Ecologising the Dialectic: 4 ways schools can be ecological in their thinking

“Mermaids Hate Plastic” (2016) by Von Wong

I completed my Masters in Education for Sustainability just over 20 years ago. As should be the case, some things I have remembered!

Apart from the statement that “one day, they’ll call it education” (when discussing sustainability education in schools), a phrase that has remained with me is “Ecologising the Dialectic”.

At the time, I hadn’t a clue what this meant. For those of you who are students of Hegel (what? Science of Logic not on your summer reading list?) or Marx (dialectical materialism?), you will know that “dialectic” refers to discourse over differing points of view to establish truth through reasoned argument. “Ecologising” relates to the synthesis of thinking that brings these differing points of view together to see them as a whole system in which human society relates to its environment (see Murray Bookchin).

I am, at heart, a “green” ecologist however it wasn’t until one of our PGCE students introduced me to the work of Urie Bronfrenbrenner, that a very large and important penny finally dropped! Far from being a “green” issue, ecology and ecological thinking is applicable to human society and social ecology is a manifestation of this.

Society is an inter-dependent system. Just as in the natural world each element acts to influence or be influenced by other parts of the system. It has been our wilful disregard of this principal that has led us to the state of emergency over plastics in the oceans, for example. Therefore, using the same thinking, schools (with Bronfrenbrenner in mind) are also inter-dependent systems and seen as such will lead to greater improvements in how they work.

Seeing your school as a social eco-system will enable you to bring together the often disparate thinking that sets in. Staff, classes, departments, leadership teams, can consider themselves separate to each other in a way that overlooks the powerful influences that exist between them. Far from the top-down, bottom-up, process-driven approach that has dominated education, “ecologising” our thinking about schools will lead to improved performance and greater engagement from all elements of the system.

Here are 4 ways that you can think more ecologically about schools and education. Separately, they are intuitive, however together “the whole is greater that the sum of its parts.

1. Early Intervention

From SEND and safeguarding to literacy in under fives, from parental engagement and behaviour to quality first teaching. The “earlier” change can be effected, the quicker improved outcomes can be achieved. Therefore consider “early” in both senses of the word: “early” in a child’s life or in a parent’s involvement with the school, and “early” as soon as concerns are raised.

2. Things go in spirals

Dialectical thinking has given us the problem-reaction-solution approach which has in turn led to the Shewhart Cycle (Plan-Do-Check-Act/Adjust) which we all now know as Plan-Do-Review. It’s active learning, action research or just good sense. But it’s a spiral, it’s iterative, with each turn of the cycle leading to progress. The review leads to further planning, which takes you further forward than the last time you planned. Whether it’s performance management, school improvement plans or assessment for learning, each turn of the spiral builds on that which has gone before.

3. It’s all connected

Child achieves a learning objective, this leads to next steps. A teacher assesses and facilitates learning of next steps impacting their planning for the next set of learning objectives, and the next… Progress of the whole cohort is monitored over time and support for learning is necessary where children require it. SLT, Governors, OfSTED are all interested in the progress being made, the rate of progress and support utilised. This affects the school improvement plan, which in turn affects the quality of teaching and learning which in turn affects the learning objectives, which in turn impacts upon the child.

4. It’s not “engagement”, it’s “enabling”

Engagement is a “point-to-point” connection. Parents should be more “engaged” in reading with their child. Governors should be more “engaged” with monitoring outcomes. But where there is engagement, there can be dis-engagement. Therefore, to be more effective and sustainable, there must be an enabling of involvement and inclusion that has greater impact in the long term. Take parents and reading for instance. Parents should be regularly and consistently given opportunity to understand WHY reading is important – newsletters, seminars, guest speakers, coffee mornings, well-trained parent readers…This then “enables” parents to become comfortable with HOW they can encourage reading and WHAT they can do outside of school to PLAY A PART in developing children’s reading ability. By consistently and regularly providing messages and growing knowledge and skills in parents, they will feel enabled to respond when the cry goes up: “you must help your children to read!” If they don’t feel enabled, any amount of “engagement” is not going to impact on progress.

I am sure you will have other ways that “ecological” thinking can support schools to become more effective and I would love to hear them. However, these 4 principles underpin all relationships within a school, between the school and parents and between the school and the wider world (especially other schools and local services). These are Bronfrenbrenner’s principles and from plastic in our oceans, to early childhood literacy, a greater understanding of ecology will improve our schools and the systems within which they operate.

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The wedding, British Values…and queuing

Tomorrow’s wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle may divide opinion about the relevance of monarchy.  However it does draw us together as a nation and allow us a moment to reflect on ourselves as a country, our history and relevance in the modern world.  Oh, and appreciate the dress and people in uniform!

