Just one book: leadership

In this post I’ll be exploring just one book on school leadership. I’ve previously written on curriculum, assessment and teaching, and my next post will be on ethos.

Leadership is a somewhat tricky subject, in that there are so many bad books on it. Many leadership books seem to spend an inordinate amount of time exploring semantics: what is a leader, and what is a manager? Indeed: what even is leadership?

At a school level, it is simply the people who make the decisions which run the school. On that basis, the book I have chosen seems to me to be the best one out there on the mechanics of how to run – or lead – a school.

51atAsiMjwL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

This book outlines how a great school should be led, with concrete examples of what works. To begin with, Bambrick-Santoyo states: “Exceptional school leaders succeed because of how they use their time: what they do, and how and when they do it.” Specifically, “instruction and culture are vital, and both must be led simultaneously.”

Data-driven instruction

Noting that: “standards are meaningless until you define how to assess them. Assessments, therefore, are the roadmap to rigour,” the author advises meeting after each assessment and “asking probing questions and deeply considering the results,” while great leaders guide this conversation “from the back pocket” – that is, keeping their “answers” in their pocket, and asking the right questions to guide people’s thinking.

Observations

The greatest lesson I learned from this book was the value of weekly developmental observations, coupled with “bite-sized action steps that allow a teacher to grow.” As the author notes: “you don’t get results by placing your best teachers strategically – you get them by coaching each and every teacher to do excellent work.” Finally, an alternative to pointless graded observations, where we are not judging where teachers are currently, but coaching them to improve student learning all the time.

Planning

Bambrick-Santoyo remarks that too often teachers receive “insufficient guidance” in planning, particularly at the start of their careers. Much more, it is suggested, ought to be centralised, and planned according to “assessment”, which is labelled the “roadmap to rigour.”

Training

Quite simply, with professional development: “increasing student achievement is the ultimate goal… if PD isn’t changing how our students learn, it’s useless.” Bambrick-Santoyo posits that “effective PD must start by answering a basic question: what will teachers be able to do at the end of this session?” The benefits of this are maximised by building in time to make the PD relevant to current practice: “giving teachers time to apply their learning is the difference between an engaging afternoon and sustained improvement in instruction.”

Pupil ethos

It is hard to argue with the assertion that “in schools with strong cultures, students receive a continual message that nothing is as important – or as engaging – as learning.” Bambrick-Santoyo advises that the top leaders “transform their vision into meticulously built systems.”

Staff culture

The culture of the school needs to be embodied by both staff and students, and care must be taken of teachers: “when teachers are out with friends or family, what do you want them to say about your school? How do you want them to feel?” The author advises being careful to pick up non-verbal signs from teachers, as not everything (anything?) is captured in formal surveys. Interestingly, Bambrick-Santoyo notes that: “it’s imperative that a leader confront warning signs as they come. Initially, if a teacher seems disengaged during professional development, a leader may be tempted to let it go; perhaps the teacher’s having a bad day… Yet unless it is addressed immediately, it is likely to weaken your culture.” We must always be vigilant to uphold our school culture; one small chink can undermine the entire organisation. The best way to reinforce culture is to continually reference the school’s mission: “by emphasising a common mission, the leader creates an internal motivation to work harder rather than imposing yet another external incentive to perform.”

Yet this is clearly not a blueprint we can pick up and apply to any school indiscriminately. Only those who are observant and have great listening skills will pick up on how to implement these ideas effectively for the context in which they find themselves.

Not only that, it is clear to me that leadership is about vision, and it is only when you harness the belief and motivation of the whole staff body to buy into that vision do these aspects work most effectively: as Bambrick-Santoyo states, “the core principle of a staff culture turnaround is that teachers need to know the school’s core mission… and must be unified in putting it into practice.” But I am not sure it is a book that will tell you how to have a vision, or how you can inspire others to believe in it: that can only come from your own beliefs, which are often informed by experience. And if you can’t imagine what is possible, you need to see a great school in action. And, of course, if you can’t work out why all kids deserve that then it’s not a book you’re in need of.

So far, this series has explored leadership, curriculum, assessment and teaching. The final post will be on school ethos.

Reach Summit

Reach Academy, a Free School set up by Teach First ambassadors Ed Vainker, Rebecca Cramer, and Jon McIntosh, is now three years into its journey to “transform the lives of all of our pupils by providing them with the skills, attitudes and academic qualifications to flourish in any career and live happy and fulfilled lives.” Following an absurdly impressive Ofsted Outstanding report, the school opened its doors yesterday to share some of its core principles and their learning.

