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A road less travelled





This week I was asked by Neil McLennan (@neiledinburgh) if I would be willing to speak to some of his Masters leadership students at Aberdeen University about my own leadership journey, but particularly about my journey with Practitioner Enquiry. I was happy to do this, and delivered an online session for Neil and his students last Wednesday. This post is a recap of what I covered, which I promised I would do, in order to aid the participants, but which others might find help or interesting too, wherever they might be in their careers.

My own leadership route clearly demonstrated that their is 'not just one route' into leadership or any career. Indeed,  I believe there should be a diversity of pathways into school leadership, just as there should be a diversity of people who go on to have leadership roles in education. In Scotland we are going down the road of all prospective headteachers needing to have achieved Education Scotland's approved qualification in Headship, before they can apply for a position. I agree that prospective school leaders should be able to demonstrate a level of understanding and intellectual rigour, but I do worry if there becomes the 'only show in town' for how this is achieved. We certainly don't want, or need, school leaders cloned from a singular model or pathway.

Anyway, back to my journey.

I qualified as a teacher, with a BEd, in 1975, and was one of the first cohort to study for this qualification. I studied, or was 'trained' in, teaching and education at Didsbury College of Education, which was attached to Manchester University. I left teaching in 1976, after teaching in a Boys' Comprehensive, even though I was primary qualified. This and personal circumstances meant I was away from teaching until 1991. During that time I had various sales and management roles in business and commerce. My leadership experiences, and the models I saw, were heavily focused on 'command and control' management, rather than much thought being given to leadership. Actions were driven by targets, performance and high accountability. The bottom line was king! Remind you of anything?

What these experiences did achieve was to help shape my views and  practice around leadership and management, that I was to use, or ignore, when I returned to teaching and began my own educational leadership journey.

I returned to teaching in 1991, after a Government-run campaign looking to persuade people to return to teaching. This was my opportunity to return to what I really wanted to do, which was teach. By this time my family had moved to Scotland, so I used the Headteacher of my own children's primary school to provide me with information and help, and he pointed me in the direction of Scottish Borders Council. Their advice was to get my qualifications validated by the GTCS, go on their Supply list, then begin looking for supply work. Despite the government campaign, there were no courses for teachers returning to teaching like there are now.

My qualifications were accepted and I was given GTCS registration, so I began looking for Supply work. In the meantime, my headteacher friend gave me lots of light and dark-blue 5-14 documents, as this 'new' curriculum was just in the process of its introduction. I devoured these, being an avid reader and well motivated in wanting to get up to speed with where Scottish education was at that time. My first supply job was an afternoon with a P1 class, a baptism of fire! I loved it and knew I had made the right decision.

Over the following months, I did more short-term supply work at various schools, then found a longer-term placement at one school. Over the summer break I was offered a full-time permanent position as a P6/7 teacher in the small, but rather isolated, village of Newcastleton, and I starteds in August 1992. I had convinced my wife to move again, by promising her it would only be for 18 months, as it was a permanent position, then we could move on to somewhere less isolated. We are still there! 28 years later! We still live in the village, and it has been a super place to live and grow our family. You get used to the travelling.

I was the P6/7 teacher, in a small school, with four mixed year-group classes for about four years, before I was made Senior Teacher after someone left. I had thrown myself into teaching again, and was determined to be the best teacher I could be, for myself and for the children I taught. I was on a very steep, and very rapid learning curve. In 1997 the headteacher left to take up a post in a new authority and the search began for a new leader. Filling the post was challenging because of the remoteness of the community, and it being a teaching-head position. There were a couple of false dawns with candidates, but eventually a new headteacher was appointed who didn't live too far away. He stayed for a couple of years, then was absent with long-term illness, before retiring. In the meantime I had been put in charge as 'acting' headteacher. This was a great time of further learning for me, and I was successfully appointed to the permanent position early in 2000.

As with teaching, I dived into headship. I made lots of mistakes, but learnt from all of them, and the school continued to move forward and develop. As time passed, I became more and more frustrated with the teaching-head role, feeling that I wasn't carrying out either role as I would really like. We had an inspection, which went very well, and after which I decided I needed to move on, or accept that I would probably stay in that post for the rest of my career. An opportunity came up to lead Parkside school in Jedburgh, which was a much larger school with a non-teaching head and deputy, and I was fortunate to be successful in my application.

After less then one year at Parkside I was asked to lead another school, Ancrum, as part of a partnership-schools arrangement. This particular partnership, was completely logical, as pupils at Ancrum only stayed till the end of P5, then transferred across to Parkside for their final two years in primary. The schools were only four miles from each other too, which was a big help.

Whilst in this role, I continued to read, engage with research and seek out opportunities to develop my thinking and my leadership practice. I was one of the inaugural Fellows of SCEL in 2015, and the opportunities this gave me to engage with colleagues from across the country, and to educators and academics from across the world, helped build on work I was already engaged with in the schools I led.

My leadership journey was a unique one, as is everyones', but throughout it I determined to keep learning and reshaping my thinking and practice, in the light of new knowledge and insights.

Which brings me to Practitioner Enquiry. When I retired in 2017, I finished writing a book about my experiences with enquiry, and have continued to write for my own blog, other blogs, magazines and books. A lot of this has been around leadership, but particularly on practitioner enquiry.

