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What Gareth Southgate can teach us about leading

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(This post can is also available in the TES here.)

If the World Cup is not your thing, then look away now. But if you have a passing interest in leadership and how the manager of England can teach us a thing or two about the art, then read on.

On the eve of the greatest game this nation has seen for more than a generation, we need to revisit the last time we found ourselves in this situation – Wednesday 4th July 1990 and the semi-final of the greatest tournament in the world.

Living in Liverpool as a trainee teacher at the time, 1990 was a watershed year. Not only did it herald a brand new decade, but it arrived full of hope and expectation. The people of Liverpool were still coming to terms with Hillsborough and the ravages of 80’s Thatcherism. Reagan had now gone and his mate Gorbachev was well on the way to receiving his Nobel Peace Prize of that year. The cold war started to feel just that little bit warmer, the Berlin wall was nothing but rubble and England were marching on in the World Cup finals.

As a newly qualified teacher about to put the world in motion, New Order dominated the airwaves for a fortnight leading up to that fateful night in Turin. Half an hour down the East Lancs Road, that upstart city was smashing the music scene, not least with the birth of the Mondays’ Madchester movement. The Stone Roses and Inspirals all got in on the act that year but for me, none more so than James, with their much looked-over anthem, Come Home. Oh, how we wished football would do so that night.

It didn’t of course. Several weeks later I found myself still taking it out on the Banda machine in the staffroom as an NQT. Little did I know that it would be another 28 years before England get to do it all over again. So here I am hammering away at the keyboard, wondering where on earth the time went.

Euro 96 offered temporary relief. I was fortunate enough to get a suite of tickets, including group games at Anfield and Old Trafford, a semi-final (not England) and the final. I cannot tell you how excited I was to be seeing Gazza, Sheringham and Shearer at Wembley. What a team! It was two days after my birthday. I was due to get married later that year and we’d just bought our first house. I was high on life. Even the hapless Stuart Pearce redeemed himself that night.

And then up stepped Gareth Southgate.

You can imagine from that moment on I was never going to be his greatest fan. In fact I hated the man with a passion, refusing ever again to step into a Pizza Hut. In that one stupid kick he ballooned sky-high my hopes and dreams to see England in a final at the home of football.

Instead, I had to endure the lucky Germans once again ride their luck. We winced as they robbed us once more, this time having the cheek to steal it from our own backyard on the back of a Golden Goal. Heck, they didn’t even know they’d won the thing at the time and in so doing denied us the fun of penalties, ever the party poopers.

The passing of time has been kind. I’d by and large forgotten all about Gareth Southgate until he popped up as the FA’s head of elite development 15 years later. I do remember thinking, oh well, that’s another generation of young talent wasted.

But I was wrong. And now, after almost three decades, I want to put it right.

Gareth Southgate is a leader blessed with talent. He may not be up there with the most enigmatic and ebullient of managers – he’s no Venables or Robson, or Shankly or Klopp. But he’s certainly one of the most authentic and effective. Here’s why:

Class is permanent

The man oozes class, not just in the understated way he goes about his business, but in the way he engages with people. There is a genuine warmth in his eyes and as gatekeeper he is always willing to let (the right) people in. He epitomises what it means to be a host leader.

He looks the part as well, suave and in control. He understands the importance of branding. The FA may well have given him the blazer, but he has the confidence to ditch it and be seen only in his now legendary waistcoat. For those of us who were taught at headship school never to be seen without your jacket, this makes for welcome relief (especially in this heat).

Know thyself

It may be a philosophical cliché, but as maxims go, ‘know thyself’ resonates throughout the camp. This team of players know themselves exceptionally well. They are the first to concede that individually they are not world-beaters. Be truthful, how many of you had to Google the likes of Pickford, Trippier and Maguire when we played Tunisia? Hardly any of them would have made it into the starting line-ups of the seeded teams.

I read last week that the Swedish press actually like us as a footballing nation now because the arrogance and swagger shown by previous A-list players has gone. This new-found attitude starts and ends with Southgate. He knows the limitations of his team and creates a system to accommodate this.

He is honest about himself as well. When questioned about his penalty miss, Southgate’s answer was as refreshing as it was insightful: ‘I wasn’t technically good enough to perform that particular skill under pressure.’ He didn’t lay the blame elsewhere, just parked it, dusted himself down and went again. And now, here he is, ex-manager of Middlesbrough, about to grab the greatest prize of all.

Leading down the middle

Southgate knows that any successful organisation needs a strong spine right down the middle. Everyone instinctively knows who these people are. They are the ones you go to, the ones that always put in a shift above and beyond, no matter what. They step up, especially when the chips are down. The spine is what connects the brain to the heart, hands and feet.

The key to high performance is to do your job consistently well, day-in, day-out. It’s no good to anyone stepping up only when you fancy it. The same applies in sport, especially across the course of a long season, be it football, formula one or tennis. All elite performers know this, teachers especially. Southgate’s spine of Pickford – Stones – Henderson – Kane means that the team finally has a permanent back bone that not only props up the team but acts as the central nervous system for the team’s performance, health and well-being.

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Successful leaders have a strong sense of Objective, Strategy, Tactics and Gareth Southgate is no exception. As manager, he knows that the single objective to win the world cup needs to drive all that they do as a team. Even at the start of the competition when no-one thought they had a hope, I’m convinced he told his players that this was their objective, their destination. He must have told them it enough times because you can now begin to see that they finally believe it.

With the objective and associated strategy in place and understood by all, the manager has stuck to it, regardless. He hasn’t tinkered with the system and has stayed true to his beliefs. The players all know what is required of them and why. For the first time ever we don’t have square pegs and round holes. Decide on your strategy first, communicate it with everyone, and then build your tactics around it.

