Maintaining Outstanding by @fulbridge_acad

Last year four of us, myself, the Deputy Head, Assistant Head and the Upper Key Stage 2 Leader went to a conference organised by the Peterborough Learning Partnership in conjunction with a company called Smarties (not the sweets!). It turned out to be a very good day with Sir John Jones, an exceptionally good speaker, as the Key-Note speaker. For the rest of the day I chose to listen to a speaker called Lindy Barclay who led a school to four successive ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted inspections. In her three sessions she looked at maintaining an Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ judgement. We were so impressed with her input that we are hoping to see if she will present at a Professional training day at Fulbridge. I will summarise some of the points made throughout the day by these two speakers.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by @fulbridge_acad and published with kind permission.

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Characteristics of outstanding school leaders:

  • They are always keen to learn; they do not believe they know it all.
  • They are humble and give credit to their staff.
  • They are thinkers; they try to figure things out.
  • They are passionate about the power of education to do good.
  • They are focussed and clear about what their schools stand for.
  • They are funny; they have a fine sense of humour.
  • They are often critical of government education policies but are determined to steer their way through them.
  • They maintain an astonishing level of optimism.
  • They have the qualities of resilience, aspiration and a determination to deliver.
  • They are immensely proud of their schools and their pupils.

I would add four more: 1.They base things on proven educational research.  2. They commit themselves to have the difficult/courageous conversations when they are needed.   3. They are a role model for good practice.  4. They have very high expectations of not just the pupils but staff as well.

Seems a pretty good list and at least a great starting point to stimulate other ideas.

We discussed what an outstanding lesson looked like and Lindy focussed us on three key factors:

  1. Exceptional Engagement
  2. Exceptional Progress
  3. Exceptional Judgement

To attain these three things in a lesson I suggested that the lessons needed 20% adult input and 80% child input. Teachers often find this challenging as we were mostly taught in classes that had the opposite ratio. However for outstanding lessons in todays educational world the former ratio is needed. AfL strategies are an important factor in successful lessons as is the presence of sharp questioning. An easy way to improve your questioning is to always answer a child’s question with another question, not the answer, as this makes them do the work! Other key factors from Lindy were: feedback, differentiation, group work, independent learning, challenge and choice. Once again a great starting point for discussions. One thing is for sure, the sharing of good practice between staff is crucial. In addition to this I share Lindy’s view that you can see, feel and hear an outstanding lesson within minutes of entering the room, there is a buzz and a feel to great lessons that hangs in the air.

Ofsted judge schools on four key areas: Achievement of pupils, the quality of teaching, the quality of leadership and management and the standards of behaviour and safety. You cannot really argue with those as judgement areas, as schools we want to be good or outstanding in all those areas but all of them rely on one of them, the leadership and management, as L:indy said, ‘All roads lead to the Leadership Team.’ I will come back to leadership shortly.

There were lots of ideas about what an outstanding school looks like, here are some of them: clean, tidy, colourful, fresh displays relevant to improving learning, stimulating classrooms, uncluttered, laid out to encourage collaborative learning, well resourced classrooms to encourage independent learning, a welcoming atmosphere, photographs of children everywhere,  celebration of pupil’s work and motivational displays on progress and learning.

Other factors revolved around what an outstanding school sounds like: busy, pupils buzzing, purposeful chatter, pupils asking good questions, happy feel – laughter and smiling faces. An outstanding school is also well ordered, enjoys mutual respect throughout the school community, there are clear and fair rules that are implemented by the whole school community and it is a safe, happy and positively challenging place to be in.

These ideas are well worth sharing with the whole staff as it is, as Lindy says, very important that the whole staff understands what ‘outstanding’ looks like at every level and they must own the agreed formula for outstanding. Everyone must be involved in the process, for as the Chinese proverb says: ‘None of us are as smart as all of us.’ Heads cannot escape their overall responsibility but you cannot do it all, especially in the world and the educational world we now live in with so much accountability and complexity. As Tim Brighouse said, ‘Leadership is not a singular activity, it has to be shared.’

