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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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Why being a new Head is as easy as ABC

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Much has been written about how crucial the first 100 days are for a leader in a new organisation. The temptation is to assume that if you haven’t made your mark by then, chances are you’ve blown it.

We all know as teachers that the first few weeks with a new class are time-critical in terms of laying down markers and expectations. Boundaries need to be set, rules and routines established so that everyone is clear about how things are going to work around here.

Nailing the climate or culture of learning is essential, and that begins and ends with you.

It’s not quite as simple as this when taking up a new position as headteacher in a school, or in our case, sponsoring a new academy.

Using your brain

You can’t just go in there and expect all the staff to fall into line merely because you are in charge. We’ve thankfully moved away from the days of the ‘hero head’ where authority and being the font of all knowledge were all you needed to get by. IQ has long been replaced by EQ.

But even this might no longer be enough. What we now need is CQ: Cultural Intelligence, or the ability to experience and adapt to new environments in more complex situations without losing sight of our own values and core purpose.

One thing you have to learn within those first 100 days is to live in the world you inherit.

A culturally intelligent leader is able to navigate this and get to grips with a culture that is new and alien to them. This of course takes time and so the very best leaders need all three, EQ, IQ and CQ if they are to lead effectively and focus on the main thing.

Using your gut

The trouble is, it’s not always that easy to know what the main thing is, especially in a school that may have become destabilised by the forces operating on it (of which you are one).

Your gut tells you that the main priorities must be to fix things quickly like marking, feedback, planning, instruction, behaviour, routines, attendance and so on. Pretty much every Ofsted inspection report for an SM school reads the same and all of these are likely to appear in the report in some shape or form.

As we approach the 100th day of sponsoring our newest academy, despite the complexities of IQ, EQ and CQ, over the years I’ve learnt that it all boils down to essentially three things: Aims, Beliefs, and of course, Culture.

Get these right – just like the teacher with a new class – and everything else potentially falls into place. It’s not quite as simple as ABC, but as starting points go, it’s a good one:

Aims: It goes without saying that being absolutely clear about what it is that you intend to do right at the start is essential. Make sure you tell your story so that everyone gets the same consistently clear message, regardless of how it might be received. As we’ll see next, perception is everything, so use every opportunity to re-enforce the fact that you will follow-up and you will follow-through. Wrapping this all up in a clear vision statement is also crucial so that people know the ‘why?’. If they understand your purpose and why it is that things need to change, then levels of engagement will hopefully increase.

Beliefs: Perceptions lead to beliefs and beliefs lead to action. The things that we believe in as adults, rightly or wrongly, are based on our perceptions of reality. The things that we believe to be true determine very much how we choose to act (take religion, love or the football team that you blindly choose to support). So, if as a leader you want to change the way people act and behave, then you may need to change their perceptions and beliefs. This often starts with getting people to ditch their limiting beliefs and instead adopt a more open mindset. Nobody likes change, but if people believe it to be necessary and understand why and how it will be achieved, buy-in is far more likely to follow. Engaging your staff must be your main priority and they will only do this if they believe in you, themselves and the vision.

Culture: No matter how as a leader you try and re-culture an organisation, if the prevailing beliefs are holding you (and others) back, little will change. The development of a leadership culture is essential where everyone steps up and is prepared to embark on a voyage of understanding and discovery. To not change is simply not an option. No matter what we know about genetics, human nature is not fixed. People can choose to change if they wish. Your aim as a leader is to build a culture where staff embrace the need to work hard at developing themselves and becoming more self-aware of how they can improve, regardless of how limiting or enabling their beliefs are. This is where your core values come into play.

Up until now, during our first 100 days we have focused almost entirely on ABC. I’ve still yet to walk into a classroom and spend time watching how well the teachers can translate the curriculum into learning. I’ve flicked through the occasional exercise book but have yet to delve deep into how well the teachers assess pupils’ learning and feed this back to them. We haven’t tried to undertake any sort of data sweep, dump or analysis.

