed a school’s performance and secured its place in the market.’ (p. 31)
The inference being, of course, that headteachers are largely complicit in the neo-liberal’s destruction of education – for staying silent, doing nothing, and going along with the latest educational neo-liberalist fad dumped on them by whoever happens to be Minister of Education at the time.
If you are a state headteacher reading this, someone who has spent their working life in a country whose government has enthusiastically embraced the most extreme aspects of neo-liberalism (e.g capitalist, right-wing reform of schools through free market economic and social transformations) then Fuller’s claim that your profession ‘has sustained attack on mind, body and soul’ at least since the early 1980s, will no doubt ring true.
You’ll have the mental and physical scars to prove it.
However, if you are an international school headteacher, working as a global professional nomad, selling your services to the highest bidder – invariably a private company or owner who is looking for a very solid ‘bottom line’ - then maybe neo-liberalism is not something you lose too much precious sleep over.
Not least because it pays your high salary.
But whether state or international school headteacher, is it reasonable to suggest you have no values, express an apolitical, ‘values-free’ approach, not least so as to protect your job, lifestyle, status?
If there is any empirical evidence out there to support that hypothesis then I am not aware of it. What we do know, however, is that headteachers, whether state or international, are trapped between a rock and a hard place.
Value-Free Professional Identity?
One reason why it is possible to speculate on the ‘value-free’ compliance of headteachers is because of the general absence of research into their resistances. And this is attributed to the concept of resistance as being seen as a negative action or response e.g. the very idea of a ‘resistant headteacher’ has to be an oxymoron. Resistant social science teacher, yes. Resistant Head of PE, yes. Resistant cook, most definitely. However, by the time the individual plonks their butt in the Principal’s chair, any resistance will have been displaced by pragmatism. At least in most cases.
That said, some studies do indicate that headteachers are not the willing slaves of the capitalist establishment as they’ve been portrayed. We also know they have a ‘red line’, at least according to this article. And that red line manifests itself as different forms of resistance to neo-liberalist policies and ideologies.
Fuller offers a summary of a host of global research which taken together suggests that there is a lot more going on in the headteacher’s heart and mind beyond keep their particular school exam results and student enrolments.
‘What they [the studies] agree is that headteachers do oppose reforms, and there is ambivalence and ambiguity in their opposition. That makes resistance complex, messy and hard to see, and counters a binary approach to constructing headteacher’s responses as either compliant or resistant.’ (p. 34)
The setting for this study is English education, one of the first to be impacted by what has subsequently become known as the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) and spread to all four corners of the globe. The research was constructed from self-reported responses from 10 English headteachers, with a total of 147 years of headship experience, ranging from 7 to 21 years. Of the five women and five men, three were school headteachers/principals in a local authority-maintained school, sponsored academy or converter academy. Four were executive headteachers of two or three converter academies; two were CEO of groups of 8-15 secondary and primary academies; and one had a dual role as executive principal and CEO of a MAT. Nine identified as British/white British, one as European/Asian dual heritage.
Organisational resistance is not only messy, it is often unseen. Which is why the article categories it as ‘everyday resistance’ and ‘covert resistance’. Though it is also acknowledged this is a ‘heuristic device’ because the reality is these forms of resistances overlap and interconnect.
Everyday acts of resistance:
This typically emerges as a vocal complaint about the latest neo-liberal reform to land on the head’s desk;
‘Headteachers explicitly challenged and questioned reforms. One head’s “red line” was the expansion of selective education; he saw school segregation as wholly inappropriate in a democratic society. The heads used disparaging remarks to describe the reforms and their effects: ‘madness, appalling, wicked, ridiculous, rubbish, hare-brained, silly, alien, a fiasco, nonsense.’ (p. 40)
‘Headteachers’ language was peppered with military imagery to describe reform activity as a “big push; blitz; purge; existential threat; empires battling; people as troops; little Hitlers; weaponry; parachutes; fighting; being in a bunker; raising one’s head above the parapet;; and the need for protection against damage, injury, death.’ (p. 40)
These findings clearly confirm the claim that headteachers feel under attack, and vulnerable in mind, body and soul. At the same time, they feel obligated to ‘protect staff from this turbulence; act as a ‘filter’ for staff, whilst openly disdaining contemporary education policy’. ‘Sarcasm and shared jocularity at his expense expressed collective resistance difficult to achieve openly with the former secretary or state. Michael Gove.’
So what we see here is headteachers feeling like they should resist, wanting to resist, but having to maintain their role as school leaders, charged with enacting policies they believe to be both ridiculous and damaging. Consequently, most of their everyday acts of resistance in the school are limited to language, humour, sarcasm.
Overt acts of resistance:
Counter-discourse took place both in and outside the school. Local networking between headteachers was a form of collective action resistance to education policy reforms. Headteachers refused to enact certain policies where it was feasible to do so. Some headteachers resisted by default, as one headteacher described it:
‘I’m quite bloody minded and sometimes say “No, we’re not doing that,” or “Go away”, or, ‘Yeah, we’ll do that but we’ll subvert it.” And I think experience does give you that bit of extra confidence to say “Oh blow it. What can they do, sack me?” You know, “I’m not going to do this, it’s wrong,” or, “Yeah, we’ll do it but not now, or “We’ll do it, but we’ll do it in our own way.” (p.41)
The older, more experienced headteachers were more likely to stand firm in the face of ‘ridiculous’ and ‘stupid’ policy changes especially those which they felt would harm children’s education.
This overt resistance came with risks but as one headteacher implied, “so what, they can only sack me. There are times as leader that you have to stand up for what is right, not be browbeaten into submission.”
‘This paper shows that headteachers do resist education reforms with which they disagree. It shows how they critically engaged with and resisted neoliberal education reforms, and how they might do so in other contexts at other times. Headteachers’ resistance practice included everyday resistance that needed to be uncovered and more overt forms as counter-resistance, counter-conduct and collective action. The combination of these forms provided a context that enabled interpretation of semblance of compliance as resistance.” (p. 47)
This is a valuable paper on resistance in leadership, not least because it is generally an under-researched area, especially in terms of educational leaders. The findings are extensive and this article doesn’t claim to do justice to them, but the overall conclusion is that headteachers can be ‘bolshie, bloody-minded’ and determined to not accept everything they are told to do by politicians’.
I personally find that really heartening.
So I say more power to any headteacher who is prepared to uphold their values and principles especially when faced with neo-liberalist ideologies which are counter to the wellbeing and needs of students and teachers.
reference: Fuller, K. (2019). "That would be my red line": an analysis of headteachers' resistance of neoliberal education reforms. Educational Review, 71(1), 31-50
INTERESTED IN INTERNATIONAL SCHOOLING?
The Teacher’s Guide is getting around!