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Teacher wellbeing and the golden thread

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When I first started as a teacher I became fascinated by organisational culture. So much so that I spent several years researching the impact it had on school effectiveness as part of my M.Ed. I tried to unpick the component parts of a school’s culture to see if there was any one particular element or force that was more conducive to securing change than others. I came at it from the premise that ‘understanding the culture of a school is a prerequisite to making the school more effective.’ (Deal, 1988).

Broken cultures

I recall one particular 1993 booklet called ‘Transforming the Dinosaurs’ by the Think Tank Demos. It opens rather portentously with the line, ‘There is anxiety in the land’, and goes on to ridicule Britain’s recent failures in cricket, rugby, football and tennis. We were a laughing stock, claimed the author: ‘The critics did not expect Britain to win all the races but they did expect us at least to be able to run them’. We even failed to start the Grand National that year, exposing us to further ridicule on the world stage with yet another national failure. (Any resemblance to the current political shambles is entirely coincidental.)

According to Demos, the reason for these failures was simple. Our cultures were broken. Not just as a nation, but also ‘the individual cultures of the institutions which make it up.’ It was somebody else’s problem therefore. (Again, any resemblance etc…) The problem it seemed, was that in 1993 we’d failed to create a ‘learning society’, and that our organisational cultures had been allowed to stagnate. Like the dinosaurs, organisations were becoming extinct because we’d failed to respond to rapid change. We had nobody else to blame but ourselves.

Actually, that wasn’t entirely true. It was apparently us teachers that were at fault and the piece pulls no punches when pointing the finger:

Teachers have little understanding of the thinking and skills currently needed in the real world, let alone those that will be needed in the 21st century… Too many teachers are cut off from the world in which their students will live and work.

I’ll leave that one there. Here’s another:

Teachers do not understand how business operates and, in particular, the emphasis they put on team work… They do not emphasise the need to learn how to learn.

And if that’s not enough for you:

Schools continue to over-emphasise the performance of children as individuals, not their ability to work successfully and creatively in teams.

It gets worse:

After a hundred years or so of compulsory formal education, schools are still failing to provide the school leavers we need.

The author’s solution to fixing the broken cultures was cunningly simple. Namely, that, ‘we should insist that every teacher should work in one or two private sector jobs before the age of 40, ideally in their 30s.’ The government then chipped in by rolling out a National Curriculum and an Office for Standards of Education. Problem solved; cultures rebooted.

Fast forward 25 years or so and many would argue that very little has changed. We still can’t agree on the purpose of education or how best to hold it to account. It’s not surprising therefore that we find it so hard to change anything on a national scale. Perhaps our cultures are still broken and until we know how to fix them, nothing will ever change, especially when it comes to wellbeing.

When a school seeks to become powerfully effective it does so by creating a climate or culture in which the range of values is high and commitment to those values translates into motivation.   (Murgatroyd, 1993)

Golden threads and circles

I spoke about this recently at ASCL’s annual conference at the ICC in Birmingham. The theme was Connected Leadership. I suggested that as leaders we need to be aware of the golden thread that binds together our school cultures. It was based on a paper written in 2011 by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in the Harvard Business Review.

The thread is made up of two main strands:

1. Core ideology – our values and mission or purpose
2. An envisioned future – a goal plus a vision statement

The wisest leaders are mindful all the time, that as with most threads it can be difficult to see. If it unwinds though, and we fail to spot it, the whole thing can eventually unravel and fall apart. Most importantly, the research makes clear that without a compelling and engaging core ideology – known and shared by all – any attempts at affecting change are likely to prove ineffective. It all boils down to starting always with the ‘why’ at the centre of Simon Sinek’s golden circle.

Changing cultures

When I revisit the literature that I reviewed almost a quarter of a century ago, much of what we mean by ‘culture’ remains true today. Essentially, the term culture is an attempt at trying to define and bring to life the richness and vitality of the sum of all the actions, rituals and routines of a group of people who are living, breathing and working together in an organisation over a period of time. It’s ‘the way we do things around here’ or ‘that which keeps the herd heading west’.

