There’s been a national expose and some debate about the headteacher of Tidemill Primary school, who was said to have taken home nearly £276,000 in a year, consisting of his salary, some overtime, his pension benefits and a payment for his work on the London Challenge scheme. I took an interest as this is in my own Lewisham Deptford constituency where I’ve been a governor at a similar primary school. Also, I was intrigued that pretty much all my fellow bloggers/tweeters defended Mark Elms’ payment. Apart from the fact that it’s natural to defend someone exposed personally by the BBC and tabloids doing botched research, I’m a little intrigued at their defence because we’re in a state of extreme attention to public expenditure, given that most Government departments are being asked to model 40% cuts. Today there is a big protest against Lewisham Council planning to cut £60 million of services, many of these being cuts to the education, culture, youth and social services, including five libraries, that are keeping Tidemill’s children engaged and positive.
It’s a situation surely where we should be looking scrupulously at excessive salaries and wasteful contracts? True, the spotlight shouldn’t be solely on education, as doctors, lawyers, bankers, BBC managers are far higher paid, as this BBC article describes.
Unfortunately, we seem to be polarised into two camps: Those who defend any public sector project or leader, whatever their pay, against any cuts. And those who are joining the cutting spree with glee, the worst of whom are using the Government’s Spending Challenge call to express their bigotry and intolerance for any support for the vulnerable.
I’m genuinely certain Mark Elms is a fantastic head who has achieved great leadership to create a happy school and this article is in no way intended to oppose those defending him, let alone to attack him. However, he is not the only person responsible for the school’s turnaround. It was a local authority-led remodelling, which involved investing heavily in collaborative ICT, recruiting a raft of new excellent teachers and TAs, setting up creative learning partnerships with Laban, Goldsmiths and others, recruiting a business partnership manager, and drawing on specialist services offered by the borough. (These, and the arts partners, are some of the services now being threatened with cuts.) The average primary head in Lewisham, many dealing with similar intakes, is paid £45-£55k. The main defence of his salary being £200k, £241k or £276k depending on how you calculate it, is that he was also paid for his work on the London Challenge scheme. However, I question how a full-time head has any available time to work for an external scheme to warrant such a high payment as c.£110k. It transpires that this payment was in fact a grant for the school to compensate them for his absence, but the governors decided he should have the bulk of it.
The root problem is that we have succumbed to a culture of ‘command and control’ where leaders are rewarded financially for playing the system well, and spending lots of money through targeted improvement schemes (which don’t easily spread to non-targeted areas which may be only marginally less deprived). They can only dispense their own rewards to their teams through praise (and perhaps support for distributed performance related pay, pulling up teachers who also play the system) while they spend their gains, making everyone else either envious or aspirational, or both. (By the way when I say ‘aspirational’, I mean to suggest it as a worrying trend, not always a positive thing, as I agree with Tim Jackson who says we are caught in a cycle of “spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need to create impressions that don’t last on people we don’t care about.” Of course I don’t reject the idea that children should be aspirational in terms of aiming high for their skills and knowledge.)
Now that the Coalition Government is nudging all schools to become Academies, and urging communities to create new free schools, we are likely to see even more disparity in the financial rewards of the people and companies managing education. The BBC article cites the right-wing Reform thinktank view, which informs Government thinking, that heads should be paid even more than they are, that to recruit high calibre people and motivate them you need big bonuses. That is flawed logic. The New Economics Foundation tells us that we aren’t mainly motivated by financial reward, that money is not a factor in making us happy. Motivation of one leader by money (as well as the job’s own intrinsic rewards) means that the rest of the team are likely to be even more demotivated, on being valued up to 20 times less, and so the leader has to push ever harder to get results. There are many factors that make a happy effective school: a powerful head becomes a more significant factor when the school needs to demonstrate its effectiveness through stark statistics. Probably the most significant factor overall is the wellbeing of the students. The more that students experience inequality (for example, their parents taking three jobs to feed them, while they see bankers and TV celebrities, and their school leaders, living like kings) the less likely they are to achieve wellbeing. I’m not sure that it’s fair to pay heads double (or triple etc etc) mainly because their students are more deprived. The most fulfilled teachers I’ve known (and I’ve worked with thousands over 22 years) are those in schools where children are from disadvantaged backgrounds. What makes the difference in a teacher’s motivation is when they feel empowered, respected by parents and the head, and when there is a sense of equality across the school community.
