Every learning organisation has a culture. This forms an underlying set of values and ways of doing things which determines how practice is maintained, and changes resisted or embraced. This culture changes slowly over time and resides in the experience and experiences of staff and other significant stakeholders in the organisation.
A wise leader, before embarking on significant changes, would do well to ensure they understand the cultural drivers of the particular school for these may accelerate, or hinder the pace and direction of change.
In the short term, and this is most apparent in those schools which are led by a so-called ‘Superhead’ the underlying culture can be overridden in the short term by a command and demand economy, or a bullying personality. Initiatives built by such methods do not prosper over the long term as the underlying culture re-emerges. It is fortunate that the ‘Superhead’ seldom stays long enough in the school to witness the unravelling of their short term expedient programmes, but moves on to cast their ‘decisive’ leadership that ‘brooks no nonsense’ elsewhere. In this context the term ‘brooks no nonsense’ is synonymous with ‘autocratic’.
The second element a wise leader must encompass is the wide range of existing experience and expertise held by the staff.
Without acknowledging this, the headteacher risks starting each new initiative from a blank sheet of paper and in a discrete and free standing format. The result is that the teachers are overwhelmed by a tsunami of initiatives which bloat their workload.
The Headteacher loves to start from a blank sheet. This approach has the benefit of making the new initiative uncontaminated from what has gone before. For the staff, this merely dilutes their energies, overwhelms their creative capacities and gives their daily life in school a bewildering discontinuity. They are left trying to service a multitude of seemingly random and demanding independent initiatives which have no coherence or economies of scale and which pull them in different directions using different methodologies and key performance indicators. The result is sub-optimal performance.
Some pre-planning by the Headteacher could avoid this, bring a structured coherence to the development priorities of the school and work with the grain of existing knowledge and culture.
Prior to setting off on a new initiative the Headteacher would do well to evaluate how the proposed initiative relates to existing priorities and were efficiencies and effectiveness can be enhanced by mapping it against existing priorities and structures. This mapping exercise will also ensure that the new initiative is relevant and congruent with existing priorities.
The really wise educational leader will also take this opportunity to audit workload and decide which previous initiative/projects have either run their course, met their goals, or are now redundant. Deleting old initiatives and requirements on staff is as important in the momentum and direction of the school as introducing new initiatives.
In a rigid school structure, leadership of a new initiative is usually decided by position in the school hierarchy. The senior leadership team will hold close to them the most important developments, retaining both accountability and responsibility. Unfortunately, this makes most staff feel that initiatives are things ‘done’ to them rather than being joint improvement endeavours.
In more enlightened schools, the senior leaders, whilst holding ultimate accountability for the success and direction and momentum of the school, delegate the running of projects to teams with either particular experiences, or the ability to mentor others, or the need to build their professional development experiences. However, this approach assumes that the senior leadership team have an up to date map of the experiences of their teaching staff. Such a document seldom exists.
Many schools will have experienced recent major building work and will have come into contact with project planning methodologies used to bring in complex projects by architects and builders. Although the whole methodology embodied in such planning methodologies as PRINCE2 are instructive to educators, the terms of reference of delegation are particularly useful for schools.
They state that each element of a project has a set objective and timeframe to be achieved. The success of the element depends on other tasks being completed to time and budget – these are called, not surprisingly, dependencies. The whole element can therefore be encompassed in what is called the SCOPE. As long as the element of the project remains in scope, the named person entrusted with delivering the element is delegated to proceed using agreed methods or being able to improvise and innovate to achieve the key performance elements of the element of the project.
To ensure the element is progressing to plan, there are regular reporting sessions were progress is monitored and any successes celebrated, or shortcomings remediated. As well as these regular monitoring sessions, it is incumbent that the person who is entrusted and therefore ‘owns’ the element of the project must report where the project element moves ‘out of scope’. Moving out of scope occurs when the project element exceeds agreed boundaries. In a building context, these are usually time or cost, whereas in school the boundaries will be related to staff performance over time and a combination of cost and time.
To return to the earlier concern about the existing expertise of staff, technology allows for this information to be gathered very efficiently through an online questionnaire. Schools might already have this facility in their online learning platform; alternatively they could use a commercially supplied tool like Survey Monkey.
Setting the questionnaire up is simple, but having the conversation to determine the key questions and range of responses requires substantial thought if the ensuing data is to be valid and comprehensive for the selected purpose.
Once set up the questionnaire can have a start and completion date of say, two working weeks, so that staff can time shift when they can do it to match their available time. Most survey tools allow you to interrogate the information down to a granular level. This means that a cleverly constructed questionnaire can function as both a Current State Analysis (CSA) of the circumstances of the whole school and as a Training Needs Analysis (TNA) of the training requirements of individual staff, and those within your staff team most proficient to develop and deliver training, mentoring and other professional development needs.
David has a teaching and leadership career in rural, suburban and inner-city schools. His has delivered national and international development including working with NASA Astronauts to Building Schools for the Future to serving on the Children’s Society Commission for Birmingham. See details of David’s book at uked.chat/schoolproof.