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So, exactly what is important for schools?

I was recently looking again at Michael Fullan's 'What's Worth Fighting For In Headship.' This is a thin book but it contains a lot to think about, if you're a school leader, or aspiring to such a role. I can't say I agree with all of Fullan's assertions, but I do agree with many of them. This is as it should be when we are considering a particular take on what we do. There should be some resonance with our own thinking but enough provocation to stimulate and develop our thinking further. Fullan usually achieves  this for me, and always in a very accessible way. Anyway, he set me thinking about my own position and thoughts around what I believe are the most important elements of our work in school. I share these in the same spirit. You may agree, or you may not, but hopefully this might encourage you to at least consider the issue of what is important to you in your own schools.

Values and Principles
I believe that this is where we should start all our thinking about our work and our schools. We need to be clear about what our personal and professional values are, and what are the principles that underpin these. These personal and professional values and principles will also impact on those of the establishments we work in and lead. I have always felt that our actions should be a reflection of our values and principles. That is why I believe we should start from these when we are self-evaluating. Do our actions reflect the values and principles we espouse? Do the experiences of pupils, parents and colleagues match the values and principles we believe in? If they don't all feel respected, listened to, valued, included and dealt with integrity then we need to address this. Knowing and being clear about your values and principles, and sharing these with the school community, helps the decision making process. Being clear on these helps you to decide where your 'line in the sand' is about what you are prepared to accept from yourself and others, and what is not acceptable. Being clear on your values and principles helps you to decide on directions of travel and helps you be a better 'gatekeeper' to protect yourself and your colleagues from the demands of others.

As leaders in schools, like leaders everywhere, we are constantly being told, or advised, to prioritise. We cannot do it all, so we need to prioritise, so that we deal with the most important aspects of our roles and have a clear perspective on what is important, what needs immediate attention and what can wait. I agree entirely with this premiss. So what should our priorities be? This post identifies what I see as our priorities but for me priority number one is always people. We are in a people business. Our focus is on the education and personal development of our pupils and to deliver on this we need to engage with all sorts of individuals and organisations. We cannot deliver anything we desire, in terms of school development, without the co-operation, support and expertise of a whole range of people, most importantly all our colleagues in our establishments. Headteachers do not deliver improvements in learning experiences, curriculum content, assessment, planning, reporting and so on. Teachers and support staff in classrooms do. Everyone else is part of the support team that allows these practitioners to deliver ever-improving experiences for our learners. So, as a school leader, we
need to recognise the importance of all those people who we depend on to deliver what we seek in our schools. People are complex,relationships are complex, learning is complex and we need to accept these facts and how these complexities impact on experiences, and how people are able to fulfil their respective roles. You ignore people at your peril. You have to put them as your first priority each and every day, because if they are not functioning effectively, for whatever reason, this will impact negatively on what you are trying to achieve in your school.

You might say 'Well you would say that!' But actually I still feel leadership is so important to what a school can achieve, that it has to be a key aspect of our work. School leaders set the tone and impact so crucially on the culture of a school that we have to focus on this. I am talking about leadership in its fullest sense, and which is part of the remit and expectation for all. For Headteachers it is crucial that they focus on their leadership role and responsibilities and do not allow themselves to be swamped by their management responsibilities. It is important that they create the conditions that allow all staff to have the opportunity and encouragement to lead and to grow. The responsibility to grow new leaders is crucial to the general wellbeing of education and to the specific interests of individual schools and teachers. Leadership should be fully distributed and all should see they have a role to play. Not all will go on to be school leaders, but all can be active participants in leadership practices within their schools, for the betterment of those schools and as part of their own professional development. If school leaders stop focusing on their own, and others, leadership and it's impact they risk stopping being leaders and just becoming managers who spend their time reacting to day to day events. Leaders need to be proactive and committed to their own development and that of those they lead.

Learning and Teaching
This is core business for educators and schools. I would argue that school leaders need to be deeply focused and deeply involved in learning and teaching. They should really understand learning, how to deconstruct this for learners, and this should be the main focus of their observations in each and every classroom and learning situation. They should have learning as the focus of their conversations with teachers about their classes and individual pupils. It is recognised by many that the only sure way of improving and developing schools is by focusing on improving and developing teachers and teaching. School leaders should not delegate this responsibility. Headteachers and senior leaders need to be fully involved and engaged in improving learning experiences for all pupils. They need to be equally engaged in the improvement and development of pedagogy and practices in order to improve outcomes for all pupils. They need to roll their sleeves up and engage with all staff to thoroughly understand new developments and understandings around learning and teaching, and in order to assess these critically and in an informed way. Such engagement also helps them better understand the demands they may be placing on their colleagues.

