Consultants: the obscene quantities of cash, the confidence tricks and riding the merry-go-round of failure.

Some years ago I met a Gentle Man that changed my mind about consultants. He is wise, capable and worth every penny of his modest fee.

More recently, I have been reminded that he is an exception and that ‘school improvement’ has provided rich opportunities for incapable parasites to infest institutions and perpetrate their confidence tricks on rabbit-in-the-headlight Heads in RI and SM schools.

They were introduced as “Ex-Head”, “Ex-Executive Head”, “Consultant”, “OFSTED inspector”. A dig around the web found that one had been a principal of a part of an Academy briefly, before free-falling results led to Category 4, resignation and reorganisation. One hadn’t really been a head at all; the executive Head Teacher title involved no actual running of a school, in fact there was no evidence of teaching sullying their career at all for the past twenty years. Of course, the “inspector” title was associate. A career seemed to have been built on ‘advice’.

They smiled, learning walked, work scrutinied, sat in offices tapping keyboards, met with SLT and said that the school was basically sound, a few “tweaks” would see it found “Good” at the next inspection. It reassured the Head, countered those harbingers of doom that said that behaviour was poor, learning laggardly and results about to imitate a submarine. And it was a lie.

OFSTED came: Special Measures ensued. Were these advisers asked for some of their fees back? At least, were they dispensed with? Unbelievably, they were given more cash, more days, more prominence. They were joined by others: another ex-Head of a failed Academy, other more ghostly office inhabitants, rarely seen on a corridor still less a classroom, writing more reports, having more meetings and drafting more policies. Some came and went without disturbing anyone, others provided the full inconvenience; another unofficial OFSTED. What were they for? The official report was clear; it was obvious that the school should do what it said. The Consultants seem to have been used to try to show progress without changing practice and to reform policy without significantly altering principle or procedure. They provided ‘training’: hours about catering for Learning Styles, Multiple intelligences and differentiation, an explanation that poor behaviour was because teachers didn’t “de-escalate conflict” and called for support too much and when daily-abused teachers muttered discontent at this the Consultant audience intervened to tell them how “hard SLT and consultants had worked on this policy”. They aren’t even good snake-oil salespeople, they need a desperate audience to accept their lies, superficial observations and soothing suggestions that fundamental revolutionary change BY SLT is not needed. No-one has asked the supply teachers, actually working, immersed in the institution, still less the permanent staff. What would they know?

The real obscenity of this is the cost. A Deputy complained to me that one was trousering well in excess of £500 per day and that if scaled up to an annual salary would be paid six figures. Some of the others get more. At one of the daily harangues they were lined up before the staff, several of which performed a quick calculation that £3000 would leave the building in their accounts for that day and to what effect? At best none, at worst more disruption to lessons and routine work and more ammunition for inaction. The monthly cost must be a substantial five figure sum, the opportunity cost is even more heartbreaking: imagine spending the same amount on people to supervise the students more closely, to quieten the unstructured times, to sit with the restless or removed in classes.

How do they get away with it? Some rely on a lack of due diligence by desperate Heads, others are fronted by agencies and more are provided by Academy trusts and teaching schools as part of their ‘school improvement’ narrative. They are unaccountable. They swarm over the terminally sick school and when it succumbs they flee the corpse to infect another host. A never-ending merry go round of failure that mirrors the career of some.

I am more than ever convinced that the Gentle Man I met so long ago really is a diamond in a cess-pit.

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10 Responses to Consultants: the obscene quantities of cash, the confidence tricks and riding the merry-go-round of failure.

  1. Frederick Sandall says:

    This seems to be a business where payment by results does not exist! For the buyers, there is very little comeback but there should be! Buyer beware!
    Since retirement I have done a little consultancy myself! So let’s hope I am more diamond than cess pit!!?

  2. Oggi says:

    When I pointed out to my head that one of these consultants (who had never heard of “spot the odd one out” as a thinking activity with no single correct answer) was wrong in saying that four levels of progress in five months was unsatisfactory progress from my students the head shouted at me “whatever he says you take it”. He also suggested throwing a tennis ball around the classroom to deal with unsettled behaviour. I object to consultants not as a teacher, but as a taxpayer.

  3. Pingback: Top Blogs of the Week : Schools Week (February 2015) | Scenes From The Battleground

  4. ingotian says:

    If the consultant is independent, why do people hire them if they are no good? No-one is forced to hire consultants and no independent consultant has any job security at all. If they are rubbish and stay in a job the only reason is because the people hiring them are more rubbish. This smacks to me of the worst side of dependency culture. We don’t know what to do (even though we are paid quite a lot to know what to do) we’d better hire a consultant. Oh, but if we don’t know what to do we probably won’t be able to make a judgement on who is an effective consultant. Oh, we hired an ineffective one, let’s find someone else to blame for that. The best consultants are anonymous. They give the credit to the client and they are good enough to get all the work they can handle from word of mouth recommendation. The main downside is that it’s very difficult to scale a business that is so dependent on individual knowledge and wisdom.

  5. ingotian says:

    PS £500 a day is cheap if they are good, very expensive if they are bad. But that could be said of a supply teacher on £200 a day. The DfE regularly hire PWC people at £1 to 2k a day. An independent consultant doesn’t have the bureaucratic overhead of a PWC to support or supply agency people to pay but they have to find their own work and may would find managing continuous work day after day very difficult. If anyone thinks £500 a day with no guarantee of work is a gravy train, there is nothing to stop you becoming a consultant. Very few people survive as consultants for any length of time if they don’t already have a pension, redundancy payment or some other form of income so that tells you something. All teachers could get paid 6 figures if you got rid of all the surrounding education bureaucracy. Divide your school staffing budget by the number of staff x 195 days and that will give you the notional average cost per day of a member of staff. A lot of the “grass is always greener” in this, the bottom line is, if it is so great go and do it :-). Caveat Emptor.

    • bottomsbray says:

      Some consultants are indeed fronted by an ‘agency’, others by academy sponsors in some relationship that has not been revealed to me and more recently, semi-officially via ASCL and DfE in the guise of SLE and NLE. It is no longer a ‘cottage industry’.

  6. ingotian says:

    It never was a cottage industry in the sense of mainly independents. LA consultants were much more common than independents. Now perhaps, non-governmental organisations providing consultants is more the case but in the end the only thing that really determines value for money is the ability of the people hiring the consultants to make good employment decisions.

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