For me, practitioner enquiry can be, and is becoming, a game-changer in terms of professional leaning and school development. When we first began our journey with enquiry in 2007-08 there were many 'drivers'. Our two biggest were: The sense of dissatisfaction amongst the school leadership team and staff around professional development. We were all very busy doing lots of 'stuff' but we struggled to see any lasting impact, in our thinking or to our practice, from all the things we had been doing.
                                                                      The other 'driver' was how overwhelmed teachers and ourselves were feeling about all the 'things' we were being told we had to deal with, following the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence. We were swamped by 'support' and 'advice' from Education Scotland, the local authority, Scottish Government, and organisations like GTCS. Mostly this 'support' and 'advice' came in the form of documentation and bureaucracy, made worse by externally imposed 'timetables' of when things were supposed to be done by! Most of this made us feel inadequate, and involved in some sort of unwinnable competition.

Something had to change! There had to be a better way of dealing with this landscape!

This led us to conversations with colleagues, and eventually Dr Gillian Robinson, of Edinburgh University, and practitioner enquiry. This approach changed everything for us, and just made sense amongst all the nonesense.

We started working with Gillian in 2008 and she came into both schools to work with staff, supporting them with the teaching of literacy. We never  called it practitioner enquiry at first, but the model Gillian was using was definitely an enquiry one. At first, the approach we took was more of a collaborative enquiry, with everyone looking at common themes within literacy. By the third year, when we moved on to focus on numeracy, more teachers were confident in their understanding of the methodology, and we were able to let them identify aspects of learning in numeracy that they personally identified for investigation. We had started using the term practitioner enquiry in the second year.

I had read Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan Lytle's book 'Inquiry as Stance' and that was where I wanted to head. I later learned, especially after conversations with and listening to Kate Wall, that actually it was okay to look to develop enquiry as a disposition, or to view it as a 'project'. I was wary of enquiry being viewed as just another thing to do, but in our own infancy with the approach it was easy to view it more as a project. Ultimately though, I was looking to change teacher professional identities and develop career-long dispositions.

During those first three years, we had a lot of input from Gillian, staff had agreed to use all our CPD budgets to pay for this. She worked with myself and the management team also, so that we became more able to support teachers with the enquiry process. We wanted the model to be very much self-sustaining, which is what it ultimately became. We reduced Gillian's input so that she would check in only from time to time to see how things were going and if we needed further advice. Another development, after about three years, was our ability willingness to go out to support other schools on their own enquiry journey. I very much saw this as part of my system leadership role, but I am not sure if staff really understood this at the time. However, they were always very supportive and willing to help others when they could.

The benefits we saw from our engagement with practitioner enquiry are very much an echo of the benefits identified by researchers such as Lawrence Stenhouse, Marylyn Cochran-Smith, Helen Timperley, Mark Priestley, Kate Wall and others in their extensive research in this area.

For learners there is raised attainment and achievement. If you are doing things in school that don't impact positively in theses areas, perhaps you should question whether they are worth pursuing? When teachers better understand their impact on learning, and how to address specific learning needs, there can't help but be positive impacts for learners. Helen Timperley worked with over three hundred teachers in New Zealand, and she noted that attainment was raised for all. But, unexpectedly almost, the attainment of the lowest 20% of attainers was raised the most, which is exactly what we saw evidence of in our own schools.

Teachers become more confident in understanding their impact on learning, and how to address issues. They have a systematic way of developing their practice and addressing specific learning issues they have identified themselves. They have a way of dealing with everything they need to consider but which  is connected and viewed through the lens of enquiry. No longer do they look at aspects of pedagogy, curriculum, planning, assessment and reporting through individual approaches, but in a connected way, focused on developing learning for all. I told the staff in the school I led that I wanted them to develop as self-improving teachers, with high levels of professional agency. My role was to create the conditions and provide the tools for them to achieve this, which included valued professional learning done by them, not to them.

If we have self-improving teachers, its a short step to self-improving schools. Our approach to school development becomes an organic one focused on developing learning for all. Collaborative learning- cultures are developed or enhanced through enquiry. To achieve this, self-evaluation processes need to be thorough and robust. You start from where you are, not where others think you should be. If you don't know where you are starting from, how will you know if you are making progress?

Finally, if we have self-improving schools, we can also aspire to a self-improving system. When this happens our professional voice will carry more weight than the fluctuating whims and caprices of voices from outwith. I think we are closer to such a point than at any time in my career, but there is still a way to go.

I have seen lots of different models of enquiry, all shaped by the contexts and self-evaluation of the settings involved. Ourselves, we used enquiry to build on and enhance the collaborative learning culture we had strived to create. I have seen others use it as a tool with which to start building such cultures. I have visited schools that have used the collaborative enquiry approach, as developed by Mark Priestley, with great success around a common focus. In secondary schools, I have seen it developed and grown over time, starting with 'willing souls' first and then spreading across different departments. It is important that schools can shape their engagement according to their context. But it is more important that we remain true to the model, and don't try to oversimplify it. Marylyn Cochran-Smith herself, has cautioned against 'mutations', when sound research and practice is taken, simplified into linear steps, and loses its essence as a result. It also loses its impact in such models.

There was a lot of ground I could not cover in the forty minutes or so I had for my input, but hopefully I have given participants, and anyone reading this, plenty to think about in regards to enquiry, their own leadership journey, and our approach to school development and professional learning.

If you keep an eye on Neil's twitter feed @neiledinburgh, a link to my presentation should appear soon.


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