As part the Education (Independent School Standards) Regulations (2012) Free Schools, along with all schools in England, are expected to promote British Values: Democracy, Rule of Law, Individual Liberty and Mutual Respect and Tolerance.  Regardless of your own nationality, country of origin or spiritual faith, if you ask me, these are not only British Values, they are universal human values.  The concepts are common to all of us seeking to live in a sensitive and productive way.  Furthermore, they are born out in my own school’s values of Resilience, Perseverance, Aspiration, Respect, Pride and Curiosity.

Therefore, far from being a “requirement” that forces us to explore these concepts, British Values and our School Values, are woven through everything we are as a school.  From yesterday’s outdoor classroom day to focus on Key Stage 1 SATs.  From Friday Assembly, to our organised and positive playtimes.  From lollipop Friday to the Summer Fair. Our focus as a School and Community is to enable the children to start their journey as thoughtful, caring and well-balanced human beings, prepared to live a successful and productive life.

So, as you watch (or purposefully avoid) tomorrow’s Royal Wedding, at the very least enjoy the sense that we all share common values, including the right to have an opinion on everything from the dress to whether or our taxes should be lavished on such events!   And queuing…

Have a great weekend.

When Everyone Needs a Piece of You

Controlling your day is often about controlling the interactions. People “need” you: to make decisions (mentor), reflect on their own situations (coach) or just feel that they have the ear of the authority figure (facilitate). These interactions are essential in our role as Heads/Principals, they are the engine of school progress, and people (colleagues or others) ought to feel that they can have quality time when in your presence.

A blog post from Brandon Johnson, encouraged thinking around the inevitable practicalities of headship: How do you spend your time? How do you do this “productively”? How can you be sure? Whilst this is not another blog post on productivity – there are acres of digital copy wasted on this – it is important in the leadership adventure that we can feel satisfied we are making progress and having a positive impact on our colleagues and the children most importantly.

Indeed, this maybe a longer project than merely a blog post, but that’s what this is all about, right? Reflection through a blog post leading to personal growth that will inevitably provide opportunity for others to reflect – as Brandon’s post enabled me to do. A distillation of thinking that focuses the mind in creative and interesting ways.

So, when everyone needs a piece of you, how do you ensure the most effective cutting of the cake that surely should leave a piece for you to enjoy in comfort, in your office, or in your puppy room…

“Schedule your priorities, don’t prioritise your schedule”. Get a grip of your diary. Whether you run it, your office manager or your personal assistant (or your sister, like George Ezra!), it is essential to ensure your week, half term, term, are well defined. Of all the filing, organising, do, dump, delegate guidance in David Allen’s Getting Things Done, the most influential for me has been “scheduling your priorities”. This will create the space we need to be the administrator and enable others to gain from your wisdom and soothing influence! If you have a governors report to write, it’s in the diary. Work scrutiny, meetings – with teams or individuals, visits from your governors, learning walks, all go into the diary. And well ahead of time. No surprises and plenty of preparation time.

Yes, preparation time. If I’ve learned anything in 11 years of headship, it’s focus on time to prepare. You can invoke the “fail to prepare, prepare to fail” mantra or the Army’s 7Ps if you wish, but we all understand that knowing at least something of what we are meant to be doing or saying in upcoming meetings is rather essential. Often this falls into late working days, takes up our nights or spills into our weekends. However, to lay claim properly to our well-being, please plan preparation time into your diary.

Open door time. Whether it’s you in your office (or puppy room), or you camp out around the school, in the library or other open space; whether you are on informal learning walks or wandering off into the playground, plan time to be available. This is crucial, as it helps to others to recognise that a) you desire the chance to communicate and b) at other times you have to knuckle down and get on with your own tasks. A reputation for openness, availability and lack of structure can lead you to a continual round of fire-fighting and doing the bidding of others. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, Heads who tend towards desk-jockeying bureaucracy will quickly find challenges with staff and parent moral. Be with the community but ensure they recognise the boundaries.

Be flexible. Fire alarm, playground accident, demanding parent or, heaven forbid, covering a lesson, you will encounter something that will put all of your wonderful plans out of kilter. Hey, ho! That is the nature of the job and we wouldn’t – or shouldn’t – be doing it if we couldn’t embrace the challenge and thrill (yes, exciting isn’t it, not knowing) of the vagaries of the school day. For this we cannot plan our way out (or in). For this we need some personal work in managing stress and anxiety. Develop skills in communication, reading people and managing conversations. Whether it’s coaching, mindfulness practice or NLP (or preferably all three), there are tools which support not only our own mental state, but the effective understanding of the state of others. And that will lead to some very positive relationships. Unless of course you have a puppy room!

