An Interview with Denis Mongon: School Leadership and Public Values

May 9, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Denis, you have just co-authored a book entitled “School Leadership for Public Value: Understanding valuable outcomes for children, families and communities” How did this idea come about?

I’ve been in the public education service in England for about half the time there has been a public education service: I first went to primary school about 60 years ago. For the past 40 years or so I’ve worked mainly with young people at the margin of the system, disaffected, alienated, dejected and rejected. I’ve done that work as a teacher, school leader, administrator and academic. It’s statistically probable but not inevitable that children from economically poor families will have poor academic results. Great schools do make a difference and I’d observed that some of them make the difference by combining high quality teaching inside the school with a very active engagement with the community around the school.

I was asked to explore this in an enquiry with a dozen or so schools. We encouraged them to describe their work which, interestingly they found difficult because they did not understand that there was anything remarkable about it! Michael Moore’s Public Value paradigm then seemed an ideal way to frame the story of what they were doing. Moore proposes a Public Value triangle in which the three cornerstones are authorisation (where do leaders get their permission to act as they do?), capacity (where do they find the resources, people in particular, to drive their activity?) and measures of value (by what standards are they prepared to be judged?). The book is there because I wanted to celebrate the work of these people.

2) What are some of the valuable outcomes for children, families and communities that would evolve?

Above all, these schools don’t compromise on their core activity – great teaching and learning. This is not a wooly minded agenda. These leaders know that communities have a basic expectation of schools – that their children learn stuff – and if they don’t deliver on that – then nothing else the school tries is credible. What they then do very cleverly, though often intuitively, is engage with the community to enhance that core provision. In part that is done by using community capacity to enhance the children’s experience inside the school and in part using the school’s capacity to build community cohesion and commitment to the school. Before I explain that in more detail, let me say that the valuable outcomes don’t only accrue to the children, families and schools: the school leadership and staff also benefit, not least from the development of authorisation, one of those three corners of the Public Value triangle.

We explore this in more detail in the book suggesting that there are five sources of authorisation: personal, associate, institutional, contextual and national. Three of those, personal (the permissions you give yourself), associate (the permissions colleagues give to one another) and contextual (the permissions a community gives to its school) are particularly important developmental outcomes for the adults in the school.

3) How would this book help leaders from schools understand the benefits of interacting with local communities?

Ok – this gives me chance to introduce a framework of five key tasks in which these leaders engaged. Of course, these are explained and illustrated in more detail in the book but here’s a quick summary:

  1. developing internal capacity (a sharp focus on the core of teaching and learning)
  1. drawing on and enhancing community capacity (for example the seaside secondary school where retired fishermen volunteered to support the vocational programme)
  1. reaching out to generate community capacity (for example the secondary school which was not only a significant local employer it ran the area youth service and offered health advice, family therapy, school home support, a safer school partnership (a police officer), social work and employment advice)
  1. investing outwards to create community capital (for example the village primary school which built an on-site facility to provide anti-natal and post-natal checks, health visitor clinics and baby weigh-in clinics, social group events, a centre for jobseekers, training for parenting skills, a community café and public access computers.)
  1. speculating to sponsor community capital (for example, the urban primary school which opened its doors for community events when the local police revealed an increase in anti-social behaviour during school holidays and closures)

4) When you say “local authorities” – are you referring to the police or other agencies?

In England “local authorities” usually means what I think you’d call the School District and we are saying this work should be of interest at that level in the education system. But you’re right to raise the point that other agencies should also be interested – the lead on this has come from the schools in our study but there’s no reason why other agencies should not take a lead and draw schools in.

5) Now, when you refer to policy makers- are you talking about Ofsted, or other entities?

The policy makers who should be interested in this work are those in central government – the legislators and administrators. Their focus has, for understandable reasons, been on attainment – what level of competency does an 11 year old have and how many exams (GCSEs in our terms) has a 16 year old passed? I don’t think and the leaders we worked with don’t think those criteria should be abandoned. After all, employers don’t ask job applicants whether they went to a nice school, they ask what grades they bring. What we do argue for is a wider range of criteria in the ‘measures of value’ corner in the Public Value triangle. That would bring Ofsted into play because as the inspectorate, it would then be required to make broader based judgments.

