Why special measures is child’s play

I am currently scratching a seven-year itch. It was in 2007 that  my current school came out of special measures and I can’t wait to get stuck in to my next one, seven years later. On 1st July, we sponsor a nearby primary school and so we begin again the journey of transforming a school from special measures to outstanding. The staff here are up for the challenge and looking forward to it. We understand the pains and stresses of being in special measures. We know how difficult it is to perform when under immense pressure. We know what it’s like to be told continually by outsiders that we are not good enough, especially when it’s your local authority who allowed it to go into measures in the first place. More importantly though, we know how exciting, energising and rewarding the journey can be, especially the moment when we are declared outstanding.

Thinking back, it’s not easy trying to pinpoint exactly what it is that shifts a failing school. One of them is obviously having the very best teachers (and by teachers I include support staff as well). It makes me incredibly proud to know that when we became outstanding several years ago, the majority of the teachers were with me when we began the journey when in special measures exactly one thousand days beforehand. They bought into the vision, dug deep, rode the highs and the lows and are now reaping the benefits. Above all, they are all highly driven and possess in abundance what Tim Brighouse calls an ‘indomitable will’. Having a steely determination to succeed at all costs is essential, even when Ofsted and the local authority are telling you otherwise. You need to be strong-willed, to have what poet William Blake calls “a firm persuasion.” In his heart-warming book Crossing the Unknown Sea, David Whyte writes at length about this, arguing that this is often one of the missed opportunities of our lives: “To have a firm persuasion in our work – to feel that what we do is right for ourselves and good for the world at the exact same time – is one of the great triumphs of human existence.”

To have a firm persuasion is therefore essential. Teachers also need to be resilient, energetic, curious, confident, tenacious to name but a few. I’m sure you could come up with a lot more as well. In my experience though, the best teachers and leaders always seem to possess a uniquely ingenious and undemanding quality, one that we were all expert in at one point in our lives. It’s the ability ‘to play’ and it’s sadly in short supply in many of our schools. Too many organisational cultures (‘the way we do things around here’) stifle creativity and play and instead rely on brains, bluff and bluster when leading change. Either that, or they simply don’t change (and in a special measures school, that simply is not an option).

I’m not talking about play in the sense of going out on the playground with colleagues and having a kickabout. In this instance, play is seen as an intrinsically personal process that requires imagination, creativity and a licence to tinker and take risks without the fear of failure. There is no right or wrong way to play. We often use the phrase ‘to be a good team player’ and yet don’t actually allow team members ‘to play’ in the context that we are referring to here. As teachers, we are surrounded day-in and day-out by hundreds of little creative people. Why not be like them? Richard Gerver summed it up perfectly when talking about his recent book ‘Change’: ‘I have spent most of my adult working life working with creative, enterprising people; people capable of dealing with uncertainty, with a thirst for exploring the unknown, for taking risks and for embracing a world of constant change. Admittedly, they’re all under 11 years of age.’

It’s such a wasted opportunity therefore not to tap into their verve as I’m sure that many a corporate organisation would love to be surrounded by all things child-like in order to promote creativity and fresh ideas. As Steve Jobs once said ‘Why join the navy if you can become a pirate?’

Leading change is complex – especially in challenging circumstances – because by and large none of us really like it. For many of us, the default position is very much ‘Yes, I like change but you go first.’ The reason we tend to shy away from change is because of our fear of failure. But we mustn’t feel like this. Failure is a good thing. We must embrace the moment in the knowledge that we are on the verge of creating something new. More to the point – according to Tom Watson, founder of IBM – we need to ‘fail fast and fail often’.

In school we try to instil in our pupils a belief that failing is a key element of powerful learning. We tell them that FAIL stands for First Attempt In Learning. As a child the majority of new experiences are first encountered through play (climbing a tree, riding a bike, catching a ball). Yet as adults, when first learning a new skill or trying something different we expect to get it right first time and not fall from the tree or crash into a hedge. This leads us nicely to the other reason why we need to FAIL; the fact that Feedback Always Improves Learning. When we crash at work, constructive feedback is essential, in much the same way as it is for the child when falling off their bike for the first time. Steve McDermott, in his book How to be a Complete and Utter Failure in Life, Work and Everything, says that there is ‘no such thing as failure, only feedback.’ He is right. (Providing it is constructive of course. Ofsted take note.)

I have always found that when truly playing at work (i.e. being creative and trying new things), the likelihood of ‘failing’ is significantly reduced if the culture of the school promotes and respects the right of individuals to take risks and tinker. Believe it or not, us adults can be quite good at playing. When we play, we smile, and when we smile we become better at what we can do. It’s also good fun and does wonders for team spirit. Do children ever come to you and say ‘I was rubbish at playing today Sir’. Of course not, because to them play is an entirely natural and risk averse activity. We’ve built an entire early years curriculum around it, so it can’t be that bad. In his book The Everyday Genius – Restoring Children’s Natural Joy of Leaning Peter Kline wrote ‘School should be the best party in town’. He is right, although invitations to the party shouldn’t just stop with the children. As leaders we need to ensure that we actively invite all our staff to the party and it is through play that this can best be achieved.

New technology is a great example of play at its best. Staff enjoy nothing more than being given a new piece of techie kit and told ‘Here you are, go and have a play. And no, I’m not going to come and monitor you or hold it against you if it all goes wrong.’ Playing with new technology (or any new resource for that matter) can be liberating and uplifting and nearly always leads to positive and systemic change, providing it’s done so strategically and has a moral purpose.

So we need to start a movement to get play back into our schools. I’m certainly going to make a big effort to see that it underpins all that we do in the new school as we dig ourselves out of measures. As difficult as it might be at times, we need to lose ourselves in the moment and to experience the thrill of the chase when looking to instigate change. For many of us (and I’d include myself in this) it’s all to do with having the confidence to play – not just with ideas and concepts, but also when taking big leaps of faith. We need a paradigm shift in our schools if we are to get people to play more, to have a firm persuasion.

Of course, minor intrusions such as Ofsted don’t help. Neither does a government that doesn’t trust us, instead being eternally obsessed with testing, accountability, floor targets, performance-related pay and the like. By and large, as hardened professionals we can deal with all this though. It’s what we are trained to do, presumably because we are intelligent people. But to make shift happen and create a climate that is truly conducive to productive play we need to disengage our cognitive faculties for a moment. This won’t be easy as it’s not the way our brains are hardwired, so to help us on our way, the words of Carl Jung are a good starting point. We need to print them out and pin them by our beds. Display them in our staffrooms and make them our mantra:

‘The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect alone, but by the ability to play’.

As a child who failed his 11-plus, I find this very reassuring.

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