Education, leadership, staff wellbeing, teaching

I will add to this blog on a regular basis over the next few weeks. I will be tweeting my additions at @PRadfordSpeaker on Twitter. Please follow me there:  but I will also keep adding them here so that it’s easy to see the thread. Please post your responses/ comments on twitter.

My hope is that this time of confinement might prove a long-overdue opportunity to re-think what we are doing in schools and how we are going about it. The education system is ripe for change and it’s down to no-one but us to change it. We are responsible. We are the ones in front of students every day. We can change what we do, how we do it and build a better future.

Doing School Differently

One. Start with the end in mind. What are we trying to achieve in education? When was the last time you and your team or staff gave time to paint a clear, vivid picture of what the aims of the education we offer are? Because it’s not to ‘get to outstanding’ nor to achieve your best GCSE results ever. These are by-products that we will never achieve unless we have our focus right. The focus has to be each child.

Start with a blank piece of paper, draw a human outline on it, then imagine what you want that child to be and be like by the time they finish in your care. Post your thoughts here when you’re done. Once we have clarity about what we are aiming at we will be in a much better position to map out a coherent plan of how to get there!

Once you’ve done that, take a look at the goals of education as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child Article 29

Again – thoughts??

TWO. Establish a Rights Respecting foundation for everything you do. The Unicef Rights Respecting School Award is the single best vehicle for school improvement I have come across. It provides a coherent, unifying framework for a holistic approach to education that places the rights of the child at the centre. This is not a bolt-on or ‘another thing’, this is an underpinning rationale for the way we do education.

“Our Rights Respecting Schools Award embeds these values in daily school life and gives children the best chance to lead happy, healthy lives and to be responsible, active citizens.” (Unicef)

As an Assessor for Unicef, and having led two schools to achieve the award, I can testify to the impact of a Rights Respecting approach. Find out more at https://www.unicef.org.uk/rights-respecting-schools/

THREE. The first responsibility of leaders is the staff & colleagues you lead. This is a mind shift. Your role as a leader is to create the conditions and context for your brilliant team of teachers and support staff to do their best work. THEY will make your school brilliant, not you. I truly believe that the Headteacher’s job is to lead the teachers and staff not the school. A school is not a thing by itself, it is primarily a community of people united by a common purpose. The teaching and support staff are THE critical factors in delivering and providing an excellent education, They need to be unleashed not controlled, trusted not judged, enabled not exploited.

All the brilliant school improvement schemes in the world will fail if your team are not equipped, enthused and on board. To borrow from the world of business: “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” -Richard Branson. The same applies in school.

FOUR. Get your philosophy right. Freud said, “We bleed our beliefs through every pore.” The schools we build will reflect our core values. WB Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.” Not new, but these two contrasting approaches to education will profoundly affect what we build and the way we go about building it. Personally I subscribe to the second: education is lighting a fire. Here’s an idea for a staff or department meeting: what does this mean? What would ‘lighting a fire’ mean in your subject area, with the students you teach? How could we do this more effectively?

Currently, in Coronavirus lockdown, what would this mean for our online lessons? What could you get your students doing and thinking about that would ignite something different and novel and innovative? What about getting them to write in and suggest projects for the next month? Then help them set the parameters and success criteria and see what happens? Don’t start with the spec and ask, what do I need to deliver? Start with the child and ask what will ignite some passion?

FIVE. Let’s decide from the outset to build a school culture based on trust. Trust is enabling. No-one does their best work if they are fearful, insecure or feeling judged. This doesn’t mean abandoning accountability. It means that we fundamentally believe in people and expect them to do their best work rather than fundamentally doubting them and expecting them to ‘get away with what they can’. No teacher comes to school to do a rubbish job.

The same is true of our students. We believe in them and invest in them and tell them what they are capable of and nurture them towards that goal and when they feel like they can’t do something, we big them up and encourage them and tell them they can. How is it that so much leadership in schools doesn’t apply the same principles to leading their staff teams. I know of so many teachers who feel like school is trying to ‘catch them out’ such that they never feel like the job they do is good enough. It is utterly debilitating and counter-productive.

SIX. Build student voice and staff voice into the heart of your school systems. When people feel listened to they feel valued and affirmed and they engage more. But in many schools strong and effective mechanisms for allowing people to have their say are seen as an added bonus rather than as central to the way we operate. This means turning top-down leadership structures on their head and starting with the people we are aiming to serve.

