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What really matters in school leadership?

Last week, I was invited to give a 'keynote' presentation for the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland (AHDS) to an audience of Deputy Headteachers and Principal Teachers. Having discussed the possible themes for this with Greg Dempster, the General Secretary of this school leaders' organisation, we agreed the title of my input would be 'What really matters in school leadership?' This post is a recap of what I spoke about on the day.

Thanking AHDS for the chance to speak to the middle leaders from our primary sector, I started by saying what an honour it was to be asked to speak to current leaders, many of whom would be forming the core of leadership in Scottish primary schools for many years to come. Not to put too much pressure on the people in the room, but they were the people who would help shape the future of education, and perhaps solve some of the challenges we still face, or have created, in Scottish education. I hoped to at least stimulate their thinking about their role now, and in the future, even if they disagreed with some or all I was about to say.

What do we mean by leadership? was the first question I posed, and asked everyone to discuss for a couple of minutes. In the feedback from the tables common themes emerged around leading people, developing learning and teaching, and change. I proffered my own thought that leadership was about creating cultures and conditions to produce growth and development in people, systems and structures. 'No-one is appointed a leader to maintain the status quo.' To me our role was to bring about growth in the people we worked with, but equally in the mechanics of what we do.

Who has leadership? was my next rhetorical question. It is my belief that everyone is a leader, and that leadership can either be positive or negative. Everyone in the room has a formal leadership role in their respective schools and settings, but there will be other taking on leadership roles and responsibilities, consciously and sub-consciously. In any school some of the 'quietest' members of staff can still be leading in some way. Create the right environment, and this can have positive impacts on what you are trying to achieve. However, in the wrong environment the impact can be much more negative, with people and factions working against what you may be trying to achieve. As leaders, we need to be aware of the social dynamics at play in our settings, and wider afield.

I noted that we might all have our own views on what leadership was about, and that this was okay, but we need to consider this throughout our careers, and adjust when necessary, in the light of experience and new knowledge.

Leadership is not easy. There are lots of challenges, but the opportunities to make a difference for so many people are amongst its greatest attractions. I now turned my attention to the things that I believe really make a difference in our leadership of schools. I also think that sometimes we lose sight of many of these as we get embroiled in the demands and machinations of the system, not to mention the daily activity found in any school, no matter what its size.

Unsurprisingly, I started with the children. Do we have the children at the heart of everything we do in our schools? I told how I used to show new prospective parents around my schools, talking about my philosophy for education as we went. I would always say we were a 'child-centred' school, which would elicit strange responses from parents, along the lines 'how could you be anything else?' However, especially early in my career, I felt this needed saying, as so many schools, and perhaps the system itself, had lost sight of what we were doing and why. Do we ever take any actions that we know work against the best interests of our learners? I pointed out that in my career, I had been guilty of this at times. Do we always act in the best interests of the learners and their families? I spoke of the recent Upstart meeting and campaign against the introduction of standardised testing into P1(see previous post). If we purport to always act in the best interests of children, does subjecting five year olds to such testing support our assertion of being 'child-centred'? Is your school ACE aware? Do you and your staff understand the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences, not only on learners in their formative years, but throughout their lives? Is there at least one person on your staff who knows each child and their family circumstances really well, and to whom they can go to talk? These can be hard and difficult questions to ask of yourself and your school, but they need to be asked and they need to be considered in all your actions as a leader. Everything we do should support our learners and their families.

I moved onto values and ethics next. I asked the audience to consider their own professional values and to share them with someone nearby. When they had discussed these, I asked if it had been easy to identify them? I thought they would say yes, but not many did, though someone who had been for interview that week had them right at the forefront of her thinking. This helped make my point, that values should underpin all of your actions, and that we should consider and review them throughout our careers. The key thing about values, as with most things, are what you do with them. Your values should be matched and brought to life in your actions. If your professed values say one thing, then your actions say something else, then your stated values are not your true values. You are what you do, not what you say you do. Values should be lived, not laminated. How many times do you go into schools, or Council offices, and see values displayed as soon as you go through the door? You see them in headteacher offices, handbooks and websites, but they can be easily betrayed by the actions of those working in the establishments and their leadership, or just forgotten, as another box is ticked. When you really inform your practice with your values, they become lived, allow you to draw lines in the sand about what is acceptable, and what not, and can act as your first port of call in meaningful self-evaluation process. Anything less, and they become wallpaper.