There seems almost to be a tacit acceptance that we have to put up with our cultures; that we have to accept that they cannot be changed and either we put up or shut up. This of course is a short-sighted view. Cultures most definitely can be changed, and as a school leader you are in a very privileged position to be able to do so.

Returning one final time to the Demos booklet, the central argument is that cultures can – and must – be changed if we are to continue to innovate. They suggest that culture can be changed in four ways.

Coercion – where organisations are forced to change as a result of a takeover or external intervention
Contagion – where individuals from outside move in to bring in a new culture
Coaching – where organisations choose to bring in outside experts to help it change
Learning – where the organisation becomes self-evolving and knows how to adapt through the creation of a ‘learning organisation’

Clearly, the fourth option is the most desirable way and it is here, within the confines of the learning organisation, where we’ve seen the biggest shift since the 1990s in our understanding of what makes for a powerful school culture.

That shift can be found in the emergence of a new thread, one that is fundamental to the effectiveness of a school culture. I mentioned it briefly earlier in regard to staff wellbeing. It is astonishing looking back at the definitions of organisational culture in the 90s that very little emphasis was placed on the importance of  mental health and wellbeing. This is hardly surprising given that TQM (or Total Quality Management) was all the rage and that leaders were meant to be trying to find ways of getting more out by putting less in. Staff wellbeing was on nobody’s agenda.

Nowadays, if you want to do a quick organisational culture health check, forget all the fancy leadership research and theory. Simply talk to a few teachers about their mental health and wellbeing and you’ll soon get a feel for what the culture in the school is like.

The motivated school

One of the ways that we can build great cultures in our schools – ensuring that wellbeing and mental health remain centre stage throughout – is by focussing relentlessly on the 3Bs of believe, belong and behave. If you build everything around these, you are more likely to create a culture that allows you to fulfil your mission in a way that promotes high levels of wellbeing and motivation. It’s what Andy Buck calls ‘discretionary effort’.

Inspired by Alan McLean’s book ‘The Motivated School’, I’ve basically taken his 3As (affiliation, agency and autonomy) and made them my own by shamelessly nudging them one place up the alphabet and thereby claiming them as mine.

BELIEVE: This is about staff believing in you and your team as authentic leaders with high levels of integrity. Staff also need to believe in the vision and core purpose of the school. More importantly, they also need to believe in themselves and to ditch any limiting beliefs that are holding them back, instead feeling empowered. It is your job as leader to make this happen, remembering always that a belief is simply one person’s perception of reality. Change the reality, and you change the belief.

BELONG: This is about your staff knowing their place in the organisation; that they are heard, valued, consulted, listened to and that they have real influence on how the school grows and develops organically (as a learning organisation). Nobody wants to come to work if they feel they don’t belong, so schools need to engage and motivate staff so that they always feel they are making a difference. Co-invention and consensus are key.

BEHAVE: If you can create a culture where staff feel they do believe and belong, the chances are you’ll get the behaviours you desire consistent with your values. Vision will show the staff the way, but it’s your values that will show them how to behave in order to get there. If you have no values, then you have no vision. More importantly, if you have no values (or core ideology), your staff will not know how they are to behave when it comes to doing the right thing. This is at the very heart of good leadership.

Never before has the wellbeing of the teaching profession been so important. There is indeed anxiety in the land and we as leaders must do all we can to address it in our schools. There is no job more demanding or complex than teaching children, especially during times of turbulence, austerity and uncertainty.

Greater funding, better pensions, shorter hours, less accountability, more pay, are all very nice. But put me in a school that I believe in, where I can thrive in a culture where I feel I belong, with a compelling set of core values that help me and my team behave with integrity and compassion, and I’ll guarantee you that I will become the best version of myself I could possibly be.

 

Note: The author attributed to writing the Demos piece is Professor Sir Douglas Hague, a British economist who became one of Margaret Thatcher’s closest and trusted advisers as a member of the No. 10 Policy Unit. He occasionally wrote speeches for her. You can download a free PDF version of Transforming the Dinosaurs: How Organisations Learn here

You can also learn more about culture and school effectiveness in my book The Art of Standing Out available at Amazon

Additional references (cited in M.Ed research):

Deal, T. 1988, The Symbolism of Effective Schools, in Westoby, A. (Ed), Culture and Power in Educational Organisations, Ch 12. 

