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True meaning of bureaucracy is lost

By 25 March 2012No Comments

I worked briefly in the City of Edinburgh’s Education Department when it was still known by that simple and meaningful title.  If I was, at that time occasionally, accused of being a bureaucrat, I accepted the title with some equanimity, pride even.  Any complex organisation required a bureaucracy, a cohort of technically skilled officials impartially implementing the web of technical and management tasks necessary if the machine is to operate.
In any modern society, the bureaucracy is that aspect of government which functions after the politicians have come and gone.  Bureaucracy today seems increasingly to be a drag on any reasonable civil organisation and no-where is that more apparent than in education.  I have two examples from recent months.
I took four S6 students in my car to a 45-minute meeting about bursaries in our neighbouring secondary (1.5 miles away).  I had to send home an EE1 informing their parents of the purpose of the trip and seeking parental permission to take four 17-year olds with me.
I had to seek parental permission to invoke medical treatment if necessary – despite the fact a 12 year old can do so without reference to parents. I had to prepare a risk assessment of the journey.  It was an insult to the young adults concerned that I asked their parents if they might be permitted to do something which they would see as entirely routine.
The paper work took as long as the trip.  At least, since I’m the headteacher, I didn’t have to waste my time and the headteacher’s by seeking his permission for the trip.
More absurd was the charade concerning the fit-manager for our crèche.  Our community school has a crèche, serving adult users and others.  Until recently we had a Centre Manager who had daily responsibility as overall manager of all our community functions.  He retired.  We do not yet have a replacement.  The management defaults to me.
None the less, the Care Commission now required me to complete a fit manager check.  An enhanced disclosure check was first: I could just about see the point of that.  If I moved to a new job, that would be required.  If I’m ultimately responsible for a crèche, it’s best to ensure that I’ve no dodgy past.
Then I had a medical questionnaire.  Now my employers are well aware of my medical record: less than five days sick in seven years.  It asked me if I drank alcohol.  What a silly question: I’m a head-teacher! Then it asked me how much – and I finally lost it.  Unless I had been under-performing or absent or unwell, what business was this of anyone?
Weber and Durkheim would no longer recognise the new bureaucracies as bureaucracies.  Their sole contemporary function seems to be to guard carefully against any possibility of litigious action against the system.  They do not make our children safer or their education more rewarding or their activities more effective.  The purpose of the bureaucracy has now mutated into self-protection for a defensive system.  I

t’s time for a radical culture shift.
The above article was first published in the Times Educational Supplement Scotland on 6 June 2008.

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