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Some more thoughts on a few issues

The following are some thoughts I put together regarding issues in education for a project with Chris Chivers and others earlier this year. I thought I would share them on my blog as possible stimulants for thoughts and discussion by others. Feel free to comment.

A school without a vision must be a pretty soulless place. It will also be a place without a clear purpose and at the beck and call of any and all agendas. We need a vision to know where we are going and to help us identify how we might get there, as well as to protect us from the agendas of others. As a school leader, I think it is important that you have a personal vision for where you want to take the school you lead, and also a wider one for education in general. You need to share this vision with colleagues and members of the school community so they too can consider what their own vision might be. Out of this collaboration and sharing should emerge a vision for each school that reflects its uniqueness in terms of its development journey, its context, and which all have ownership of.  I think that it is crucial that this collective vision is underpinned by values that are understood by all, and which are transparent in everything you do. Of course, a vision without action remains just a dream. There are many schools that have vision statements but which are still pretty soulless, because they stopped at that point, or their vision was developed so a box could be ticked.   It is the actions you take as a school leader and as a school community that bring your vision alive and make it real. It is through the collective and collaborative actions of all that the vision can be lived and be worked towards.  It is the people who make the vision real and it is your actions, and the culture and ethos of the school that demonstrate you are being true to that vision and the values that underpin it. 

A Team Game
Delivery of the collective vision cannot rest on the shoulders of one person. It requires the collective actions of all who form and frame the school community. Relationships are key. It is the coexistence of the individuals that make up the school community, and the strength of the relationships between them, that determines the success of any school. To develop a ‘learning community’  requires all to be working to a common purpose, in a way that accomodates the individuality of all, and which builds upon the strengths each can bring. It is down to the school leadership team to coordinate the efforts of all, and to provide the ‘road-map’ for the direction of travel. But, all should recognise they have a role to play and a contribution to make. Team-work is critical if we are to ‘keep the main thing the main thing’, as I once heard Sir John Harvey Jones say. In my opinion the main thing should be learning and the understandings and pedagogical practices that allow this to flourish and develop for the benefit of all. To achieve this we need the coordinated and collective efforts of all, so that we develop a common understanding and language around leaning, and where we are on our development journey.

Making It Stick
One of the biggest issues we have faced for some time in education is the proliferation, and adoption, of various fads and trends. Often these are based on no evidence as to their useful or effacy, but which still manage to build up a head of steam so that schools feel as though they are failing if they don’t include them or use them. Two recent examples that spring to mind are the push for the recognition and adoption of various learning styles, and Brain Gym. Both of these were based on little or no substantive evidence that demonstrated how they worked, but were adopted by most schools across the country. I think the fact that so many find such fads and trends compelling is because so many people are still searching for ‘silver bullets’, the panaceas that are going to solve all the issues in schools and learning. Let me reiterate, these do not exist! We do know from research across the world, and across time, what does work. That is, a focus on learning and teaching, collaboration, improving leadership at all levels, developing system leadership, developing adaptive expertise and developing enquiry dispositions in all our teachers, the importance of context, and so on. What has to happen is that, as Fullan and others have said, we need to focus on these aspects in a ‘relentless’ way in order to bring about embedded and sustainable change for the better. Change in thinking and practice, in my view, cannot be imposed by others. It has to come from the individual and their developing insights in order to make it stick.

The power of collaboration
I have always liked the Ken Blanchard quote, ‘ None of us is bright as all of us.’ To me this points to the power of collective action and collaboration. If we have agreed a common purpose, then have to work collaboratively and co-operatively to deliver the best outcomes for our learners. Michael Fullan has implored teachers and schools for years to break down the silos of individual classrooms and practice. Helen Timperley has noted that ‘it is no longer acceptable to do your individual best’ and joins Fullan in demanding that teachers and schools work collectively and collaboratively to improve. Others, like Chris Chapman, Clive Dimmock and Alma Harris have also identified the power of collaboration within schools, across schools and beyond schools in order to have the biggest impacts. We have to work collaboratively to deliver in what we recognise more and more is a complex change agenda within and across schools. Modern technology enables us to collaborate beyond our immediate confines. It was not that long ago that collaboration was restricted to those you were in physical contact with. Now, we can collaborate with educators across the Globe, as long as we keep recognising the importance of context. Collaboration does not mean ‘one size fits all.’ Rather it should be about sharing principles and insights in order to provide mutual support. We should not be precious about who we work with, but all in the system need to be committed to supporting schools to develop. It is no longer acceptable to have your focus solely on the learners in your class, school or town. We all have system responsibilities for all learners in our system and should recognise that it is through collaboration we can have wider impacts, and support each other.

Keeping it real and humane
There is a great danger that when we focus so much on measurable outcomes, systems and structures within our schools and our educational systems, we can lose sight of the individuals within those schools and systems. I have been concerned for some time that we are in real danger of losing sight of the real people we work with and teach when our thoughts become clogged with metrics and accountability agendas. So, how do we keep our focus on the people and their holistic and individual needs within such agendas? For me, it is all about values. We have to be clear about our individual and  collective values. We need to identify these and make them clear to all. We then, most importantly, need to bring them to life through our actions. Everything we do needs to be measured against those values. In my own schools, our values are the first point of call for our self-evaluation processes. If our values include honesty, openness, inclusion, fairness and integrity, is that what it feels like to be a member of our school community, or as a visitor? Do our actions, and our planned actions, reflect our agreed and shared values? If they don’t, what are we going to do about it? How do we maintain positive relationships in the face of behavioural issues and challenges? Is how we deal with all learners, and staff, open and fair and based on collective agreements with all? These can be difficult questions to consider and act on, but they are crucial as they shape the culture and ethos in classrooms and schools. It has always been my contention that everything we try to do in schools and systems stands or falls on culture and ethos. Get it right, and there are no limits to what we can achieve. Get it wrong, and it will destroy everything you are trying to achieve.