Many standing up for Mark Elms are defending the value of teachers. However, headteachers are no longer teachers. They do very little teaching, although they must understand it fully. Their function is to mediate between classroom practitioners and the requirements of Government, which are monitored by governors. The emerging requirements now mean that schools must be run like businesses, where children are the products, measured like apples destined for Sainsburys. The gap between teaching and the imposed bureacracy has become so polarised that it is almost impossible for heads to stretch themselves so far, so they tend either to take positions closer to their practitioners or fully play the roles of corporate or local authority managers. Mark Elms may have achieved the near impossible balance of supporting his staff well, while playing the system, and so he should be applauded. His personal exposure is uncomfortable, but I feel it has stirred a useful conversation.
There will be much less money to go around so we have to be much more careful about where it goes, in particular to ensure that it doesn’t deprive the effective cultural and environmental learning provision which really helps our children face the future. One of these is Montage Theatre Arts in Lewisham. Katie was featured in an episode of C4′s How the Other Half Live, living in such a crowded home in New Cross that her father couldn’t stay in the house. She gains a huge amount from her weekly participation in Montage workshops, building her confidence in many skills. Because of funding cuts to education, next term Montage will have to cut their sessions at Crossways college, reachable from her home. Many of the workers for these agencies such as the Rainbow Club for refugee children are paid very little, ranging from nothing to under £20k a year. The cuts mean that services for kids like Katy and the refugees helped by Rainbow may be lost. Do we want to save them or give large bonuses to figureheads?
Update on 18th July: I had been certain Mark Elms was a ‘fantastic head’ but I had also generalised about the heads most rewarded being those that deliver to results, not wanting to assert that Elms was in this category. I was interested then to read amongst a 100 or more comments defending Elms on David Mitchell’s Observer piece, this quote taking an unusual viewpoint from a parent with experience of this head:
“Just a word on Mark Elms. He was previously head of the primary school my 4 children attended in Lewisham. Our experience was wholly different. What was a great school with a warm and welcoming ethos, committed to children’s happiness as well as learning, was ‘turned around’ to become a process and results driven ‘business’. The best teachers left, the school lost its magic and Mr Elms was rushed out to ‘rescue’ another Leiwsham school. Mr Elms, like many others is rewarded for being a New Labour croney, not excellence in eductaion. Great teachers are paid a pittance for performing despite failed education policies that have given Mr Elms a fastrack to New Labour’s trough.”
I went to a fascinating workshop at the October Gallery yesterday with George Nuku, a Maori, an artist, a collaborator with museums and champion of young people. He was also the first contemporary Maori with a complete body tattoo. The trail that led me there started when I was wandering round Sheringham, my Norfolk ‘ancestral home’. I’d just visited the newly opened Sheringham Museum and seen a photo of my great great grandfather, who had been coastguard and promenade inspector. He had also been to Japan & the Pacific as a naval officer, training the Japanese navy in British ways. I was thinking about how I had his eyes and nose, about my belonging to that place, yet also my distance from the town now. My relative (‘the Old Chap’) must have felt an odd dislocation travelling East, and I was wondering what he saw through his eyes and what stayed with him, what knowledge he brought to Sheringham and how it infused the place. That led me to reflect on my husband Brian’s ancestors who went from Scotland to settle in New Zealand. I wondered about what changed in them, despite always looking Scottish, in becoming part of a place that was another people’s.
I was carrying my camera, as I have on and off in Sheringham for 30 years, looking for something different to photograph. As it happens I always find something different even in a small place like that: evidence of change, of erosion of the coast or evidence of moments in time like the 1st World Cup English game. But, then I saw George. I’d never seen anyone in Sheringham like it before. I was stunned because in a second I knew he was Maori, and realised the resonance with all my thoughts at that moment. So, that sense of interest led me to his workshop in London. He’d been working at the October Gallery with young people related to the EthKnowCentrix exhibition, which included his work, and the resulting Cut it Out exhibition can be seen there now. He’s a sculptor who brings traditional Maori forms into new materials and locations. For example, he reconstructed missing parts of a war canoe, using perspex rather than wood, for the National Museums of Scotland, and he loves to carve in polystyrene.There has been some criticism from Maori for this, that he’s not using proper traditional materials. He says to them ‘don’t worry, plastic will be traditional by this afternoon’.