An interesting idea that Lindy suggested is that, ‘The more power you give away, the more power you have.’ You must empower your staff with significant tasks.  Outstanding schools have highly engaged and motivated staff. Of course a key factor for success, as a Head, is to appoint and surround yourself with great people. Leading a school  has to be a team effort and if it is it creates ownership, engagement and in the long run a wider sharing of accountability, though this takes longer, as well as leadership. We are almost there at Fulbridge, though some have not yet wanted to fully grasp the accountability aspect. People may fight shy of this because they always want to refer things on through lack of expertise or confidence or through thinking it’s not and should not be their responsibility.

Many staff as leaders cannot get beyond the fact that they never want to upset anyone, keep everyone happy and both miss the point that it is about gaining everyones respect by making the right moral decision based on the needs of staff, children or the community. Some staff cannot see beyond their own personal needs, cannot get to grips with the bigger picture, some are just simply out for themselves, and have not got that quality of ubuntu, that wonderful African word that I referred to in this Blog, earlier in the year, when I wrote an entry after the death of Nelson Mandela.

In some ways the leader who wants to be liked can do as much harm as the dictator who must make all the decisions and does not trust others to get it right. The need to be liked can often lead to decisions being made for totally the wrong reasons, whereas the dictator may think their decisions are at least right for the school, but what they fail to recognise is that others often do know better. Maybe they simply cannot cope with others knowing better or they see themselves as the ‘oracle’ that knows all, has all the answers, after all they are ‘The Head’ in their minds. In these cases perhaps leadership is all about power and control and this is more important to some people than the greater good. Perhaps a lack of emotional intelligence seems to be a common factor in both these types of leader?

Leaders of outstanding schools must be prepared to have ‘difficult conversations’ when things are not going well, they must rigorously challenge under-performance and have high expectations of all in the school community. You want staff and leaders who always believe there’s room for improvement and want to try! As leaders you cannot however suddenly start having ‘courageous conversations’ without having the school ethos in place to have them, we do not want collisions or surprises, a difficult conversation will be, for the majority of situations, on the back of a well-planned process where everyone involved knows what is going on and where it is possibly leading to. However as Tim Brighouse says, ‘It does not matter how good leadership is if the players are not playing well.’ As Head and as leaders you have to ensure all the players are playing well and you must provide good support with regard to in-service training and sometimes just appropriate advice. If you say nothing you are in effect condoning what they are doing, again the leader who wants to be liked often fails to deal with these situations. Outstanding leaders deal with poor players but they do not pretend that they know it all either. Sometimes the poor players will have to be transferred and find another team, where they may do well or in some cases find another sport to take up, that is suited to their own particular strengths. Jim Collins has a lovely analogy; first you must get the right people on the bus, then get them in the right seats and finally get the wrong staff off the bus!

To achieve outstanding leadership in an outstanding school, I come back to the point that you need outstanding leadership and that’s not just the Head, Deputy and Assistant Head, it is all in a leadership role. First and foremost a leader must keep hope alive and be, at times, irrationally positive. Outstanding leaders see change as positive, we have to deal with a lot of changes. There are Ofsted and Government changes, changes to staffing, changes in your catchment area, pupil mobility etc etc, but the leader must be ‘a perpetual guiding star on the horizon.’ (Jim Collins) Since I have moved to a distributed leadership model and learnt the value of delegation and its benefits it has allowed me to lead rather than manage and be that guiding star as I have more time to research and reflect/evaluate, keeping an eye on the whole picture, not bogged down in jobs that others are fully capable or doing and will do better than I can! This means I have a clear picture of what matters for our school and means that with all my accumulated experience can adapt some initiatives and discard others in line with our school’s core purpose, ethos, values and needs. Heads must always devise an approach, a curriculum that addresses the needs of the school and it’s community that you serve.

Heads more than other leaders in the school have this unique perspective as they strive to improve the quality learning experiences the children get, raise achievement and accelerate progress, so improving the life chances of all their pupils. As Steve Munby describes, the Head tells the school’s story, constantly coming back to the core purpose and values. As Lindy puts it, as Head, you are the number one communicator and face to face communication is vital, especially in an educational world where emails and other on line communication systems, although vital for effective communication, could take over completely. The personal touch is still so important and of course has a bigger impact. As Lindy, once again put it, so well, ‘Many organisations are over-communicating and under-conversing.’ We all thrive on face to face contact!