Murgatroyd, S. 1993, Implementing Total Quality Management in the School: Challenges and Opportunity in School Organisation, 13, 3: 269-281.

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It all comes down to one thing: Trust

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As teachers up and down the country are bracing themselves for the inevitable bout of ‘flu that will take hold the minute they wake up on Saturday morning, let’s celebrate the fact that 2018 has been another cracking year.

Regardless of whether you believe this to be true or not, let me assure you that each and every one of you has made a difference to the lives of the young people that you teach, in ways that you could never imagine.

I see it all the time as I walk around schools. I don’t need to look at a set of books or pore over a spreadsheet to know that a teacher is making a difference. And not just with one child, but with every single one of them in their class.

I watch closely as teachers engage meaningfully with their pupils, noting all the time the respect, trust and admiration that flows between the two. At this time of year especially, I see also anxious and nervous children who are so excited about Christmas, but deep-down are dreading being away from their teacher.

As much as they may love their parents or carers, they know that at school they are guaranteed unconditional care, fairness, attention, support, structure, discipline, consistency and above all, a real sense of belief. Belief in themselves and belief in their teacher.

Change your beliefs

Beliefs are simply perceptions of reality. It is often said that, ‘we are what we believe’. This is a good thing because it means that if we change our beliefs then we can change reality. This is why it is so important to have a clear and meaningful set of values that help guide us on how to behave in order to make continual changes to reality.

Steve Jobs, during his early days as CEO at Apple, was a genius at changing people’s perceptions of reality by getting them to believe that anything was possible. He understood that reality was malleable, and in so doing became expert at using RDFs. A Reality Distortion Field is a phrase first coined in 1981 to describe Jobs’s uncanny ability to make other people believe in the possibility of completing very difficult tasks.

For you and me, our reality distortion field is most likely operating right now. It is through this field that we project the reality of who we are to the world in regard to our strengths, limiting beliefs, doubts, fears etc. We see the world through an RDF. It’s no surprise therefore, that on occasions our perception of reality can be distorted. This is why vision and values can sometimes help guide us.

Stick to your values

Apple have always had a very clear and compelling vision, underpinned by a set of behaviours expected of all staff. I was lucky enough to visit Apple HQ in California in April and saw it for myself. What it also did was to drive home the following point: That having a clear vision is pointless without a clear set of values to show people how to behave in order to achieve it. Quite simply: No values, no vision.

Take a company involved in shipping, for example. They have a compelling vision for excellence, but if their values are non-existent or poorly aligned, it counts for nothing. This will be evident when facing a difficult decision around missing a key shipping deadline because of concerns around quality. Staff from a values-based company would behave as expected by pulling the consignment because of the lack of high quality or precision. They would not fear reprisals from management, even though the firm may lose the contract. On the other hand, a local competitor may behave differently and ship it out, because they don’t value quality over quantity. For them, it’s about meeting deadlines on time and at whatever cost.

In order for our multi-academy trust to achieve its vision, we have a clear set of values that help us do the right thing. In short, our Trust is built on trust. The Latin word for ‘trust’ is fides – as in ‘to confide’ or bona fide (of good faith). We built our entire Trust on this belief, that if we are to become the best version of ourselves, we can only do so through high levels of trust.

Make them stick

You may not be aware, but Fides was also the ancient Goddess of trust. Her temple on the Capitol in Rome was where the Senate of the Roman Empire signed, sealed and stored all of their treaties and laws of the land. The deity Fides was their custodian and moral guardian of all that they believed at the time to be right and proper. As role models go, she is a formidable figure.

We use the acronym FIDES to help us remember the behaviours that we expect of all our adults and young people. Rather than go straight in with a googled set of abstract nouns (more often than not laminated and then displayed for all to see in the main entrance), we started first with the behaviours. Once we’d agreed on these, we then thought about the most appropriate abstract noun for each one.

We came up with five: loyalty, tenacity, kindness, courage and brilliance. Every day, we ask ourselves as we go home, ‘What have I done today that was courageous, brilliant and kind?’ I guarantee that no matter how bad a day you might have believed it to be, it was not that bad. As a teacher or leader, it’s almost impossible to go an entire day without doing any of these. You’ve probably also been extremely tenacious (not giving up on a child) and courageous (trying something new or dealing with a setback) but just haven’t found the time to reflect on it and know so.