When the strategy starts to waver, stick by it and instead change your tactics so that you get the job done. And if need be, write the tactics down on a water bottle and pass it to your keeper during a penalty shootout. It’s called preparedness and it works wonders.

Legacy

What is remarkable about this set of players is that many of them have been playing together for years, in most cases under the watchful eye of Southgate. Although the team may appear youthful and inexperienced, as a unit overall they have come through the ranks together. Seven of the current squad all played for Southgate at Under-21s, Kane, Dier and Lingard included. There are massive lessons to be learnt here about the importance of nurture, succession and the role effective talent management can play, particularly when developing youth.

The role of the leader is crucial in making it clear to his team that he’s not a quitter. He is in it for the long term. This England squad was always meant to be a work-in-progress, with one eye on the World Cup in four years’ time. The Euros in 2020 were to be the real test. This was just a dress rehearsal.

The reason it’s now become the main stage is because there is buy-in at every level. The team enjoy what they do. Players know that if they mess up, they can go again. The crippling fear of failure has been removed. The prevailing culture is no longer about individual egos but the development of the team over time. It’s about continuous improvement at all levels where every marginal gain counts. You sense almost a siege mentality when the players cross the white line, something we’ve not seen before.

At long last we seem to have a team of players that understand that they don’t own the jersey, just the body within. Above all, they sense that there is a legacy to be left behind; that they are the privileged chosen few to play for the England yet to be born. Finally, the three lions seem to mean something.

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Tribes, chimps and troops

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Being a leader can sometimes be a lonely job. When you think about it though, it really ought not to be. Nobody leads in isolation, on their own or in a team of one. We all operate within the world of leadership teams, governing bodies, sub-committees and the like.

Human Beings are sociable creatures and we like to surround ourselves with people who have our back and who complement, challenge and support us. So how do we end up in situations where we sometimes feel so isolated?

Anyone who has had to face up to Ofsted will know exactly what I mean, especially when it’s your name that ends up on the front of the report. Inspection can make or break a headteacher’s career and nobody likes to be told that they are not very good at what they do.

Social media doesn’t help. Despite its name, there’s nothing social (or sociable) about being called out on Twitter, especially by supposed intelligent professionals. Unfortunately, this type of behaviour seems to be on the increase, particularly by those that have never led a school or choose to hide behind their profile. Heads who put themselves out there are easy targets for those with a blunt axe to grind.

Only last month I was told on Twitter by a charming lady who has never met me to sling my hook. She eloquently went on to inform me that I’m petty and punitive and that I’m sucking the integrity out of the system. Quite extraordinary behaviour from a person who could unknowingly be working alongside you in a school, claiming to be a teacher. Too many confuse their so-called right to speak freely with being down right rude.

That said, where social media does have its advantage is when it allows heads to reach out to others – like-minded souls who understand their plight and can relate in some way to their frustrations.

Take a rogue inspection, for example. Although these thankfully are rare, it seems to be happening far too often of late. Ofsted don’t seem to like it when heads reach out and share their concerns because it’s seen as scaremongering.

If your inspection went well, that’s okay, go ahead, share all you want. Ofsted may even give you a retweet. But if it goes pear-shaped, please keep the noise down. Apparently it undermines all the work being done to bust the myths. But all we are doing is being entirely natural and trying to connect up with similar folk in an attempt at changing something.

Tribes

In his Ted Talk of 2009, Seth Godin talks about this behaviour as being entirely normal, a condition in fact that he actively encourages.

As humans, we have a natural propensity to want to join up, to connect and form tribes with like-minded people to try and change something. The creation of tribes are essential if we are to change anything, both sociologically and metaphorically. So what we should do as leaders is attempt to make connections with people with similar ideas and beliefs (including those on the fringes) and get them to join us.

What is crucial here is that they join you not because you force them to, but because they want to. It’s how movements begin. You only need to look at #WomenEd and the recent #NewVoices to appreciate what can be done. The best MATs understand this.

This is no different to how you create a powerful school. When you want to change anything, especially if it’s the status quo, what you are saying to your team is, ‘This one’s important. We need to organise around this. Who’s in?’  This is when we need to circle our wagons, to create some sort of siege mentality. At this point, the tribe needs to return to base camp and be clear about what it intends to disrupt.

Those of you who have read my book will know all about the importance of creating a base camp. Base camp is a safe place personal to you where you go often, to re-energise, reflect and re-calibrate. Everything that you do as a leader begins and ends here and it comes down to just three things: who you are as a person, what you believe in and the values that bind you.

For any of you that have ever scaled an Everest-type mountain, you will know that you can’t go straight to the top, as tempting as it may be. Instead, you need to climb high and sleep low, returning each night to base camp to rest and recover and acclimatise to the harsh conditions before climbing a bit higher the next day.

I might never have climbed such a mountain before, but as a headteacher I’ve always believed I could move one. A base camp that is forever on the move and adapting to the environment is the key to achieving this.

I had the privilege of speaking about this at the NAHT/ASCL Inspiring Leadership conference at the ICC in Birmingham last month. I mention this for three reasons:

(1) I got to sit in the same seat on the main stage as Humpty Dumpty (ex-Play School presenter, Floella Benjamin placed it there when she spoke the day before);

(2) I got to meet backstage one of my leadership heroes, Michael Fullen, who happened to speak immediately before me (what a great warm-up he was too), and;

(3) I got to hear Professor Steve Peters open the conference with a keynote about the Chimp Paradox.

Steve Peters is an amazing speaker. He is also a great author. His groundbreaking book The Chimp Paradox is essentially a mind-management tool that helps to explain the daily struggle that we all face when dealing with our inner Chimp. Peters has helped all sorts of people deal with their Chimp, including Sky Pro Cycling and Liverpool FC, as well as everyday folk who lead and live busy and stressful lives like you and me.

