Putting our faith in ‘Leaders’ – There are lessons to be learned

The recent acquittal of the former Executive Head of the Lincoln Priory Chain of Academies and his Director of Finance appears to have caused a few raised eyebrows in many areas. It is not my intention to pass my own personal judgement on the rights and wrongs of the case. What concerns me more is the fact that the Department of Education considered there to be sufficient grounds to ask the local police to conduct an enquiry which eventually led to a court case that is set to cost the taxpayer a considerable amount of money.

This is not the first time that so called ‘Super Heads’ have made the headlines following revelations about their conduct. If you add to that the affair in 2013 of Lincolnshire’s Acting Chief Constable, who was first suspended by our Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC), was exonerated by an enquiry and then reinstated with an apology from the PCC at a cost to the taxpayer of around £160,000, you can see that putting our faith in the judgement of individuals without effective and stringent checks and balances can land us in a great deal of trouble and cause embarrassment to institutions that ought to have our respect.

Let’s look at education in more detail. Some ‘School Leaders’ as they are increasingly being called, often seem to be able to get more or less what they want. Governing bodies, comprising mainly laypersons, often, but not always, tend to be deferential towards professionals, whether they are, for example, Heads or Chief Constables, who should know what they are doing. The problem with the new breed of Academy Head is that many school governing bodies sometimes appear to be mesmerised by them to the point where they appear incapable of holding them to account, often seeming more than happy to ride on the coattails of ‘successful’ heads when things are apparently going well. By their admission that they “have made significant progress since 2011” the Board of Trustees of the Priory Chain would appear to be admitting that things had not been quite right when the investigation was ordered. It’s a pity that the ground rules couldn’t have been properly worked out before the project was launched. Judging by other examples, what happened here in Lincoln is by no means unique. However, it is not unknown in this country to introduced ideas which appear to have been worked out on the back of an envelope and not properly tried and tested and then to wonder why things can go wrong.

Let’s look at the case of the Police and Crime Commissioners again. When this idea was introduced what was lacking was the kind of governance that the Police Authorities used to provide. The Police Panel, which the new Act of Parliament established, was supposed to scrutinise the actions of the PCC only and not the Police Force as a whole. It took over two months for the panel to react to the decision by the PCC to suspend the Chief Constable. No wonder that the original Chairman of the Lincolnshire Police Panel felt it necessary to resign after being hauled over the coals by Westminster’s Home Affairs Select Committee, with the Chairman, Keith Vaz MP, describing the goings on in the county as “a soap opera”.

If we continue to insist on having ‘Leaders’ we had better make sure that the structures are in place in future to hold them properly to account before things get out of hand. Too much power in the hands of an individual can be a dangerous thing.

* John Marriott is a former Liberal Democrat councillor from Lincolnshire.

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13 Comments

  • Paul Griffiths 2nd Feb '16 - 12:11pm

    Agreed. I fear that Combined Authority Mayors – so-called “metro mayors” – will be the next example.

  • @ John Marriott

    As usual, lots of good sense from John. It’s beyond me why politicians (who have never had a proper job) want to muck about with what used to be a perfectly good state education system.

    I remember with affection the days when Westmorland County Council (and then Cumbria) played a good positive role in state schools. Now it’s dog eat dog and no co-operation – with Heads playing to the gallery rather than getting on with the real job.

  • Paul Griffith’s fears about Combined Authority Mayors are well founded. Some time over the next couple of years we expect Yorkshire Labour Leaders to conclude a devolution deal with Cameron’s government. They will present it as a financial necessity but they will only settle when they are reassured that the boundaries will give them the concentration of power to which they feel entitled.

  • re the later post above by Paul Walter, I note the poor soul concerned is now living in Spain and no doubt will shortly be receiving his state benefits. I wonder if he has a new spa pool ?

  • Richard Boyd OBE DL 3rd Feb '16 - 11:11am

    I found the article to be well reasoned and supported by real evidence. I recall that when PCC’s were first suggested fears, by those with experience of holding Chief Constables “to account”, were raised about “eggs-in-one-basket” and “well-intentioned but superficial overview” were raised. Naturally, those fears were ignored by the creators of a fag packet policy that was designed to get rid of Police Authorities – regardless of seeing of they could be improved. Chief Constables, as a breed, are strong characters and have been-there-done-it- and (in their mind) earned the tee-shirt”, Yes, there were those on Police Authorities who were over-awed by their Chiefs, but there were others
    (Magistrates/Home Office Appointees/Elected County Councillors) who had experience of life, and work outside policing and in the real community who, jointly could achieve balance. In areas of Single-Party traditional control, that may not have been the case, as authorities could be packed with place-men who deferred to the Chair. Replacing them with a “one Man Band” did not cure that. PCC’s are a sample, like Super Heads, of the belief than a benign dictator can achieve rapid and cost effective results. For every example offered, by the Tories, that “Business Leaders” are demi-gods I have to recall the Co-Op Bank Chairman, The City Bankers, The leaders of Rover Cars (that caused its collapse), and consider that for every success there have been many more failures. So, what is my conclusion? Do not give any support to the concept of PCC’s and the mad-cap idea of expanding their control to F ire and Rescue (Will Ambulance and Coast Guard follow?)

  • “putting our faith in the judgement of individuals without effective and stringent checks and balances can land us in a great deal of trouble…”

    Exactly right. A friend teaches at a school run by a “super head”, a darling of the DfE, with responsibility for several schools and he is scathing – decisions are often arbitrary and based on spite or misunderstandings that no-one dare challenge. As the saying goes it’s a case of “kiss up but kick down”.

    My own experience is in industry where a significant proportion of bosses I ever worked for were only interested in feathering their own nest. The cost to those companies was staggering and, generalised to the economy as a whole, must easily dwarf the figures tossed around in the context of the budget deficit. So it’s weird that Lib Dems don’t make a case for change. Most have little interest in the arcane arguments of macroeconomics but when it comes to workplace democracy the right policy would strike a chord with huge numbers from all walks of life and would do more to transform lives than any welfare reform via both happier workplaces and by generating greater prosperity all round.

    FWIW I like the idea of strong leaders – provided that they are talented and genuinely working for the collective good. In practice, that means that their position should depend on the continued support of their staff (who are the only people who really know what’s going on) and that, absent that support, they are quickly evicted. For instance that’s what makes the John Lewis Partnership so different from, say, the old Co-op – the Partners can fire the Chairman and he knows it.

    http://www.johnlewispartnership.co.uk/about/our-constitution.html

    Conversely, controlling management via committees doesn’t work. It may take out the worst lows (although that’s not guaranteed) but it certainly takes out the highs. Lib Dem governance review please note.

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