The warmth and humility of the teachers and leaders of Reach radiated, alongside their supreme confidence, now buoyed by system approval, and made for an energetic and challenging day. Three students, impressive in their self-possession, preparation and clarity, opened the summit, telling the story of “Ed” and “Rebecca” (unsettling for teachers used to the traditional “Ms/Ms” but a small paradigm shift I rather liked (respect, of course, comes not from monikers)) and their journey to create a school that would transform life chances for children in their community. Having speculated previously on the underachievement of white working class children, I was especially interested to hear one student remark: “I know I’m part of a group. White British boys underachieve nationally, and I’m not going to be one of them.” I’d be very interested to know the conversations that have gone into such clear but unobtrusive awareness.

The first session I attended was run by the inspirational Secondary Headteacher, Rebecca Cramer, who took us point by point through their recent Ofsted inspection, and shared some tips for preparation.  Chief among the take-aways were: to prepare your paperwork to lessen the burden of administration on the day, know your data fully, and to communicate your beliefs about your school clearly (“the more times they hear that this is an Outstanding school, the more they believe it” – “don’t be too self-deprecating”). Rebecca’s tenacity to ensure the grade would be given was evident, along with her and Ed’s willingness to take on almost all of the Ofsted bureaucracy to free teachers to simply deliver great lessons.

Next, assistant principal Grace Wilcox led us through a clear and detailed session on the new Progress and Attainment 8 measures. Although I had familiarity with these measures, her presentation was invaluable in clarifying key questions I had, as well as raising issues regarding the trade-off between school accountability and what is best for the individual child (Reach’s emphasis is firmly on the latter). A serendipity of seating meant I was placed next to the formidable Max Haimendorf, who I have admired since the Teach First 2010 Summer Institute, where sitting in a session run by himself and King Solomon Academy’s first year 7 cohort, he transformed my own ideas of what a transformative education for children would look like. Unfortunately, our first interaction was in doing some simple Maths together to work out a student’s Attainment 8 score, whereby I revealed (too soon, too soon) that I did not know my times tables.

Finally, a session on coaching run by Beck Owen ran through, and most importantly demonstrated, what a Leverage Leadership coaching conversation looks like. It is always good to revisit and practice elements you have some knowledge of, and I know that asking open questions to coach teachers to improve is one of my targets (in the time pressures of the working week it is often too tempting to say: “do this”).

The day ended with further inspiration, as those who had set up schools shared their learning. Ed Vainker noted that “the things we can easily measure are not always the most important in achieving our vision”, exploring the strands Reach would be focusing on to improve ever further. Of recruitment, he mentioned that sharing of core values and vision was more important to Reach than the technical ability to do the job, which was an interesting prioritisation, and emphasises in some ways that the difference of such a school lies in its mission, not its methods.

King Solomon Academy’s Max Haimendorf spoke next, humbly failing to mention the school’s stunning KS4 results, which are by any measure extraordinary (67% FSM; 93% A*CEM; 76% EBacc). He noted that the school had won over the community by getting them, and the children, excited about the goal to attend and thrive in an academically selective university, but that they were always reviewing their methods, and what needed to occur in every week, every lesson, to make this a reality. He spoke of the need, as an organization grows, to “systematize the things that are magical” to ensure sustainability in years to come.

Finally, Jenny, Vice Principal at Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford, shared her reflections, speaking of the ease with a very small staff to build strong relationships, and the need to always prioritise these even as the staff body grows as it is these strong relationships which hold the key to overcoming life chances. Most resonant for me was her imploration to “do the boring things well every day”, ensuring all the little things are being followed up. She also noted that they would need to be mindful of intake, to ensure they were always serving the students who motivated them to “get up everyday.” She mentioned that one of DTA’s focuses was autonomy, and scaffolding in this for students to guard against them ending up age 18, at university, and coming home without the structures that had sustained them.

All in all, my key takeaway from this day was that education is changing, school by school. Inspirational teachers build their visions into inspirational schools, of which they become inspirational headteachers. Their dedication to their students leads to results which defy the beliefs of the naysayers, and prove that a child’s starting point need not determine their end. There is a revolution afoot in education, and we need to all be part of it.