Another ERO horror about to unfold: Part Two

I’m sometimes asked – sometimes ask myself – why, at my age I’m still threshing away, the answer, I think, I find injustice hurts, in particular, injustice to primary teachers and principals. I haven’t overlooked, however, I might be doing it to fill a void or because I’m compulsive. In that respect though, from the closing of the magazine in 2000 to mid-2007 I stopped writing partly to demonstrate to myself I had other things I found fulfilling (disengagement made easier, I admit, being the Helen Clark period).

Through my years of advocacy writing (to put it euphemistically), two refrains have echoed in my consciousness. The first a line from Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘The Smuggler’s Song’ which he used somewhat approvingly of human behaviour but which I use disdainfully ‘Watch the wall my darling while the gentlemen go by!’ People know what is going on but turn away for their own purposes. The second is my anti-totalitarian refrain which values the individual as something highly precious, never to be sacrificed to the totalitarian whole. ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground outside your Father’s care.’

We should not turn away and we should all care.

When I was at the oh so sad and moving funeral of Bruce Hammond’s daughter, Kathleen, I met Bill Guild who was a friend of, and deeply influenced by, Elwyn Richardson. Bill, by example and insight, was the stimulus for the Taranaki adherence to the holistic (now much loosened), to which Bruce still labours on. Bill remarked that as a primary principal he felt part of a family. I said, yes, I feel like that too, but more part of a tribe, explaining or is it excusing? the fiercer side of my behaviour.

The case of the principal under examination has been particularly hurtful.

Terrible things were to happen to this exceptional principal. The dismal irony being that it happened almost immediately after the issuing of an ERO report, a section of which follows:

The principal is an inclusive and consultative leader.  [To become a tyrant and dunderhead overnight it seems.] She thinks strategically about school development and, through her strong leadership skills, has successfully led the staff in implementing a more student-centred approach to learning. She knows her staff well and provides opportunities for them to communicate openly with her. The principal, with the support of the board, has established clear processes for dealing proactively with issues raised by the community, including cottage meetings in parents’ homes and discussion forums. She has held interactive evenings for parents to help them understand the purposes and benefits of the school’s new approaches to teaching and learning. Senior staff are building a cohesive team to provide professional support and direction for teachers. These changes have positioned the school to achieve its goal of educating students to become engaged and independent learners (Education Review Office).

The following is a scattering of what was to occur (more will follow in Part Three):

The school had a pattern of groups forming, agitating to control the board of trustees, and on doing so, rampantly pushing their agenda, rapidly losing interest, and then disappearing in a puff of smoke. In the six years before the principal there had been six board chairs in six years.

This was a decile 10 school in which it appeared every parent was an expert. The parents, obviously influenced by the political environment. possessed little regard for educational professionals and seeing schools as needing to be run like a business.

Over her eighteen months initial months at the school the principal had managed to build a somewhat stronger and more enlightened board. Meanwhile, though, the noise of the drums of discontent was building, communicating the old tom-tom rhythm that they could run the school better than the principal. We will drive her from the school (just like the other ones); we will use all our political and other power connections (ha-ha-ha), and rid ourselves of her.

And they did, and on it happening, had a raucous celebration at the local coffee place.

Following such an ERO report, even by present-day standards of process corruption, it is remarkable that the bureaucracies would allow this to happen, even encourage it, especially given the decades-long history of anti-principal actions by the community of which the bureaucracies were fully aware.

But you see, the cost of an authoritarian system is the fall of silence.

The vicious and unrelenting behaviour was driven by whim, fancy, hearsay, and satisfaction at using power to malevolent and status ends.  The minister was no doubt pleased to get a signal from the local member of parliament for another excuse for an exercise in vengefulness (and hear about it in detail); the member pleased to be doing something that was popular; and the LSM pleased to gain brownie points for prospective employment. Oh happy days for them.

And, of course, at the dénouement, the principal was to be blamed for bankrupting the school.

Some of the issues around which the always latent neurotic discontent manifested themselves were:

  • Some members of the community, mainly women, didn’t like the principal or deputy-principal going overseas to conferences or study tours, even though fully approved by the board of trustees, and to which the principal contributed substantially.
  • A small group of women, some former pupils, wanted to override the board of trustee delegations for organising the 150th school celebrations. The aim was to gain almost total control of the finances and programme. This was a highly competitive community, very much about social standing in the community. As a matter of legality the plan was never a possibility as everything had to be subject to auditing through the school’s financial processes. But in being thwarted from this near total control the inevitable innuendo about financial irregularity surfaced. Overall, the group wanted the celebration to be about the former pupils rather than a combined celebration involving the present school. Charming! The manoeuvring wasn’t to stop until the celebration was proclaimed a triumph. At that stage the group pushed themselves forward to garner the garlands.
  • The board of trustees were insistent that parents would not stay overnight at camps because there had been several incidents when parents, against all prohibitions, and ignoring all pleas, went off to the pub, consumed alcohol at camps, and neglected their duties without advising staff.  The principal, of course, was blamed for the board’s decision which while unusual, had a basis in taking due care.
  • There was strong feeling expressed from the group of parents that the school should not be doing so many extra-curricular activities and needed to ‘get back to the basics’.  In effect, a lot of this anti-school behaviour was more anti-state schools, with many of the parents looking down on state schools, seeing them as holding pens for their children until they went off to private school.
  • And then there was betrayal by the disaffected executive officer who sided with the coffee group and released details of the principal’s personal contract agreement.
  • There was also the feeling that the board of trustees chair had hijacked the complaints process. In reality, the board of trustees struggled to deal with the huge volume of complaints that were being laid.

