I need to be clear from the start that this post isn’t aimed at any individual or company. Rather it is a reflection on what is now a mainstay of the educational world, the consultant. I also need to be careful what I say as I may become a fully paid up member of the Educational Consultancy Club one day.
Life in Blackpool is a rollercoaster. Whether it is from the heady heights of the Premier League to propping up the Championship or from educational glory to disaster, it’s never dull. When things go pear shape the inevitable response is to call in an expert, enter the Educational Consultant. Most consultants we have worked in have been brought and bought in by the local authority to support schools across Blackpool. We’ve engaged, with varying levels of commitment and antagonism, in the search for the magic silver bullet of improvement. Despite tens maybe hundreds of thousands of pounds the impact on children’s life chances has been variable.
Adding Value or Costing Money?
Even if someone else is paying for the consultancy there is a cost of time and possibly disruption to the school’s improvement journey, unless things are managed carefully. The consultants who frustrate me most are the ones who tend to want to spend a lot of time in meetings with me then write reports, basically telling me what I already know. Then the inevitable off the shelf, easy to implement because it has already been prepared and used with other schools, solution comes out the bag. These people cost time and money but have limited impact and don’t add value. They are looking to deliver what is efficient for them, claiming it has worked elsewhere, though evaluations are usually pretty weak, rather than discerning what’s of greatest value to the children.
The dilemma is: I don’t want to work with a consultant who doesn’t spend time finding out about the school before they decide what they can do for us. One day I may even meet the consultant who having found out about the school actually advises me that they are not the best person to help.
So if you engage with a consultant be prepared to commit time up front so they can get to know the school and its direction of travel. They may not have chosen to start from the point at which you are at (nor might you) but that is the starting point, like it or not. Without knowing the starting point and direction of travel the Educational Consultant may become an antagonistic force.
Be clear about what you do and don’t want them to do. You may feel things are not great but the school is paying, so you choose. Be selective about what you want to implement otherwise teachers are going to become overwhelmed. If you are not selective at best nothing will happen or at worst things become chaotic and the impact is negative, on the school, staff and children. Sometimes a consultant’s efforts can be frustrated by the school’s finite capacity, wrong time or wrong opportunity. Have you really got the time and capacity for the work required?
Doing less better is my mantra these days.
Flirting or Long Term Relationship?
There is nothing wrong with asking in someone, with significant expertise in a given area, to come and speak to staff or work with them in an intensive way for a very short period. The key here is making sure you’ve thought through how the work will be led and managed following the initial input. Too often the one off event, whether it’s a consultant coming in or a great course, leads to very little beyond good intentions. There may be better or easier ways to achieve the same or an even better outcome. Nothing is ever complete or perfect.
Without an external perspective a school can become too inward looking. There is a need to be open to revising the school’s journey towards greater effectiveness and the means of getting there. Being open to external challenge, without abdicating or losing hold of the reins, is part of the process. Remember the school community must own their improvement journey.
You can’t have a big impact from a distance with an occasional termly visit. That’s not how school improvement works. The consultant popping in every now and again, spinning a few plates, throwing in ideas or directives before running off is likely to achieve very little. Check the consultant’s or their company’s capacity to deliver what you need. Some can overstretch themselves, expand too rapidly, and then fail to deliver.
Hiring a consultant gives an immediate sense of doing something. This approach has become beloved by leaders particularly when there is a need to pacify inspectors. Lots of activity but improvement may be more more illusion than actual. You may also want to consider whether working with a consultant is always the best option.
If consultants are going to have impact they need to work with a school and its staff for years on the school’s improvement journey as someone who can enrich, enhance and help the school’s staff to reach their chosen destination. In reality this destination is just the next staging post on a greater journey which transcends any particular leader, group of staff or cohort of children.
Dirty Hands or Vacuous Aspirations?
Look for consultants who want to get their hands dirty, to roll up her/his sleeves and get stuck in modelling to staff what’s required and mentoring them in order to effect change. The best consultants will build capacity within the organisation and effectively look to make themselves redundant over time. This is the inbuilt exit strategy that is required if a dependency culture is to be avoided. Another strategy is to build the capacity into your organisations by employing the people you need. We’ve had great success in employing an Assistant Headteacher level to develop Mathematics & Numeracy across the Trust.
I’m only interested in working with people who are going to have a positive impact on the quality of teaching, leadership or learning and the life chances of our students. Before you next employ a consultant you may want to check whether the required expertise is already under your nose.
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Via Twitter a few people have questioned whether the title of this post is a bit pejorative or doesn’t reflect the contents as well as it could. Thanks to Tim Taylor (@imagineinquiry) and Martyn Reah (@MartynReah) here are some other possible titles for the post. Both better than my original 😉