What a fiasco! That’s the headlines over the government’s handling of education and the hundreds of thousands of students who have been unable to take their A levels or GCSEs. I don’t think anyone could disagree with that assessment but let’s look at this in more detail – particularly in terms of leadership.
A caveat first however. I’ve made a lot of assumptions as we all have to when not privy to internal dialogue of the relevant departments and teams. Go with it though.
I’ve heard plenty of pundits ironically mocking Gavin Williamson and the rest of the Cabinet about their ‘exams’ for leadership and downgrading of their performance. The ‘flip-flop’ of decision making, the inability to foresee problems facing them, the reliance on others for assessment and evaluation and for coming up with a plan, the inability to see the long-term consequences – the scenario planning required in major change.
If there was a leadership exam, would the current incumbents pass?
Let’s look at some of the characteristics, knowledge and skills that you might want to include in any leadership exam – in no particular order.
Yes, there’s been a distinct lack of strategic foresight here with perhaps the first being the decision to cancel the exam season altogether – especially when other countries had managed to reconfigure the exam process to enable their students to sit them. There was precedent here, a role model that could have been adapted to suit our circumstances and which could have been observed with the horizon scanning that all leaders should be able to do as one of their skills.
Perhaps the second is the importance of ensuring you have the right team around you when managing complex change during a crisis. From what I’ve read, it would appear that the Minister for Education was not part of the ‘inner circle’ dealing with the pandemic. If this is true, then the equivalent of a whole division of a corporate body was effectively siloed and the complex system that makes up ‘UK plc’ would not have been viewed as a whole. It was inevitable that mistakes would be made (they always are because we’re dealing with people and people aren’t perfect) but it appears that steps were not taken to mitigate this particular mistake.
Compounded with that, it seems that the team in the Minister’s own division were not included in every step and their expertise drawn upon. The assessment algorithm was not sufficiently piloted with system partners or even fully explained prior to implementation. IT is notoriously difficult to get right and this was designed to do the job it was asked to do. Was the ask the correct one though? The experience of Scotland, the results of which would have been known about internally long before it became public, were not used to challenge assumptions made about the English system. And now we’re into the full blame department with OfQual carrying the can.
Thirdly, errors have been made with communication. Internally there wasn’t clear messaging between departments or agencies or a willingness to lay out the decision path as to the how, what and why of the algorithm design. Were the right questions asked at every stage and every level leading to a lack of robust challenge? We get a sense of there being a, ‘we’ll ask the questions or give the answers that will make us feel that we’ve covered our backs’ attitude. Johnson’s declaration that the system was robust and world beating supports that assumption. There was a lack of courage to go into those zones of uncomfortable discussion to determine the truth.
By all accounts then our current leadership would have failed the exam had there been one. What did they do right though? It depends where you want responsibility to stop but let’s assume that it stops with the Minister.
They apologised, too late in the day perhaps, but Gavin Williamson and the head of OfQual have said they’re sorry. They’ve not tried to blame those lower down – or not yet anyway.
When it was clear that the decisions they had taken were wrong, they changed the decision. To change your view, to apologise takes strength and courage. It may well be a fool’s courage in order to save a job (for it certainly hasn’t saved a reputation) but it’s courage nevertheless.
Sadly, I can think of little else that would fit the leadership criteria, unless of course it’s been set so low by the governing party that anyone would pass. And whilst Williams may eventually be made into the fall guy and forced to resign or be sacked, in some ways that would be a failure too – a failure of the system of leadership being displayed currently by central government.
Laura Murphy blogs about things that interest her. They might not interest you but read them anyway. It might even change your mind.