In the early days of this Parliament there seems to be a desire, willingness and intent from the government to take on what they perceive as the recalcitrant public servants who are obstructing progress. It remains to be seen whether imposing new contracts on junior doctors will lead to a break down or improvement of the Health System; similarly whether substantial centrally imposed educational changes will redefine of destroy education.
The Developing Narrative
Politicians far more than school leaders or teachers understand the importance of developing a compelling narrative and then continually promoting it. It doesn’t have to be right or true, though it would be inaccurate and unfair to suggest that it isn’t always; its voicing just has to be consistent and loud. The junior doctors’ contract debate is about providing a seven day health service for us hard working families and the problem is the, already well paid, junior doctors wanting more money. It’s a compelling narrative until you speak to junior doctors who see it very differently; the safety of patients and the desire for a reasonable work/life balance. Will we see an exodus of junior doctors, after years of investment in their development and training, heading abroad? If yes, will we think the new contract really that important?
Like many people my flabber was well and truly gasted at the sight of a politician telling the profession to stop being so negative, talk teaching up and get on with their job of implementing government policy. The narrative in education is developing; it is school leaders’ or teachers’ fault. If only they would stop complaining about all the changes and get on with implementing them things would be so much better. Standards in academies are irrefutably higher because we say so; recruitment to the profession isn’t a problem and if it is it’s due to teachers’ and school leaders’ negativity and workload in schools is nothing to do with massive concurrent change, driven by the Department for Education, or the fear of Ofsted inspection it’s simply poor leadership.
Three of four years into headship, failing in my attempts to do everything, never mind doing it well, the need to distribute leadership was obvious and I found a pathway towards it. The journey continues today but key was providing space for others to lead; that is, to be able to make decisions with the capacity to see them, through even if I didn’t agree with them. End points are non-negotiable but we need to give people more ownership as to the how. Holistic end points aren’t usually the problem; we don’t often fall out about higher standards, better teaching or improved pastoral care guidance and support.
The model I used to aid my thinking comes from Hay Group; we became involved in a five or six session programme over a number of months which helped reform us as a senior leadership team.
To lead you need to have the ability to make decisions (authority), the resources to implement the decisions made (capacity) and to be held accountable for the outcomes; the latter will hopefully be a pat on the back and congratulations. Accountability and consequences shouldn’t just be perceived as negative. If you are a senior or middle leader how much authority or capacity do you really have? High accountability never seems to be an issue. I sometimes think we have more senior and middle doers rather than leaders in our schools. The piece below is taken from a blog post a couple of years old:
In a conversation with a head teacher colleague and friend, a number of years ago, she mentioned that she had established quite a distributed leadership style. She had my attention and interest and I wanted to know more:
“Any member of staff can come to me to discuss an idea they are interested in implementing and if I think it has merit I allow them to get on and do it.”
It begs the interesting question, “So what happens if you don’t like the idea?”
“Well I counsel them give them alternative suggestions and then allow them to go away and think about it and then come back to me.”
I had a sense where this might be going and couldn’t help but keep pushing the point … in essence the member of staff would be “counselled” as often as required until s/he came back with an idea the head teacher liked or had already thought of! It still makes me smile when I think about it.
In attempting to distribute leadership, we would agree end points, the outcomes, as a senior leadership team; it was part of defining the limits of a person’s authority so s/he understood the freedoms available. Distributing leadership isn’t an anything goes but rather part of a disciplined approach.
The System Issue
The same issues are apparent in the school system and education more widely. The narrative is all about implementing government ideas efficiently or simply ignoring them; if you don’t then you are not a good and brave leader. Implementing daft ideas efficiently or ignoring the consequences of decisions is not brave leadership it’s stupidity. As a leader you have to keep the wolves away from the door.
The following is a twitter conversation I ended up in (for clarity my bits are the blue); twitter isn’t great for nuanced debate and I accept I may be misreading the other person’s true meaning but it struck me as part of the developing narrative; it followed me publishing Workload and the Blind Man
“I think the reports seek to empower, not tell. As such they are a good test for the school-led system.
But is it really school-led; so much central prescription and change enforced through accountability measures.
So we are back to blaming the system? Really?? Carpe Diem!
System not responsible for TA writing workload or massive workload associated with GCSE and A-level changes?
Change is always difficult, but the underlying culture to respond to it is the important thing. If you don’t believe in a school-led system, you are right, it won’t happen.
The issue is the change not response in some cases, have TA writing & exam changes massively added to workload in your opinion
Of course they will have contributed – part of the issue is how leaders support Ts to respond to that though. If they just dump it on Ts then it will have a big impact.”
School leaders are dumping the Writing Teacher Assessments on teachers; I thought it was the government? So if it’s my decision, in fact all school leaders’ decisions, we can change our minds tomorrow morning, apologise to staff and say we’re not bothering with the Writing TAs so just bin them. Stupid ideas are still stupid ideas even when implemented well – add forced academisation and 90% of students made to do the E-Bacc to teachers’ assessment of writing; all are time wasters.
Two of the obsessions for the politicians currently occupying the Department for Education are phonics and the E-Bacc. The ability to read and comprehend a text is a reasonable end point to hold schools accountable for. The means of getting there should be within the control of teachers and school leaders; phonics strikes me as an important part of the early stages of this process but it is not everything so why have it in RAISE? A love of reading is what we want but not as part of an accountability measure; it’s one of the wider outcomes of a good education.
Similarly, the E-Bacc is one possible means securing a “passport” to a bright and productive future but it is not the only one. Attainment 8, Progress 8 and destinations data, whilst accepting each has limitations, are far better measures of a school’s impact than looking to force or manipulate the system so pupils are made to follow government dictat with a failure to or not to placed at the door of school leaders. This is about balance of power; we are not helpless as schools and leaders but neither are we all powerful (the latter is God’s job in my book).
The School led or implemented system is ultimately about agency; it’s the authority to make the big decisions, the capacity to implement and the accountability for the outcomes. The first is far too much in the hands of a few politicians, the second is dwindling and the third is being placed at the door of school leaders and teachers. All three are required to be primarily in the hands of schools of the system is to be truly led by them.
In the end I remain too ambitious for the school-led system to see it be anything else; I’m not here to implement other people’s mad or bad ideas, the good ones I’m okay with. Therein lies the rub; what we consider to be good, bad and mad ideas we are unlikely to totally agree on but the key outcomes could be, then let a school-led system innovate its way forward. If not let’s be honest; we are doers in a government-led school implementing education system. Our lack of authority and limited capacity rules out true accountability; if that’s the way we’re going, I’m out.