6) I understand that there will be a seminar in the future on this- tell us about it.

As I’m writing, the seminar is tomorrow evening in London and we’ve got an interesting audience. I’ll introduce the work then I’m going to ask the audience to help by discussing two key questions: first, the best way to understand a polemic is through the opposition to it, so what will be the opposition to these ideas? Then, what kind of professional development is needed if we want to cultivate more leaders in this mould?

7) We seem to be in a period where society is demanding/expecting more and more from the schools, at a time when more and more children with special needs are being included in the schools. What do you say to the AVERAGE teacher about this situation?

My first reaction would be to ask whether they are content to be an average teacher. If they are, I’d want to explore how they thought that fulfilled their responsibility to offer their students the best start in life. If they are not, I’d ask them what I or we could do to help them to improve. In England, I think that society is right to expect more from its education service: like the USA its outcomes per unit of cost are not impressive by international standards. However, I do think that puts responsibilities on policy makers and commentators as well as on teachers.

I tracked the history for my PhD and know that teachers have always complained about the number of difficult or challenging students, much as farmers complain about the weather. Of course, they are entitled to the right resources and support, but in England there is some strong evidence from Ofsted inspections that schools use the designation ‘special needs’ to describe children who do not properly fit that category. I was deeply struck by the teacher who said (in terms) ‘we don’t complain about workload when we’re successful, it’s a pleasure then to come to work’. Success is the key!

8) Denis, I have been to London, Brighton, Oxford, the Lake District, and I believe I know a little about Britain. What do you see as the challenges facing Great Britain now?

There are similar and different challenges across the four countries in the United Kingdom. In England, in educational terms, I think we have are two massive challenges:

First, our inability to do more than scratch at the glass ceiling which poverty creates for so many of our students. If you want to place bets on the grades a class of five year olds will have in ten years, you are guaranteed to make money if you know their father’s occupation and their mother’s highest qualification. That amounts to a massive waste of talent and the creation of a deeply disaffected cohort.

Second, our attention to academic standards in traditional, usually arts, subjects is inhibiting our ability to enthuse youngsters with the excitements of science, the fascination of new technology and the importance of engineering and manufacture.

9) What are the challenges you face in terms of illegal immigration, and what impact would this have on your book and its implementation?

We’re on an island and though it would be wrong to claim there are no concerns, I don’t sense that illegal immigration is the phenomenon here that it is along the USA’s land border. More broadly, the lowest achieving group in our system is socio-economically poor children from indigenous British backgrounds. The success of children from ethnic minority backgrounds is variable but many of those groups do buck the average general trend by transcending their poverty and doing very well.

10) What have I neglected to ask?

Fortunately, you’ve not asked the question I feel least competent to answer. How do we ensure high quality leadership in every one of our schools? We have far more schools than even our largest retailers have outlets, it’s an incomparably greater challenge. If I knew the answer to that one, I’d put it on the web, charge a dollar for access and retire.

How can interested scholars and researchers get a copy of this book?

School Leadership for Public Value: Understanding valuable outcomes for children, families and communities is available to order in North America from Stylus Publishing and can also be ordered from all online book retailers such as Amazon

In the UK it can be purchased from John Smith’s Education Bookshop and can also be ordered from all good bookshops and online retailers such as Amazon

About the authors

Denis Mongon is Visiting Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Education, University of London, a Senior Research Fellow in the Education Department at Manchester University and a Senior Associate at the Innovation Unit.

Charles Leadbeater is the author of a string of books on innovation in education, most recently Innovation in Education: Lessons from Pioneers Around the World.


A little bit about the Institute of Education, University of London

The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specialises in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the Institute’s research activity was judged to be internationally significant and over a third was judged to be “world leading”. The Institute was recognized by Ofsted in 2010 for its “high quality” initial teacher training programmes that inspire its students “to want to be outstanding teachers”. The IOE is a member of the 1994 Group, which brings together 19 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities.

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