In one sense, these complaints mightn’t seem that much at all (there were many more of course), but the intensity of them, the personal viciousness, and the sense of support from high places gave the complainants a head of steam that made things very difficult at the local level, though quite manageable if support for the school had come from the higher.

The atmosphere engendered by the group of parents became toxic. In effect, the bureaucracies knew what was going on, that it was only a small group (at any one time), and that the complaints were entirely without substance, just outright mischief- making and a seeking of satisfaction from the wielding of personal power, but they refused acknowledge this and set out to bring down the principal and deputy-principal.

One stern word from on high communicated down the chain and the group of complainants would have fizzled to nothing.

There had been a long history of the community getting away with things and principals and deputy-principals leaving under horrendous circumstances; being awarded large pay-outs. The principal knew about the two previous principals and a deputy-principal; subsequently she was to learn there were four more principals and deputy-principals before that.

As stated in the first part to this sad series, the Kafkan power of the intervention process is such that there is rarely a genuine problem beyond that manufactured by the intervention process itself, meaning that those complaining only need to keep complaining for the intervention process to produce the Kafkan situation of irrationality so deviously favourable to their ends. Once the intervention is in place, the question becomes not what the problem was, but whether the principal is perfect in every respect? And the principal, no matter how insignificant the imperfection revealed or how irrelevant to the initial ‘problem’, is always caught out, and much is made of that, and is a goner. After all, those making the judgement are those arrayed against the principal from the beginning. It seems the advice given by a character in Kafka should have been heeded: ‘The only right thing to do was to come to terms with the circumstances as they were.’ And principals should ready themselves to have their vocations made to die ‘Like a dog!’ with the shame to outlive them.

The next part will outline astonishing irregularities and behaviours inflicted on the principal and deputy-principal by the ministry head office and bureaucracies; and the downright maliciousness of the limited statutory manager. They acted as if prevented from telling the truth because that was something that happened before Tomorrow’s Schools; as if telling the truth would harm their organisational reputation.

There is to be a twist to the Kafkan story though not one that alters the inherent truth of it.

In the meantime, are we going to continue to turn to the wall and let these myrmidons go by?

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10 Responses to Another ERO horror about to unfold: Part Two

  1. Margaret Box says:

    Had to look up the word myrmidon!! Perfect!!

  2. Sue McIntosh says:

    I was the DP – this is a full and accurate account so far. I look forward to part 3 – even though it hurts to read it, it is finally giving some closure on a tough time in my career. Fortunately, I got out reasonably intact and was AP at a great E Auckland school, where I was allowed to rebuild my shattered confidence. Sadly, I have recently left NZ primary education for good.

  3. Kelvin says:

    As you know Sue, they ain’t read nothing yet, just small stuff. The principal described you as brave and terrific. My love and best wishes to you. Thank-you for reminding us there are real people being savaged by these piranhas.

  4. Roger Young says:

    I worry about what might be happening in the heads of these ERO AND MINISTRY people who are so determined to be seen to be right no matter what the cost to teachers and principals who are spending lifetimes in careers helping give children a better deal. The determination to cull so many experienced professionals makes me wonder at the real agenda. This is the sort of thing that causes conspiracy theories to multiply.
    The fact that so many mistakes are being made by ERO indicate that it is well passed time that they need experienced and qualified teachers in their employ rather than the pompous, arrogant, unqualified neo-liberalist sycophants currently running amok.

  5. stephen dadelus says:

    Hi Kelvin,
    I thought these accounts of malevolent behaviours could not get much worse. It is almost past believing that there are people out there in these organisations and even worse condoning and leading this kind of despicable behaviour. What I cannot fathom is why the principal’s professional organisations (PPTA and NZPF) are so silent on the matter (or are they ?). It there a lack of hard evidence or what. Maybe we should all be installing video cameras in our offices. I have heard of principals who have recorded interviews with ERO staff during their school reviews. At the time I thought it was a bit over the top but now reading these horror stories I’ve changed my thinking. Fight fire with fire might be the answer.

    I think that others will be more willing to come forward and share their stories. Your facilitation of this is superb. The Deputy’s comments were quite moving. Her act of authenticity will resonate with others.

    Regards as always Kelvin.

  6. Sue McIntosh says:

    Thanks Stephen. Appreciate your comments and certainly hope I don’t resonate too much with others going through the same appalling treatment.

  7. Kerry Boland says:

    As the company director in Australia who was fortunate enough to employ the principal referred to in this story and more recently the deputy, I can only say that this principal has brought a tremendous amount of vision, heartlead leadership, high performance standards and is a true exponent for all our stakeholders, especially the children. I am shocked that this malevolent behaviour is allowed to perpetuate and that good people with incredible passion, insight and intellect fall victim to the vindictiveness of illinformed power mongrels.
    All I can say is that this principal’s ethical leadership and courage has saved one of our companies from imminent closure and she affords the vision and strategic direction to lead our other company into a new innovative era of integrated education and health services.
    Wake up NZ your loss is our gain!

  8. Kelvin says:

    Thank-you Kerry: For the final part I was forming in my mind the message you have expressed, so wonderfully, in such moving terms. It brought tears to my eyes. Thank-you for appreciating her in a way we couldn’t.

  9. Sue McIntosh says:

    DP here again – I cannot express enough my thanks for this thread, the comments and your replies Kelvin. It has restored my confidence after 5 years in a fog of self doubt. I can finally move on…

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