A formula for success

Those five words though are unhelpful on their own. To someone new to the organisation, what does it mean to be tenacious? How does a young child demonstrate loyalty or courage? This is where FIDES helps us. I had the privilege of working with a cross-party group of staff to unpack all of this. It took us about a year. We wrote it all down and published it in a booklet called, ‘Trust Us: Making our Values Happen’. The children then followed this up with their own version called, ‘Trust Us Too’. You can watch a short video that they made here. The children themselves explain what FIDES means to them far better than I can.

As a Trust, our five core values are:

Focus on family
Insist on excellence
Do good as you go
Embrace innovation
Seize success

That’s it. As a teacher, if you do nothing else but demonstrate these behaviours day-in, day-out, then you will have done a brilliant job. This is why when I walk around any of our schools I can tell clearly when someone is making a difference. They live and breathe our values. For me F + I + D + E + S = a truly great school. It’s a sure-fire formula for success.

Follow the star

The beauty about values is that you don’t have to justify them to anyone outside the organisation. They will always stand the test of time and hopefully still be there long after you’ve gone. Above all, they are to be nurtured for their own sake. They are our north star and show us the way, especially during difficult times or when under pressure.

I hope your school has a north star burning bright; a compelling set of values that you believe in. If it does, then chances are you have a strong sense of purpose and self-worth. You buy-in to what it is your school is trying to achieve and understand clearly where you belong in the scheme of things. You feel valued and believe in both yourself and the moral purpose of the school leaders. Trust and integrity run deep.

If your school does not have a clear set of values or perhaps you don’t feel this way, then make it your new year’s resolution to try and put that right. You’ll certainly be doing good as you go. As a teacher with a clear moral compass, you owe it to yourself, to your colleagues and, above all to the young people and communities that you serve. Trust me.

 

(You can read more about this in my book, The Art of Standing Out, available from Amazon.)

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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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Go, tell it on the mountain!

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It can’t have escaped your notice that earlier this week it was World Storytelling Day. As a leader, the only story you need to be telling is the one about you – who you are, what you stand for and why your school is the best party in town.

Telling powerful stories about the culture you have created as a headteacher is what makes you stand out as a truly great leader. Storytelling helps the best leaders nail their colours to the mast for all to see by bringing their values to life through metaphor and motto. Leaders that harness this power create a ‘legend’, a lasting legacy that lives on long after they’ve gone.

As with all good stories, it’s the way you tell them that matters. Let’s face it, as teachers, we all know how powerful a good story can be to a captivated audience. Telling stories to children is what we do really well.

As leaders, we need to learn how to translate this skill to adults. The principles aren’t really that much different. (Other than the small fact that those that are listening can just get up and leave.)

The best heads know that a compelling story well-told creates cultural glue. It’s about forming emotive connections that bind people together with a common language and sense of purpose. It’s what motivates people and gets them out of bed in the morning.

So important is the art of storytelling, that in James Kerr’s book ‘Legacy’, he argues that leaders even need to go so far as to invent their own language. In so doing, this then allows them to “sing the world into existence” because they’ve created their own vocabulary.

Seth Godin suggests a different art-form (in his book, ‘Tribes: We need you to lead us’). Rather than sing or tell stories, we must instead get our brushes out and ‘paint a picture of the future’ on our blank canvas.

To ensure your narrative comes to life, your values and beliefs become the star of the story – centre-stage characters that drive the plot. You need to embellish and develop people’s understanding of what drives these key characters; how they got there, where they came from and where they are going.

As with all good books, we need to fall in love with the people that are in them. If we don’t care much for the main characters and can’t associate ourselves with them, we don’t care much for the story. The same goes with your core ideology – your vision, values and reason for being.

As James Kerr says:

“Leaders are storytellers. All great organisations are born from a compelling story. This central organising thought helps people understand what they stand for and why.”