We all have an inner Chimp and almost every day we do battle to keep it under control.

The good news, is that it can be done, but only if we surround ourselves with the right kind of people and have a clear understanding of who’s in our tribe. We must never leave ourselves vulnerable by allowing ourselves to become isolated.

Chimps

The Chimp exists in the limbic system of your brain and is your emotional machine. The paradox in the title of the book refers to the fact that the Chimp can be your best friend and worst enemy if you don’t know how to control the pesky little thing.

One of the ways that the book suggests you can do this is by building a support network, a tribe of people, both at home and at work that have your back, that you can rely on, and that are part of your inner circle. They are always welcome in your base camp. He calls this your troop and that if you have the wrong people in it, the results can be disastrous.

Let me tell you this much. Nothing provokes and winds up my irrational little Chimp more than Ofsted. Traffic jams, train delays, Davina McCall and tractors are right up there. They don’t come close though when it comes to Ofsted.

In contrast to the Chimp is the Human, the part of the brain that thinks logically based on facts and the truth. The trouble with Ofsted is that to my wayward Chimp, very little of what Ofsted offers is based on logic or facts. Instead, it comes down to somebody else’s perception of reality – their own feelings and impressions.

In effect, the entire inspection process becomes troop warfare; a meaningless Battle of the Chimps – mine versus the lead inspector.

Troops

This is when I’m likely to need a 1:1 therapy session with Prof Peters. If I was lucky enough to find myself sitting on his couch for half an hour this is what he’d tell me:

“Andrew, you need to find your troop, a small band of trustworthy people that will help nurture and develop you, but most importantly will stand by you even when you are under attack. By forming your own troop you’ll be able to answer such questions as ‘Why do I worry so much about what others think?’ and ‘Why do I always feel the need to impress other people all the time?’

A word of warning though. When recruiting your troop, your Chimp will be looking to recruit different people than your Human. In Chimp mode, you will want to be protected by people that share the same emotions and feelings as you. It will choose people based on what they can offer you and keep the troop safe. The Chimp seeks solace in people with superficial qualities such as looks and power.

The Human has a completely different agenda, wanting instead to be surrounded by people of like mind who can offer companionship and friendship. The Human wants people with similar values who are reliable and predictable – soulmates and people with Humanity. Getting the balance right is not easy.

And always remember this: There will be other Chimps out there from different troops that are intent on harming you. You need to learn that opinions from outside your troop are not important. You won’t then give two hoots about Ofsted…

And so it goes on to such a point that I’ve learnt to tame my Chimp and won’t let people steal my happiness.

So to summarise, Peters offers the following exercise to help you create your own troop. Next time you find yourself back at base camp, try to find a few minutes to work through the exercise with your troop.

How to create your troop

1. ESTABLISH WHO’S IN: Think carefully who is really in your troop and why. List members of your troop (both at home and at work) and ensure that the Human has chosen them. If the Chimp has taken control, then redefine.

2. CLARIFY ROLES: Be clear about what each troop member is offering you and what you offer in return. Only ask troop members to fulfill a role that is suitable so spend time with them being clear what each person brings. Be sure to share goals, values and beliefs.

3. INVEST IN THE TROOP: Make time to engage with them meaningfully and refresh if required. Be mindful that if neglected, people may choose to leave. Always keep asking yourself, ‘What have I done today to invest in my troop?’

Get this right, and chances are you’ll find people queueing round the block wanting them to lead you. I certainly will.

(You can learn more about how to control your inner Chimp in Steve Peters’ seminal book The Chimp Paradox. This particular post is based on Chapter 8, The Troop Moon.)

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Live from the 15:17 to Newport

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I’ve never done a live blog post before. I usually craft them several days in advance. But not this one; to mark the occasion of my 60th post this one is coming to you ‘live’.

The fact that you are reading this means that it’s uploaded okay, but as I type I’m hurtling south on a rickety Arriva Train through Wales from Ludlow on the 15.17 to Newport. From there I have a quick five-minute platform dash to jump the train to Paddington and the Heathrow Express to Terminal 5.

It’s then early to bed before I board the noon flight to Austin, USA. The 10-hour flight gets me in mid-afternoon Texan time tomorrow (Sunday) so I have the evening free – jet lag permitting – to explore what the city has to offer.

As state capitals go, Austin is the self-proclaimed ‘live music capital of the world’. One of my favourite ensembles performed there several times last week and it would have been lovely if it coincided with my visit. Never mind though, I’ve got tickets for May. (Google ‘Brassneck’.)

According to Austin’s own tourist board website it’s also a city that prides itself on embracing alternative cultures, hence the ubiquitous bumper stickers that I’m determined to search out that read ‘Keep Austin Weird’. It sounds like my kinda place, although we have been warned to not be too concerned at the fact that almost everyone carries guns (which at home I don’t) and wears huge cowboy hats (which I do). Most importantly though – and apropos to nothing – it’s the state that bears the name of the opening chapter (‘The Texan’) of probably the greatest book ever written, Catch-22.

But here’s to the point of this post – Austin is also known as ‘Silicon Hill’ on account of the many technology companies that are based there. In the 1990s, more than 400 high-tech companies, including IBM, Dell, Motorola, and of course Texas Instruments, made the city their home.

Apple have recently moved in as well, opening a brand new ‘flagship’ store in northside Domain and it is to here that I shall be first heading.

During the next week or so, I’m joining a number of UK colleagues on an international leadership study visit organised and led jointly by Apple and SSAT.

The main aim of the trip is to ‘give education leaders unique insight into the work of one of the world’s most successful organisations and learn leadership lessons to apply to their school context.’ When I was first invited to take part, I didn’t need a great deal of time to think about it. It was an opportunity to good to miss for an old hack like me.

