In this month’s interview we talk to Raphael Wilkins, the author of the recently published Education in the Balance. Read this thought-provoking overview of education change worldwide for a fresh perspective on the nature of school system leadership in a range of different contexts.
What particular areas of education interest you and why?
Education policy and leadership in the UK and globally, including school system development, and the interfaces between and among professional practice, policy-making and research. These reflect the topics I have worked with professionally over the last few decades.
How would you describe your book in one sentence?
It argues a case for global professional collaborations among school leaders, as a way of bringing new capacity to bear on global educational problems, and to improve education both in developed and in developing systems.
When did you start researching for the book?
In the summer of 2011, I went to a cottage with a car-load of books and large sheets of paper, and spent some days sketching the shape of a book’s worth of ideas, although the book which finally emerged is almost entirely different from that original conception.
Which part of writing your book have you enjoyed the most?
There was a period when I spent a lot of time changing the order of topics, changing the chapter structure, and nudging the arguments into overall coherence. Suddenly it came together. Before that point, soldiering on with one chapter after another was a chore to which I was committed. After that point, the book came alive; I started to feel proud of it and to enjoy reading what I had written.
How did you celebrate finishing your book?
The submission day was during the Christmas and New Year holiday period. I got it in a few days early. This may sound a strange form of celebration, but as I thought about where I wanted to go with future writing projects and how I was increasingly enjoying writing, I decided that I would retire from my main day-job in the near future (that happened in April) and take a big step closer to being a full-time writer. So finishing this book was like opening a door, and the real celebration of that will be when I get my next substantial writing contract.
Any tips for people reading the book?
First, read the introduction to get the overview of what the book is about. Second, appreciate that it is deliberately provocative, to challenge received wisdom and stimulate debate, although I have tried to be kind and fair in my treatment of others’ views.
Where will your research go from here?
My next big piece of scholarly work will be a book on the very topical and important issue of the professionalization of teaching and school leadership. This is because I am involved in the current debates and developments in the UK aiming to create a new Royal College of Teaching; I have accumulated a lot of knowledge of similar developments in other countries; and it has been a career-long fixation with me. Outside the academic domain, I am enjoying working on a memoir of my international travels.
If you could have dinner with one educationalist, living or dead, who would it be?
Sir William Picken Alexander, later Baron Alexander of Potterhill (1905 – 1993): perhaps a surprising choice, given what a difficult and overbearing character he could be. I would need to pick a meal easy to digest.
Bill Alexander ran the Association of Education Committees from 1945 to 1977. During the 1950s he wrote the classic definitions of the English educational constitution: how powers were spread and balanced between central and local government, governing bodies, headteachers and classroom teachers, distinguishing between policy, governance, administration, professional leadership and supervision, and the judgements of the classroom practitioner. He was passionate in his fight to maintain these checks and balances, ‘so that if a madman came to power, they could not ruin education’. I did dine with him, in the company of a lot of other people, at the start of my career, since when I have seen his checks on political power be swept away one after the other. None of us then thought a time could come in England when the Secretary of State would have personal control over the content of the history curriculum. I would like to hear Alexander’s views on that!
If you became Secretary of State for Education for the day, what would you do first?
I would encourage and enable the establishment of an independent chartered professional body for teaching. In 1997 the then new government transferred responsibility for monetary policy to the Bank of England, on the grounds that a particular suite of decisions should be taken by professionals, not politicians. The same is urgently needed in education: for politicians to focus on the matters of policy which are their proper business, and for matters of professional practice to be decided within the profession.