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Leadership, Redesigning Schools

The Curse of the Consultant

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.

Photo Credit: Stevie Spiers Photography via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Stevie Spiers Photography via Flickr cc

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.

Photo Credit: Zizzybaloobah via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Zizzybaloobah via Flickr cc

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?

Photo Credit: Cliff via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Cliff via Flickr cc

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?

Photo Credit: Ogilvy PR via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Ogilvy PR via Flickr cc

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.

Feel free to share this by clicking here.

Afterword:

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 😉

imagineinquiry

MartynReah

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Discussion

18 thoughts on “The Curse of the Consultant

  1. Great post. After going into the dreaded category it was decided the best approach was consult consult consult. At the last count it was 24 different consultants. I am sure there were more but it became a haze as more came and went. New ideas, must do this must do that put staff in a spin and in the end sent us into a situation where we weren’t in control. We lost control and our identity. It ultimately sent us backwards as staff were so confused as to the vision.
    A new head and and he got rid of the lot. He was baffled how it had been allowed. In the past 6 months just 1 external review with a PP champion which was thoughtful and useful has made me realise that many have there own agenda. That is to make money off the school as let’s be honest that’s their business so they need to make money. Some are good but some have little to no impact at all.
    Most important is that the school know the journey they are on and so do staff.

    Posted by Matthew maher | April 12, 2015, 8:27 am
  2. As one of the cursed (tic) I would agree that this whole thing comes to ruin unless there are clear rules that this is a partnership. Our specialism is in leadership based on work with corporate clients and conversations with schools. Whilst we have tried and tested tools out approach is based on school outcomes always. I personally hate reports and meetings I just want to get the job done and help schools serve their students first and foremost. This is good food for thought and I will be sharing with other educationalists 👌

    Posted by The Barista | April 12, 2015, 9:32 am
  3. As an ex consultant, part of this sits uncomfortably as some of my work was hit and run school support. I did get my hands dirty and that is where the most effective work took place. I also worked with a wide range of consultants over my time in advisory work some of whom were superb but too many of them were absolutely as described in this blog post.
    I have taken on a struggling school as a Head and one of the first things I did was to bring in an ex-colleague from my consultancy days, as an Assistant Head. He is able to provide that lead professional role model at all times but we do also bring in consultants but only those we know and know the quality of. Too many schools go for the selection process of ensuring their consultants have a DBS and a pulse. This blog is an important call to arms for schools to be far more discerning.

    Posted by Bill Lord | April 12, 2015, 10:39 am
  4. A great post! I am a ‘Consultant’ but do very little consulting! Your penultimate paragraph sums up what makes a great ‘Consultant’!
    The one question I get asked the most by teachers or HTs is whether or not I miss the teaching. I’m teaching more now as a ‘Consultant’ than I have done in years as a HT or as a DHT. I often sat as a ‘Teacher’ watching a ‘Consultant’ present using a 325 slide ppt thinking the same as everyone… ‘When were you last in a classroom?’ Well, it’s the first thing I insist on when working with a school, to get into class with as many teaching staff released to watch as possible to see what I talk about in action with their pupils. It would be an insult to do it any other way!

    Posted by David Mitchell | April 12, 2015, 1:33 pm
  5. Lol – you should have known you were going to be inundated with consultants!! I have to say the only reason I have gone down that path (though I am not sure I am a consultant or a trainer – possibly the latter!!) is because I enjoy working with teachers. I agree that one off events are pointless – for anyone external to come in it has to be because the school needs some advice. Primary schools have a problem at times because there is not an even spread of subject specialisms there so that they can fall quite deficient. I think it would be useful to encourage partnerships between schools or intentionally see external consultants and trainers as part of a long term solution. There is a difference between offering quick fix solutions and training staff as a result of expertise you have built up.

    Posted by teachwell | April 12, 2015, 2:15 pm
  6. Thanks for sharing, this is sound advice. Having taught for 8 years, I have worked with 2 consultants. One was excellent and led by example (as you say #dirty hands), the other was terrible and sat in the office eating cake and telling us what we already knew about our data. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with this post!

    Posted by Rob Hacking | April 12, 2015, 2:41 pm
  7. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

    Posted by heatherfblog | April 12, 2015, 2:41 pm
  8. Sorry you have yet to meet the educational consultant who advised that someone else would offer something better for your school.
    Much of the time I was regularly consulting in schools one of my main aims was to find out enough about the school to know who to suggest they may wish to consult further – usually someone who had tackled a similar issue in a similar school!
    My main value as a consultant was having had the chance to visit lots of schools to build up that sort of knowledge. The role then was either helping school leaders recognise expertise already in their school that may help, or to point them at these other school leaders if external support was needed.
    Some school leaders did occasionally see the consultant’s role as to come in and provide answers, but most were happier when I didn’t try and claim the mantle of the expert. They mainly wanted a trusted and objective sounding board.

    Posted by tonyparkin | April 12, 2015, 3:01 pm
  9. For what it’s worth… In my opinion, anyone who works with a school is any sort of capacity – consultant, adviser, old SIP, new SIP etc should facilitate a process where a school comes to better understand itself. In this way, we avoid one size fits all [this worked in my last school!!!] solutions and we build leadership capacity in accurately determining what is right for the school.

    On a second note, I’ve always believed that one of the key skills of a headteacher [new or old] is the ability to say no, not for my school or not at this moment in time.

    Current headteacher, former LA adviser

    Posted by ismason65 | April 12, 2015, 8:47 pm
  10. Stephen – as you know, I’ve been working as an educational consultant since I finished as a head 5 years ago, but I don’t think you say anything here that I wouldn’t whole-heartedly endorse!

    I’ve only worked with leaders/schools who know me, they know what I’ve done and how I might be able to help them. I don’t see how it can work if a consultant is somehow ‘imposed’ on a school. I wouldn’t want to work with anyone who hadn’t chosen me themselves, knowing my background and feeling I was credible. And if I didn’t think I had the expertise they needed, or I could recommend someone who was better suited to their requirements, I’d certainly say so – and have done!

    Really useful post – an happy to pass this on.

    Posted by jillberry102 | April 13, 2015, 8:39 am
    • Thanks Jill. As I said at the beginning it wasn’t a dig at anyone or any company. In many ways thinking aloud – most of my posts are – about the best way to engage and use consultants’ expertise. Also reflecting on previous mistakes I’ve made. Keep up the great work.

      Posted by ExecutiveHT | April 13, 2015, 3:18 pm
  11. Reblogged this on rwaringatl.

    Posted by Richard Soles | April 14, 2015, 9:35 am

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