True beliefs trump fad worship

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about values and ethos. It’s been a month where recent announcements have led to whole cohorts of children being entered for exams and then withdrawn again. I don’t want to write specifically regarding early entries, as I feel much has been written about those subjects and there is no real ground for me to cover. See Kev Bartle  and John Tomsett  for well written and considered blog posts offering differing views on that topic from a school leader’s point of view.

Instead, as a result of this and other more personal events, I’ve been increasingly pondering the ‘why’ of what we do as school leaders. As time passes I realise that, for me, I must keep returning to my own ethos and aims for being in education. If I do not know what they are, as a leader, how can I ask others to follow me? How can I prevent myself ricocheting from fad to fad? How can I have any credibility and command respect? Anecdotal reports of teachers working in schools doing pointless tick box admin exercises and changing policies or practices on a whim based upon Ofsted pronouncements are sadly commonplace. They smack of Heads  and leadership teams who have lost sight of their core purpose or who never really had one in the first place, except perhaps to further their own career.

My personal driver  is to improve educational outcomes for all, irrespective of background or ability. I believe that every local school should be a good school and that all children within a school deserve a great education, irrespective of who they draw on the teacher lottery. Sure, it’s easy to get lost in the day to day but, ultimately, I must come back to this and it needs to inform my professional decisions. As a leader, I cannot fully realise this goal without inspiring others. Thus my thinking has evolved to ensure that I try my best to make it as easy as possible to enable staff in my care to deliver these excellent educational outcomes for students. Teaching is a demanding job and my experience so far is that the majority of teachers want to do it well (although some may lack the tools). I need to have high expectations of my staff but, as they are educated professionals, I must also trust them and listen to what they have to say, and not request foolishness that makes an already difficult job needlessly harder.

Recently, I was asked at interview to explain my ethos and professional influences so far. I was then probed on it for half an hour. I thought this a little odd at the time, as did the other candidates, but with the ever-changing educational landscape I understand it is essential.  Leadership teams in any organization must have a clear and shared vision which underpins everything they do. Otherwise they can be pulled in all directions and become ineffective. In recruitment, understanding a leaders’ core purpose can help to predict how they will interact with staff and students. On the other side of the table, a candidate talking to a Head with a very clear vision and core beliefs that permeate the organisation can quickly work out whether they would be happy working there.

Leaders in education must keep returning to their core purpose. Michael Gove, love him or hate him, is a conviction politician. He is almost evangelical in his zeal to raise standards, although his methods may not be to everybody’s taste.

For me, teaching and learning is the heart of driving up outcomes and achieving my own aims as outlined previously. There are short-term fixes, which are sometimes necessary, but ultimately for sustained improvement we must ensure that children are taught well and learn. I don’t particularly care how, that’s up to individual teachers’ professional judgement. It’s the job of senior leaders to create conditions for this to happen, not prescribe the minutiae of how it should be done. Effective teaching ought to lead to the obvious by-products of improved results and positive inspection reports from Ofsted. If it doesn’t, then I have to ask myself what are league tables and Ofsted measuring and why should we give them any credence?

So finally, I am challenging myself to remain true to my core beliefs. There will always be difficult decisions to make, but if a decision was right for students last week why is it suddenly not so this week? Honesty with ourselves, our staff and our students goes along way and reputation for  integrity is hard won but can be easily thrown away. The communities we work with can handle mistakes and temporary failure (on the way to greater things)  if we gain and maintain their trust and they know we are trying to do the right thing.

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Random things I’ve learnt recently about school leadership

I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in schools over than my own over the past few weeks and have been treated generously by Heads and other SLT members who have given me part of their time. I’m still reflecting on specifics that relate to the particular context of my school and responsibilities but below are some general things that I have picked up and may be of use to others.

When applying for an SLT position, choose your head teacher . It’s easy to fixate on getting a particular role or the promotion but its better to choose a head teacher whose ethos you respect and who you think you can work with. You’ll be working closely with this person for sereveral years and need to be able to reflect their views and vision in the wider school. This relationship with the head is less important in other roles but more important the more senior you are in the school.

Nobody truly knows what they are doing in their first leadership position, especially in the early days and months. The more I talk to people I respect in senior positions the more I realise this is true, via their own admission. They just give the impression of knowing and ask a lot of people so that they can learn really quickly.

What is needed to get a school to become good is different to what is needed to make it become outstanding or even great and different schools are on different positions on that journey.

Sometimes you can be a good candidate but not right for a particular position. Head teachers need to consider the whole picture, how do you fit in with the leadership team? Is your thinking in line with where the school is right now? You are just one piece of a larger jigsaw that they have in their mind.

Build and maintain networks from early in your career. They are invaluable sources of advice, resources and information.

Effective heads spot and nurture talent. It’s not always about money or creating substantive roles. It could be CPD opportunities, secondments or fixed term contracts focussed on particular whole school projects related to the School Improvement plan. These not only develop staff and distribute leadership but they also create extra capacity, which is essential.

