In many ways, the subject matter of this book is a lifelong project and interest, to which I hope I have brought the previous research authority of two of my three previous books and a variety of published articles referred to in the text.
The most recent phase of my research started in 2017, and it included the work on the two councils described in the book. This entailed live semi-structured interviews with senior politicians of all three main political parties, their senior officers – chiefs and heads of school improvement – and visits to schools and MATs based in their areas. These involved further semi-structured interviews with CEOs, or their deputies, and headteachers. More latterly these had to be done by video call, with the last one being in 2021. In addition, I continued with my interviews of ex-senior officials, as I have been doing for some time, now all in different roles. They had been involved in central government as the policies and their effects described here were in the process of being developed and ‘rolled out’. I also continued to visit other MAT CEOs not located in either of the two local authorities (LAs).
My access was successful – with no refusals this time – as I drew on my large national network, begun long ago as a senior LA officer myself, to make introductions. As said in my acknowledgements, this also involved not seeking quotations beyond the odd unattributable phrase or two used in the text. Further, in an apparently less open governance environment than might be expected in the 21st century, I was able to obtain documentation that never saw the light of day in public-facing contexts, such as on council or other websites. Their deeper analysis helped provide excellent context for the interviews and the non-public thinking that was taking place.
As Dan Gibton (2016) says, this means that I was and was seen as an ‘insider’, with knowledge of my interviewees’ work and strategic environment and experience of taking the sorts of decisions with which they were faced every day. This can also be problematic, of course, as empathy with such senior public figures can obscure other contexts of their work and their significance. This could include disagreement, for example, and sometimes hostility, wherever triangulation takes one.
I have to own up to all this. But it also brings its advantages. Long experience at senior management level enables thinking about alternative ways of acting. To this process I cannot avoid bringing the democratic instincts, behaviours and pragmatism I consider central, in my personal
Knowing well from long experience the contexts and places of interviewees also allows me easy understanding of the other comments made at incidental or chance meetings. Though not strictly ethical, or at least sometimes conceived as such by narrowly drawn university ethics forms and procedures, there is no doubt that these off agenda experiences contribute to an accumulating developing view about an institution. One obvious example is, while waiting to see the head on a school visit, viewing how senior staff come out of their offices and deal with distressed parents and students. Another is a conversation with the council leader’s personal assistant as I was taken through the building to see her. This often reveals the previously ‘hidden’: I have picked them up as I go. In this sense, I still write ‘what only (I) see, hear and know’ (Ferrell, 2018: 165).
The last ten years or so with this academic focus have been sustained by 100 or so interviews, including the 31 for this latest phase. This does not provide the wider authentication of a large study that allows definitive statements of how things are working at the moment. The problem then is that, because of the time they take, very often, the logical developments of policy described there have already moved on. So the conclusions in this book need to be seen as tendencies within current governance structures. They will not be found everywhere, and many teachers and their headteachers work more broadly – much as would have been recognised 30 years ago. But the negative tendencies I would argue are likely to increase and certainly are the direction of travel, with all their negative implications.
Meanwhile, I have met again a range of delightful and thoughtful colleagues who are managing to ‘hold on’ while central government continues on its now destructive centralised path.