One Year In.

My goodness, it is nearly a year since I started in post as Director of Sixth Form at a new school.  In many ways, this is my perfect job as it straddles both the academic and pastoral worlds.  Although, one major reflection is that the split between these domains is somewhat artificial, in practice working with students is much more integrated and … well, messier than these typologies suggest.  The pastoral is the academic and vice versa but I think this debate is for another blog.

In short, it is a job where I get to be involved in many different parts of school life.  Perfect for a busy-body like me, but I have learned much about myself and this role in the last 12 months.  Lessons which are still whirling around in my mind, in the disarray of the summer holiday.

Reflection is not just about beating yourself up and seeing what you need to do better but also about rejoicing in the small steps, the forward direction and successes of the year.  It is too easy to dwell on disappointments and frustrations.  We spend a lot of time and attention in watering the weeds and then we are surprised when they grow in the nooks and crannies of our minds.  I wonder if we forget to water the flowers or at least notice them?  I guess it is human to be self-critical, but this needs to be tempered with a means of putting weaknesses into perspective and holding onto the good bits.  Check the perfectionism at the door and embrace the fact that we are all a work in progress, and that is ok.

It has taken me a full year to get my head around a new school, I cannot believe it.  My Head did try to tell me as much when I started, but I thought it strange advice. Surely, all schools are the same, but different?  The basic ingredients are the same, but the mixture is far from homogenous.  This is my fifth school, seventh Headteacher, twelfth Secretary of State for Education and all very different from what has gone before. It has been a year of making sense of the new in the familiar and the general in the particular.

The puzzle has been to work out what needs to change to improve things for the students.  Being new to the team is a bit of a super-power as you can constantly ask questions about why we do things this way and whether x or y might work better. I am sure this is deeply annoying for my line manager and the people I work with but in the narrative behind the whys and wherefores, you get under the skin of how a school works and what might be most effective.  What will work in this school?  This process has made me think of the famous Dylan Wiliam quote about what works.

However, in education ‘what works’ is a particularly useful question to ask because almost everything works somewhere, and nothing works every- where. The important question is, ‘Under what conditions does a particular initiative work.’

Wiliam, D, (2007)

The challenge has been to see what would work in this context, it does not matter how good the idea is on paper, what really matters is what it looks like in practice, in the day-to-day reality of school life.

The Education Endowment Foundation has put together a useful guide to planning, delivering and sustaining change in education. I have found their implementation model helpful and a challenge to my own thinking about change. Schools are learning organisations who are continuously trying to improve and do better for the young people and staff within them. We are constantly attempting new things, adapting existing practices to become more effective but often not enough time is spent on implementation.

The new idea becomes an ‘add on’ to be completed as well as the day-to-day tasks. Ideas with the best intentions can fail as we try to manage competing school priorities. The EEF guide is an interesting starting point in the science of professional practice of implementation; what is the evidence around effective implementation? What do effective schools do to manage change? The EEF report summarises this field into 6 clear recommendations for implementation.

EEF (2018) Recommendations for Implementation
EEF Implementation Cycle – Guidance Report 2018
  1. Plan, plan and plan some more.

“We should treat implementation as a process, not an event; plan and execute it in stages.”

EEF (2018)

Schools like many organisations are often guilty of trying to do too many things at once. There does seem to be gains by giving more time to the explore and prepare stage, the more you till the soil, the deeper the roots will grow. Creating this time and space is difficult for schools are we are constantly pulled into the immediacy of now.

“Building an evidence-informed school is a process not an event. If you commit, you’ll need to commit for many years to plan and implement … Often we have too many initiatives, the wrong initiatives and poor implementation of them … We need the best part of six months to a year; we tend to give it five minutes.”

Stephen Tierney, Headteacher 5 Tips for Creating a More Evidence Informed School

Tierney says there are no magic wands or quick fixes, his recipe for creating a more evidence-informed schools, chimes well with the EEF guidance. We need to ditch the garbage, lead more by doing less, evaluate what we do, enhance staff knowledge and understanding, empower don’t dictate and understand the limitations of the evidence. Excellent advice, if a bit daunting.

There is much to be said for spending more time defining the problem and identifying different possible solutions and looking at the fit and feasibility of your plans in your own school’s context. My first year has definitely felt like a rollercoaster at times, not knowing where the twists and turns will be. I now feel I have a better insight into the track so that I can plan and prepare for my racing lines.

2. The challenge of implementation.

“Vision without implementation is hallucination”

Thomas Edison

The pace of school life and timeline for decisions is perhaps unlike any other industry, like the metaphorical super tanker, it needs space and time to manoeuvre.   This has been helpful as I have been impatient for change but I recognise it will take longer to embed.

This is perhaps the most difficult element of change; how do you ensure successful implementation of new ideas? This starts with the overall vision and clearly explaining the ideas to both staff and students, measurable outcomes and time / resources to support new ideas.  Nothing too surprising here, but I wonder whether we give enough time and support to the implementation of new ideas.  Recognising that they will take time to impact on measurable outcomes, it is useful to use some soft data to help show that the intervention is having an impact (library attendance, applications for student leadership). The EEF recommend the use of logic models to help visualise and conceptualise an implementation plan.

I guess what I am learning is that it could be the quality of the implementation rather than the new practice itself which can be at fault. This leaves me with lots to think about in my own plans for improvement.

3. Importance of a pre-mortem.

Without becoming too Eeyorish, it is always helpful to have a go at guessing the potential problems, where will the idea fail, plan for these eventualities and build more resilience into the plan.

4. Mind The DIP.

Any new intervention will have a dip from the starting point to the end goal.   You start off thinking this is awesome and the best idea ever, to realising how much work it will be, to self-doubt through to eventually reaping the rewards of the change.

We need to find ways to push past the dip and the dark night of the soul.  We can do this by leveraging the soft data to keep up confidence and self-belief.  This is not to suggest we should not recognise a dead-end when we see one, but a sense of perspective and acknowledging the micro-improvements are important.

“Determining how well implementation is progressing relies on having a clear understanding of what ‘good’ implementation should look like.”

EEF (2018)

Capturing useful data will help us monitor and improve the quality of the implementation. I have found some of the micro-data very encouraging this academic year, such as library attendance, number of volunteers as well as the more crunchy hard data on attendance and attainment but I recognise it might take longer to have impact on student outcomes.

What am I learning about me?

The year has given me much to think about in terms of implementing change but more profoundly it has helped me think about myself in my new role.  I remain impatient, self-critical with a deep desire to just roll up my sleeves and get on with it.  However, it is not possible for one person to do it all, the ‘leader as hero’ model is deeply flawed. My role now is to be a catalyst of positive change, which involves more research, reflection, planning, coaching and consensus building. 

Leadership is not something you possess, moreover a process involving relationships and followership. One year in, I am still a work-in-progress, it has been a challenging year, but I am grateful for what it has taught me so far. Ask me how I am doing in a few months time.

EEF (2018) Putting Evidence to Work: A Schools Guide to Implementation. Guidance Report.

Wiliam, D. (2007) Assessment for Learning: Why, what and how? Inaugural lecture. Institute of Education, University of London, 24 April.

Tierney, S. (2018)5 Tips for Creating a More Evidence Informed School.