The 15-strong delegation meets up in Austin on Monday morning, kicking off with a session called ‘Engaging with Intention’. We then have the honour of visiting the Eanes School District that, according to Apple, will ‘raise your expectations for technology and the role it can play in your schools’. We then debrief before flying up to silicon valley and spending the next three nights in California where hopefully I can bag a load of Apple freebies.

I love California. I’ve had the privilege of going there a number of times and have driven up and across most of the state, including San Francisco to LA and down to San Diego and across to Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and up to Yosemite. I’ve never been to Cupertino (San Jose) though, a short drive from San Francisco, so I’m looking forward to this, despite it being strictly for business. Even more so as we are based at Apple Park, the international headquarters of Apple Inc. It only opened last year and is the fifth most expensive building in the world coming in at a cool $5 billion.

Known as the ‘spaceship campus’ the new HQ replaces the previous ‘One Infinite Loop’. With almost 15,000 employees based there, the 175-acre site, is impressive indeed. And although it may seem extravagant at five billion, in real terms this knocks barely 2% off the company’s gargantuan annual cash reserves. By means of comparison, to a small SME in the UK worth £100k (10-50 employees), this would be the equivalent of building a new office for only £2,000.

Sessions for the rest of the visit look like this, spread across two days:

Why mobility matters (understanding the role of a leader in a rapidly changing environment)

The importance of culture (how Apple make it stick and lessons to be learned in education)

Managing change (discovering how Apple approach the complexities of change)

Implicit Promise (intriguingly billed as a ‘special session’ with Apple University)

Apple in enterprise (how as leaders we should approach rapid transformation)

Productivity with Apple (reducing workload and saving time with tech)

Evidence and impact (how to measure your vision for learning, impact and teaching.

Elements of learning and leadership (what Apple have learned about innovation and change)

I shall remain as cynical and optimistic as ever as we get to grips with each of these, using a number of diagnostic digital leadership tools developed exclusively by Apple.

Finally, on day four, we wrap the whole thing up in a strategy session identifying how best to work through specific tasks, formulating actions and next steps for back in our schools. It’s then the San Jose to LHR redeye on Thursday, hopefully arriving in time for tea on Friday evening, 25 hours of flying time later.

So, dear reader, although I don’t expect any sympathy from you, I am going to be working hard whilst I’m out there in the sun. Don’t forget as well that I’m losing a week of my holiday also, and whilst it’s a great opportunity on my part, I am going to miss being with my family. (And if any of my two boys are reading this, “Get back to your GCSE/A-level revision now! You’ve got exams in a few weeks!”)

Whether I get to blog whilst I’m out there depends on how much free time we get as I’m going to be awfully busy. I guess I can’t blame the dodgy Wi-fi for lack of posts, being in silicon valley. (Heck, the hotel even has its own robotic butler (called Botlr) that delivers to your room via your smart phone!). And, I’m going to miss the Champions’ League second leg as well on Tuesday lunchtime, so I hope you appreciate the sacrifices I’m making for the cause.

(16.07, Abergavenny Station, two minutes ahead of schedule.)

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So here’s to the ultimate Catch-22: Assuming I get no freebies, if I come home with a ton of over-priced Apple goodies, I’m screwed for being a sucker and paying over the odds, and if don’t, then I’m screwed because my kids will kill me as I assured them that me and Tim Cook ‘are like that’.

Anyway, I’ll worry about that later. Next stop Cwmbran, so I’d better start packing away as Newport is looming and I have only 3 minutes at the station to get the connection so I need to be lively. Despite having only one bar of 4G, I’m going to hit ‘publish’ now and hope for the best. Here goes…

 

(PS The guard has just told me someone has cut through the power on the Swansea – Newport line and all trains are cancelled. So I guess I really am screwed, good and proper.)

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Read. Talk. Write.

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I’ve come to the conclusion that Sir Francis Bacon may well have been on to something here. In the late sixteenth century he inadvertently defined what the three key qualities of a really good leader are. I first came across them in the US Library of Congress several years ago, on a bookmark no less in the souvenir shop. Taken from an essay called ‘Of Studies’, the philosopher and former Lord Chancellor said this:

“Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”

There is so much to behold in this, a single sentence of only 14 words. Not only does it nail to the mast the importance of reading, talking and writing, but also that if you do them well, you are likely to achieve a greater sense of fullness, readiness and precision (or ‘exactness’, to be exact).

All six of these merit worthy discussion, as they are as relevant in life as they are at work. For the sake of this post though, it boils down to the three: Read. Talk. Write.  It may sound like a nod to Ross McGill’s next book, but as mantras go, it’s up there with the finest.

I wonder how many of these you do on a daily basis? Probably all of them. I suspect you talk an awful lot and I can’t really see how it’s possible to get through a day without doing so. I remember once as a teacher attempting to teach my class for an entire day minus a voice (laryngitis), using only written signs, hand gestures and expressions. It didn’t work, although I’ve never known a class so quiet and well-behaved. As teachers, our voice is often our greatest asset and so it’s something we are skilled and confident at using.

I’m sure also that you read lots, even though you probably never actually sit down and ‘read’. If like me, you spend far too much time hunched over a screen reading through emails or glancing at social media feeds, you probably read a lot more than you give yourself credit for. Then there are the policy documents, reports, evaluations, statutory guidance documents etc. In a single day you probably read thousands of words, equivalent to a chapter or two of a novel. You are of course currently reading this, so that’s just over another 1200 words consumed in one hit.

And what about writing? Again, I bet you write loads. In a single week I must knock out close to an entire novella*, although granted, far too much of it is taken up by emails, reports, blogs, tweets, DMs etc. In his memoir, ‘On Writing’, author Stephen King writes that, as with physical exercise, we should set a daily writing goal. He suggests we aim low to start with and that it should be at least a thousand words a day (about a side-and-a-half of A4, typed).