Just as we as leaders are unable to do everything ourselves, or have the answer to every question or problem, so it is for individual teachers and members of staff. No matter how experienced and skilled they are, they will not operate at their best and most effectively in isolation. For their own individual benefit, and for a school's collective benefit they need to collaborate and share. They need to share successes just as much as issues. Fullan talks about the de-privatisation of teaching and classrooms. He and others have pointed out that it is no longer acceptable for teachers to close their classroom doors and operate in isolation of everything else going on around them. We need to collaborate to develop our collective practice and understandings, in order to provide all our learners a connected and progressive learning experience. If we take no notice of what has gone on before they arrived with us, and are not interested in where they go after us, then we are letting them down and not giving them the best opportunity to be successful in their learning journeys. To develop individually and as schools, we are dependent on true collaboration, internal and external. Top down edicts on how schools are going to develop don't work very well, in my experience. Remember, it's teachers who deliver, not Headteachers. Professional collaboration and focused dialogue are the most powerful tools I have discovered to bring about deep collective and sustainable developments and understandings. Such collaboration needs to be built on a culture of openness and trust.

Continuous Professional Development
A commitment to Continuous Professional Development (CPD) should be part of the values and practices of every school. It should be part of the professional DNA of all teaching staff. This needs to be a disposition for leaders and for all teachers. It's part of what we do as career long professionals. If you as a leader are the same leader as you were twelve months ago, you have wasted a year. The same applies to teachers. We all need to recognise our responsibilities, and the expectation, to keep developing throughout our careers. To do this we need to be committed to constantly examining our own thinking and practices to consider how we may improve what we do. School leaders need to read, reflect and discuss with colleagues and others to improve our understandings and to keep up to date with latest thinking and practice. We need to engage critically with research and consider the messages for our own practice. My own belief is that teachers and their leaders need to critically enquire into aspects of their own practice in order to be more self-aware and consider the changes they can make to improve what they do. The perfect teacher, and the perfect school leader, doesn't exist. All that we can ask is that everyone is committed to developing their practice, and continuing their learning, over the course of their careers. The most powerful CPD is that which is identified by each individual as a way of helping them grow professionally and personally. It is not about going off on lots of courses and doing lots of 'things'. It is about recognising the small changes you can make that can make big differences for the learners in your classrooms, and embedding these into your practice.

Managing Change and Making Connections
All school leaders need to manage change. The educational landscape is forever changing and shifting. Change comes about because of political decisions at a national level and because of our continuously developing understandings around learning and pedagogies. Change comes about because of local decisions in some case and, most importantly as a result of the recognition ourselves of what we can do to improve. This has always been the case and will always be the case. We are on a journey of development that is continuous and without a final destination. We shall always be striving to develop and improve.How we deal with this ever changing landscape and manage the process is crucial to achieving our aims, but also to our collective wellbeing. We need to manage change and the best way I have identified to do this is by making and seeing the connections between all that we are trying to do. If we, and our colleagues, feel overwhelmed by all the things we have to do, and all the demands placed upon us therein lies madness. However if you deal with all these 'things' in a connected way it is easier to manage them in a meaningful way to ensure you are dealing with everything of importance. My own schools have been using practitioner enquiry approaches to connect up changes to pedagogy, curriculum, planning and assessment that we needed to make. By taking such an approach we looked at all these aspects holistically and how they all connected, rather than looking at each individually and feeling overwhelmed by all there is to do.

Self Evaluation 
Before any school can move on and develop they need to know exactly where they are. To be secure in identifying where that is you need to have robust and accurate systems of self evaluation. As I have already identified, I believe the starting point for your self evaluation processes should be with your values and the principles that underpin them. Measure what you are doing against these firstly. You then need a whole raft of self evaluation activities designed to give you accurate information about where you are at. You should recognise that self evaluation, like anything worth doing, should be continuous and embedded into all that you and all your colleagues do. It starts with all teachers being reflective practitioners who critically examine their own performance, and are very self aware. It should include the active involvement of senior managers in planning and moderation processes. It should involve the collection of 'evidence' from visitors and the daily observations of the Headteacher and other leaders as they visit classrooms and engage in conversations with pupils and colleagues. It should include more formal activities like consultations with teachers, pupil sampling,conversations with and observations of parents and other partners, which could include surveys and questionnaires. In fact there is a whole host of hard and soft information that you need to take into account when trying to get the most accurate picture you can. Basically, every interaction is a chance for self evaluation and should be updating your picture of where the school is at. Time spent doing this is well worth it, because then you really do know and understand where you are starting from and how you are doing as you implement change and developments.

So there it is. My thoughts on what is really important for schools to be focused on. I could write more on each aspect but hopefully I have given enough pto stimulate your own thinking, and perhaps a bit of debate.


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