The language of politics in this regard is useful (even if it is not always lived out) – a leader is a minister – literally a  servant. At the heart of the democratic idea is the act of listening to the people and serving their needs. We could take this idea much more seriously in schools. The greatest psychological insult you can pay anyone is to ignore them. It says, “You don’t matter.” How about building decision making systems that truly allow real consultation to occur? Would that not provide brilliant hands-on experience for students in readiness for leading in their future workplaces? What are we currently modelling to the leaders of the future?

SEVEN. Let’s decide to begin experimenting with ways to seriously measure progress other than exam results. We know that academic progress is not the only measure of success but until we measure other things we won’t improve them. Things like self discipline, empathy, communication skills, grit, EQ, intitiative, leadership, interpersonal skills etc. These are all essentials. Not add-ons.

The education we provide will inevitably take the shape of what we measure. As long as we let narrow academic progress measures drive what we do we will have a deficient education system. This does not mean abandoning or ignoring academic progress, but at some point we need to try out some robust ways to measure all the other aspects of school life and student development.

EIGHT. How about rethinking everything we do in relation to these five elements of education. See my Wheel of Education below.

If these things aren’t held in balance then the whole thing stalls. My proposal is that we begin to seriously measure progress in each of these areas and re-shape what we do to ensure that there is robust, innovative provision in each of these five areas.

Every one of these ‘spokes’ is essential to the future success and flourishing of our students. Not one of them is peripheral or less important than another.

NINE. Provide proper leadership training and ongoing leadership CPD to all your middle and senior leaders. Your people are your future. These people are the ones who nurture and develop everyone else. People leave bosses not jobs – loads of evidence to prove it. I have yet to meet anyone in school leadership, middle or senior who had some proper leadership training when they took on a leadership role.

Middle leaders are perhaps the most stretched individuals in schools – pulled from both sides – and usually with a hefty teaching load too. Yet these brilliant people are the key to everything else. Listening to, looking after and developing them is the most important thing senior leadership can do. Of course, I would question the inherent hierarchy in the terms ‘senior’ and ‘middle’ and suggest that there is a better way. But that’s for another day…

TEN. Become a ROWE: a Results Only Work Environment. Determine to measure performance on the outcome not the process. There are million ways to skin a cat: being overly prescriptive about the way you want it done will undermine motivation and impair the outcome. It’s not whether homework is set according to the homework timetable, it’s whether the homework aids learning and leads to progress. It’s not how many hours are spent on site, it’s what is accomplished during the hours on site. The same principle holds with regard to a  thousand different school activities.

Allow as much freedom and autonomy as you possibly can about the way things are done and focus instead on outcomes. If someone can come up with a smarter, quicker and more effective way of doing something then let’s allow them to run with that and share it. People are intrinsically motivated by what they feel they have control over.

ELEVEN. Deliberately foster diversity in your teams. Diversity doesn’t simply refer to gender or ethnicity but much more broadly to people who think differently or have diverse backgrounds and experience. Matthew Syed’s book Rebel Ideas demonstrates brilliantly how impoverished we are when we do not embrace diverse thinking. We necessarily suffer from ‘perspective blindness’ – we see the world a certain way because we cannot see it any other way. We are prisoners to our own perspective… until, that is we listen to and engage with someone who sees the world (or education) from a different perspective.

An education that is truly inclusive and forward thinking will never be achieved by a bunch of white, educated, middle class, middle aged educators. We need to drastically improve our breadth and consult meaningfully and regularly with people from outside the bubble. “A mind that has once expanded to embrace a new thought can never again shrink back to its former dimensions.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr).

TWELVE. Recognise that ALL BEHAVIOUR IS COMMUNICATION. Apply this principle to both staff and students. Then treat the cause not the symptom. If a child is late to school they are communicating something. It’s our job as teachers to identify whether it is because they are disorganised or that they are disengaged with school or that they are struggling to cope in a dysfunctional home situation. Each of these causes require a different response. Arguably none of them will be addressed effectively by placing them in a detention.

Equally, when a teacher is ‘underperforming’ there will be a reason. It maybe a skill deficit – in which case address that with training and coaching, but it may well be their mental health, their marriage or a disillusionment with the education system. Again – all of these reasons will require a different and appropriate response from leadership. Which will hardly ever be the threat of capability procedures. We must categorically and finally abandon a one size fits all approach to behaviour and progress in our school systems.

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