Slow leadership in mad times

If you work in a school I’m probably safe in saying you are working too hard and doing too many things. Whilst this might appear harsh, you are probably not doing all these things as well as you could leading to reduced impact. Even worse you possibly haven’t spent enough time thinking, in the first instance, about whether all the things you are doing are likely to have a significant impact.

This isn’t just a problem in schools it can afflict many public services and private businesses. Too many people are working, and in some cases essentially living, in an organisation where busyness, for its own sake, is seen as a virtue. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman ( explains his theory about two modes of thought; System 1 (fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious) and System 2 (slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious). While System 1 helps us survive in the jungle it is arguably System 2 which is of greater benefit in addressing complex issues.

To what extent are teachers and leaders working in survival mode? Operating in a fast-moving frenetic environment with System 1 thinking and flight, fright or fight actions and reactions occurring all over the school. It’s time to slow down or the current madness and contradictions which exist in our Education System will wear you down.

Teachers and leaders aren’t being helped by the contrary and contradictory practices currently circulating around the World of Education. Take for example the vexed issue of teacher supply. At a time it’s generally recognised that we are going to have significant shortages, many of us think a crisis is a better description, we learn that Cambridge & Oxford University will close their History PGCE courses. More universities will be forced to stop recruiting onto their PGCE courses to ensure more teachers are trained in schools. Artificial limits at a time of a pending recruitment crisis seem madness. I wonder how long before universities just throw their arms up in the air and close all their PGCE courses as they can’t cope with the uncertainty. A bit of extra teacher supply in the system might be quite a good thing for pupils as schools will have a choice of candidates to fill any vacancy; an increasing rarity in some subjects and parts of the country.

Modern foreign languages don’t escape the confusion. Primary schools are required to teach a modern foreign language though, in what many people think of as an English speaking World, they can choose which one; serendipity will play a larger part than strategy. Cue eleven years old turning up at their secondary school some with a smattering of Mandarin Chinese, others French, German or Spanish plus some with no language experience or poor literacy only for secondary schools to be forced to ignore the lot and start again. The EBacc will attempt to make languages a common experience for 14-16 years old students, been here before, only for a lack of teachers and too many unwilling teenagers to make the experience painful for teachers and pupils alike. Post-16 Modern Foreign Language numbers are too low and there is nothing happening to change this. No other high performing country seems to only think about imposing a curriculum from 14-16 which academies can ignore anyway. Where have all the students who had compulsory MFL up to 2004 gone? They will be in their late 20s and certainly haven’t gone into teaching in any large numbers.

In terms of accountability and autonomy, academies are not required to follow the National Curriculum including the EBacc, yet will have key performance indicators published on the EBacc ascribed to their school. It is like being prosecuted for a law that doesn’t apply to you. Are we autonomous or not? Ofsted has been shown to be unable to recognise a school on the cusp of anything, admitted that judgements favour affluent schools with able pupils and with the DfE and Regional Schools Commissioners all wanting to look hard on standards, whilst doing little to improve them, workload and unjust damning judgements are forcing people, we can ill afford to lose, out of the profession. The increasingly important issue of Safeguarding against abuse and extremism is checked spasmodically and years apart instead of being an ongoing annual audit process.

On funding, don’t go there. Schools were supposed to be protected in cash terms so I had been working on an 8-10% real-terms reduction only to find the Education Support Grant, about £140,000 for our Trust’s academies, wasn’t included in their promise. Fairer funding will probably come to our rescue but as we go up I’m conscious another school will take an even bigger hit. It’s always darkest before dawn.

Time to slow down; if you were to list all the objectives and time-consuming actions you are currently engaged with and give them a score out of ten – one means unlikely to have a significant impact on the learning, care, guidance or support of pupils or staff and ten means massive impact (pulling on the data, feedback, research and experience to support this judgement) - how many would score a 9 or 10 out of ten? If it’s not a 9 or 10 out of ten it’s a no.

Now imagine crossing off all the objectives and time-consuming actions that scored eight or less from your list. If this is too scary for you, rather than liberating, write them on another piece of paper but ignore them. Go back to your original list and the few items which scored a 9 or 10 out of ten; genuinely and truthfully assess which ones you have time to implement or do this year and do very well so they have the impact required. Each of these items is likely to have a number of strands so be realistic. Which ones could wait a year or even two? I know they’re all important but you can’t do everything well so doing some well is preferential to wasting time doing many things badly. If one thing will improve my leadership, this is the 10 out of ten one on my leadership list, it would be to slow down and focus on doing less better.

Unless you work in a school that is in total chaos is it time to move from System 1 Running Around Like a Headless Chicken Leadership to System 2 Let’s Build Slowly and have Real Sustainable Impact Leadership?

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 free Edition of UKEdMagazine

Stephen is on twitter as @LeadingLearner and his blog can be found at Formerly Headteacher of St. Mary’s in Blackpool for fourteen years, he is currently Executive Director of the MAT consisting of two primary and a secondary academy - Christ the King, St. Cuthbert’s & St. Mary’s Catholic Academies. He chairs the SSAT Vision 2040 Group.

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