I believe that the best leaders all share a number of traits that make them become master storytellers. You need to try and exhibit them often, and as with anything worth doing well, you need to practise them often too. These character traits include: energising, discovering, imagining, celebrating, failing, questioning and dismantling. (You can read more about them in my book).

What is crucial as a leader is that you model these frequently, whilst at the same time giving out permissions to others to do the same.

For example, staff need to know that they have permission (or not) to fail often, or question often. They need to know the extent to which they can dismantle what’s not working in their classroom or the degree to which they can discover (and try out) new things without coming to you first.

According to Sir Ken Robinson, by giving these permissions out openly to all and as soon as you can, as a leader you are unwittingly defining the culture of the school without anyone necessarily knowing it.

In a recent article in The New York Times, research showed that when transforming challenging schools in Chicago, those traits mentioned above are commonplace. Although not identical to the ones I suggest, they certainly aren’t dissimilar:

“When you learn about successful principals, you keep coming back to the character traits that they embody and spread: energy, trustworthiness, honesty, optimism, determination.”

What’s really interesting is that the key to embedding systemic change is not to do with what you do financially, structurally or administratively. It’s not about having the best ideas or always being right or being the most clever. Instead, it’s about how you engage, motivate and galvanise the people around you.

It’s about how well you tell your story.

“We went through a period when we believed you could change institutions without first changing the character of the people in them. But we were wrong. Social transformation follows personal transformation.”

Let’s be crystal clear about this. The stories that you tell about the culture that you’ve created start and end with you. It’s your name above the door: You set the weather. The team that you create are only as good as the culture that allows them to thrive (or not).

The New York Times sum it up perfectly:

“Principals set the culture by their very behaviour – the message is the person.”

Those seven traits mentioned above aren’t the complete picture. There is an eighth and it’s the one that I think is most important when creating a culture built to last: Articulating.

Being able to articulate your vision effectively can be a daunting and challenging prospect, whether it be in the form of a story, painting or song. It’s not good enough simply to tell or instruct people. Sending out an email, death by PowerPoint or a glossy laminated infographic won’t engage anyone.

I always remember a senior leader whom I first worked with as a new head. She couldn’t see why things weren’t being done. “I’ve sent them all a group email dozens of time,” she’d say. “I’ve told them in briefing over and over again. I don’t get what bit of it they don’t understand!” She really was getting very exasperated.

The answer of course was in the messaging, the storytelling. There was no connection, no buy-in and therefore a complete lack of emotional attachment from the staff. Shouting louder and stamping your feet simply won’t wash.

The wisest leaders understand then that it’s not just what you say but how you say it. As well as being visceral in their storytelling, they are also marketing and communication experts. They do this often, not by accident, but methodically and persistently.

They are highly proactive at continually seeking openings to tell their story at every opportunity, often by stealth, to anyone prepared (and sometimes not) to listen.

The best leaders sit people down and empower them and build consensus by bringing their vision to life in a way that is compelling and entirely believable. They are dogged and unwavering in equal measure.

Their story becomes their mantra.

And always remember this: If you don’t tell the story, who will? Seize the moment.

For no other reason then than it being international storytelling week, to close, here is one of my favourite stories about the importance of leadership, one that you might like to tell any budding future leader. Just promise me you won’t send them a memo.

It’s called ‘The Feast’ and it goes like this:

After yet another disastrous project that resulted in higher taxes and more hardship imposed on the people, a wise man let it be known at court that he was a master chef. One day he announced a feast at which he would prepare the most delicious new food. The King and all of his advisers were invited and couldn’t wait to attend.

When the various dignitaries arrived, full of anticipation, the food was presented in great style. But it proved to be disgusting.

“What is this abominable, poisonous mess you are asking us to eat?” cried the outraged guests. “You’re making us all sick!”

“This is my latest recipe,” explained the chef. “I made it up as I went along, putting in at random anything that came to hand without any rhyme or reason. It seemed like a good idea.”

“That’s absurd!” the King and all his advisors shouted at once. “That’s no way to prepare a meal.”

“I agree,” said the wise one before making a hasty exit. “But I thought it would be interesting, nonetheless, to try out a recipe based on your way of doing things.”

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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.

