'Empowerment': the approved buzzword for the Scottish Government's current drive to give greater authority to school head teachers. Many are sceptical: widespread staffing and workload concerns mean additional responsibilities are unwelcome. But surely 'freedom to manage' must be good?
Well, maybe not. For many, the empowerment of senior managers means giving them a licence to bully. While most head teachers are humane, supportive; others lack emotional intelligence and are narcissistic in nature. Contrary to the 'collegiate' ethos of Curriculum for Excellence, such leaders are neither distributive nor empowering, seeing the school as a personal fiefdom, their senior position and salary evidence of their own capabilities, and their right to mould the institution in their 'heroic' management style.
This is where the brave new world of leadership programmes meets reality. And reality bites. Bullying by senior management didn't go away; it just got a new suit and deployed all that expensive training to wield power as they see fit. Compliant staff will be appointed, promoted; others targeted.
Especially those deemed 'not with the programme'.
It's a world of moving goalposts: the plethora of initiatives, guidelines, frameworks, performance indicators, supplies ammunition. Educational documents: deliberately misinterpreted to justify critical intervention. Individual autonomy: questioned, then curtailed. Disagreement, non-compliance: evidence of psychological flaws, grounds for disciplinary action. Staff may well be referred to occupational health or sent on training courses for 're-education'. And every move by the senior manager is presented as 'support'.
The Education Support Partnership is working with staff across the UK on this problem, as described first-hand recently by a young teacher: 'It was horrendous, I hated every second of it. Endless put-downs and humiliations by the head; unannounced observations where she picked holes in everything I did, making me increasingly nervous, affecting my confidence. She said, repeatedly, that I was too expensive, not performing well. I tried to adjust to the fact that I was just not a good teacher any more.'
All UK teacher unions recognise it and are increasingly inundated by the syndrome: 'Excessive fear, loss of self-worth, a reluctance to go to school, physical ill health including weight loss, disrupted sleep, headaches, depression, panic attacks...'
What causes this? How do previously good colleagues prove so dreadful at managing people? In some cases, the bullying senior manager fits a mould, such as the 'Dunning-Kruger effect' – a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly over-rate their cognitive abilities. Others cite the 'Peter Principle', describing people rising to their 'level of incompetence'. Once there, they lack the insight to grasp that their own incompetence may be the cause of the organisation's problems.
As management scientists Drew Dudley and Scott Berkun note, the skilled leader should be 'a catalyst in the expansion of capacity for others', an individual absolutely needing 'emotional intelligence, empathy, communication skills', and more. But some gain promotion because they 'talk a good game' or seem – or at least profess – to have such qualities. For others – and this is particularly true just now, low application numbers and their own willingness to move for promotion, accelerate their progress.
Is this bullying picked up? Probably not. Someone, somewhere, may notice higher levels of staff absence, regular job vacancies and premature retirements. But local authority staff are under siege themselves amidst financial constraints – £400m has been lost from local authority education budgets in the last decade – and endless restructuring. And so the bullying goes on.