Alongside values, do you always act ethically? We need to be ethical in our thinking and our behaviours as school leaders. Understanding the difference between right and wrong, and acting accordingly, is another key aspect. When your practice is driven by your values, you are much more likely to act ethically, at all times.

Once you have established the focus of your practice, and the values that will underpin this you are then able to start formulating a vision for what you wish to achieve personally and professionally. However, vision without action is just a dream.

'Action without vision is only passing time. Vision without action is merely day-dreaming, but vision with action can change the world.' Nelson Mandella

You have to have an idea of what you are trying to achieve, then when you have this, you need to combine this with the vision of the rest of the school community to develop a collective vision that you all will be working towards. To achieve the vision requires individual and collective action. It is this vision that will help you stay on track with all that you are trying to achieve, and act as a reference for progress.

To achieve that vision, and deliver the actions required, you need, and are dependent on, people. As a leader, you lead people and work with and alongside different people everyday. Education and learning organisations have people at their heart. We do not yet have learning establishments and systems driven or operated by robots or artificial intelligence, hopefully we never will. So people are key. The people you work with and alongside are the ones that will carry and support you in your leadership role. You cannot be in every classroom, meeting, or situation, so other people will be indicators of your effectiveness as a leader. This will be demonstrated in their actions as well as the cultures you create.

The key to working effectively with people is relationships. School leaders have to build, support and nurture relationships with whoever can help them deliver on their vision, as well as because it is the right thing to do. Trust will be key, and is the glue that maintains and supports all the relationships you will need to develop. Building relationships happens day by day and through every action and interaction. For a new leader, I have always advised them to 'talk the talk, then walk that walk.' Express your vision and your values, outline your actions, then do it! Nothing betrays or destroys trust so much as saying one thing then doing something else. Everything you try to achieve, to develop or grow staff and your establishments, stands or falls on the culture and ethos you create. Get it right and there is no limit to what you can achieve, get it wrong and you will be hamstrung by what you have created.

'The key action we need to do is recognise that the most important thing in our schools is the quality of the relationships.' Lee Elliot Major CEO Sutton Trust

By working with and supporting the people, as we develop trusting relationships, we begin to create the cultures that will be necessary for us to be successful on behalf of our learners, and their families. Culture is key. When we have cultures that are open and built on mutual support and trust, we can achieve more. Schools are learning organisations and need a learning culture, where everyone sees themselves as a learner, including teachers and school leaders. We can all grow our understandings and improve our practice and this should be a career-long commitment. I pointed out that I stood down from my school leadership role twelve months ago, but have continued to learn. so much so, that I would be a different leader now that I was when I left. Teachers and school leaders need to model themselves as learners for the children they work with, so that they come to understand that learning is for life, not just in school. We all know already that most learning does not happen is school anyway.

Given what I had said already, I then referred to the importance of context. Context is unique and crucial. Every school is a learning establishment, but every one is unique because it consists of unique individuals all at different points in their development. We have to understand our context externally in relation to our community, at all levels, and internally in terms of our position on a continuum of development. All our actions and thinking are shaped by those contexts, and should be reflected in these. This is why I get a tad annoyed with people and organisations outside of each school, setting timelines and expectations of when certain changes will have happened. School development, like child learning, is not a simple linear process and is far from standardised or consistent. There are too many variables for this to be the case. Each school should have procedures and practices to allow it to know itself well and how it is progressing. Leaders have to understand that context and work towards the ongoing and continuous development of the school/s in which they are located, as well as the system itself.

We then moved on to identifying the main thing, and how we ensure we keep the main thing the main thing, in terms of our thinking and our actions. I gave the attendees a little time to identify what that 'main thing' might be. The consensus in the hall was that, as school leaders, our main thing, given the provisos already mentioned, was learning and teaching, in order for us to deliver our vision in achieving the best outcomes for all learners. There was one brave sole who ventured that for her the main thing was actually getting her learners into school and ready to learn. She worked in a support unit, but acknowledged that when she got them into school, her focus was on giving them the best learning experiences she could, that supported their holistic development. I took her point, and thought later about the message 'we have to take care of the Maslow stuff, before we can take care of Bloom stuff.'' Whilst not a fan of Bloom's taxonomy, I agree with the sentiments being expressed, and it chimes with our attention to ACEs and their impact on development. Once we have taken steps to address those basic needs and take into account adverse experiences, we have to focus on learning and teaching. We need to have this as our own priority and set it as a school one. Anything, that is not contributing to positive learning outcomes, needs to be addressed and dropped for something that is.

