Comment Leadership and Management

Why We Shouldn’t Be Surprised About Partygate and What It Tells Us About The Impact of Leadership…

The threads of the Partygate tapestry are there for all to see. What lessons can school leaders draw from this latest political scandal?

When leadership goes wrong everything falters. Organisational problems and failures are almost always rooted in leadership. When leadership goes wrong, any “positives” in those at the top are revealed to be nothing more than small chinks of light or mere cosmetics that mask a darker truth.

Often a thread can be found through which almost all of the problems are connected. Leadership sets the ethos, the tone and the culture. Take the example of Boris Johnson. The abject disregard of the law and the ease at which he finds it within himself to be dishonest extends back over many, many years; the chinks of light and the cosmetics of pretending have enabled him to grace the political stage for a long time – but the supporting cast he has assembled, and the play they perform is a product of that embedded culture of lies.

Politics is often a comparison point for school leadership in my blogs. Headteachers, like their political counterparts in their parties, have an incredible influence over tone, ethos and culture in their school. For good and for ill. Yet, in contrast to Boris Johnson, headteachers rarely set out to deliberately deceive or to ignore the rules – there may be the occasional exception to that maxim, but by and large they wear a huge and heavy moral compass. And if headteachers get it wrong, there is no hanging on. There is only a ruthless goodbye – see more here.

Seeds are sown at the very beginning of taking up a post, both in politics and in headship. In an previous blog I reflect on seven years of headship and look at what my school is like now and the story that tells of what I came into achieve.

We can do the same exercise with Boris Johnson. Here we find a Prime Minister currently embroiled in the “Partygate” scandal, supported and defended by people arrogant enough to believe their own spin, and too afraid to tackle a leader that is so evidently problematic in the eyes of everyone else. It’s not a surprise that we find ourselves here.

Boris Johnson is a sitting PM proven to have broken the law whilst in Office. And his party let him do it; a party that allowed the conditions for this to grow and exist; a party that joined in either literally, complicity or both; and a party that is so entrenched in these conditions and culture that it has become tonally, culturally and morally broken.

You don’t have to go back too far to find the start of the Partygate thread in the current political tapestry. August 2019 and the UK is consumed in the turmoil of Brexit. Queen Elizabeth II prorogues Parliament on the advice of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. It was a political move to stop scrutiny of his solution to the Irish Question, but crucially, it was advice found to be unlawful in the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. Just let that settle. Partygate is nothing on this. The PM, whilst serving Office, unlawfully suspended Parliament because Parliament and scrutiny was such an inconvenience to him that he decided to try to unlawfully circumnavigate it for his own ends. His unlawful action brought the mother of parliaments into disrepute and conspired to involve the UK Government and the Monarch in his own selfish plan.

And what happens? What is the result of this unlawful move? Parliament disbands, a General Election is called, and Boris Johnson is elected Prime Minister with a thumping majority. The thread is there. The conditions that have allowed what we see today were embedding nicely.

Imagine a headteacher being found to have given unlawful advice to the Governing Body. And then imagine that headteacher being rewarded with a new contract and even more autonomy. Seems unlikely doesn’t it?

Fast forward to 2020 and the Irish Question continues to be problematic for Brexit. Not a problem though for Boris Johnson who proposes a plan to give himself and his ministers unilateral decision making power in respect of customs regulations, thus overriding the NI Protocol negotiated between the UK-EU as part of the Withdrawal agreement. A plan which Boris Johnson openly acknowledges would breech international law; the arrogant and flagrant disregard for the law is there for all to see in the UK Government’s boastful claim that it’s plans to reinterpret the Brexit arrangement for Northern Ireland would “break international law in a very specific and limited way” as though by only breaking the law a bit, it would be OK.

The Prime Minister’s attitude to the law continues to permeate, the conditions for a culture of lies continues to embed within Government, and the dishonesty spreads with the Secretary of State for NI, Brandon Lewis, joining in with the public line of defending the proposed law breaking.

Imagine a headteacher deciding to break a very specific part of the law. And doing it openly. And then getting their teachers to publicly support the decision. Seems unlikely.

So thank goodness for school leadership. Thank goodness for headteachers. The difference between Prime Ministerial leadership and school leadership is stark in the present era.

But for Boris Johnson, the effects of his leadership on culture extends further still. The leadership of the country has created the conditions for companies like P&O to disregard the law when the law becomes an inconvenience. In March 2022 P&O fired over 800 employees in an attempt to save its own skin in challenging financial circumstances. But P&O did not handle the situation well (now there’s an understatement) and eventually they admitted the action was unlawful under UK legislation.

The result? Criticism from a Government whose authority to criticise had been nullified by its own record for flouting the law. Criticism that amounted to a toothless gesture that further embedded the conditions for dishonesty to fester. And a further creep of culture – this time out of the Conservative Party into Government, and then out of Government and into business and industry. The thread is there. It’s obvious when you’re shown it.

Imagine a headteacher whose example for lawbreaking encourages other schools to join in, and imagine their Governing Bodies too powerless, or nonchalant, to do anything about it other than a murmuring of a few words dripping in hypocrisy. Seems unlikely.

And now we reap the rewards of all of the above. Partygate. As David frost used to say on Through The Keyhole “the clues were there.” A thread has spun an entire tapestry. The leadership of Boris Johnson has created a culture of arrogance and deceit.

So what lessons can we draw from this sorry state of affairs for school leadership and headteachers? I believe it’s a serious reminder that the example you set from the top matters. As headteacher your actions, your words, and your character matters. It sets the tone, ethos and culture for your school, for your staff, for your pupils and for your community.

Bit by bit, day by day you set the conditions for the culture of your school. That which you walk past, you accept. That which you focus on becomes a beacon for everyone. Thats powerful stuff. And it’s a big responsibility to carry.

You can’t be in it for yourselves. Politicians shouldn’t be either, but too many are. Headteachers must be a different breed. Right now, I’m proud to be a headteacher. Hopefully the example we set in our leadership will produce better politicians and PMs for the next generation; now how’s that for the start of a better thread to a better future?

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