The First Term

In the hiatus between Christmas and New Year, there is a pivotal point that exists, permitting a moment of reflection. It comes just after the noise of the past term has abated and just before thoughts and preparation for the new term take hold with renewed vigour. Granted, we have the social milieu that surrounds us at this time of year and the much needed personal, family time is the most significant focus. Yet, if we want to stop and take a look around once in a while, then this is as good time as any.

It is in that moment that I find myself. At the start of September I left the independent schools sector after 23 years, 10 as a Head, and took up a role in the state-funded sector as the Principal of a Free School. The move has meant adjusting my own preconceptions about involvement in public education whilst facing the challenge of applying 20+ years in teaching and school leadership in the private sector.

I admit apprehension. Questions troubled me in the months beforehand: what would be required to make the transition from one role to another, from a Sussex country prep school to an urban Hertfordshire Free School? How would I get to grips with the regulatory challenges that appear to swamp schools? And what is the truth behind the media hubbub that has coloured the perception of free schools, let alone created such negativity about the lot of state education in England? However, in answering these questions through the term, I am left with an overwhelming sense of contentment. I have been able to rise to the challenge (so far!) and the myths and biases that I had possessed have been so very securely dispelled and dismissed.

So through reflection at this point in the school year, the pathways of the past 16 weeks can be looked upon from a convenient perspective. These are the ‘lower foothills’ of the term as a whole; the summit will be reached later in July! The experience has renewed my interest in and passion for what schools can be. The opportunities have shown me clearly that commitment to a leadership style enabling and empowering colleagues actually does work.

So, up to this point, these lesson I have learned:

Relationships work. Communities are built on a sense of belonging; on recognising that we are collectively part of something that is greater than ourselves. I make no apology for believing that this must lie at the heart of excellent schools. The cynical among us may call it internal marketing or PR, but a child and their family need to feel that they belong to a place, a group, a community that has their interests at heart and values their contribution. Building relationships, and more importantly sustaining them, was my first task on arrival in September and will remain a key to further success. Whether these relationships encourage participation or gain feedback, in permits an understanding of the people in your organisation and how to reach them. Even, and especially, the more reticent.

Governance matters. Excellence in governance is about being well informed but mindful of who makes key decisions and has the most public accountability; who has to lead staff, parents and children on a daily basis – and that’s not only the Head. It is about possessing a humanity and compassion for the people, the human beings, in an organisation and it is being knowledgeable about the evidence – in all its forms – and being clear on the narrative. Finally, it is about knowing the leaders and responding to their needs with guidance and good counsel.

Teamship & Leadership by turns. By and large colleagues know what they’re doing. They are grown ups, professional people with a vision for what they want to achieve, whether in the classroom, their department or the school as a whole. As a Head you own the vision for the whole organisation and you ensure values are shared; you articulate “why” and you can show “how” but the “what” is up to your colleagues. They are the ones at the chalk face so need the support, training and awareness to put the vision in to practice through the values that you all share. Therefore knowing when to take a step back and let others lead, to trust their skills (developing or secure), results in a greater sense of cohesion and confidence. Allowing colleagues to show you how they interpret the vision and values you have established can be an incredibly powerful force for a truly collaborative school system.

Schools are about children. Strangely, in my experience, an occasionally overlooked fact! Regardless of socio-economics, location, professional status, source of income or educational background, parents all essentially want the same successful outcomes for their children: to be happy, well-educated and a decent member of the community. Of course this is extremely complex and much ink, digital or otherwise, has been spent on trying to define the meaning of education. However, what is patently clear is the question that should drive any school’s development: “so what?” The impact of any initiative, CPD, leadership approach or development plan has to have at its heart the impact on the community of children. And this is true regardless of how a school is funded, whether from public or private sources. The key is accountability.

As we move into the Spring Term, we have a clearer sense of identity and purpose. We have agreed and shared values and we have a critical and transparent view on the progress made by the children. I am now looking forward to putting it all together and building the cohesion that our sense of purpose enables.

Ten Years of Coaching

Ten years ago (last June, admittedly) I completed my Advanced Coaching training.  Since then coaching has become an increasing valuable system and recognised as a mainstream approach to personal and professional development.  Regrettably, it has not become the “tool-du-jour” as I referred to it in my original blog post and as I hoped back then.

Since 2007, schools have been submitted to sustained pressure, criticism and weight of expectation.  As a result, staff have had to bear this burden and there has been a resultant impact on well-being and performance.  The crisis in recruitment and retention is part of a wider challenge in professional life and therefore we are surely at a point to revisit the principles of coaching and their impact on schools. 

