Encouraging innovation…by @MaximJKelly

“Listen to anyone with an original idea, no matter how absurd it may sound at first. If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.”

William McKnight
Businessman, philanthropist (1887-1978)

If there is one thing I have come to realise in headship it is that you can’t do it all by yourself. Surrounding yourself with the very best people is a start – but getting the very best from the very best requires an atmosphere and culture of trust to develop.

As the new calendar year dawned and the Spring Term commenced I gathered the staff together from both of my schools to introduce my Innovation Recognition Scheme which I intended to roll out across the federation.

I used the meeting to talk earnestly to my team about our federation and all we had achieved since its inception just 18 months ago. In that time we had redeveloped our senior leadership structure, aligned some core policies and procedures, collaborated across the school on pupil learning opportunities and staff projects and set up a steering group of staff from both schools to help with the logistics and organisation of the federation.

When our federation was first mooted, my SLT and I visited some federated schools in the UK to see them in action and to learn as much as possible in advance of our own foray into this space. It seemed very much to me that we had managed to reach a similar state to these federations in a relatively short period of time and mirrored a lot of what we had seen as “advantages” of the model: joint staff meetings, inter-school moderation, linking up of activities, developing policy, greater opportunity to maximize resources across the schools and achieving more from our budgets.

Now the opportunity was there to embed and consolidate this state of affairs – and although I recognised the value and importance of that, for me, it was not enough. I didn’t want to be just “another federation.”

We are the only federation of schools in the Isle of Man: that’s exciting and that is a real opportunity. I felt that in order to take maximum advantage of this opportunity I needed to let the staff know, that whilst I had never thought they’d really been on, the shackles were well and truly off.

Those who have read my musings on Twitter and in my other blogs will know that I have advocated for a long time a different approach to the notion of school improvement. School improvement doesn’t just happen because something is on the school improvement plan. It happens when staff chat over a cup of coffee in the staff room about something they’re keen to try when staff read about something interesting and decide to explore it further in their own practice, when staff visit other schools and settings to observe and reflect on what is going on. In short, it happens when staff try something different.

My message to my staff was simple. I wanted to encourage innovation – encourage things that are completely new, completely different. And I wanted to encourage that innovation against the backdrop of opportunity that federation allowed.

I urged my staff to take a risk. After all, what is the worst thing that could happen? It doesn’t work? Well, fine, we’ve still learned something and that is useful in its own right. And in trying something new and taking a risk, drop something else that isn’t working for you or isn’t contributing to children’s learning. The Innovation Recognition Scheme is not about increasing workload. Or trying to squeeze more from my staff – it’s about getting them to think outside of the box and find better ways of working and helping children to learn.

To that end, I made clear that there was no set format or structure for how innovation was to be planned. Some staff might produce an action plan, some a drawing or diagram. Others may scribble their thoughts on the back of an envelope – it doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that they can demonstrate they have given it some thought and feel motivated to give it a go. I promised that if the staff could present their ideas in a way that was clear and logical they would be given the green light to proceed.

I offered a couple of examples of ideas that I had had. This was tricky and I thought long and hard about whether or not to share example ideas. I didn’t want to appear so vague so as to confuse everybody (“well what sort of ideas does he want!?”) but nor did I want to frame those ideas in a boxed-off way and pigeonhole expectations into a certain direction. In the end, I suggested:

  • Staff taking PPA on the other site to which they normally worked, for no other reason than establishing a regular presence in the other building, developing a rapport with their sister-site colleagues and maybe absorbing the positives from the other school in a really relaxed and informal way
  • Cross-school interphase moderation in the years when the school is not selected for external moderation by the authority
  • Establishing a federation pupil voice body with a focus on learning – learning detectives in lessons and feeding back to teachers…
  • Staff swap day / week – go and work on the other site for a day or a week
  • Developing a student-produced community newsletter with pupils from both schools and published for the wider community

None of my “suggestions” were fleshed out ideas and none carried a list of possible outcomes and impacts. They were simply provided as a stimulus to inspire the staff team – if nothing else, to inspire them to think of bigger, better and more innovative ideas than mine! In fact, when I reflect back on my list of ideas I’m disappointed at how small and ordinary they appear.

Since launching the Recognition Scheme several ideas (really good ideas!) have already started to come streaming in – and staff appear energized and eager to give things a go. Part of the appeal has been the explicit reassurance that the initiative is not timebound. There is no expectation that everyone will have a new idea by Monday and will have given it a go by the end of the term. Innovation doesn’t work like that and ideas aren’t sought for the sake of ideas. When an idea comes along – be it today or in two years time – it needs to come from insight and experience. Taking away a time pressure has definitely contributed to the sense that this is part of a shifting culture rather than a quick sprint change of no real substance.

The next step is to begin giving the go-ahead to these ideas and letting them take shape. After all, I don’t want to be surrounded by sheep in my federation. I’d much rather be surrounded by rabbits!

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”

John Steinbeck
Author (1902-68)

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About maximjkelly 9 Articles
I am the Executive Headteacher of two schools in the Isle of Man (Dhoon School and Laxey School) which form the Laxey / Dhoon Federation. The schools are on the mid to north east coast of the Isle of Man and are roughly 5 miles apart.

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