On marginal losses and mobile phones

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Earlier this week at work I had to go a day without email. It’s not until you experience an ‘internet outage moment’ that you realise how reliant you’ve become on technology.

When I first became a headteacher in 1998, email had only just begun to dribble into schools. Fax machines were all the rage and were understandably reluctant to be barged aside by the newcomer. As exciting as it was to receive your mail electronically, you couldn’t beat the thrill of teasing apart an envelope just itching to be opened. (In those days people seldom wrote to me.)

‘Email’ was clearly never going to catch on. It was clunky, could only be downloaded once a day and originated entirely from the LA. As a result, most of it was rubbish.

A few years later – at the turn of the millennium – a certain Nokia 3310 hit the scene, and like most young heads at the time, I had to have one. I considered myself to be an IT guru as I was the only headteacher out of 150 or so in the LA that had made the move to an electronic diary. I’d long since ditched the Letts, instead choosing to cart around a Filofax that was the size of a carry-on suitcase.

So when I had the opportunity to buy a digital Acer PDA, complete with stylus and touch screen, I jumped at the chance. It was a nightmare though because it wasn’t synced to the school so the secretary never had a clue what I was doing or where I was meant to be. Neither did I for that matter, but I looked cool.

You can imagine how excited I was when I heard the news of the re-emergence of the iconic 3310 as a dumbphone for a new (or old) smart generation of mobile technology users. In a sea of sameness, the current crop of phones fail to excite me like they once did. I no longer care about what the new iPhone may look like.

What was once fresh and exciting has now become conventional (which makes me all the more determined to ditch it). Eager to be reinvigorated, I visited the BETT show a few years ago but found the whole thing bitterly distasteful; aisle after aisle of seemingly over-prevaricating dotcom hipsters fresh out of college trying to convince me that everything I once knew about education was wrong. They’d clearly never set foot in a classroom. I won’t be going back.

What the whole Nokia thing has done though has made me yearn for certain things in life that are stripped back and simple. To be able to open a device and simply make a call appeals to me immensely. Only last month I was getting mildly manic as the stupid touch screen key pad on my phone failed to operate. It was only when I noticed that I was using the calculator app that I realised I’d crossed a line.

All of us need to reboot at times and whilst I could never go back to a paper diary or dial-up, there are a number of things going on around me in schools that could do with being Nokia’d.

With Lent underway, now might be as good a time as any to think about what we need to give up in schools. Too often we get swept away by the rhetoric and find ourselves doing things without actually knowing why. We become institutionalised and set in our ways.

Or, more dangerously, we find ourselves doing things for other people beyond the school without thinking why. Ofsted, the DfE, local authority are all case in points.

To be fair though to the DfE and Ofsted, a lot has been done recently to demystify the myths surrounding expectations. But still, too many schools don’t want to strip back and are nervous about letting go. When I visit schools that are in the process of being brokered for sponsorship – schools that are in special measures – the one thing that stands out a mile off is that they are simply trying to do too much.

They need to de-clutter and recalibrate so that they focus only on the main thing. Forget marginal gains. From now on, I’m going for marginal losses and I urge you to do the same.

So what would be your 3310? If you could choose to rip out all the guff and go back to basics, without compromising on quality and efficiency, what would it be? I’d suggest the photocopier would be a good place to start. How I harp back to the days when I could just pop next door and press a green button and out pops a copy.

Instead, I now have to carry around with me in my briefcase the launch codes and encrypted authentication sequences required for every photocopier for every school in the trust. And that’s before we even move on to the Wi-Fi settings and door entry codes.

Maybe your 3310 would be your interactive whiteboard, stuffed so full of tech that all you do is use it as a screen to show the date? Perhaps it’s your dog-eared teacher record book or multi-tabbed electronic assessment tracking system?

Take a look at your displays. Do you quake with fear when you’ve been told that you’ve got to cram in every single child’s piece of triple-mounted work regardless of how it helps with learning?

What about assemblies? As a young headteacher I always way overcooked the goose as I thought that the show was all about me. Nowadays of course, you can’t beat a good old-fashioned story (no slides, animations or audio, just a chair), all very appropriate for World Book Day.