I then showed a slide which had quotes from the McKinsey report of 2007,  John Hattie, Bryan Boyd, Dylan Wiliam and Helen Timperley, that all reflected the message that teachers are the most important factor in school performance and development. The two most important factors and influencers being leadership and teacher performance. If that is the case, as leaders, we need to support our teachers to become the very best practitioners they can be. To that end we should look to develop teachers agency, teacher leadership and adaptive expertise. The ability of teachers to make meaningful decisions about their practice and to support the development of others, should be an aim for school leaders. As should the development of true teacher leadership opportunities, formal and informal, throughout their careers. The development of these will require the true flattening of hierarchies that stubbornly persist in many schools and systems. Another example of matching actions to words. Teacher adaptive expertise, the ability to change and adapt what they are doing in the light of student response and contextual circumstances, has to be another key aim. The very best teachers I have worked with, do this continually. Not only do they reflect and enquire, they make changes to their practice in order to better meet the learning needs of the children they work with. In my view we should be seeking to develop the self-improving teacher in order to support a self-improving system.

Connected to all of this, and the cultures we should be seeking to create, is the support and expectation that our staff and ourselves will commit to working collaboratively.

'We have known for a quarter of a century that focused collaborative cultures generate greater student learning.' Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves 1992
'It is increasingly clear that the only way to achieve large-scale and sustainable improvement is to invest in collective capacity building.' Alma Harris 2016
        We have known of the power of collaboration for a long time now, and, in my view, the best and most effective collaborations are those we create for ourselves, not those imposed upon us. I noted that the Government, and others, have finally recognised the power of collaboration and are now legislating for these to happen, imposing them at various levels. To my mind, this will make them less effective and more likely to produce compliance and increased workload, with few gains for learners. However, if we create and support collaborative working, and build this into the culture and the ethos of our schools, within and between them, the impacts will be beneficial for all. Leaders need to collaborate themselves beyond the confines of their school or local authority.
         Given all of this, school leaders still need to gate-keep on behalf of all of their staff. We have cried out for years for those above us in the chain of command or hierarchy to protect schools and teachers for the constant cascade of more work, change and bureaucracy down on to us, to no avail. Therefore, it is down to school leaders to do this on behalf of our staff and ourselves. If we apply our values and vision to create a plan for the ongoing development of all that we do, then we need to use this to protect ourselves and our staff from the ever burgeoning demands of the system. We also need to protect our staff from themselves at times too. We have the pleasure to work with some very committed individuals and sometimes they need saving from themselves, and their desire to keep on taking on more. If we know our schools and our staff well, this will help us gate-keep at all levels.
         As leaders we need to be informed, and for that we need to engage with research and data. I pointed out that the phrase 'proportionate and manageable' was littered throughout Curriculum for Excellence documentation, but was mostly ignored. However, we need to apply these cautions to our engagement with both data and research. We have to use data and research findings to inform our actions, but not drive them. The alternative leaves us open to every demand of the system and beyond, as well as the latest fads and trends, as we hop from one 'thing' to another. We need to engage critically with both data and research, and to illustrate this point I used the following quotes.
         'Even with data, you are still just someone with an opinion.' Dave Reynolds 2016
         'The data can never tell you what to do' Andy Hargreaves 2017
         Data can inform our actions, if it is the right data, and research can give us clues as to what may support the development of our practice, when shaped by our context.School leaders have to support their own, and their staffs', professional development. A commitment to growing and developing our practice should be a disposition of all educators. School leaders have to model this themselves and support those they lead in their own endeavours.School development should be a connected coherent and continuous process throughout our careers. Not only should leaders support the professional development of staff, they have to be active participants in that process. Helen Timperley had pointed this out in a research paper she produced or AITSL in 2011. She noted that,
         'that the leadership activity with the greatest influence on student outcomes was leaders' promotion of, and participation in, teachers' professional learning and development.' Helen Timperley 2011