Now, I know only too well that when I was a teacher I would not have had the time, desire or energy to do this, so I understand that for some of you this is unrealistic. So if you do have a class, don’t worry about this bit too much. However, if you do find yourself with some spare time, use it wisely by reading Mark. Plan. Teach. instead.

For now then, let’s just indulge ourselves with one of the three, the one you use the most: Talk. I know I’m taking liberties here slightly, because strictly speaking Sir Francis refers to it as ‘conference’. But it means the same thing in essence. A quick dash to the dictionary and I’m reminded that ‘to confer’ requires an exchange of ideas resulting in some kind of discussion taking place. The irony of course is that this tends to be the last thing that happens at a conference.

To confer with a colleague therefore means that you need to talk with them as opposed to at them. In Latin, ‘confer’ literally means ‘to bring together’. All the best leaders are highly skilled at doing this, even with those colleagues that are the hardest to reach. In fact, talk is the only meaningful way to engage with such people. Sticking with the US Congress theme, it was Abraham Lincoln who once said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” I’m sure he didn’t mean by sending him an email.

If of course, as a leader, when talking with someone you intend to engage with the person then the ability to listen with intent is as equally important. It also requires plenty of integrity and openness and the willingness to genuinely understand. Steve Radcliffe, in his brilliant book Leadership Plain and Simple, unpacks this perfectly in his Future-Engage-Deliver model:

“Engagement is central to a leader’s ability to build alignment, involvement,  ownership, unity and team. Crucially, it is absolutely distinct from              ‘communicating to’, ‘presenting at’, or ‘telling.”

To assume that because you’ve told someone something, or sent them an email, or sat them down in front of a PowerPoint, that they will immediately jump up with glee and merrily go about their business implementing it, is a mistake that many of us I’m sure have made in the past. I’ve certainly done this – and quite possibly still do – especially when bringing new sponsored schools into the trust where one assumes engagement is taken as read.

I am always very mindful that it’s less about what you say and everything to do with how you say it. If you get this bit right – day-in, day-out – the results can be spectacular. Or as Radcliffe puts it: ‘What’s possible for a group or organisation when people are really engaged can be immense.’

In Radcliffe’s book he defines a leader as being someone ‘who is up to something‘. There are few definitions of leadership better than this, for if you are not up to something then you cannot possibly be in a position to engage meaningfully with someone.

The next time you really want to talk to someone in a meaningful way try asking them what they’re up to. If you are in the presence of a true leader, you will invariably see their eyes light up, as if to say, ‘Sit down. I thought you’d never ask‘. So you find yourself sitting down with them and sharing what you’ve both been up to and before you know it, the engagement leaves an indelible mark on you both and something happens. The best leaders know that it is the artful synergy and alignment of these ‘things that happen’ that create deep-rooted systemic change. All from a single conference.

Read, talk, write. As tempted as I am to call these my new year resolutions, I’m going to resist. This is because it would be wrong of me to revisit them only once a year for the first few weeks of January, only to have forgotten about them entirely by time the clocks change. These three simple behaviours need to remain my mantra at all times, something that I try to work hard at developing every day, providing of course they are rooted in quality. Having it emblazoned on my bookmark helps me no end, so long as I remember to read.

*’A short and well-structured narrative, often realistic and satiric in tone’, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. A novella can consist of as few as 7,000 words.

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Bloggers of the world, unite and take over

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As critical as I am of the inspection process in England, I am entirely at ease with the fact that inspection is here to stay. Indeed, I’d be concerned if it were ever abolished. An independent inspectorate is essential if we are to continue to have faith in our education system. I think all schools should be inspected regularly, outstanding or not, and that outcomes should be publically reported.

I just don’t agree that schools need to be graded. It should be black or white: Either they are ‘good’ schools or not. They either meet minimum standards or they don’t. Children are safe or they are not. Your car is either roadworthy or it’s not. Leave the rest to the experts – practising headteachers – to provide the shades of grey. This way, we all have a say – HMI included – and the whole thing comes in millions of pounds cheaper.

But of course, this will never happen for one simple reason: As a profession, we are not trusted.

If we had control of the remote we’d simply seek to change channels if we didn’t like what we saw or delete things that we’d previously recorded because it was rubbish. It is such a shame that this may be the perception, given the vast amount of expertise out there in the system that currently exists.

That said, I remain eternally optimistic for the future. I am encouraged by what I read and hear from Sean Harford and Amanda Spielman. As HMCI, she seems to be doing a fine job building bridges and being open, honest and actually listening.

There appears to be a wind of change in the air, albeit a slight breeze. Take for example a recent inspection report, as tweeted by @johntomsett: ‘This is one of the most important paragraphs in our new Ofsted report… (and) for the system as a whole’:

The curriculum reflects the leaders’ integrity because it is designed to match pupils’ needs and aspirations regardless of performance measures.

How refreshing and encouraging is this? It sets the bar at a whole new level and should give all school leaders the confidence to at least take risks. However, and it’s a huge ‘however’ indeed, because this is very much at the heart of the whole problem and why it needs fixing:

Not all inspectors are as good as the one that wrote that report. Not all inspectors get it. Not all inspectors are as willing to leave their baggage at the gate. 

This is precisely why the system is flawed, for it’s possible that another inspector is just as likely to visit John’s school and take a different view. If the stakes weren’t so high, then ordinarily this wouldn’t be such a big deal. We could live with it. But they are not. The stakes have never been higher.