The first words he spoke to us were in the tongue of his mother’s people, the Ngate Kahungunu from the Heretaunga region of the North Island. It was an incantation to draw in our ancestors to the meeting. I was reminded of the way that many indigenous people make decisions, consulting with generations of ancestors and successors, not just the living. Immediately I was struck that agency was a central theme for him. He talked about the relationship of his people with the British. The Maori were honourable and generous, to be in a position of agency, to give and ‘treat’ in order to be equal. They have been disenfranchised and alienated but he feels the story isn’t over yet, that having no hope for equality would make all that suffering in vain. When the ‘knives and blankets and tables and chairs’ started coming, Maori saw they must be part of that change, to see the value of those things and deal in them. ‘You had to be part of that change, to direct change rather than be directed by it. Nobody is more equipped to deal with these changes than yourself’.
He showed some images from a ceremony in which he performed, at the Pasifika Styles exhibition in Cambridge, associated with the birth of a child and he talked about how creativity and procreation are the same thing. He feels that men in particular have a longing to create, to be closer to the miracle of creation of people which women are blessed and pained with. Creativity is an utterly human power, and human agency is all around our potential to convert materials and to ride change. One kind of material at the moment that is giving the planet a lot of grief is plastic and of course the oil that it’s made from. I asked if those who object to his use of modern materials most object to the use of plastic for reasons of marine pollution causing biodiversity loss and climate change. He said that plastic is from the earth, it is indigenous, and that through art we can give it its divinity. It was an optimistic moment for me, in a week in which I felt mired in worries about the unrepairable cracks in the ocean leaking millions of gallons of oil. I don’t know yet what reasons for optimism there are but I felt stronger for his example.
There is no art collection I love and know better than Tate’s, no art museum I respect more, or visit as much. My art history education was thanks to teenaged visits to Tate. My steep learning curve into managing a museum/gallery education programme was thanks to my first proper job as Tate education officer in the 90′s. I haven’t worked for Tate for a few years now but I still feel grateful and awed, even Tate-branded. But that doesn’t mean I’m not critical too. I was quietly critical of BP’s sponsorship for the annual redisplay of Tate’s collections. I had been sickened by Exxon Valdez in 1989 (my cousin is a marine biologist in British Columbia & Alaska and is still dealing with the damage) and I was newly aware of anthropogenic global warming. The ongoing ethical crisis for Tate was the link between Henry Tate‘s patent ownership for the sugar cube and the earlier Transatlantic Slave Trade. I felt this was a really important aspect of Tate’s history that we had to address, but that the more urgent current issue was climate change. I was a pretty lone voice in that respect. When you’re a lone voice in a milieu of clever, strong-minded and politically correct people, you tend not to repeat yourself or shout. I felt it was important to fit in, that my career depended on it.
In response to Monday’s artist-led protest against BP’s sponsorship of Tate, Nick Serota pointed out that the artists didn’t protest 20 years ago when the arrangement first started. He’s right that there weren’t dramatic protests. This is unsurprising as we had not seen or grasped the devastating effects of marine pollution on the climate at this point. We weren’t so aware, for example, of the effect of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, which is now emitting at 100,000 times more than normal levels from Deepwater Horizon. However, I do recall that there were questions at the time. Throughout the 90s I received many complaints about the endlessly changing displays, and within these were a few comments on BP’s sponsorship. There have also been artists raising awareness of the links between fossil fuels and climate change for the past two decades. The group Art Not Oil draws together some of these artists, as well as the younger generation and the newly activist.
In retrospect I wish I had repeated myself and spoken louder then, not just about BP sponsorship but about the role of Tate’s learning offer in relation to the wider environmental crisis. I shouldn’t have felt fearful but expressed my authentic voice.