Using your heart

Whether this is the right thing to do or not remains to be seen. Perhaps to some it may appear as if we lack urgency.

But all of this is to come. The first 100 days do not mark the end of the story. Instead, it’s merely the end of the beginning. For those of you new to headship in September, take heed. The first 100 days aren’t about ripping up trees. Instead, use the time wisely to plant seeds.

Of course it’s not as simple as ABC; the management of change is far more complex than that. What it does help us remember though, is that sometimes, if giant leaps of faith are required, going back to the basics is always a good thing.

 

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Inside the infinite loop

I am writing this in an Apple conference room in Cupertino, California as I await a transfer to San Jose airport. The past four days have been exhilarating to say the least. I’d even be so bold as to say it’s been the best PLD experience I’ve ever had. I am very grateful to be invited by Apple and SSAT to be a part it. It’s not every day you get invited to spend a week behind the curtain with Apple at their HQ.

As I await the long flight home, I’m trying to use this time to reflect and make sense of all that I’ve seen. My head is spinning.

Further, more in-depth posts will follow. Such as how impressive an organisation Apple are when you get to the core. It’s been such a privilege to be allowed behind the curtain and go places very few have been. To have walked the same corridors as Steve Jobs and to maybe have sat in a room where his team of ultimate disruptors changed our perceptions of everything, is very humbling.

For now though, three things that have really hit home for me:

1. Apple are not a company that sells tech. Instead they exist to make us think differently about what we perceive education to be. Technology is merely a means to that end. One particular comment from one of the Austin store retail managers stands out for me: ‘What we do as employees of Apple we do first for ourselves and then for the world. Our soul is our people … people who shine a spotlight on you to stand outside it.’

2. Education in England is exceptional. What we are currently doing in our schools in terms of student collaboration, innovation and creativity is top drawer. When you have the privilege to visit other high-performing schools in other countries, it reaffirms your faith in all that you believe in and that as a profession we are well ahead of the game.

3. Culture is king. And at the heart of any successful culture is simplicity. We are all guilty of over-complicating things. If we want to tell our story in a way that is compelling, engaging and authentic, then we need to strip it right back. Always begin with the ‘why’. Everything else then falls into place.

It’s been an absolute honour and privilege to learn with so many inspiring colleagues who themselves are all facing the same challenges back in their schools. But the schools and communities they serve are in safe hands because I’ve seen first hand – up close and personal – how passion stokes the fire in their bellies.

I’m looking forward to spreading a bit of that warmth around my own colleagues on my return. For now though, I’ll spend the flight home mulling over even more how I intend to change the world.

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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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Hands up for Ofsted!

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There will come a time when we’ll all look back and ask ourselves, how on earth did we allow it to go on for so long? Ofsted have been around now for over a quarter of a century and still the debate rages on about their role.

There can’t be many organisations who, during a 25-year period, have changed their ‘product’ quite as much as Ofsted. Apple iPhones come to mind as do premier league clubs and their football kits. But with Ofsted, despite the continued conveyor belt of new-and-improved frameworks, it’s still the same old beast. One of these days, I like to think the inspectorate will finally get it right. I’m reminded of Trigger’s old broom, the same one he’s had for years with 17 new heads and 14 new handles.

What we need though is a new broom, one that we get to sweep ourselves. Unfortunately, Ofsted remain as resolute as ever, despite not seeming to be able to agree for longer than two or three years at a time as to what our schools should look like. We do though; the best school leaders know exactly what a great school looks like, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to count.

I’ve worked with and met dozens of brilliant leaders across the country who are so expert at education that I feel unfit at times to tie their boots. People who have a track record to die for, who have created fabulous learning environments for children from all four corners of the world. Teachers and leaders, that day-in-day-out, continue to transform the lives of young people in the toughest of communities.

These people give their lives to the job and represent the most creative, passionate and inspirational people I know.

