I have had the privilege of appointing two new members of my senior team in recent weeks. What does a headteacher tell you before you start the job? Well, this is my opening gambit which I share by way of providing an insight into how you might start to induct a new senior leader. It is particular to my way of managing a team and to my school so may not be to your taste. However, here it is.
Congratulations on your appointment. I am so pleased that you will be joining us.
Appointing new members of the senior leadership team always makes me reflect on the sort of people we need to continue to improve the school. It also makes me think again about how this improvement takes place. By way of ‘induction’ to your new role, I will set out some thoughts on these matters. I hope that by doing so you will start to get a sense of what being a senior leader at this school is about.
You may be wondering what got you the job. Obviously, I wanted someone with the right skills and experience for the role you have been appointed to. But just as important to me are your values, your approach, and your disposition. It is the latter that got you appointed in truth. I believe that what you do as a school leader is important, but also (perhaps more so) how you do it.
What makes an effective senior leader?
There probably isn’t a generic answer to this. However, I can tell you what I think effective senior leaders tend to do and what I think works better in the context of this school.
Context is important. I suggest getting to know the school and the people in it as quickly as possible. Schools have particular ways of doing things – some of which are helpful and some which need to change – and understanding how things get done is essential if you’re going to ‘get things done’. Successful senior leaders are in tune with the school’s ways of working (and not working). Getting to know the people in the school is also important. After all, what mechanisms are there to improve a school that don’t involve the people within it? But I suspect you already know this.
And this brings me on to relational trust. Trust is a tricky concept and easy to over complicate, but it is important that people who work together trust each other. I like the work of Vivianne Robinson who focuses on how people interact when they are trying to solve educational problems. Vivianne talks about ‘open to learn’ conversations whereby each party seeks to understand each other’s beliefs and reasons for their actions. Senior leaders make assumptions about why things are the way they are, about peoples’ motivations, and about the ‘best’ solution. In my experience, these assumptions are often incorrect. If you treat problem solving conversations as opportunities to test your assumptions, you not only improve the validity of your beliefs, but you also build trust. Effective senior leaders solve educational problems whilst building relational trust, not by eroding it.
Solving problems is at the core of school leadership. I use the term ‘problem’ not in a negative sense but to mean any instance where there is a gap between the actual and desired state of affairs. For example, how can we make the school safer for students or how can we improve teaching? Effective senior leaders adopt a positive mindset towards problems (like tackling a difficult crossword). What makes it difficult to do so, however, is that most educational problems are never ‘solved’. They are persistent. They are also often fiendishly complex. Senior leaders must come to terms with the persistence and complexity of educational problems. Living with imperfection and uncertainty is the key to psychological wellbeing for school leaders.
Where school leadership often goes wrong (in my opinion) is in how problems are tackled. When leaders fail to take the time to understand a problem fully, they grasp at what appear to be ‘obvious’ solutions. These solutions may be obvious to them, but they often don’t make sense to others who have a different understanding of what needs to be addressed. This tendency (and we all do it!) leads to ‘solutionism’ and faddish behaviour (remember learning styles, triple-impact marking, three-part lessons, no-pen days?). Worse, it doesn’t actually improve anything for students. So, effective senior leaders recognise this tendency and take the time to explore problems fully before deciding to act.
Of course, you’ll never be certain that what you are proposing to do to solve an educational problem is going to work. For this reason, school improvement should be thought of as an exercise in making bets and in testing hypotheses. A ‘best bet’ is what you conclude is the course of action most likely to have the desired effect. If you treat all plans as risky and provisional, you start to see ‘implementation’ of a ‘plan’ as an opportunity to test whether your bet was a good one, rather than as a fixed roadmap which must be stuck to at all costs. I believe that effective senior leaders think in terms of probability and expect to change course once reality plays out.
The final ingredient for effective senior leadership is being in touch with reality. We might think of this as ‘being grounded’ or ‘having your finger on the pulse’. We all imagine the school we work in to be a particular way. There is evidence to suggest that senior leaders can become quite removed from the reality of what goes on. They believe that student behaviour is better than it is. They think their initiatives are working quite well, when in fact change is quite superficial. We all like to think we are doing a good job and therefore there is a bias towards optimism. This bias is fed by people telling you what you want to hear and showing you what you want to see. The gap between senior leaders’ imagined school and the real school is worst, I suspect, when there is a high-stakes accountability culture. There is an incentive to keep senior leaders off your back and to hide problems. So, the first mitigation is to lower the stakes and build trust. The second mitigation is to talk to people a lot and keep asking for their honest feedback. The third mitigation is to be out and about as much as possible. Effective senior leaders walk a lot, ask lots of questions, and avoid getting defensive when others are critical.