I have written before in this Blog my view, shared with Tim Brighouse, that leaders must be visible, communicating by walking around their school empire and role modelling what they are passionate about. A parent the other day complimented me on picking up litter, which he had seen me do a lot, it may seem a minor thing but I know the staff and the children see me do it as well, it sends out a strong message and that approach to an issue can be applied in so many different ways throughout a school’s daily life from the smile and the ‘good morning’ to the way you talk to staff and children and the importance you put on presentation, to the quality of an assembly …… you can go on. In other words simply practice what you preach and of course be careful what you do preach! Most days I probably deal with issues from the caretaker, the office staff, the kitchen staff, the cleaners, the parents, the children, the staff, the Governors and so on and so on. Everyone’s concern or compliment is important and deserves to be listened to and acted upon if it is so warranted. As a school leader and again perhaps uniquely as Head you are ultimately responsible for all that happens in the school. I am careful not to say ‘my school’ for it is never ‘your’ school as Head, you are care-taking it and looking after it but it ‘belongs’ to the community it serves.

Any Hind, an educational speaker, first introduced me to the idea of ‘looking in the mirror, before you look out of the window,’ and I cannot count how many times I have used that phrase, followed it or pointed out its value to others. You can use it as a member of staff when addressing issues like poor behaviour or a poor lesson but as  a Head you also must look in the mirror when things are not going well for the school as a whole and look out of the window to others when things do go well. A Head or a leader, like a classroom teacher must not blame everything else except themselves and as we are now, as an Academy, supporting other schools who are seen as having failed and need support, this seems to be one of the common denominators, amongst others, for why they are not doing well. You cannot get away from the fact that if you choose to be a leader you will have to deal effectively with difficult people and situations.

Outstanding leaders must have unwarranted optimism in the difficult/challenging situations, they must have an unrelenting belief in the ability of all pupils to succeed and must create a winning team of staff that signs up to these beliefs. Being part of a dysfunctional team is energy sapping and depressing, so it is important to cherish your staff and support them until they prove that they really cannot do the job of course. Outstanding schools have a united work force, at our last Ofsted the inspector who held support staff interviews said it was the first time he had not found himself either in the middle of a moaning session or had to deal with complaints about the teachers and the leadership. The school community needs to be part of a shared and cherished ethos, everyone ‘on the same page’ particularly with respect to the core issues of teaching and learning and leadership and management. Staff take their lead from the leaders, so the leaders must demonstrate unity, optimism and belief in the staff and children. The most successful schools have 100% commitment to the team that is their school. When it is like this a school can be a truly rewarding place to be and schools will of course perform best when there is a high degree of trust and clear shared goals. Finally a thought on this issue: ‘It is amazing how much you can accomplish when it does not matter who gets the credit.’

At Fulbridge we often refer to ‘The Fulbridge Way’, which is in effect a lot of little things that have built up over the years to be all the little cogs that we know has led to our success. Staff have been part of this process in terms of ownership but a challenge comes for new staff when they join us as there is so much to learn and they have not been part of the learning and creation process. It is then a challenge for the way we do things not to be seen as a top-down model. As we are a creative school on all levels, I believe we have enough flexibility outside our core beliefs and ways that allow staff to develop and further contribute to our ‘Fulbridge-Way’.

If I were to list six core beliefs/factors at Fulbridge that are integral to us being outstanding, they would be: 1. Effective relationships. 2. Positive attitude of mind. 3. Creating a beautiful environment for learning. 4. Staff commitment to the cause. 5. High quality staff and expertise. 6. High expectations of children and staff.

What kind of staff do we want to appoint to the Fulbridge Academy? Sir John Jones, listed these traits and I cannot disagree: 1. Passion. 2. Wisdom (emotional intelligence). 3. Righteous indignation. 4. Relentless pursuit of excellence.

When a member of staff enters the room, does the room light up or when they leave the room, is that when the room lights up? We want staff who paint a picture of success in all they do for that will dictate their performance as will the teacher who paints a picture of failure. In outstanding lessons  Sir John Jones describes the children as totally engaged, at the edge  and enjoying what they are doing, which is very similar to Lindy Barclays earlier description of outstanding teachers. Outstanding teachers have the personal loyalty of the pupils, the children know they are liked and they know they are expected to do their best and that the learning will be challenging.

Anyway, enough of this, what a long Blog, but that is simply a reflection of how good the day’s training was and how I wish all the staff had been there to hear such good input.

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