Understanding development journeys and contexts as unique
When considering school or individual development the ‘one size fits all’ model can never work. Each school and each individual within them is unique. Their context is different, as is their place on their particular journey of development. When enough people realise this we begin to see the folly of some strategies, including ‘sharing good practice, that seem to assume that you can lift what is working in one context, drop it into another one, and expect the same results. Such practices have been shown to fail time and time again. So what does work? Firstly, we need robust self-evaluation processes built into everything that we do. This way we will know ourselves and where we really are, and you have to know where you are before you can begin any journey. Then we need to collaborate and learn from others, not by slavishly copying what they have done, but by understanding the principles and insights that sit behind, and underpin, what they have done to achieve success. This needs to be a ‘warts and all’ understanding, so that we learn from the challenges and failures they experienced, just as much from the successes. When we have those understandings, we then need to consider how they will fit, or not, our own particular position and context. They will need adjustment and shaping to match our own particular situation. Only then, can we use the experiences of others to help shape our own developmental journeys. This is a harder and more complex approach than just lifting something and dropping it into your own situation, but in my experience anything really worth doing, and which aims to have sustainable impact, is rarely anything else.

How we maintain focus when faced with further innovation and change
Michael Fullan talks about something he calls ‘initiativitis’ which he describes as the constant change from one thing after another and which causes schools to be continually busy, but with little regard to sustainable impact of all the ‘things’ they do. Does this sound familiar? So how do we maintain our focus in the face of more and more ‘things’ being mooted that we should be doing? Firstly, go back to your values and use these to help you weed out the wheat from the chaff, to decide what you will do and what you won’t do. Next, you need to be evidence and research informed. This is not the same as being ‘evidence and reform driven’ which some advocate. To be driven by research, evidence and data is dangerous because it swiftly leads to shaping what you do to provide and improve the evidence or the data, ‘teaching to the test.’ Instead, we need to be informed so that we are not doing things on whims, or because they are the latest fad or trend. We implement change and developments because there is plenty of evidence to show they will have positive impacts for learners, always being aware of the importance of context and knowing where you are on your development journey. Having a plan, a school improvement plan or development plan, is crucial. This, more than anything, is going to protect you from the demands of others and allow you to deal with change in a managed and controlled way. It should not be set in stone, but should be an adaptable and responsive document that gives everyone a structure to what you are trying to achieve. It should be your plan and, once agreed by all, you should use it to move things forward and to protect everyone from other agendas. We need a relentless approach to development and one year’s plan should lead seamlessly into the next and should connect everything you do to your core business, your ‘main thing’ as Sir John Harvey Jones calls it. Taking such steps will allow you to keep that main thing the main thing.

Dealing with the challenges
Leading a school, and teaching, are not easy, but they remain very rewarding. We all make a difference in peoples’ lives on a daily basis. Those of us who have been involved in such work for any length of time will have faced many challenges and many difficult situations. We will have dealt with some of them well and we will have dealt with others not so well. But, we will have learned from all of them and out of them we will have developed a range of strategies to help us deal effectively with new challenges we face. One of the things I learned very early in my leadership journey was to deal with issues as soon as they arise, to stop molehills becoming mountains. The next was to keep calm and to try and not to take things personally. Easier said than done by the way! I again refer to your values, as these certainly help you identify what is acceptable and what is not. They help you draw your ‘line in the sand’ beyond which you are not prepared to go or accept. When such a point is reached, it may be time for one of those ‘difficult conversations’ we can all dread. What I have discovered about such conversations is that they are hardly ever as ‘difficult’ as we imagine them to be. If you are up front and open with everyone in all your dealings, then such situations become easier. Collaboration, and having access to good quality mentoring and coaching can also be so helpful when facing challenges and difficulties. Having colleagues you can trust and just talk to, after all they will have faced many of the same issues, can be a lifeline, especially early in your career as a school leader. You should accept the challenges you will face secure in the knowledge that you will deal with each in an appropriate way, based on your values, informed by research and experience, and with the needs of all your learners at its heart. 

Positives and negatives
As with any profession, throughout your career you will experience positive and negative experiences. I have been a school leader for over twenty years and I still see the positives outnumbering the negatives every single day. We work with fabulous people and for a common cause, which is to provide each and every one of our learners the best educational experience we can so that they can achieve their potential. Any day, when I am weighed down by the demands of my job, I can simply leave my office and enter any classroom to reconnect with what my role is all about, and experience so much that is positive about that role. The biggest cause of negatives are usually generated outside of schools by politicians and the media and I can usually ignore most of this, though this might be one reason why I also blog as this is an opportunity to get one or two things off my chest! I still believe I have the best job in the world and there have not been many days when I have not looked forward to going in to work. I can get frustrated at times, but usually these frustrations quickly dissipate when I work with pupils and colleagues, and reconnect with my core purpose. You have to find a way of dealing with the negative aspects of our role, but realising that all roles have them and not many have the daily highs we can experience can certainly help with this. An interesting exercise might be to list all the positives about your role, then try the negatives. Whenever I have done this, the positive list has always far outstripped the negative. Attitude is crucial. Should you try that exercise and the negatives outweigh the positives, perhaps its time to consider a career change. 


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