In the past decade there has been an increased, an improved, focus on mental health and well-being, and schools, inevitably and necessarily, are at the forefront of making a difference to the lives of the children and staff that inhabit them.  We have always known that happiness leads to productivity in the workplace, the retention of staff and children willing and ready to learn.  Therefore the attention that we have on the human needs of belongingness, love and esteem, is something that we can fully embrace in the development of a coaching culture in our schools.

I am looking forward to the journey to becoming a Licensed Coach Trainer (finally, after 10 years!) and supporting the development of a coaching culture in my School Trust and beyond.  

All Change…?

This month I made a transition into a new post.  After 23 years in independent education, I have joined a Free School (state funded, independent of local authority control) as Principal.  And today was the first day of the new school year.  So what has been the difference?

I will write about the “on boarding” process at a future date.  I will outline the lessons I’ve learned and how best to approach leadership transitions.  This will describe the need to build strong relationships early on, to drink deeply from the cup of knowledge possessed by those who already work for the organisation you are joining and how to prepare and plan voraciously in the precious time you have in the lead up to the start of the new role.

Whilst there are more nuanced differences culturally, in all schools there are broadly speaking four groups that are the focus:

Staff are always adherents of what ought to be best for children.  That said, personal views can vary and the expression of this mindset can sometimes be at odds across teams.  School staff always know, regardless of sector, that they are in a vocation that puts young people at the heart of why we come to work.

Parents need to put their faith and trust in the leadership and management of a school.  Whether parents pay fees or not, whether they have the choice or not, parents must have belief that the best interests of the children are at the heart of the school.  And that their children will make progress equal to or surpassing expectations, age-related or otherwise.

Children.  Well they are children.  They are joyful, growing, curious, needy, learning. They are affected by their backgrounds, families and early childhood experiences, but they are not to be held to account for that.  Schools work with the children presented to them and, in essence, they are the same precious individuals wherever you go.

Good governance can be found anywhere – temperate, positive, supportive of Heads and ultimately transparent.  Governance should not be cabalistic micro-management that creates division by operating with subterfuge and in underhand ways; dividing communities and not uniting them.

The change I am experiencing most on moving sectors is one of the mindset possessed by the organisation above me – the Governors and the Trust that support our schools.  It creates a platform for the leadership teams to develop provision and a mechanism for reflecting on the success of that provision in the progress of the children and the operation of the business.  The fact that my school and the trust are only 3 and 4 years old respectively, is certainly a factor in this mindset but I know from experience, and knowledge of good governance models, that this is can also be achieved in much more established schools and trusts.

I am learning systems, working with the team at school to establish new ones and modify those that exist.  This is the function of school leadership.  As is building and sustaining relationships.  And given that this is arguably my first task, change has been manageable thus far.

I miss the parents, staff and children of the school I have moved from but I know that I can build strong relationships in the communities that I have been fortunate to lead.  I am looking forward to exploring the management of change and to forging the strong relationships between staff, parents and children that make schools successful.

5 Ways to Develop Leadership Capacity

What does leadership really require?

I’m preparing to co-host a workshop at a forthcoming conference.  The aim of the workshop is to encourage participants to explore how schools can develop leadership capacity in any role.

In considering what lies beneath this topic, I feel there are 5 ways in which schools and organisations can support the development of this capacity.

  1. Creating Culture.  Starting at the top, Head and Governors, the school as a whole must embrace the notion that leadership is manifest in the role of every member of staff, in some way, at some juncture.  It is recognising these manifestations that will develop and effective culture of support and encouragement.
  2. Professional Development Pathways.  Whether within school or through hubs or teaching and learning alliances, the availability and promotion of professional development is essential within a school that values its supportive culture.  Opportunity needs to be given, but there needs to be encouragement to look for and then take it for the better development of the school.
  3. Role-modelling.  Leadership attributes are, can be, many and varied.  If others are to build their understanding of how leadership works, then they have to be able to see how these attributes are lived out and how they impact the workplace.
  4. Well-being. The Senior Leadership Teams are responsible for the development and sustainability of colleagues’ well-being, physical and mental health.  Developing capacity in people requires care over how motivation and productivity works.  Happy, healthy staff, make for happy, healthy schools.
  5. Start with assuming the best in people.  Lao Tzu is quoted: “A leader is at his best when people barely knows he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, the will say: ‘We did it ourselves’.”  Developing capacity starts with providing the space, professional and psychological, for people to fill.  It is the role of school leaders to fill this space, but not with themselves!

The workshop itself, will provide feedback from others across the staff team about how leadership can be developed in any role.

The sole aim of school leadership is to provide positive impact on the growth and development of the children in school, socially, emotionally and academically.  This cannot be forgotten.  It is only in an integrated system, where capacity building through enlightened leadership exists, that the sparks and fire of inspirational learning and opportunity for the children can be ignited.