Keeping it in the family – not nepotism but a sign of increasing insularity 

This post is not intended to be a comment on the work of anyone I have ever known nor an indication to any of my relatives that I would ever wish to employ them, if I were in situation to do so. 

The practice of employing those close to us is not new but appears to be increasing in schools. In many ways, it is symptomatic of schools becoming businesses and replacing the neutrality of the state with private sector values. Working as a family for a shared goal runs through history: hunter gatherers, farming, cottage industries, the industrial revolution, the landowning aristocracy, capitalism and post-capitalism. From corner shop to global corporations such as 21st Century Fox, relatives are appointed to key roles in enterprise. The evidence that this is happening in schools occasionally makes the headlines as a negative but before we jump on the journalistic bandwagon of knee-jerk condemnation, it is worth reflecting on the reasons.

Family breeds closeness that is both positive and negative. The bond between parent and child is often the strongest relationship a person experiences in life. It should not be a surprise that parents, who would lay down their lives for children, use influence to secure advantage for their offspring. The employment of in-laws should also not be a shock in the context of family relationships which can sometimes make the marriage  arrangements of 16th Century monarchs seem straightforward. 

In the current climate, family also works as a barrier to the profession because there are many teachers who have dissuaded their children from considering a career in teaching. In a recruitment crisis, appointing family members may also be a last resort strategy. 

The employment of relatives needs to be viewed not through the lens of corrupt nepotism but a wider picture of increasing risk aversion.  As the pressure exerted by high stakes testing and inspection has increased on schools, headteachers and governing bodies have become more worried about employing people who do not fit into their school. This idea of “fitting in” is crucial. Schools’ worry about maverick, free thinking, questioning individuals can be as damaging to the future of the profession as any government reform. To avoid energy-sapping staff clashes and future issues, some schools value competence and compliance in equal measure and as related characteristics. Trust is an important element of professional relationship, and, under pressure, schools will turn to those who are most like them. In doing so, they may create further barriers to people who are different to them in terms of class, race etc and act in contravention of the Equality Act. If  diversity is important in a workforce, and it is for a range of reasons, government policy is taking schools in the wrong direction and contradicts its own legislation. 

The twin policies of academisation and the designation of Superheads appear to have contributed to the increasing employment of relatives in educational settings. Both policies came from New Labour and were designed to drive reform of education to meet the needs of the poorest (in a globalised system, governments turn to education rather than economics to address poverty. That poverty determines educational outcomes is an inconvenient truth that means the policies are destined to fail the poorest and also cause a great deal of stress along the way) Both policies (academies and Superheads) were articulated in terms of giving power to headteachers because they are closest to the frontline. The problem with the policy of appointing Superheads is that in looking for quick fixes, the government confused the importance of leadership with the person of the leader. In the same way, academisation treats structural change as synonymous with progress adm therefore, by definition, a good thing. Both policies have led to accusations of abuse of power. From the early days of Jean Else, whose appointment of an unqualified sister as assistant head contributed to the only occasion in British history that a dame hood has been revoked, to the recent trial of Richard Gililland whose employment of his son made the Daily Mail headlines and led to his resignation (his recent acquittal on fraud charges has not made the national press), Superheads have not had an easy time of it. 

The roles of local authorities, universities and governing bodies in teacher training and recruitment in the past acted as an imperfect neutralising check on powers. Government policy continues to remove or reduce the impact of these institutions and bodies in order to free schools to innovate. The decision to remove the requirement for governing bodies to include parents is a further example of this. In the future,  schools are more likely to include only parents who “fit in” at that time. The problem for the government is that whilst appointing people you know supports short-term change, the increased insularity leads to long-term inertia.  Insularity of staff and governance in stand-alone academies and MATs needs to be considered if the centralisation of power is not to lead to a pedagogical dead end. 

Progress in educational provision needs to be sustainable, rooted in shared openness to evidence-based ideas (from a range of evidence bases) and informed by different perspectives.  Real progress that impacts on people’s lives is expensive, laborious and at times driven by conflicting views. In search of cheap, quick results, successive governments’ policies have taken education towards narrower, more insular practices of which appointing people you know is just one manifestation. I do not criticise the headteachers who employ their relatives but I despair of politicians who create the climate of fear that drives institutions to turn in on themselves thereby shutting out fresh ideas from those whose perspectives may not fit the bill.

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