Great heads have a clear ethos which permeates every pore of the school and can be summed up or embodied by anybody in any position in their organisation.

What’s in a word?

For a person with a background in maths and applied sciences I can be unusually pedantic when it comes to words, especially if they are words which convey an important concept. There are some words that I feel have become dulled in our current society through over use and often misuse. For example, in my early 20s I was quite uncomfortable with the use of the word love as I felt that it was bandied about too readily. You can like a bag of crisps and maybe even appreciate it’s wonderful taste but to love it? Really? For this reason I had an alternative phrase that I used with my partner along the lines of the “Ditto” used by the Patrick Swayze character in Ghost (look it up youngsters). I’ve relaxed a little re the word love, which is just as well since Valentine’s day is coming up. However, there are a few educational equivalents of which my particular bête noir is Outstanding (capital used deliberately).

Outstanding (definition)
1.Distinguised from others in excellence.

2. Having a quality that thrusts itself into attention.

– Word Web app

Outstanding (synonyms)

superior, excellent, distinguished, prominent, remarkable, striking – Dictionary.com

Outstanding is in my view a word which has become dulled by over use in the educational world. Surely for everybody or everything to become outstanding is an oxymoron. If everybody is outstanding then they are all the same and thus no longer distinguished. What do we actually mean by this word?

Within schools we need to be honest. Often what we mean by outstanding is that a teacher has taught a one-off lesson 1, 2 or possibly 3 times a year which meet the current criteria of what OFSTED call Outstanding. Honestly? Is that the only measure of the quality of a teacher’s practice and the quality of learning that students in their care receive? It feels a little reductive and narrow to me.

Consider a teacher with a 20 hr weekly timetable.
Teaching 40 weeks a year.
That’s 800 hrs of teaching on which a max of 3 hrs is judged.

So is that what some members of Senior Leadership Teams throughout the country are throwing around phases like ‘Outstanding Teacher’ based on? Less than half of one percent of a teacher’s annual contact time. That’s it?
• What about longer term outcomes for students?
• What about the exam results of their classes?
• What about student voice?
• What about their contribution to other colleague’s development
• What about, what about, what about?

I would like us to stop using the word Outstanding, it feels a little like using the language of our oppressors. Yes, as professionals we must know OFSTED criteria and yes, we need to know how we will be judged but day-to-day we can use better and more constructive language. If I aim to be Outstanding and then achieve it, then what? Do I stop trying to improve? Do I stop aiming to be better? If I aim to be Outstanding. what happens when Outstanding is the new Good, just as Satisfactory morphed into Requires Improvement in the blink of an eye?

I don’t know about you, but my aim is to continually improve educational outcomes for the students in my care and my job as a school leader is to create conditions for others to do the same. This compels me to want to improve my practice as a classroom practitioner and as a leader. I’ll do this whatever external agencies call it and whether anybody is watching me or not and I’ll expect, encourage and provide opportunities for other people who I am responsible for leading to do the same.

What’s the point of OFSTED?

The above is the rather blunt question I  that  posed recently during an occasional  focus/ discussion group that I attend with other educational professionals at the DfE.  It was posed to a civil servant who was part of the team who advises Michael Gove and was part of a wider discussion about the direction of travel of the current government.

Although it sounded a little blunt, I was actually generally interested.  In my mind there is sometimes some confusion as to whether OFSTED is about school improvement or accountability.  It’s clear that many teachers and schools feel and fear its accountability role but OFSTED itself often wades into the school improvement pool with reports collating best practice in various areas.

The response from the civil servant was very clear and unequivocal “Accountability”. Before going on to outline that school improvement was intended to be more devolved and localised falling into the remit of local partnerships, alliance and teaching schools.

“If, it’s about accountability,” I mused aloud “why do we carry on with the high pressure lesson observations when actually we all know that OFSTED tend to look at the data, make a judgment re what it is telling them and then find the evidence around the school to support the conclusion to which they have already come?”

So far so predictable but it was the response of one of my fellow attendees that made me stop, reflect and write this post.

OFSTED look at lessons to validate the judgements of the senior leadership teams.  It’s not really about the teachers its about whether they agree with what SLT have said about the quality of their schools.

Another participant then added something along the lines of

Yes the data is one source of evidence but they are really just looking at different ones to see if they argee with what the leadership team are saying

I may little slow but at that moment something clicked into place for me.  They were entirely correct. OFSTED is about the SLT, the fear and pressure that teachers feel is very real but it comes from their management teams not the inspectors.  How do I know this? because we recently went through a review by an oranisation called the Challenge Partners and the classroom teacher felt no pressure at all, because they weren’t put under any.  Some people came into their lessons and gave them feedback and behind the scenes there were lots of meetings with senior leaders and various TLR holders to justify what we as a school said about ourselves. That was it.

In schools OFSTED has become the bogey man but it need not be that way.  Leaders need to make it clear that actually we are the ones being judged not teachers. Still not sure? Well when teachers are observed do the best ones put any pressure on their students? No- because it wouldn’t be fair to do so as they aren’t really the ones being judged.