I went to Tate Britain on Monday night with three reasons for going. I took my camera and first joined the gang of paps shooting a patch of spilled oil, and a journalist assumed I was one of them. I’d been invited as a guest to the party too, so went inside and saw lots of old colleagues. (I also saw two women in floral dresses spill bags of molasses then attempt to clean it up.) Then outside, I became one of the protesters in my way. I caught Michael Craig-Martin and had a rather emotional discussion. (He felt that the oceans would heal themselves – which I doubt because the ocean is on the tipping point of complete acidification due to pollution. The media isn’t drawing attention to the fact that oil & plastic in the sea intensifies climate change. It doesn’t just destroy the livelihoods of shrimp fishermen.) I went and talked to the protesting artists and realised I’d been in touch with many of them before. Felix Gonzalez asked if he could film me speaking. If you watch this to the end you’ll see my bit. The gist of it is that the world would not be worse off if culture ceases to involve rich people going to parties, due to a reduction in public and corporate sponsorship, that what matters is that children around the world grow up to live freely and to think freely. These freedoms are threatened in a climate-changed world.
I find it hard to understand how Tate’s ethics committee, and all the artists and staff I canvassed views on inside the party, persist in seeing BP’s sponsorship as essential and benign given the context we are in. In this Guardian piece, you can see that the majority views are against the protestors, apart from John Keane and Mark Ravenhill. Colin Tweedy says ‘Who’s to judge what’s good and bad money?’ to which I would say a) the taxpayer has a right to express views on what is good and bad partnership funding for public bodies and b) such judgement is what a cultural organisation’s ethics committee exists for. Tweedy says ‘If a company is legally allowed to operate in the UK, they should be allowed to sponsor arts.’ The problem is a major omission in our international legal system, which allows companies to destroy the environment in the interests of profit. If ecocide was made an international crime then much of what BP and Shell do would be illegal. The protesters are not saying ‘sponsorship is evil’ as Grayson Perry and others suggest. They are saying that the climate crisis is desperate, made worse by the behaviour of companies like Shell and BP. I’m not sure they’ve made it clear enough in their publicity statements though. Christopher Frayling says ‘now [in a time of recession] is not the time to get squeamish’ about where money comes from. What does ‘now’ mean to him? He seems to think that the crisis for arts funding is far worse than the crisis to the biosphere. That crisis doesn’t make me squeamish, it makes me downright sick.
I was at the annual C4 education conference last week, which was eclectic, fun and inspiring in parts, especially the parts with Stephen Heppell, Martin Bright and Sam Conniff in it. I was also inspired by C4′s own contributions, but also rather concerned about a gap in their forward plans, about which more to come. The day was bookended with presentations from architects of the free schools movement, and fuelled by unanswerable questions about what would emerge in the educational landscape under Michael Gove. The mood was optimistic: Those supportive of Con-Dem policies were unsurprisingly so, but also the more radical educationalists seemed to feel that the freeing up of curriculum and schools management would at least allow for more progressive approaches. Hopefully.
For a full and fair account of the event see Joanne Jacobs’ liveblog. I’m writing this to highlight my concern about C4′s education plans. I don’t believe they fundamentally address the capacities that young people need to develop in facing a future which is predicted to reach 4C by 2050-2070. (A 15 year old today will be early to mid career when the planet may be shooting from 2 to 3C.) The themes they are addressing in recent and planned outputs are: conflict in history, sex and relationship education, financial literacy, body image, mental health etc. I appreciate that C4 is smaller (much) than the BBC and that they’ve made the right decision to shift from TV broadcast to multiple platforms and social media. However, I’m mystified that they’re not embracing the significance of our context. I think the answer lies in the ‘constructive denial’ response, that we tend to place environmental issues in a small box, to deal with it as a theme, rather than a real situation. In particular this affects education planning, because we think of education as a rehearsal or a simulation, not dealing with reality.
I asked Alice Taylor after presenting C4′s future projects, why none covered climate change, biodiversity or sustainability. She gave two answers. One is something I agree with in some ways, that we shouldn’t assume environmental responsibility lies entirely on young people’s shoulders, that we mainly need to persuade people in power or at least adults. I agree with this, but then I disagree that programming dealing with the environment should encourage young people to be eco-nags or focus on their lifestyle. It can help them understand biodiversity, help them be political about ecology, provide therapeutic support to face a different future, and many other things. Her second response was that the apocalyptic scenario of the future was too frightening (although one of their planned projects is set in an apocalyptic scenario, devastated by either/both climate change and war). Again, I disagree that programming should immerse itself in apocalyptic narratives. We need to focus on reimagining the future and nurturing optimism.
Let’s see. Hopefully C4 will rethink their policy with staff changes coming up. Even if they don’t change their programmes, they could think harder about the conceptual framework in which they sit, to reflect the real situation.