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.

On rigour and vigour


As we settle down to a new term and get to that point when we finally remember how the job’s meant to be done, it all comes down to two things: Rigour and Vigour.

We must never forget how important these two are and make an extra effort to sharpen our saw. As with a new teacher getting to grips with a new class, if we as leaders fail to invest time in these two right at the start, then before we know it, it’s too late. We must be rigorous and vigorous in all that we do, so that we make clear to the people around us what our expectations are and how we want them to behave.

The most thoughtful leaders embrace the need to be rigorous. Rigour is simply the quality of being extremely thorough and careful. It’s about being meticulous in all that you do, paying  great attention to detail. Rigorous leaders are diligent and precise and in order to be so know that they need to sit back and watch and reflect on what they are seeing.

In our multi academy trust, we are currently supporting a new school that we are bringing in to the fold. The school has  been floundering somewhat and finds itself on the wrong side of Ofsted. It was once an outstanding school and the staff are understandably jaded and lost at sea. Shock, denial and frustration have all taken their toll over the past few years. They need to regroup – we need to regroup – so that together we can  take stock and recalibrate. The staff  were heading in the wrong direction, but with rigour at the helm, it won’t take us long to change course. We’ve already got two other schools in the MAT that were once in measures and are now standingout, so we are well-placed to inject the necessary rigour in a way that is as careful as it is recklessly cautious.

To the staff in this new school, we have told them to lead us. We will watch and follow and nudge and cajole. But we shall do so with high levels of rigour by tapping into the energies that resonate throughout the school and those of the other academies across the trust.

This is where the vigour comes in. They may not know it yet, but every member of staff has been given the permission to be vigorous. Whilst as leaders, it is our job to all become the CEOs – chief energy officers – I want us to draw as much strength from their energies as they do from ours. It then becomes infectious and all-consuming as we bounce ideas off each other in a culture where everyone has the permission to fail and to fail often.

I’ve told all the staff that I have no intention of making any changes for at least a term. They have all been told that they are all standout teachers, they just don’t know it yet. They need the time and space to fall back in love with teaching. They need to reclaim their mojo – their va va voom – or whatever else you might call it. They need to delve deep inside themselves – their chambers and their valves – and rekindle their values and beliefs. It’s got nothing to do with pedagogy or targets or tests. Not at this stage, that will come later. For now, it’s all about vigour and the 3 Es: Effort, Energy and Enthusiasm.

Get this right and you’ve cracked it. Andy Buck, for example, talks of the importance of discretionary effort. Known also as ‘going the extra mile’, Andy reminds us that it’s not all about leadership from the top that gets results. Instead, it comes from deeper down within the organisation, most probably a line manager or phase leader. It’s about meticulous attention to detail and showing that you care. Staff appreciate rigour because it shows that you are prepared to really invest time in them by not being superficial or shallow. As a headteacher, I myself appreciate rigour from those that hold me to account because I know it means that we are not just scratching away on the surface but really getting to the heart of the matter.

So if you are a new Headteacher in a school, or stepping up as deputy or senior leader, put away your spreadsheets and trackers and templates. Please don’t start talking about SATs and SIPs and the need to tighten up. Again, that will come later. Instead, have the courage to stand back and climb high. It’s only when you are up there that you can really and truly appreciate how good your school is. And when you’ve done that, climb back down and dive deep. But don’t make the mistake of diving in, however tempting it may be. Two-footed tackles get you nowhere. Instead, jog on behind and try and occasionally knick the ball off them. And when you do, dribble alongside a bit and then carefully pass it back before peeling off and running beside someone else.

Your staff will thank you for it. The children will thank you for it. And you will sleep well at night knowing that thank heavens, you did the right thing.


A formula for success?

Last week I had the pleasure of working with a group of leaders from Schools of Tomorrow. It was the first morning of their inaugural year-long Leadership for Tomorrow development programme. If you’ve never come across the Schools of Tomorrow network then you really should. Established several years ago – originally as the Beauchamp Group – SoTo has since evolved into an influential network of like-minded schools who all share a common mission: to transform schools so that they are beyond outstanding. I have written articles about this previously about the creation of ‘stand-out’ schools, but SoTo goes beyond this by acknowledging that we cannot simply continue to improve schools by incrementally doing so. You can read more about this in the book that was published at SoTo’s launch event last Autumn at the RSA by Professor John-West Burnham. It’s free and can be downloaded here from i-books.

