It is a fact of life that decisions made by politicians or any other leaders are analysed by observers as if they were made in isolation from other factors. The moral purity or political expediency of a particular decision is examined as if this decision were made to stand alone and bear the weight of concentrated critique.

Yet, most of life is just not like that. The decisions we make are sometimes forced upon us at a time of least expediency and are conditioned by factors that might be either unfortunate, unwanted or, in some way or other, compromising. I suspect that this is usually unwelcome and even unhelpful.

So, at a time when many commentators – seemingly glad of some action to get their teeth into at last – are following the attacks on Libya with a critical eye back onto the hypocrisy of Western support for regimes such as Gaddafi’s, the decision to act over Libya is not capable of being seen through some pure moral lens. We might regret having (a) thought that stable Arab regimes were culturally appropriate and desirable and, therefore, sustainable, and (b) having aided such regimes for a generation or more by arming them to the teeth… in the interests of domestic security, of course.

But, our vision is always limited. It is easy to stand in the academy or the editorial office casting judgement that costs nothing to the judge;it is a different matter entirely to be compelled to jump when you would prefer to wait for more conducive circumstances. David Cameron might reassure us that Libya is no Iraq, but the threats of a ‘long war’ from Gaddafi and the concerns raised by the Arab League (these attacks were apparently not what they thought they had signed up to) might well confound him.

I began to think about this element of leadership while reading a paper produced this month by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on Cohesion, counter-terrorism and community in West Yorkshire. I have a huge amount to learn from those on the ground when I move to Bradford next month, so I make no pretensions about fully understanding local cultures there. But, the interesting thing about this paper is the questions it poses to the way we ‘see’ communities in complex circumstances and the assumptions we bring to our judgements.

The paper, based on research, makes a number of points, but two are particularly interesting:

  1. Despite allegations by politicians, media and others that communities lead ‘parallel lives’, the evidence suggests that there already is a huge degree of ‘community cohesion’ in everyday life.
  2. Well-intended policies (a) to prevent terrorism and (b) to build community cohesion conflicted to the extent that potential for neither was maximised.

In the latter case it was simply that policies that were comprehensible in their own right were inhibited by their contextual association with the other. In the words of the summary findings, “The implementation of Prevent at the local level had direct and negative effects on the parallel attempt to pursue community cohesion programmes.”

This is similar to the coincidence of a good idea – the ‘Big Society‘ – with another reality – the Comprehensive Spending Review. The former might well be negated by its association with the latter… despite government attempts to separate the two and retain their distinctive integrities. Put simply (rather than simplistically), the Big Society depends on voluntary groups taking responsibility for services previously provided by the State while the funding for such groups is cut off because of the spending constraints. The association of the two initiatives is unfortunate for many reasons.

This might all be obvious to everybody else, but it has got me thinking about the nature of leadership in complex organisations and in complex contexts. We rarely have the freedom to make simple decisions in isolation from the rest of reality: normally our decisions are compromised, subject to unwelcome and intrusive extraneous factors, and held hostage to consequences which cannot be predicted. In the words of the final conclusion of the JRF paper:

Community cohesion as a policy cannot be isolated from the impact of other government policies.

A statement of the obvious, maybe; but, even though the powerbrokers need tight scrutiny in a democracy, we observers might do well to at least recognise the complexity of the decision-making process and its context when we cast our judgements from a distance and the comfort of a study.

One of the things we have to get used to in England is the tedious mantra that so-called ‘faith schools’ are ‘divisive’. The charge is always put, but the evidence is never there to back up the (apparently) self-evident claim. It seems that the conclusion is assumed on the basis of prejudice and then the evidence adduced from the odd anecdote. Well, new research published today – Strong schools for strong communities: Reviewing the impact of Church of England schools in promoting community cohesion – might just force a bit of a re-think. (Dream on…)

The study by Professor David Jesson of the University of York (commissioned by the Church of England) examined the reports of 400 secondary schools inspected between March and June 2009 and 700 primary schools inspected in June this year. According to the press notice:

The data for primary schools, serving relatively small cohorts of pupils, suggested faith schools perform just as well as community schools based on the average grade received for promoting community cohesion. Grades are awarded on a scale of 1 (outstanding) to 4 (inadequate), with both types of school averaging 2.2 at primary level. However, the data for secondary schools indicates “clear evidence that Faith schools were awarded substantially higher inspection gradings for promoting community cohesion than Community schools,” according to Professor Jesson. The data shows that the mean average of grades given to secondary schools with a religious foundation is 1.86, compared to 2.31 for community schools.

In his research paper, Professor Jesson comments:

This finding is particularly relevant to the debate about schools’ contribution to community cohesion – and runs completely counter to those who have argued that because faith schools have a distinctive culture reflecting their faith orientation and are responsible for their admissions that they are ‘divisive’ and so contribute to greater segregation amongst their communities. This is clearly not supported by this most recent Ofsted inspection evidence.

In reaching their judgements on a school’s performance in promoting community cohesion, Ofsted’s inspectors look for evidence that schools have undertaken an analysis of their school population and locality and then created an action plan focused on engaging with under-represented groups outside the school and between different groups within the school itself.

Ofsted also looks for evidence that schools have strategies for promoting participation by learners in all the opportunities that the school provides and strategies for tackling any discriminatory behaviour between groups of learners. Comparing the data on grades awarded for this part of the inspection between different types of secondary school, Professor Jesson writes:

Here again the contrast between Faith schools and Community schools is clear. Faith schools achieve higher gradings on this aspect of their contribution to their pupils and their community.” Community schools received a mean average of 2.03, while schools with a religious foundation received a higher average of 1.68.

But, the response by Jan Ainsworth, Chief Education Officer for the Church of England, in her introduction to the report makes the point usually ignored by commentators:

Schools with a religious foundation have a particular role in modelling how faith and belief can be explored and expressed in ways that bring communities together rather than driving them apart. They can minimise the risks of isolating communities for whom religious belief and practice are core parts of their identity and behaviour. In Church of England schools that means taking all faith seriously and placing a high premium on dialogue, seeking the common ground as well as understanding and respecting difference.

Schools contribute most actively towards nurturing a shared sense of belonging across communities when they are clear about their own distinctive values and how that grounds their engagement with other groups at local, national and global levels. Promoting community cohesion is not about diluting what we believe to create a pallid mush of ‘niceness’.

Our Christian foundation places the strongest obligation onto Church of England schools to help children form relationships of mutual care and affection with people from every creed and background. For church schools, community cohesion is more than ticking a box for the government. It is about acting out the values articulated in the school’s mission statement in ways that serve and strengthen our human relationship with our neighbours.

Not surprisingly, this won’t be good news for some people, as evidence will be seen to have intruded into prejudice.There is more to be said about this latter point and an excellent article in the Church Times by a Croydon headteacher, Richard Parrish, makes a case for distinguishing between ‘faith’ schools and ‘church’ schools. I’ll come back to this one anon.