As pleasing as it is to see such a comment in a report, the question we must all ask is ‘why has it taken Ofsted over a quarter of a century to realise this?’ Surely schools have been building values-led curricular for years that we’ve desperately been trying to get inspectors to acknowledge, but to no avail.

I hope this has now trickled down to the entire Ofsted workforce and it becomes the rule rather than the exception. It’s all well and good Ofsted tweeting about debunking myths, but unless this filters through to every single inspector out there, the flaws will remain.

We as school leaders would not be allowed to get away with this. Consistency is King, so say Ofsted. It doesn’t matter how many times you tweet it, say it, email it, shout it from the rooftops. Unless every single member of your staff are on point, you are only as good as your weakest link.

It’s such a shame that this rule does not apply to Ofsted. It’s simply not good enough that only some of the links are strong, because chances are one of the weak ones will walk through your door and you are doomed. And there’s nothing you can do about it. (Am I causing your anxiety levels to rise? Am I creating a culture of fear? If I am, then I apologise. Simply don’t read on.)

However, as I said, I remain encouraged, especially as Ofsted continue to reach out via twitter. Not all of you would agree. There are many of you out there that find it refreshing and appealing – endearing almost – that Ofsted are doing all they can to break down barriers on social media in order to become more accessible. Others, less so. You like your regulators to stay detached and out of sight, only to come out when duty calls (a bit like HMRC). At least you know where you stand.

Perhaps though there’s room for both. In my opinion, the efforts of Amanda Spielman and Sean Harford to engage on Twitter can only be a good thing, surely. It’s certainly something I never imagined I’d see under previous regimes. They deserve much credit for attempting to break down the barriers and to use social media to their advantage. Besides, what can be wrong with using such a populist platform to convey your views?

The answer of course, if you believe what was reported last week, is when you are a blogging headteacher. Now look, I like to think that Spielman never spoke the words she was reported to have said. Even if she did, she is probably right to say that a ‘culture of fear’ has built up over the years as a result of headteacher blogs.

But we all know where that’s come from. Not us. Abolish Ofsted in it’s current form, reform inspection, and the problem goes away. It’s really very simple.

Passionate headteacher blogs may well have led to increased levels of anxieties. But so what? We can all read between the lines. We know that emotions run high and that sometimes when we write it might make for uncomfortable reading. But I’m okay with that. Ofsted need to take the rough with the smooth.

Perhaps blogging is the only way that colleagues feel that their voice can be heard. We all know that the complaints procedure is a complete dead end. Consultations have counted for nothing over the years and it’s par for the course that Ofsted continually chose to ignore international research on the negative effects of a punitive inspection regime.

So can you really blame headteachers when they turn to a blog, given that it’s the only way of them telling their story to anyone prepared to listen?

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If you do blog, don’t give up. For me, blogging doesn’t come easy but I know it makes for fabulous professional learning and development so I stick at it. As Picasso once said, ‘inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’ For me, blogging is a selfless, personal act, and not something I necessarily set out to do to please you, dear reader.

I think it’s that vulnerability when posting a blog that makes our profession so open and accessible; the fact that teachers are willing to expose themselves to criticism from others and write freely without fear or favour. I can’t imagine lawyers or librarians blogging in the same way, uploading tortured pieces on the frustrating idiosyncrasies of penal reform or the Dewey system.

As a profession we must continue to tell our stories. In fact, I urge you to go out there and write something now, this minute. If it causes people to feel uncomfortable, then fear not. Providing it is truthful, considerate and kind you’ll be fine.

Personally, I’d love to know how you feel about a burning issue, even if it may cause mild hysteria. At least it gets the attention of certain people. So please encourage as many of your staff to do the same and be sociable by sharing it with others on social media.

I did this once as an inspector. I wrote a blog post almost two years ago to the day about the process of inspection. It was actually a supportive piece, once again reflecting how positive I felt for the future. (It was called ‘Doing good as you go’.) It was a balanced post I felt, although Ofsted clearly didn’t like it because I dared to be critical. I suggested that the process of inspection was flawed. Not Ofsted per se as an organisation, but inspection itself.

Despite Ofsted’s repeated requests, I refused to take it down and so was left with no choice but to resign as an inspector. I was gutted. I’d like to think that under Amanda Spielman’s watch, that won’t happen now. Or at least if it did, she’d have had the decency to reply to my letters.

I no longer inspect but I continue to blog, although from September as a MAT CEO. I’m technically no longer  a ‘headteacher blogger’, so I guess I’m free to carry on writing as hysterically as I want about our deeply flawed and troubled inspection regime.

 

(Thanks to @PrimaryPercival and last year’s brilliant ‘The Ladybird Book of Edu-Twitter’, pictured above.)

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Pot and kettle: A letter to HMCI

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This post appeared in the TES here.

Dear Chief Inspector,

I went to visit a new school last week. As I drove in, I could tell from the houses and the front gardens that it was an area starved of prospects. Term hadn’t started yet and the streets were awash with the detritus of a long barren summer holiday; make-shift goal posts, punctured footballs, broken tennis rackets. I’d arrived a few minutes early so decided to park up and check my phone. As I did, I noticed a group of young children tentatively approach the car. They were about six years old, unkempt and in need of something to do.

Emails checked, I was about to leave, the engine still running. The children had lost interest and had moved on so I put the car in gear, checked my rear mirror and was about to pull out when I heard giggling. I looked around but couldn’t work out where it was coming from. My first reaction was that a ball had gone under the car. I noticed movement and saw a small group of children – no more than three or four – crouching behind the vehicle.

I was about to jump out, convinced they were going to pinch my number plate. But then I noticed what it was they were actually doing. They were taking it in turns to crouch down and suck in the fumes from my blowing exhaust. As each child gulped in a lung-full, they’d turn to their mate and giggle hysterically, presumably getting some kind of kick out of the sensation. They were creating quite a stir and so more children were now beginning to come over.

