The Depersonalisation of Education

by Mark Edwards


Mark Edwards' biodata and picture will be found at the end of the article, or by clicking here.


I think it was in the late eighties that the rot started to set in. I remember attending, as an aspiring headteacher, some sort of management course where the trainer recounted a story about how a parent who was working as a volunteer helper in a school had remarked that the work was ‘therapy for her.’  The trainer  pointed out that she was there to serve the school’s needs, not the other way round. 

We all nodded sagely in agreement at this, but I do remember feeling vaguely uneasy about it at the time. My thoughts ran along the lines of ‘well, she is some child’s Mum, and the volunteer work lifts her spirits in some way, so that must make her a happier Mum, and that’s good, isn’t it?’ 

The reason that I have been reminded of this is the current obsession with Job Specification and Essential/Desirable traits. The job recruitment process is now so regimented that little account seems to be taken of the person sitting in the interview chair. It’s as if he or she is a bundle of skills and competencies which are to be compared against the ones on the list and ticked off accordingly. Whoever gets the most ticks wins. 

What has happened over the past ten or so years? What has happened is that we have become so achievement orientated that we have driven the heart out of the workplace. In industry, the focus of targets has been on short-term profit – in education, on short-term SATS results. While is it clearly essential to make a profit and achieve good SATS results, it is also essential to make the workplace somewhere that people can feel they can be – well, people.  

It’s interesting that I have read the same thing in two seemingly unrelated books recently. They both said that certain personality types were leaving the workplace to be replaced by other, different personality types. Those that are leaving, if you will forgive a broad generalisation, are the more ‘people-centred’; those that show a concern for employees as human beings. To put it succinctly, the people that put the ‘heart in the workplace. And it gets worse, because those new employees – let’s call them ‘task’ as opposed to ‘people’ orientated– are rising to positions of power and appointing others who are cast from the same mould as themselves.  

This is fine when recruiting people to work in data-processing or as particle physicists but in education? In schools, where the focus should be on the development of young people as fully-rounded individuals? 

To compound the problem, I now read research which tells me that the biggest cause of stress in the workplace is not long hours or difficult tasks, but other people. Whether it’s bullying managers, gossiping colleagues or non-team players. There is no avoiding the fact that we are people first and workers second and most jobs, apart from say, that of a lighthouse keeper or railway signal operator, involve quite a high level of interaction with others. It doesn’t matter how competent you are at analysing data; if you are a pain in the neck to be around, then it will show and it will matter. 

Some managers think they understand this and are sending people on ‘team-building’ and ‘work/life balance’ courses. These phrases are becoming so over-used they are almost meaningless, and the reason for that is that although those that are in charge have got wind that ‘looking after your workforce’ is important THEY DON'T UNDERSTAND WHAT IT MEANS.

For various reasons to do with their preferred thinking style, they are not the types of people that are good at looking after people.  

This may sound exaggerated, but the DfE’s recent brief to produce a document on schools about emotional literacy was reportedly severely hampered by the low levels of emotional literacy at the DfE itself.

The viciousness of this particularly vicious cycle can be understood when one raises the issue of psychometric testing. These tests could be used as part of a recruitment process and might ensure a good balance of ‘people’ people and ‘task’ people – but the difficulty is that psychometric tests are disliked by the majority of ‘task’ orientated managers. This is because such tests are holistic in nature and linear, task-orientated people are not. 

I came across what I consider to be a horrifying example of depersonalisation recently when talking to a group of teachers – one said that a recent Ofsted report had identified their local headteacher (a warm, friendly chap by all accounts who ran a successful school) as being ‘too available to the children.’  Presumably in that inspector’s view, his time would be better spent analysing his SATS data. 

Because what all children really need nowadays are good SATS results, don’t they?  No wonder sales of alchopops are soaring. 

To me that small incident sums up everything that is wrong in education at the moment. The hard-nosed linear thinkers have taken charge and the softies are being pushed out, or are choosing to leave. There are, of course, still plenty of managers in post who put people first and policies second but my fear is that the trend is against them. 

I think I’ll go and help out in my local school. I’m in need of some therapy.

* Source : Antidote, Campaign for Emotional Literacy. Katherine Weare. 


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Mark Edwards was a headteacher, who still teaches part-time but combines this with writing articles, educational consultancy and entertaining people who like to hear badly performed rock, pop and music hall classics. He still carries a torch for child-centred education and is encouraged by the current interest in emotional literacy and thinking skills in schools. Mark is re-locating to Somerset, with his partner Liz,  where he will continue his training in Integrative Counselling. He is a Master Practitioner in NLP (Psychotherapy). Email: