10 survival principles for school leaders

This blog is by popular demand – well sort of!

On 5th November I was with leaders from the Derby Teaching School Alliance talking about the thinking behind the government’s government’s reforms over the past five years and using my crystal ball to describe some of the challenges they were likely to face over the next five. As well as outlining the key features of a Conservative or Labour-led  education programme, I also talked about the funding, poverty and technology challenges coming down the road and how they might impact on schools.

The final section of the presentation suggested 10 survival principles for school leaders given the volume and intensity of change that they are having to manage. The principles are an updated version of some work I first did for ASCL back in 2007 in a little book called Leadership that lasts. A number of people on Twitter and some of those present in the room have asked me to share the principles. So here we go.

You can find the slides for 10 principles here http://www.tagmydoc.com/dl/129RPm/gq25 and below I briefly explain what I mean by each of them.

1. Understand what is happening and why. A key role of school leaders is to explain to their governors and staff why they are having to make change. Leaders may not always or even often agree with reforms they are having to make or policies they are having to introduce but it is always a good idea to understand the thinking that has led to the change. In my experience people feel less ‘done to’ and swamped by change if they are able to engage in the rationale for it. So leaders need to spend a bit of time each week reading a journal or an education blog that will help them keep abreast of current education thinking. Part of a school leader’s job is to help interpret what is happening in the world to those for whom she or he is responsible.

2. Stay rooted in your values and moral purpose. Remember why you came into teaching and what you wanted to achieve when you first moved into a leadership role. Focus on the interests and life chances of your pupils and their families and be constantly inspired and re-invigorated by them. I found it encouraging to see how the Derby Teaching School Alliance has thought through its values and vision and is trying to keep them at the forefront of its thinking in its work.

3. Always have a game plan. The key to managing change effectively is not to be pushed around by external factors. Leaders need a strategy that is right for their school – into which change and externally imposed ‘most-dos’ then fit. The crucial skill for school leaders is to identify when they have extracted most value from their existing strategy and need to change tack to keep their school moving forward (see slide 4). And, as the recent work on outstanding primary leadership led by Peter Matthews has so ably highlighted, the game plan will vary according to where a school is on its improvement journey (see slide 5).

4. Grasp nettles firmly. It’s an obvious point but most hard issues don’t get any easier for being put off. Whether the challenge relates to funding, pupil progress and attainment, staff performance, school behaviour or quality of governance the best leaders will act decisively as soon as they see an issue needs to be addressed.

5. Be open to new ways of working. Externally imposed reform forces us to reconsider and adapt. That is often a good thing – it can help to stimulate innovation and creativity. For example, one of the issues raised at the Derby conference was the growing encouragement for schools to collaborate but the lack of resources to facilitate this. As finances tighten things are not likely to get any easier in this respect. But we don’t have to organise the curriculum and PPA time as we have always organised it – or employ or deploy teaching assistants in the way that we have always done. Schools – including some small primaries in rural areas – are demonstrating how through reassigning roles, reorganising timetables and using technology they can use collaboration to drive improvement in the classroom.

6. Work through structured collaboration. This follows on directly from the previous point. Schools working in clusters – under the umbrella of a teaching school alliance, academy chain, federation or other other formally structured partnership – is the future. You need to be on someone’s team. Yes, there are issues of within-school variation to address but schools are more likely to learn and grow by working with others – especially (the evidence suggests) when there is clear executive leadership to drive, co-ordinate and account for the impact of cross-school working.

7. Stay focused on instructional leadership. The temptation when there is so much change swirling around is for school leaders to retreat into their office and meetings with senior colleagues. The mark of an effective school leader is to ensure there are people and systems able to manage new demands (often much easier if managing change is shared across schools) and stay focused on the quality of the teaching and learning in the classroom. Sometimes, as slide 8 illustrates, this will mean taking an overview of performance though drop-ins and analysing data (sitting in the stands), sometimes it may involve coaching of leaders and staff (on the touchline), sometimes it will require leading development sessions (on the training pitch) and sometimes it mean encouraging a colleague who has had a bad day or week.

8. Empower middle leaders. We know that schools and partnerships that make the most rapid change have equipped and empowered their middle leaders to be the engine room of improvement. I have just come to the end of helping to facilitate an action research project for the National College for Teaching and Leadership on leadership of great pedagogy. One of the key lessons from that is the power of releasing and then supporting middle leaders to lead learning – both within schools and between schools.

9. Embrace joint practice development. Collaboration that is really powerful is centred on improving classroom practice through supporting teachers to work with and learn from each other. Whether that is done through a coaching model, working together on schemes of work and lesson plans, peer-to-reviews and learning walks, lesson study, action research or the deployment of SLEs is less important than the principle of aligning formal and subject specialist training with improving practice in the classroom.

10. Communicate, communicate, communicate. John Dunford, a former head and general secretary of ASCL, used to say that school leadership was about 90% communication. I am not sure of the evidence basis for this – but I know exactly what he is getting at. Leadership is about motivating and engaging the team – including pupils, parents and governors – to come with you on the improvement journey. So communicating your expectations (your vision) and your plan for how you are going to get there (strategy) and explaining  why change – whether it is being internal or external driven – are vital. As politicians know reinforcing key messages is essential – keep on explaining and explaining. And, of course, communication has to be two-way – listening to feedback and ideas and adjusting the game plan where necessary.


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