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Is educational populism blinkering leaders' vision?


The 'rough and tumble' of political populism is seeping into education, with school leaders in danger of being cast in the role of the 'them'.

This article first appeared in Independent School Management Plus

Our voices are heard, but only where it doesn’t really matter (apologies to all Strictly fans), not where it does. Reactions to Covid, Brexit and the US elections all prove this point.


Trusted sources across the world cite people lacking a sense of purpose and identity, missing out on solidarity and social belonging. We have never been so connected but still feel left out and irrelevant. We can type our opinions and comments everywhere but is anyone reading, caring or doing anything about it? Are we just yelling ourselves hoarse into the void?


These feelings, no matter their source, offer an open goal to the ambitious populist. Whoever can harness the eroding confidence in leaders and stoke the fury at global elites can capture the hearts and minds of many, whatever their previous political persuasion.


It’s all about creating an “us” marshalled into believing they can defeat a “them”. Such populism is nothing new and by the 1950s academics and journalists were applying the word to describe fascist, communist and anti-communist all at the same time. Whatever the ideology of the leaders, it is political catnip for manipulating the masses, helping the self-describing virtuous sweep aside the institutions, groups and people they don’t like as they smash their way into power.

"Should school strategy be all about playing to the gallery?"

We have witnessed parts of the economy, some democratic institutions and the free press getting mangled like this at the hands of populist movements. But despite the fact they all seem to burn out, an ember remains once the movement has gone. There is the idea that all leaders are open to criticism and even abuse as they are the elite no matter who or what they lead. The rough and tumble of political populism is seeping into other parts of life, including education, with school leaders in danger of being cast in the role of the "them".


When I became a headteacher it was after I had been a teacher and middle manager. I was not fashioned in the lab as an oven-ready head, I was not parachuted in from another sector or another country or hired because my daddy owned the school. I was a left-of-centre, somewhat anti-authoritarian, democratically minded ordinary teacher but as a head I was instantly cast in the role of the “them” and part of the elite by some staff. This is fair enough in many ways and having staff mumping and moaning about the boss goes with the job. But we mustn’t underestimate what is happening here.


As leaders we have a duty to all stakeholders but is our performance some function of their latest opinion and should school strategy be all about playing to the gallery? From Gavin Williamson stating UK education should “overtake Germany” to Labour’s Angela Rayner and the #AbolishEton campaign, the right and left are eager to pull education into their populist "them and us" agendas.

"Leaders are criticised for their failure to serve the needs of whoever has primacy in the populist arena."

In mainstream and social media there are abundant stories, articles and complaints about how the them in leadership should be doing more to serving the needs of the "us". Yet there seems to be less about the future needs of children, about vision, about new ideas and the value of learning. The British Education Research Journal in July 2020 identified social media in schools creating division and indifference, setting one group against another and using the language of populism to give voice to the ordinary teacher against a liberal educational elite of academics, local education authorities and teaching unions. Leaders, it seems, are criticised not for their ability to lead but by their failure to serve the needs of whoever has primacy in the populist arena.


I can feel some readers already sharpening their figurative pencils and heading for the comments section to write me off as a bigoted, establishment autocrat but just bear with me a few minutes longer. To react this way is to stumble into the populist log flume, carried along by the belief that what sounds challenging is wrong. Instead I am posing a question about how we cope in this climate of division and deal, as Asimov observed, with the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge. Do we pull together with shared goals or become more divided and in continual, toxic judgement of each other?

“Staff, parents and children should be more involved in decisions.”

Evidence from the wider world is that populism is neutralised when control is shared, giving people a substantial voice and sense of agency over their lives. Staff, parents and even children should be more involved in strategy—in the fray not on the touchline — with knowledge and devolved power accompanied by accountability and fair representation. Populism will be with us always but if schools are to lead boldly and nurture a better next generation then they need the vision, the will and the freedom to challenge and bring about important change.


In western society, typically driven by neoliberal values and economic interests rather than true equality and consensus, schools are uniquely placed to strengthen democratic institutions. Schools can show children how their beliefs are shaped by others, how their emotions are manipulatied by networking sites and how the bubble filters they occupy reinforce political polarization.


We can teach children about social problems, the value of tolerance and social justice and the importance of questioning of an existing socio-economic order where so many do not feel empowered to participate in democracy and improve social structures. Schools can deliver the antidote to authoritarian populism, but we cannot do this while cowed.

Peter Hogan has been the Head of schools in the UK and Asia for 20 years. He writes about schools, teaching and learning here at hogan.education and can be contacted at peter@hogan.education


School Management Plus is a dedicated platform for professionals and senior leaders within Independent and international education worldwide publishing business comprising two termly publications: Independent School Management Plus and International School Magazine (IS Magazine)