         In my opinion school leaders have to be both curious and brave. We have to be curious, otherwise nothing ever changes. Be curious about your own practice and the impact you are having on learning. be curious about your school and its development. Don't be afraid to ask questions because you are afraid you are the only one who doesn't understand, or agree with, something. You wont be! They have to be brave, not only in facing the day to day challenges of leadership, but also when the demands of the system come up against their professional and personal values. Take risks and try things out. We make mistakes, but we learn and grow as a result. The cultures you create should expect people to make mistakes, then you know people are stepping outside of their comfort zones.
         'Curiosity is the spark behind the spark of every great idea. The future belongs to the curious.' Mike Byster
         Sometimes you will need to be personally and professionally courageous. Leadership is a combination of management duties and leadership duties. The best leaders are also good managers, but we should all aim to lead more than we manage. As school leaders it is entirely possible to spend all your days on management activities. However, you are being paid as a leader, so we should create the time and the space to allow ourselves to be leaderly. As leaders, we need to be looking ahead to see what is coming, whilst at the same time focusing on the present and learning from the past. I am of the view that you cannot force people, or manage them, to get better. What you can do is create the conditions and cultures that support everyone to want to be the best they can.Then you have to support everyone in this endeavour.
         To achieve more, we actually need to slow down. We need to stop the glorification of busy and schools being swamped by what Michael Fullan calls 'initiativitis'. I used the example of my golf grip, developed over years and which I felt very comfortable with. Trouble was, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. A golf pro had told me he could change it and it would take six months of slow, step by step adjustment. Staff and school development could be viewed in the same way.Teachers get comfortable with their practice over time and it needs time to bring about change. If we try to change too much too quickly, then people soon resort back to what they feel comfortable with. We need to give change time to become embedded and provide lots of support on the way. Such change works best when it is the teachers themselves who identify what they can get better at, rather than something being imposed on them. We all need practice that works for most learners most of the time.
         As school leaders we should never forget to recognise the efforts of those around us, and on whom we depend, by saying thank you and smiling. There is no healthier sign of a school happy in its own skin as one where smiles are common and laughter is heard throughout. We really do have the best job in the world, so why not show it? Don't be afraid to laugh and show you are human. Our job is a serious one, as we impact on so many lives, but a healthy culture is visible in many ways. Smiling and laughing is part of that, as is the recognition of the fabulous job most people are doing in ever demanding circumstances.I had already talked about professional development and engaging with research, I re-enforced this by stating that all school leaders need to be readers. We have to create the time to read around our roles,and then to share and discuss this with colleagues. I do worry when I hear leaders say things like 'I haven't got time for all that reading stuff!' In my opinion, school leaders have a professional responsibility to read, and therefore need to create the time and the headspace to do so. Reading alone is not enough. They have to think about what they have read, discuss it with others and then begin to consider what the implications might be for themselves and their schools.
         All of what I had talked about was what some have called the 'hidden curriculum' in any school. These are all the things that really matter and which make a difference, but which are not easy to measure. For that reason, they can be easily dismissed by some, but actually they create the school culture that impacts on everything and everyone. These are the apsects that truly make your school the establishment it is, and are the things that make your school unique and memorable. They are also the determiners of your success in addressing national agendas around raising attainment, closing gaps and improving equity of opportunity. My last slide featured flamingos, lemmings and the following quote from Rae Snape,
         'Be a flamingo of hope rather than a lemming of despair!'
         Rae wrote this in her chapter of the book Flip The System UK, to which I also contributed. I love this metaphor and the thinking that sits behind it. I pointed how you cannot help but smile when you see pictures or film of flamingos. They are colourful, proud and scan the horizon for what is happening,or may lie ahead. They work collaboratively or individually, when appropriate, and operate as though they have a clear purpose, informed by thinking and communication. Lemmings on the other hand, display little signs of thought as they head for their destination. Pushed from behind, or pulled by those in front they blindly career towards their inevitable fate. We should all try to be more flaming-like than lemming-like was my final message, as I ended with Manfred Mann's 'Pretty Flamingo'.
         It was a beautiful day on Friday, and over lunch I had the opportunity to visit the Kelpies, a magnificent art installation and sculpture located nearby. Whilst I marvelled at how awesome this work is, I did also think it was a perfect example of individual pieces being brought together to make a magnificent whole. A bit like school leadership!


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