Just taking a break from the Whole Education conference – everyone is off to have a debate on something or other – one of them is all about whether technology helps learning, which is a debate designed to polarise, I feel. Anyway, so far it has been very interesting indeed. The focus for the morning has been around restoring the impact of our work on learning and (at least in the stream that I have been following) it has been a joy learning about the work of the spirals of enquiry that has been taking place firstly in British Columbia (the redoubtable Linda Kaser and Judy Halbert who I first came across two years ago at the same conference).
The morning has begun with Tim Brighouse offering a framework for the work of educators. From the end of the second world war to 1968-9 he characterised as an age of optimism and trust, when more schools and FE colleges were built, when there was a real desire from government to allow schools to grow and develop as autonomous entities. This was followed, from 1969 to Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech in 1976 as an age of doubt and disillusionment, when some of the wackier educational philosophies held sway, leading to the “necessity” of government interference. In both those eras, there had been just one important education bill, and the Secretary of State had three powers only, one of which was a duty to ensure a sufficient supply of teachers. The era of Thatcher, one of markets and managerialism, saw a much greater range of “professional” political input – some 45 education acts have been promulgated since 1979 – and has lasted until now. Amongst the changes since 2010, interestingly, has been the assumption of over 1000 new powers by the Secretary of State, but the loss of the critical one which we are all now suffering from – the duty to secure an adequate supply of teachers.
Tim saw a new age coming, one of partnerships over autonomy. This gives rise to the title of his talk – The Gaps in the Hedges – and an urging for us as educators to test out together with partners of like mind and heart, what is possible under constrained and adverse circumstances.
This challenge was met by David Carter, who began with one of the more hopeful quotes (especially in the light of our own school work on the arts):
Arts are the pulse and the drive of what happens in great schools.
He followed it with another:
The only intervention that works in schools reliably is to raise the quality of teaching.
This inferred a well-judged balance between inspiring young people and giving them the opportunity to achieve well beyond what they believed themselves to be capable of.
Underpinning that great teaching must necessarily be great leadership in every area – teachers leading children in the classroom; middle leaders leading and encouraging colleagues, senior leaders pushing forward the work of middle leaders. At each stage our job was to inspire and raise the expectations of those we lead.
On top of great leadership, and sustaining it, is strong collaboration between schools. David maintained that we needed to build a collaborative base for our education system, enabling informal partnerships to give way to more formal ones; governance to give way to the development of strategic ability; single-school leadership to grow into multi-school leadership; and school-led accountability growing into trust-led accountability.
All of this comes directly from David’s experience with the 12 schools of the Cabot Learning Federation, so there was a sense of “he would say that, wouldn’t he?”. However, whilst I would disagree with the premise he began from, his comments on leadership sparked some thinking. Leadership has to improve first in any system-wide reform. It won’t happen without the ability of leadership to grow in strength and influence. So David found himself asking these questions:
- Do leadership skills remain the same, but the scope and scale change?
- Do leadership skills mature with challenge?
- Do leadership skills transmit to others if you model them well?
- Do leadership skills change to reflect the political landscape?
To all of these questions David answered yes, except the last one, where the answer was “I really hope not”. Leadership requires the twin intelligences of emotional intelligence and impact intelligence – the latter being the ability to know the right thing to do to improve a school. It is a technical intelligence, and includes the ability to
At this point, I began to raise some serious questions of my own leadership, and these have punctuated the day as I have reflected more and more. The first serious question goes something like this:
- Are there things that I know I could or should do to improve my school but that I am not doing because of the fear of man, or because they are too difficult, or because they threaten vested interests? If I am called to lead, there is an argument that I should be a lot more clear and forthright about the basic minimum I expect in my school, for children, and that I am not yet seeing amongst my teaching staff. Am I simply being too nice? And over time, is that eroding my effectiveness?
David then looked at the way we implement change, and was critical of those teams who devise and implement a plan, but then fail to stand back and look forensically at the bits that have not worked, but live with them or rub along with them. In a collaborative setting, there will be much that doesn’t work. Sustaining improvement means a much greater focus on those things and then either redressing them or fixing them.
As a leader committed to collaboration, David believed that the challenges for schools on their own are much greater than for those who are in formal partnership. If one school fails, it impacts on the whole partnership and the whole partnership can find the resources to fix the failure, as part of our collective responsibility. The collaboration gives us the flexibility to deploy staff across schools, offer career progression for staff between schools, provide economies of scale and transmission of best practice and allow for and stimulate strategic governance allied to a strong educational focus across a partnership.
Collaborative leaders need vision, values and beliefs; they need change management experience and expertise (in changing scale, scope and reach), and the skills of holding others to account within a delegated framework. For leaders in these situations to succeed, they need to learn from a great coach, and coach others, practice our teaching and communication, make sure the vulnerable in your purview are enabled to succeed, strive not to avoid difficult conversations and look beyond our context. We must read avidly but critically, keep where possible a learning journal (this blog serves for me, I suppose), understand change management at all scales, understand early years to post-16 as one learning journey to which we all contribute and learn to delegate well.
And other questions then began to arise:
- How do I develop my scale and scope of leadership, if that is necessary to challenge who I am as a school leader?
- Which partners do I collaborate with, particularly in MK which has very few formal collaborations? (I talked about this with Chris Holmwood at SBE – in much the same position).
- Can we provide what I want for our middle leaders by staying the size, scale and independence that we currently maintain?
- Above all, what do I require to be the leader I am called to be, leading and serving to enable the greatest enjoyment of learning, equity of achievement, and height of expectation and attainment?
That has got me about half way through the morning, and we haven’t even got to the Canadians….