It reminded me of a scene out of the TV series The Walking Dead, me surrounded in a car with a load of walkers outside. Do I turn off the engine and stay put, hoping they’d get bored and leave, or do I drive off? I was worried that if I drove away the surge in exhaust fumes might prove too strong or hot and burn the children. Besides, what if I accidentally had it in reverse and ran over one of them? I decided instead to turn off the engine and go and talk to them in my best teacher voice. I needn’t have bothered. As I opened the door, the children turned and scarpered in all directions in a move clearly well-rehearsed, laughing heartily as they went.

The following day, these very same children turned up at the school for their first day of term. They will continue to do so every day throughout the year, high on fumes, low on food and completely out of aspirations. The class teacher will think nothing of it, for it is what she does. She will welcome them with a smile and give them the love and attention they so crave. The teacher will not think twice about the extra work that goes with the job, for she understands that in choosing to work in such a challenging, demanding and all-consuming school, it goes with the territory. It’s par for the course.

I’m telling you this because I don’t think all of your inspectors will ever really understand or appreciate how much extra work teachers in these schools have to do. It’s not as simple as the headteacher being mean or nasty and abusing his or her authority. It’s far more nuanced than that. What is doubly difficult, is that these teachers who work so tirelessly just to stand still get no credit or acknowledgement for this because it’s likely that the next time an inspector calls he or she won’t think that the children are making enough academic progress compared with other schools.

Not every school is the same. I’m sure you know this, but again, I don’t believe all your inspectors do. Too many of them have never worked in tough schools where deprivation is high (and children pass the day sucking in exhaust fumes). Context is King. Unfortunately, your current framework does not acknowledge this. This is why I’m deeply troubled by any attempt at evaluating workload, because teachers in some schools have to work so much harder and longer than others. This is no-one’s fault. It’s just that some children are more needy than others. They need a lot more attention.

If you want to find a school where workload is off the scale, head for the nearest school that one of your team recently put in special measures. The school I visited above is one of those. The teachers in these schools are working exceptionally hard, and even though they may not always be doing the right things, what they are doing is ensuring that the children stay safe, remain secure and are nurtured. Unfortunately, the existing framework means that your inspectors will never get to see this because the focus is entirely on outcomes and progress, regardless of context.

You see, the teachers in these types of school have so much extra work that needs to be done. Things like running a breakfast club or a walking bus to get their class safely into school before the working day even begins; attending safeguarding meetings and maintaining detailed child protection records for the many children at risk in their care; constantly analysing the progress of each of the many groups in their class because Ofsted or HMI expect and demand it; producing countless reports showing the impact of the many children in their class eligible for sports’ or pupil premium funding, again because the government and yourselves require it; writing personalised risk assessments for trips and visits, especially for those children who never get to go outside their house and are likely to dart across the road to suck in fumes at a moments notice.

Most of this additional work has been created by the government. Not schools or headteachers. We’ve been telling ministers for years that workload has reached breaking point, mainly as a result of unnecessary bureaucracy and demands. This may well be why there is a recruitment crisis or that nobody wants to be a headteacher anymore. So you can imagine the irony when we learnt that the very body that has perpetuated the situation over the past quarter of a century now has the temerity to ask us what we intend to do about it. The words ‘pot’ and ‘kettle’ come to mind.

Like it or not, it’s the unreasonable demands made on schools due to an unworkable accountability system that gives these teachers loads and loads of additional work to do. This is before they even think about their main workload of marking and planning that takes up all their evenings and weekends. They don’t want paying any more money, they only want a break; an acknowledgment from Ofsted that in these types of school it’s so much harder to achieve a higher Ofsted grading when kids are high on fumes.

These teachers seldom complain, even though they know that several miles away in the leafy middle class school in suburbia (could even be the local grammar), where the children are dropped off by their nanny in the Range Rover clutching a note saying they can’t go to after-school club because of their private tuition lesson, these teachers do not have to do as much extra work.

Throughout my career, I’ve done nothing but work in deprived, inner city, challenging schools up and down the country – Liverpool, London, Birmingham and the West Midlands. It’s incredibly hard and I do get so very frustrated when I know that the teachers in these schools get little credit from Ofsted. More recently, I’ve been involved as a chair of governors and trustee in remote rural schools and I’ve learned how hard these teachers have to work as well. I still don’t understand why a teacher chooses to teach a class of 40 pupils in a portacabin consisting of an entire key stage (no TA mind – have you seen how underfunded village schools are?). This particular teacher may also be the Head as well. And still they have to show the same rates of progress compared with a teacher working in middle-class suburbia with two TAs, shed loads of tech, a PTA listed on the FTSE 100 and a class of only 25.

Please don’t get the impression that the teachers that work in more affluent schools work any less hard. Of course they don’t. This is not an attack on them. In fact in many ways, teachers in these schools face all sorts of different pressures such as over-demanding parents, expectations to continually top league tables, the 11+ and grammar school applications, the performance of higher attainers. I know all this because my first headship was in one of these schools in a very well-to-do area in London. I wouldn’t begin to think how you are going to get your inspectors to reconcile these workload pressures alongside those mentioned above.

I’ve seen it also as an Ofsted inspector. I no longer have the heart to do it any more and so I gave up several years ago. I become entirely disillusioned even though I thought I was making a difference. You can read why Ofsted forced my hand here. But what used to frustrate me more than anything was having to be party to a decision to judge a ‘wealthy’ school ‘outstanding’ when I knew that some of the teachers in the school would never be able to cope in mine, as good as they might have been.