You’ve got me started. There are more: policies, target-setting, governing bodies, report writing, risk assessments, data analysis, homework, websites, lesson planning, school development plans, marking. I’m sure you could come up with plenty more in your school.

We could all do with taking a leaf out of Nokia’s book. Not as a commercial gimmick or publicity stunt, but as an act of real authenticity and purpose. Just as with our mobile phones, we know that we need certain things in our schools and that without them we couldn’t get by. But every now and again, wouldn’t it be lovely if we could all go a bit retro?

 

The Art of Standing Out is available now on Amazon, published by John Catt Educational.

The ultimate oxymoron

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There is no such thing as rapid improvement. The two words simply don’t belong together. Rapid alterations, yes. I can live with that. Rapid change, possibly. But rapid improvement? Absolutely not.

Part of the problem is knowing what we mean by ‘rapid’. It was a phrase that was used many a time by HMI whilst doing our level best to move along a school that was stuck. No matter how hard we tried, no matter how impressive the changes, it was never rapid enough. So as a head I gave up bothering because I soon learnt that if I played the game and gave them ‘rapid’, they left me alone. But it was never going to stick. No sooner had I moved on to the next matter in hand, rapid turned into vapid. There was nothing there, it was meaningless, bland.

I raise this because we are fast approaching day 75 of sponsoring a new academy (working days only). In another 25, we reach the mythical 100-day milestone and by then research tells us that we should have made a difference. In reality this is just over half a school year, so whether it’s reasonable or not to see rapid improvement – with real demonstrable impact – is debatable.

We’ve hardly been pulling up trees during the first one hundred days at school. This mustn’t be mistaken for complacency or lethargy. On the contrary; we’ve been fervent in all that we do. But what we have been doing is watching, observing, listening and talking. This ensures that we lay firm foundations for long term systemic change. In turn the hope is that this will secure the deep-rooted improvements that we yearn.

Having found myself in this position a number of times in different schools throughout my career, what I’ve learnt is this: Horizontalism is the key. This means that leaders see the process of change not as a vertical upward trajectory akin to launching a rocket, but as a sideways segue, perhaps more like the meandering of a submersible as it probes beneath the surface.

The first one hundred days are indeed vital, so use them wisely. Don’t be rushed or hurried. Embrace the fact that rapid improvement is very much a slowburner and can only take off once you’ve been through three distinct phases:

ONE | Stabilise: This is where you need to show that as a leader things are simply not as bad as people may think (even if they are). You need to slow things down, calm things down. It’s crucial during this period that you are able to assess the situation critically and dispassionately and not get drawn into the politics or hubris of a school in crisis. Unless the seas are calm, turbulence prevails and meaningful change simply won’t happen. Creating such an illusion begins and ends with you.

TWO | Prioritise: Once you have turned the illusion into reality and established a sense of calm and stability, it becomes a lot easier to decide what your first important priorities are. With a steady ship you are able to recalibrate the compass. As a team, it is time to create a plan of action in the short, medium and long term. Together, you need to have a strong sense of OST, being clear of your new destination (Objective), how you are going to get there (Strategy) and who does what on the way (Tactics).

THREE | Visualise: This is the most powerful phase. In your mind’s eye, you need to be able to see the school that you want to create. You need to bring the OST to life by giving it a sense of mission, so that all stakeholders know not only where you want to go, but most importantly, why. To visualise therefore is to rationalise. This is where your vision and values come in to play, and by now, staff should know these inside out. Once you’ve achieved this, you are all set to take off and really make a meaningful difference in a way that will stick.

There could potentially be a fourth phase. If this were so, it would be this: Minimise. This is actually quite crucial as it reminds us that less is more. It really ought to operate alongside each of the phases above, which is why I’m inclined not to include it separately.

Minimising is about being clear of what the main thing is and sticking to it relentlessly. The best leaders ask the question, ‘what is it that we need to do less of?’ This ensures that our OST remains to the point, is purposeful and at the same time being both specific and realistic. Leaders that understand this have a strong sense of USP. They know what their school’s unique selling point is and how this relates to the community that they serve. Above all, they keep things simple.

 

You can read more about some of these ideas in The Art of Standing Out: School Transformation, to Greatness and Beyond published by John Catt in 2016 and available on Amazon.