In a recent blogI wrote about the excitement and exhilaration of the start of new school year. Nevertheless there is no doubt that this is an exceptionally challenging time for school leaders with immense pressure on many schools to be constrained by externally imposed pressures and distractions?
The big question then is how you can have the courage to lead a confident school with staff who are genuinely empowered to do the very best for their students.
Though I would be the last to pretend that I got everything right or know all of the answers to such complex challenges here are some ideas and provocations.
- I would look at everything we did through the lens of a wise question at the front of an early Welsh inspection framework which served me well during my years of headship..
What is the effect of what is being observed on standards of achievement?
After all – if what you are doing is not having any effect you have to ask what the point is.
An important aspect of this question is the use of the word ‘achievement’. With apologies for stating the obvious that is not the same as ‘attainment’ or results of linear examinations.
Achievement is about how well pupils have progressed in relation to previous standards achieved. That is not the same as progress 8 or assuming that KS2 results have a proven correlation with future attainment in all subjects. It is evaluated via professional judgement. Pupils with low attainment can have good standards of achievement and vice versa.
I would therefore want to look very hard and achieve an agreed definition with my staff and governors as to what achievement looks like. This would form the basis for the development of our curriculum policy. As well as the obvious academic aspects, this would encompass a range of skills (sorry Minister but every employer I have ever met agrees that these need to be explicit) and qualities as well as all of those wider elements of a good education such as those often described as ‘character’, preparation for life, employability etc. The content of that curriculum would not be dictated upon by performance measures that undermine the role of vitally important subjects like D&T and the Arts.
This is a tremendous discussion to have in any school which colleagues will relish.
‘Exam factories’ are what government has driven (though some are currently trying to blame schools for this). It is not what teachers want but that of course does not mean that we should be failing to open those doors to our students for which examinations are the key. It is all about balance.
- I would also have at the front of my mind the statement in the same framework ‘Inspectors are looking for impact , not intention.’ At a time where resources of all kinds are under such pressure we cannot afford to waste time on anything that does not benefit our students or on warm words and hopes. I would therefore see it as my responsibility to sift and protect staff from the latest ‘spiffing wheezes’ that came from government driven initiatives or fads that come in and out of fashion and to focus on those ideas that genuinely had the potential to make a real difference. The question and statement above from Estyn would be a good criterion for what to choose.
- When people came in to assess and judge us I would be fully equipped with our own story to tell based on our own robust self-evaluation processes and data analysis. It is neither our job to defend low standards or poor practice nor to cave in to people who try to draw conclusions from superficial or questionable evidence. We need to know our schools well and always be seeking to improve further by listening to informed advice and evidence.
- I would have absolutely nothing to do with any invitations to bid for short term government funding. They are a distraction and tie you down to conditions that limit your autonomy. Often the bids lead to nothing other than a load of work.
- I would do everything I could to enable staff to share ideas, discuss what was doing well and what they were finding challenging. Conversations about lessons that didn’t work are immensely valuable and talking about them is certainly not a sign of failure. Visiting the classrooms of colleagues and discussing what you see is possibly the most powerful form of CPD I know.
- I would replace performance management with a constructive and developmental appraisal system and avoid at all cost targets that link raw attainment to pay. These are grossly unfair and demotivating. The system I would put in place would recognise the immense effort and impact teachers have in all kinds of ways and identify ways of helping them to become even better at their jobs. Capability procedures exist for those who are underperforming in spite of all of the support provided. We don’t need to punish the majority.
- I would ensure that my main scale teachers had access to pay progression. I have been shocked about examples where this has been denied due to funding constraints or managerial decisions.
- I would invest in bespoke CPD for all staff. CPD is not the same as courses. There are plenty of examples of cost effective CPD much of which is based in school or within a federation or MAT. This is the most powerful driver of teacher retention.
- I would invest in initial teacher training and find ways of recognising, rewarding and developing those who stay beyond the first few years. We have a moral obligation to develop the next generation of school leaders.
- I would want to develop with the staff a really good staff wellbeing policy. I have seen some great examples in a number of forward-thinking schools that have found ways of creating time for staff to have some respite from the incredible intensity of life in the classroom.
I am sure that many readers of this will quite understandably be thinking ‘yes….but’. I’ll leave the response to Emeli Sandi’s words in her song ‘Read all about it’: ‘When did we all get so fearful?’ If there was ever a time for our profession with the full support of those that represent them to stand up for what we believe in, it is now.
All of these ideas and suggestions in this blog and many more are developed in further detail and examples in my book Lessons Learned? A Life in Education