So here’s something controversial. Why not just let these people have a go at evaluating how good our schools are, perhaps through an accredited national peer-review model? Why not trust them to visit our schools and tell it how it is? We learn this weekend, following a FOI request, that Ofsted would rather fast-track 25 rookie inspectors to go into our schools on a short inspection than reach out to experienced school leaders who can tell how good a school is with their eyes closed. I know who I’d rather have in one of my schools.

Here’s the funny thing: If NLEs or experienced school leaders were given the reins it probably wouldn’t be any better than Ofsted. Any system that relies on people’s opinions will always be flawed. But with no grades, or high stakes, at least the system will be authentic, kind, purposeful, relevant and humane. I can just about live with that. I’m sure you can too.

So who out there really and truly believes that Ofsted in its current form adds value? By value, I mean thirty million pounds a year worth of value. I’m talking value that makes a real difference to the children in the classroom. We all know of teachers who are highly proficient at appearing to be discharging a duty i.e. teaching. But does it lead to anything? Does it add value? Are the children learning anything? Possibly not. So as much as Ofsted fulfil a mechanistic role that requires them to spend a few hours in a school in order to assign a series of numbers from 1-4, does it make a difference?

If we abolished Ofsted tomorrow would parents be bothered? I have yet to meet any prospective parent who has decided to send their child to any one of my schools because of the Ofsted grade. By and large, parents simply don’t do this. All they want is a school that is close to home and that their children are safe, happy and cared for.

In my 12 years as head of Victoria Park Academy in the West Midlands, I have never shown a parent round who was thinking of attending the school and was comparing it with another. If there was a vacancy, they were in, regardless of the Ofsted grade.

Even the DfE’s own data confirms that less than one-third of parents take an Ofsted report into account when choosing a school. Almost three-quarters of them instead rely on gut feeling based on visiting the school. In a 2014 survey by NASUWT, only 39% of parents were persuaded by the latest Ofsted report when choosing their child’s school. Location came top, with two-thirds listing this as their main priority. Interestingly, in the same survey, the school’s league-table position was in the bottom five with only 21% of parents being swayed.

Even worse from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in 2012: On a scale of 1-10 (10 being high), parents were asked which from a list of 15 factors influenced their decision when choosing a new school. Once again, location was ranked top (a mean score of 7.2). Ofsted only managed 11th with a score of 5.5.

So it seems that those people whose well-earned taxes are paying for the Ofsted reports clearly don’t read them. Neither it seems, do teachers when deciding where to work.

In a highly scientific Twitter poll earlier this week, I asked: ‘When applying for a new post, what most influences you when choosing where to work?’ As with parents, location came out top at 48%. Next came pay/promotion (38%), with the Ofsted report/grade coming last at only 5%. I am concluding from this, that for a whopping 95% of you, Ofsted add nothing of value when choosing a school.

So, if neither parents or teachers care much for Ofsted’s view, why do we need them? In this week’s Guardian, I once again made the claim that Ofsted need to scrap the grades. Given that the majority of schools are all G2 anyway, what’s the point? It tells parents nothing; there is a world of difference between a G2 that is barely RI and a G2 that is knocking on the door of outstanding.

Once again, what is the point? Being good means nothing. As I said in the article, I can live with Ofsted separating the 4s from the rest, based on accountability measures and safeguarding etc. It’s only right and proper that these schools get picked up by HMI.

But as for the rest of the schools, please, please for once, trust those that lead them and give them the credit they deserve. Have faith, that as a profession we can continue to build world-class schools, without the need for a national inspectorate.

If we scrapped inspections tomorrow, would the whole house of cards come crashing down around us? Would standards go into meltdown? Of course not. Who knows, we might just be able to cope without Ofsted. Now wouldn’t that be controversial?

(With thanks to @Mktadvice4schls for signposting the surveys referred to above.)

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Read. Talk. Write.

Francis Bacon in the Library of Congress (2)

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.)