As the saying goes you never stop learning; though in reality learning is a choice not a certainty. The leadership learning curve tends to get less steep as the years go by and the pace of learning slows down, however, you have to start unlearning some of the bad habits and practices you have picked up over the years. If you remain open to change the learning goes deep. These are a few random reflections on the leadership challenges ahead for 2016.
Monitoring Isn’t the Only Answer
Part of developing as a leader involves undoing previous lessons learnt; it now seems incomprehensible that a school can be led without intrusive and comprehensive monitoring systems. Ofsted has changed significantly this year; with 25% budget cuts to come and school data so readily available I remain convinced it won’t be a universal inspection service for many more years. This and the increasing focus on the lack of efficacy and detrimental impact of some monitoring practices means a cultural change in schools is possible; some schools have already led the way but this needs to be system wide. The grading of lessons is on the wane though still needs to be eradicated in some schools; there’s already a ground swell beginning to appear in the blogosphere around marking and book scrutiny and the ridiculous level of data collection, at an aggregated level, in many schools is neither sensible nor defensible. Whilst it’s easier to promote the line of “trust first and only intervene if things are going wrong” if you don’t actually lead; don’t work in challenging or disadvantaged schools or it doesn’t impact on your own children it is time for leaders to step forward and trust. The other option is not to trust; this leads you down a dark and repressive road. Brave leadership will be required particularly for schools in challenging circumstances or disadvantaged areas if we are not to see the development of a two tier system; the poor always lose out when this happens. This is about wide scale cultural change which challenges the prevailing and long standing orthodoxy. This is part of the essence of leadership; setting the vision, plotting the course and get people heading for a new World in which trust and feedback to teachers replace fear and monitoring in schools.
Changing the focus from compliance with the bottom line requires leaders to inspire people to be the best they can be and give them the necessary freedom; people may then freely choose to give the extra that makes great schools great.
Go Back Stage
“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
Harry S. Truman
Being front of house or on stage is part of a leader’s role. It’s one I quite enjoy and you only have to see me present to have a pretty good idea of what my teaching was predominantly like. Talking in front of hundreds of pupils, parents and staff goes with the role but not everything is most effectively done in public. This is possibly one of the oddest parts of my new role; I think my job is to leave the space for other leaders. If I always step forward there is no space for others to grow into. Working quietly in the background ensuring things are done, done well and increasingly in the years ahead deciding what will no longer be done is a key leadership behaviour. The quiet word of encouragement, sympathy or need for improvement are all best done in private. Equally, though many would argue more importantly, is listening. Listen not just to the loud voices but to the quiet ones; listen widely and extensively; listen to those who speak last not just the first voices you hear. This term we’ll need to listen to staff about workload, our new Teaching, Assessment and Learning Policy and about what will have the biggest and best impact on our staff and pupils’ lives.
Value What’s Valuable; Add Value
Looking busy is a leadership strategy or in reality a survival technique in many schools particularly those in the most challenging areas or who have fallen into an Ofsted category. The illusion of busyness is a powerful one in convincing people things are moving in the right direction and beginning to go well; the outcomes may tell a different story. Doing more and being busy won’t cut it in the years ahead; school budgets will put an end to that as energy and resources will need to be conserved and focussed on what is valuable.
For historically well-funded schools this is a real opportunity to focus on the main thing. For those in the middle of the funding range it will be an interesting challenge and everyone, including any external consultants or companies who may currently have contracts, will need to add value. Schools at the lower end of the funding range are already well focussed and reducing budgets will hit them hard. The implementation of Fairer Funding is at least twelve months away but don’t be surprised if the timetable slides. Funding needs to be more even but it will have to be levelled up through extra funding, in the latter half of this Parliament, and an extended implementation timescale of a decade if it is not to cause chaos. Leaders will need to be planning over years and accept that what has been nice or good to do may not be possible over the next few years. Efficiency savings are always overestimated and more often a euphemism for doing less but as they say let’s do that less much better.
In the Big Moments
Leaders step forward in the big moments. The Gethsemane moments, the times of anxiety and loneliness when you want the leadership cup to be taken far away from you or just wished that someone would stay with you. No-one every promised leadership would be easy; if someone did then they shouldn’t have. These are the moments of the big decision when your team will give you perspectives, all different and the final decision must be yours. Taking people with you when you know they felt the other direction may have been preferable is part of the craft of leadership; take smaller steps, find the bright spots and travel more slowly but keep the team together. The Golgotha moments are when you feel like you are being metaphorically crucified, it always seems unfair at the time but they are part of what forms us as leaders. The Building Schools for the Future years should have been some of my best as a leader but instead I too often felt like I was grimly hanging on for dear life. The fruits of this work, which we are now seeing, will be picked by someone else; my job was to prepare the ground, they will have their own Golgotha times.
In the coming months leaders will face big moments in their own schools as well as big moments nationally. If you don’t believe the EBacc should be foisted on all children, say so. If the Fairer Funding proposals aren’t fair, say so. If people make stupid or crass suggestions which increase workload, say so; just do it with gentleness and humility as none of us have a monopoly on wisdom or truth.
Don’t forget the Cana moments as these are the ones that make leadership so worthwhile. These are the times of abundance, fellowship and of the joy associated with achievements, invariably of others. So much of what you do as a leader is indirect, your influence is through the work of others. Make that influence positive and enriching; when things go well there is always enough credit and thanks to go around so don’t hog the limelight.
Ultimately the leadership lesson for 2016 is to make your School or Trust of Federation a place where people want to work and learn. If not your job will get a whole lot harder.