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.

To be a Deputy

A friend of mine, about to take up a new post, asked if I knew of any good books on how to be a good deputy head.  Well, a search on Amazon brings up this little list.  Although I cannot vouch for how good they are, I’m sure they are written with the best intentions.

I don’t think that there is any book on how to be a good deputy that would really make a huge difference to how you discharge your duties.  Rather, I would suggest reading around the idea of leadership: autobiographies, biographies, case studies.  Fallon’s “Six Secrets of Change”, Adair’s “Effective Strategic Leadership” and Lansing’s “Endurance, Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage to the Antarctic” are three books, of thousands, I would suggest to gain inspiration on how leadership works in general.  In this way you can develop a sense of what you believe leadership to be and how you wish to use your own innate qualities to develop as a leader.

Beyond developing this sense of personal leadership style, I offer the following as a list of  what being a good deputy might entail:

  • Don’t choose sides.  You owe allegiance to your Head and the senior management team but you need to be sensitive to the mood and needs of the common room.
  • Be the eyes and ears.  Given the point above, your role is to support the staff team but also, more importantly, to support your Head in developing their vision for the school.  As long as your Head values your contributions, you will have the opportunity to discuss the direction of the school.  So when you do, speak up.
  • Remember who’s the boss.  Do your job.  Your Head needs your support to run the day-to-day operation of the school.   Speak openly with them about your aspirations and interests, set professional targets for your leadership goals but stick to your core purpose.

As with leadership at any level, there is no single or “right” way.  However, there are some key tenets that are immutable and I believe the three above, are a good jump off point for discussion on what might be needed to make a good deputy.


Qualities of Leaders #3

Are there other fundamental attributes that distinguish leaders from ‘non-leaders’? For example, what special attributes do you have that differentiate you from your teachers? Or does it just come down to circumstance/experience?
I’m hoping this might be a useful reflection to extend your August streak.

I am grateful for this comment and questions from JP on my last blog post.  Its testament to social media that this kind of encouragement to share thoughts is (and should be) common place.  The questions, as JP states, are an opportunity to reflect on my own understanding and hopefully this reflection will resonate with others.

JP initially asked how the qualities of a leader differ from a teacher.  My response suggested that, in essence, there are no differences especially when considering that leadership is found at all “levels” within a school.  This prompted the questions from JP, above, and here are my responses:

For me there are four qualities that differentiate those in leadership positions.  Two are perhaps shared with people in a wide range of positions, yet can lead to greater effectiveness for a leader.  And two which are essential for a leader to have, for without these their leadership would stall and quickly become ineffective.

The first two attributes are Humility and Service.

Humility: It would be hubristic for me to write about what qualities I might have that differentiate me from the team of teachers with whom I work.  Humility is a quality that leaders ought to possess!  Naturally it would be for others to judge to what extent I exhibit that quality.

Service: Through 10 years of life as a Head Teacher, I have have found that the second attribute required by those in leadership roles is a desire to support others.  If your career path has provided you the experience that offers the opportunity to apply for, and achieve, a role as a school leader, then you need to recognise that you are there to serve others.  As a leader, your role is to ensure others can discharge their duties effectively, that they can develop as professionals and their sense of well-being and fulfilment is sustained and grows.

Humility and service are clearly attributes shared by both leaders and non-leaders.  We can all be humble and a servant.  Yet when they are demonstrated by those who have been given the privilege and responsibility to lead, then that leader, and their leadership, will be far more effective.

So, the two qualities that I feel do differentiate leaders from ‘non-leaders’, and are therefore more uniquely possessed by individuals in senior roles are Vision and Courage.

Vision: A leader leads people and manages things.  Your team needs to know where they are going and how they are going to get there.  This means that a leader must be able to structure and articulate a vision and continue to communicate how the members of the organisation (in a school: children, staff, parents and governors) can contribute to achieving it.

Courage: The buck stops with you.  The community looks to you for guidance and it takes courage to create and sustain a vision and direction.  When things get tough, you are the one to hold challenging conversations, listen to complaints and deal with the administration of the organisation.  Whether this is Finance, Health and Safety, Staff Performance or, most crucial of all, Safeguarding, you are the one who has to knuckle down and deal with the c**p when everyone else has gone home.

These are, of course, personal views on the most significant differentiators when considering the qualities of leadership.  However, in my experience, the most successful leaders that I have worked with or have known all possess these four qualities.  There are many others, but to be a leader these four are the most significant.

Qualities of Leadership #2

Further to the last post, I’m a big fan of simplifying things.  Too much to remember, long lists of words or concepts will only result in confusion or mis-understanding.  Getting to the essence of ideas, as quickly as possible, is far more compelling.

Coming upon this video from England Rugby, Head Coach Eddie Jones elegantly summarises the qualities in being a successful rugby coach: observation and continued learning.

With these two qualities, as leaders we have in our grasp all that we need to understand the people we work with, make effective decisions and support others in achieving their outcomes successfully.

On the Qualities of Leaders

Reading “Effective Strategic Leadership”, author John Adair discusses three approaches to understanding leadership: Qualities, Situational & Functional.  Of the qualities approach to understanding – and developing – leadership Adair quotes a British military definition of leadership as:

‘…the art of influencing a body of people to follow a certain course of action; the art of controlling them, directing them and getting the best out of them.’

Such a definition – albeit a little blunt, perhaps – holds water in any field in which we have the privilege to lead.  Furthermore, in order to achieve that ‘influence’, there are personal qualities that will enable an effective leader to ‘get the best’ out of their teams.

Entering “leadership qualities” in a Google Search will return “about” 63.5 million results.  More than enough to be getting on with.  With a variety of websites of varying degrees of credibility pronouncing anywhere from 7, 10 or 101 skills, qualities or attributes of or for leaders.

There is clearly no definitive list of qualities that set leaders apart or would be beneficial for leaders to possess.  Adair suggests the following:

  • Leaders possess qualities that reflect their field – for educators, an empathy for children and learning would be a good start!
  • Leaders possess more generic qualities, such a enthusiasm, integrity, energy, toughness, resilience, etc.
  • There are always new qualities to learn from successful leaders – humour, humility, for example – but you should develop the natural qualities that you have.

If there are core qualities that a leader should posses, then they would be those we have known about for the longest time.  Therefore Adair offers us the four leadership virtues which Aristotle gave us:

  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Prudence
  • Fortitude

To cut through the “noise” of writing on leadership qualities, it helps enormously to focus on these few, simple terms.  From this platform we can build a broader sense of what we need to be, how we need to behave as leaders.

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