These teachers were fortunate. Their children turned up fed, watered, motivated, loved, cared for, with a head full of cultural experiences and a heart full of hope. On the whole, these teachers didn’t really have to worry about rates of progress for a dozen different ethnic groups, non-English speakers, SEND pupils, traveller families, 60%-plus free school meals, low attainers, CP and Prevent referrals, persistent absence or a revolving door of new admissions due to high rates of pupil mobility. For them, it’s pretty much a case of boy/girl and that’s it. I can think of several ‘outstanding’ schools I inspected where children did well not as a result of good teaching, but despite it.

I know your intentions to tackle workload are entirely honourable and for that you deserve much credit. I’ve worked under every single HMCI since Ofsted began, and it’s really rather refreshing to hear such compassion from the person at the top. The problem you have is that your workforce – as best intentioned as they are – simply are not, and never will be sufficiently skilled enough to be able to assess workload.

Let’s face it, some of them can barely go about their core business of judging accurately teaching, learning, leadership etc. in a way that is both consistent and fair. Take annual inspector training days. There’d be a room full of over a hundred inspectors, we’d all watch a lesson and there’d be a four-way split on the judgement. I got more right by tossing a coin. So why throw something else in the mix? I bet you’ve got more than enough on your plate at the moment, like introducing yet another framework and sorting out the illegal complaints procedure. (Which you really want to get fixed if you go ahead with the workload proposals as it’s certainly going to be put to lots of use.)

So please stick to your remit and don’t get side-tracked. Instead, make an effort to ensure that the next framework really is the last one we’ll ever have because at long last Ofsted will finally agree on what it is you are looking for. And if you really are serious about helping us reduce workload, don’t talk to us. Instead, go and talk to the Department and tell them.

Please don’t get bogged down with focussing on workload. Besides, I always thought it was for schools to decide what they did and how they went about it, not Ofsted.

For the sake of all those thousands of teachers working in challenging schools (and indeed for those that aren’t), please don’t do it.

Yours etc.

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Family first

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During the past two decades as a headteacher I’ve seen well over a thousand year six pupils pass through. In my present school, where I’ve been the head for eleven years, the current cohort weren’t even born when I first arrived at the school. It was especially poignant therefore to see them on their way at their leavers’ ceremony earlier this week.

By this time next year we are likely to have at least 16 year six classes across the multi academy trust, each one as equally as important as the other as we strive for the best possible outcomes. SATs results day feels very different now than it did when we were a stand-alone academy.

As we complete our third proper year as a trust, the pace of the journey that we’ve all been on has been unrelenting. I say ‘proper’ because in the early days four years ago, when we were in the start-up phase, everything was new and scary because there was no one else out there to copy. We are now through this thankfully, even though at times it still feels like a cottage industry as we struggle with cash-flow and ever-diminishing budgets.

As a MAT though with a strong set of values, we’ve managed to stay true to our objective of achieving ‘both/and’. By this I mean that we’ve created a partnership of schools that are both individually unique in their own right and with a strong sense of family belonging, each with a real sense of mission, moral purpose and corporate identity.

If you can’t do this as a MAT, then what is the point? I never wanted to create a MAT that was simply the sum of its parts. The whole purpose was to create something that allows us to do things that we couldn’t necessarily do before when working alone. If we can’t demonstrate how we’ve added value then we may as well pack up and go home.

For me, being able to measure and articulate this added-value becomes our raison d’etre. Quite how we do this is a different matter and must never be as simplistic as the aggregate of test scores. Instead, we’ve worked hard to try and develop a measure that we value and in particular wrap it up within our own core values. These are based around the concept of ‘Fides’, meaning ‘to trust’ in Latin and drive all that we do.

Being able to measure what we value is one of the major benefits of being part of a trust, especially one with a clear moral imperative. There are a number of other benefits of being part of an effective MAT. Some of these include:

1. A strong sense of belonging as a result of shared values, mission, objective and strategy. Our mission is simple: To make people become the best they can be. We do this by creating a transformative family of stand-out schools that has three main strands: Great schools, great services and great capacity.

2. Succession planning and talent management. By identifying our A-players from an early stage (about 10% of the workforce at a time), we can ensure that we have a steady flow of future leaders who are able to access a bespoke CSPD entitlement programme at every stage of their development.

3. Growing our own teachers. The identification of future leaders starts the minute one of our SCITT trainees steps through the door at interview. This year alone, we’ve trained 17 highly-skilled teachers, 11 of whom take up post in the trust in September as NQTs and potential future leaders.

4. Publically celebrating our successes through an annual conference. We are currently organising our third annual conference (#standingout18) where each spring every member of staff joins us for the highlight of the academic year. Always with a strong focus on school-led action research, littered with workshops and inspirational keynotes, the day allows us to articulate in public our values in a way that we could never have done before.

5. A common approach to teaching and learning. Although each school is free to develop its own teaching and learning policy, there is an expectation that schools adhere to our common approach based on our six pillars of pedagogy. The same goes with the curriculum. Every school in the trust is free to develop its own curriculum that is relevant to the local community providing it is based on the principles of our NICER framework for challenge-based learning.

6. Strong and effective governance. This is the hardest thing to do well in a MAT and perhaps the biggest challenge. No matter how good the scheme of delegation, keeping the wheels of governance well-oiled is not easy. New academies have to get used to how local governance operates and in particular the interface with the board. But when done well, with trustees who are highly-skilled in terms of finance, legal, HR, risk and so on, the benefits far out-weigh the challenges.

There are many more benefits, such as the pooling of staff expertise (SEND for example), movement of staff across the organisation, MAT-to-MAT collaboration, distributive leadership, economies of scale, teacher networks, pooling of funding to create discretionary spend etc. But for now, as I head for the hills (and in a few weeks’ time, the beach), I’ll log-off tomorrow for the final time this year in the knowledge that the MAT is in good shape as we continue to put family first.