The theme for Day 1 of the LfT programme was simply called ‘Imagine’. Part of my remit was to explore the notion of change and the forces that influence it. The management of change has always fascinated me, so much so that it was the focus of my M.Ed back in the mid-1990s. My research was around how the organisational culture of a school can influence change, concluding that it is one of the key drivers of effective school improvement. Organisational culture is a tricky concept to define but can perhaps best be described as ‘that which keeps the herd heading west’ or even more simply as ‘the way we do things around here’. At its most basic, it’s the sum total of how people behave in any organisation.

For this reason, the dominant values and beliefs of an organisation are what determine the culture, ethos or climate of a school and ultimately its success: ‘When a school seeks to become powerfully effective it does so by creating a climate or culture in which the range of shared values is high and commitment to those values translates into motivation.’ (Murgatroyd, 1993).

The difficulty of course (and I wrote about this in a previous blog) is that it is almost impossible to change the culture of a school, particularly when the stakes are high and Ofsted are breathing down your neck. The ability to compromise is therefore essential and for this reason I’m with Peter Drucker on this: “Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try instead to work with what you’ve got.”

So this is where we find ourselves with our sponsored school in special measures, although fortunately we have a team of staff who are committed, have the desire and share the vision and values. Rather than trying to impose a culture onto the school, one of our priorities this term has been to try and fuse together what is there already along with our own beliefs. It’s what Tim Brighouse refers to as ‘winning hearts and minds’. I think we’ve made a reasonable start and can see that at least the ‘herd is now heading east’.

Spending time getting to know the culture of a school is therefore an essential pre-requisite before embarking on significant change (or any change for that matter). This was at the crux of my session with the SoTo leaders as I attempted to unpack the main features of the change process. There are a number of excellent books available on the management of change. A particular favourite of mine is Michael Fullen’s ‘Leading in a Culture of Change’ in which he sets out the context for the change management process by identifying the different styles of leadership that are necessary to develop an effective organisational culture. The most effective organisational cultures are those where leaders can ‘style-flex’ between, for example, coercive and authoritative or democratic and affiliative styles of leadership.

I take a far more simplistic approach though by using the following formula:

C = v2+s+d+r+2p

where c = Change, v = Vision, s = Skills, d = Desire, r = Resources and p = Plan

For effective change to occur, all five factors need to be evident for shift to happen. Vision is so important here as it’s inextricably linked to values and organisational culture. It needs therefore to be squared up. Likewise with strategic planning: However well you think you’ve planned, double it and plan again. (I am always reminded of the SAS maxim that proper planning and preparation prevent p—- poor performance.)

As with any formula, it simply won’t add up if a factor is missing from the equation. For example, take away the Resources and you end up not with change but with Frustration (a situation we find ourselves in at the SM school with a large budget deficit). Put the Resources back in but take out the Skills (i.e. the ability to teach) and you have Anxiety. Leading a school without Vision will surely only lead to Confusion. Likewise, if the staff have no Desire, motivation or commitment then you are likely to find Resistance. Finally, it matters not one jot how effective the v2+s+d+r is if the 2p is missing and there is no strategic Plan. In this scenario, everyone will feel as if they are on a never-ending treadmill because leaders have failed to define the milestones or success criteria. As a result, staff will never know how well they are doing or whether they have achieved the goal.

I’m sure there are a number of other factors that could be included in the formula for change. For example, Time (t) surely plays a key role when leading effective change. However, it could be argued that this element is wrapped up in the Planning (p), especially if SMART targets are deployed. The rate of Learning (l) is also crucial, as this must always exceed the rate of change, so perhaps this needs to be factored in somewhere.

Let’s face it, nobody likes change. We don’t want to  admit it out loud, so our default position tends to be “Yes, of course I like change, but you go first…’ Over the years though, these 5 elements have served me well, especially when a leap of faith is required. I’m always conscious that I try to have them all in place when embarking on change. I’m generally a fan of the ‘lining-up-all-your-ducks’ school of leadership. Whether these ducks are enough to create the schools of tomorrow remain to be seen. Why not join SoTo and try for yourself?