In his book “Turning the ship around” L. David Marquet uses his experience as the captain of the nuclear submarine the Santa Fe, to redefine a different kind of leadership style. Being confronted with the worst performing submarine in the US fleet he watched at first hand as those he led blindly followed poor orders rather than using their own thinking to improve. He urges us to move away from the traditional leader-follower model and instead encourage an intent-based leadership style where people feel more valued and are proud to become part of something bigger than themselves.
Here are my 10 reflections on school turnarounds:
Step 1: Learning from great peers – Working in federation enables much more than networking. I have seen the days before this era when Local Authorities did not effectively improve hard-to-move schools, often failed to equip leaders to enact change and where consultants came and went, some effective, some less so. As a Principal my CEO holds me to account in a way which means things have to change rapidly for my children, but also provides me with the tools and feet-on-the-ground support to make this happen. “This helps accelerate student progress faster than if you do it alone, someone has already thought about the problem you are trying to solve”, says Claire Carter, the WHF Professional Development leader, talking to the second group of cross-phase Middle Leaders in Gloucester completing their 6 week programme this week. We are striving to develop leaders at all levels to build capacity in our schools.
Step 2: Start by pointing the camera back at us – what do standards really look like? Being a new Principal allows you that privilege of turning the camera back at the children and staff. The first thing I did in a previous school was to take a running series of photos of the route into school for children, behind fencing which at the time resembled Guantanamo Bay, compared with the sleepy walk for staff down the drive into the calm, staff-only reception. And why was it like this? Because some of the children could not be trusted to be in reception in front of visitors. Capturing this screaming polarity on camera was powerful and meant that reversing this mindset with staff was so much easier.
Step 3: How good is your teaching team? Have a set of photos of all staff in reception, or your office, and study it regularly. This is the team you are creating, building and fine-tuning and who will change lives. When you stand and look does it fill you with pleasure and purpose? They will bring joy and hope and life-changing difference. Or they won’t. Do you revel with joy about the team surrounding you who will bring sparkle and pleasure, strength and rigour to our childrens’ lessons and lives? Are they a team of life changers who keep you on your toes? “While school structures and organisations have changed, the two essential components at the heart of real shift is the way that we assess and the fundamental question: How do we increase teacher quality?” Dylan Wiliam– Embedded Formative Assessment). One of the most significant ways to model your leadership of teaching, both to your commitment to the learning process and to the fact that you practice what you preach, is to be in the classes where you need to see a big shift. It supports teachers with the progress of those children working below par by sitting next to them, showing and modelling, and it shows to children that the quality of teaching and learning on a daily basis is what you most care about. Done positively and with discernment, it improves teachers confidence and we all teach better!
Step 4: Forge brilliant relationships in and out of the school – these are the meat and drink of a great leader – that blend of excellent professional engagement, developing serious rigour with governors, warm but strong parental contact and a rapport with students which blends great expectations with that palpable privilege of working together. These relationships are our metier. Without these essentials the best-laid improvement plans will fall flat; will be the science without the art. That said, there is an inevitable tension in trying to develop strong positive outward-facing professional relationships while being relentlessly concerned with urgently needing to drive standards in your own school, and making sure that you are a trusted, steadying presence for staff and students.
Step 5: Create routines of delivery which will work and listen – Michael Barber describes brilliantly how it is the dull, repetitive, mundane routines which drive improvement at government and at school level. From the perspective of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit in Tony Blair’s second term, where the purpose was to deliver on the promises Blair made but failed to deliver in the first term, Barber manages to make dull attractive. Once the new systems have been introduced, then the next phase of embedding the system and driving change is fundamental. Don’t keep changing: just make it work for teachers and students!
Step 6: Gauge the tipping point – There are certain key moments of the turnaround there are threshold points. Perhaps the new behaviour system we introduce causes a necessary squeeze which children like at first because of improvement but then there reaches a point when the minority infringing the new rules becomes a critical mass. The staff and students begin to disbelieve the system. The teaching is rapidly improving but because the legacy of practice and routine has not been good, learners are fragile, have unstable routines and lack the resilience for the necessary in-class challenge before they resent the changes and give up. At the same time school leaders and Ofsted demand more challenge. Getting past this tipping point means a clear strategy. Sometimes it means understanding on both sides, sometimes it means stickability. Always it means retaining strong principles that underpin what we are trying to do and creating the conditions for teachers to be successful.
Step 7: Disarming humility – every day you will see people who do things better, spot ideas quicker, work smarter, teach with more impact, connect with children more sharply. Our job is of course to celebrate these paragons of our profession, even as we wonder whether we have lost our own powers! We will look at challenges that we missed, difficult conversations we could have had six months ago and which haven’t gone away. Times when we should have stuck to our principles to hold standards, and times when what was required was a touch of humanity and care to reconsider workload or to bring out the best in our team. The leaders that I have found the most attractive and ultimately the most effective in the long term are those who are transparent in their own humanity while retaining the essential drive and moral purpose to deliver better standards for children.
Step 8: Precision about what, when – “I’ve inspected a few schools recently and they are doing the wrong things really well” described a friend of mine last week. Surgery is sometimes needed. More often it is real precision. A precise teaching document, or precision around behaviour policy and culture so that we all know where we stand. What are you rewarded for as a student? Is there real precision around marking. Are we really sharp about what we value? Our front of school will tell every visitor all they need to know about our values. This means the way in which we structure reception, whether you allow children in, how your reception team are supported, trained and celebrated. Be precise about what is needed in the different phases of improvement – a great deal has been written about this for any organisation. Phase 1 may get you out of Special Measures or into the Good territory, but you may need to consider changing people and systems at the very time that you are celebrating your first stage of the journey. The courage to do this will be part of the story when you look back.
Step 9: Focus on effort – it is in the control of children to change this – and not much else. I have yet to find a school which doesn’t try to celebrate effort with integrity, but many struggle to articulate how they describe effort. We may use Claxton’s ‘learning habits’, the work of Dweck to develop learning habits or Art Costa’s ‘ habits of mind’. Whichever we choose we know that, throughout the use of strong CPD and incremental shifts in practice in the classroom, we grow and develop learners with the right personal attributes and learning dispositions. At the end of 15 years of education in our schools we want learners to emerge inquisitive and resilient and with a craftsman-like approach to high quality work. If we put this alongside the ideas of Matthew Syed (Bounce) we could create a revolution in our school in what we value. Talk about who are the ‘best practisers’ whatever the starting point, and cancel G&T work?
Step 10: Excellence – Part of challenging and changing the dominant culture around us is our role in creating schools which value the ability to peer deep into the well of knowledge, dig deeper and develop time-taking excellence. Daisy Christodoulou argues that we have lost the joy of facts and the learning of stuff which is still exciting, not something to shy away from and not something that google has a monopoly on. When flow is happening and where beautiful work is being produced and where children are intensely proud of their work then there is a sense of awe, the enjoyment of autonomy and pride in the final assignment, the finished article, the fourth draft of the poem, the completed DT model, the perfectly-topped pizza, the dance performance honed for the parents coming in. There is a sense of “I couldn’t possibly do better than this”. This is what we need to create. Not much leadership time is spent sitting with children to praise and challenge them around what quality looks like, to ask where their finest work is and where they need to redouble their efforts. Let’s prioritise leadership & teaching strategies towards what will craft towards excellence as a product. Exam results, university entrance and our position in PISA tables matter, but these are part of the ‘back end’ of our educational processes (Michael Fullan). Excellence and mastery is the front end, and more attention needs to be focused there by us all.