Bringing this all together, I would suggest that effective senior leaders:
- Know their school and the people within it
- Build trust through problem solving conversations
- Come to terms with complex, persistent problems
- Understand these problems deeply before acting
- Make bets on what it is worth doing
- Think of school improvement as an exercise in hypothesis testing
- Keep their finger on the pulse.
All easier said than done.
I hope you’ll see every member of the team adopting the approach described above, or at least trying to. We have some ways of working that mitigate us falling into bad habits. There are two in particular. First, we check in with each other a lot. ‘Can I run something past you?’ or ‘Can I sense check something?’ are oft used phrases. Second, we use meeting time to explore problems and challenge simplistic thinking and solutionism. Being on the receiving end of this critique can feel a little brutal sometimes but it improves the quality of decision making.
There is also a ‘house style’ which is rarely made explicit, but I try to model and nudge. I find it naff when leadership is reduced to a list of terms which begin (coincidentally) with the same letter, but in this case, I’m going to allow it. I like us to be:
- Positive – people want leaders to be optimistic, calm and in control
- Present – senior leaders need to be seen
- Personable – eye contact, greeting, interest, knowing your staff, supporting people, listening
- Professional – deliver on promises, don’t let people down, do things properly, maintain high standards of conduct, model professional behaviours, make informed decisions
- Purposeful – stay focussed on the main priorities, don’t get distracted, deliver change, don’t lose sight of why we are running a school.
How do you improve a school?
No-one really knows for sure. Or at least no-one has found a recipe that works across all school contexts. But we can make some bets about what might work in this school.
Bet 1: Building on strong foundations
What happens in the classroom is obviously key to achieving high standards. However, a well-sequenced curriculum, valid assessment, and great pedagogy will have little impact if students don’t feel safe and don’t conduct themselves appropriately. So, if there is a hierarchy to keep in mind, it probably looks like this. Every member of the senior leadership team must contribute to building the right culture around safeguarding and a positive ethos.
Bet 2: Knowledge-building
Highly effective schools have collective expertise (i.e. between the adults there is a deep knowledge of what makes an effective school). They also leverage this expertise (e.g. they have people in the right roles and give them the licence to change things). Perhaps the most effective way of improving a school is to explicitly develop the expertise of those within it and support them in doing their job.
Bet 3: Focussing on the right things
You can’t do everything, so selecting what problems to work on and what the best bets are for improvement is essential. Next, make sure you understand the problem. Then effort needs to be geared towards your goals. Leveraging discretionary effort towards shared goals is perhaps what we mean by leadership. Effective senior leaders have a knack for this – I’ve described what I think the best bets are for this already.
Bet 4: Be clear about mechanisms
What exactly is it about the solution you are suggesting that will lead to improvement? Having an explicit hypothesis for improvement increases the likelihood of success. For example, in a coaching programme for teachers, is it the peer observation, the improved knowledge of teaching techniques, the constructive feedback, the deliberate practice of a new approach, or the breaking of bad habits that is key to improving, or a combination of these? Coaching programmes are not necessarily a ‘good thing’, but there are features of effective programmes that we can point to as being important – so called ‘active ingredients’ or ‘mechanisms’. Focus on the mechanisms, not the generic solution.
Bet 5: Be both architect and plumber
School leaders like to design beautiful edifices, but school improvement is often more like the grubby act of plumbing – you have to get under the sink and fix leaks. What often stops something from working is mundane and localised. Grand ideas crumble when they encounter reality.
The specifics of improving particular aspects of a school (like teaching quality) are obviously really complex. However, the above bets are a good handrail within any domain of school improvement. Choose what is worth working on carefully, build expertise of those who can make a difference, be clear about the mechanisms, then do the dirty work when things don’t work the way you thought they would.
A culture of improvement
Bringing all of this together, I suggest that ‘culture’ is more important than ‘strategy’ when it comes to school improvement. The active ingredients of such a culture may look something like this:
What is there to do?
Please don’t think we have this sussed. Far from it – there is work to do.
We need to get better at developing that shared sense of what is worth doing. We need to find ways of involving everyone in the conversation about school improvement. We need to build more relational trust with those who feel at a distance from the senior team. We need to find better ways of building expertise, particularly around the core business of teaching. We’re doing okay, but we could be so much better.
And that’s where you come in. Welcome to the team.