This week we enjoyed a visit by Sir David Carter, now our Regional Schools Commissioner and soon to move to the role of National Schools Commissioner. When I worked in Bristol, I had the privilege of working with and learning from him. He is a friend with a mutual passion for cricket, Cirencester and improving the lives of children. He is, of course, very astute and made sure he saw beneath the surface of school appearances, looking closely at teaching, behaviour and leadership and the support of our sponsor, the White Horse Federation. He spoke to a number of students about their personal journeys, and was impressed with the changes he has seen since he visited last year. He has left me with some clear next steps for our improvement journey. We discussed how a Multi Academy Trust takes on, supports and challenges schools and their leaders to improve outcomes for children. Just before Christmas we had the last of the Ofsted monitoring visits led by Jim Sage HMI. Again Jim was hugely impressed with the rapid change in culture, expectations and teaching here. See his comments in the January newsletter and in the full Section 8 monitoring letter on our website.
Turning the ship around and doing so quickly is essential so that students closest to exams really feel and experience that change to improve their future. However, a more fundamental challenge and a deeper task is transforming the culture throughout the whole of the school from Y7-Y13 or Reception to Y6, and thus the community beyond. Then it becomes more than a scientific, interventionist, last ditch, exam-focused, quick-fix but instead a real work of long term art and heart. Michael Barber describes the challenge of irreversible, organisational change as both “an art and a science”.
In his book “Turning the ship around” L. David Marquet uses his experience as the captain of the nuclear submarine the Santa Fe, to redefine a different kind of leadership style. Being confronted with the worst performing submarine in the US fleet he watched at first hand as those he led blindly followed poor orders rather than using their own thinking to improve. He urges us to move away from the traditional leader-follower model and instead encourage an intent-based leadership style where people feel more valued and are proud to become part of something bigger than themselves. Where people understand and know the goals of the organisation and thoughtfully contribute towards their accomplishment. Where control and decision-making is pushed down through the organisation.
So what are the essentials of turning an institution around? And is it the same leadership skill-set which moves good organisations to great ones? I have worked in 2 outstanding schools in London and Wiltshire, helped move a Swindon school from Serious Weaknesses to Outstanding, led an undersubscribed Bristol school out of difficulty to being oversubscribed and judged Good. I have taught in 2 highly regarded Multi Academy Trusts and a CofE school and have tasted a range of school improvement strategies.
These steps I have learnt from working alongside great leaders, from my mistakes and from bitter experience.
Step 1: Learning from great peers – Working in federation enables much more than networking. In the very distinctively ‘moral purpose’ Cabot Learning Federation, English and maths teams meet termly in teams of up to 25, and share great teaching ideas, exam techniques, moderate each others’ exams, and properly collaborate. What a powerful networking team and support for teachers! In the WHF the clarity of a ‘values-culture’ which supports and develops staff and children means an attractive and distinctive blend of school improvement strategy for long term change. Part of the rationale for Sir David’s next task will be to spread this style of joint working across all of our national schools. Real experience tells me that this structure of peer learning works. I have seen the days before this era when Local Authorities did not effectively improve hard-to-move schools, often failed to equip leaders to enact change and where consultants came and went, some effective, some less so. As a Principal my CEO holds me to account in a way which means things have to change rapidly for my children, but also provides me with the tools and feet-on-the-ground support to make this happen. “This helps accelerate student progress faster than if you do it alone, someone has already thought about the problem you are trying to solve”, says Claire Carter, the WHF Professional Development leader, talking to the second group of cross-phase Middle Leaders in Gloucester completing their 6 week programme this week. We are striving to develop leaders at all levels, in secondary and local primaries to build capacity in our schools. If you are in a Multi Academy Trust where there is no appreciable impact on your development as a middle leader or teacher, then probably something is not right.
Step 2: Start by pointing the camera back at us – what do standards really look like? Being a new Principal allows you that privilege of turning the camera back at the children and staff. The first thing I did in a previous school was to take a running series of photos of the route into school for children, behind fencing which at the time resembled Guantanamo Bay, compared with the sleepy walk for staff down the drive into the calm, staff-only reception. And why was it like this? Because some of the children could not be trusted to be in reception in front of visitors. Capturing this screaming polarity on camera was powerful and meant that reversing this mindset with staff was so much easier. Images of great learning behaviour (not passive learning) are a great vehicle to assemblies which can drive ethos change. Include planned camera time in your 100-day plan as well as your three-year plan.
Step 3: How good is your teaching team? Have a set of photos of all staff in reception, or your office, and study it regularly. This is the team you are creating, building and fine-tuning and who will change lives. When you stand and look does it fill you with pleasure and purpose? They will bring joy and hope and life-changing difference. Or they won’t. Do you revel with joy about the team surrounding you who will bring sparkle and pleasure, strength and rigour to our childrens’ lessons and lives? Are they a team of life changers who keep you on your toes? Leaving the Middle Leaders’ training on Friday evening last week was a sparkle moment for me. It felt an honour to be supporting their development as future leaders.
Dylan Wiliam writes “While school structures and organisations have changed, the two essential components at the heart of real shift is the way that we assess and the fundamental question: How do we increase teacher quality? The best teachers provide the best feedback enabling the most rapid progress” (Embedded Formative Assessment).
Be there in the lessons where it counts! One of the most significant ways to model your leadership of teaching, both to your commitment to the learning process and to the fact that you practice what you preach, is to be in the classes where you need to see a big shift. It supports teachers with the progress of those children working below par by sitting next to them, showing and modeling, and it shows to children that the quality of teaching and learning on a daily basis is what you most care about. Gary Keller (The One Thing) suggests carving into your diary the time slots early in the morning of where your priorities point you. I try to make sure that the key improvement areas are at the top of my weekly calendar, and are not deflected by more ‘urgent’ things.
Step 4: Forge brilliant relationships in and out of the school – these are the meat and drink of a great leader – that blend of excellent professional engagement, developing serious rigour with governors, warm but strong parental contact and a rapport with students which blends great expectations with that palpable privilege of working together. These relationships are our metier. Without these essentials the best-laid improvement plans will fall flat; will be the science without the art. That said, there is an inevitable tension in trying to develop strong positive outward-facing professional relationships while being relentlessly concerned with urgently needing to drive standards in your own school, and making sure that you are a trusted, steadying presence for staff and students. We have days driving home listening to ourselves telling the staff about that one sparkle of good in a sea of bad, and wondering who we are fooling! But by the next day that very steadfastness will have brought confidence just when it was needed, and it will be fine.
Step 5: Create routines of delivery which will work and listen – Michael Barber describes brilliantly how it is the dull, repetitive, mundane routines which drive improvement at government and at school level. From the perspective of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit in Tony Blair’s second term, where the purpose was to deliver on the promises Blair made but failed to deliver in the first term, Barber manages to make dull attractive. Once the new systems have been introduced, then the next phase of embedding the system and driving change is fundamental. Don’t keep changing: just make it work for teachers and students! When I first arrived at GA, I remember explaining the new behaviour system to one of our astute Y11 boys, who in his time at the school had seen 10 different headteachers come and go. That’s ten, in five years. He told me “I like it, Mr Frost, and we get you, but you know what?” He looked at me with wisdom beyond his years and delivered the telling line “the system will break next week”. We talked in detail about what he meant. So often in schools facing challenge, the children and the staff have seen so many different leaders, so many iterations of systems. Ultimately they just need and want stability and security of staff, leaders systems, and above all, trust. I needed to listen to his feedback and remember that. This is why we need to deal with change with incredible discernment.