People-focused school leadership…

 

“What is the single most important thing for a company? Is it the building? Is it the stock? Is it the turnover? It’s the people, investment in people.” DAVID BRENT

 

Although spoken by character in a television sitcom, the sentiments expressed by David Brent in relation to what makes an organisation tick are the same sentiments that I share in relation to a school. As a serving headteacher it has been a philosophy of mine which has grown, adapted and strengthened. People.Investment in people. For me, it is the most important thing to do and to get right in a school.

For schools are surely all about people. Schools are about, first and foremost, the young people who attend each day; the children who are there to motivate, inspire, challenge and engage. Schools are about the staff, from the teachers to the support team; from the administrator to the caretaker; from the ancillary helpers to the kitchen staff – irrespective of which contract they’re given, each has a key role in the running of the school and in the lives of the learners. Schools are about the parents who are such key partners in the education of the children. And schools are about community. Recognising that and building on the unique and individual community strengths that surround a school is critical in securing continued improvement. Relationships are everything.

Perhaps the word which would best describe this core philosophy is teamship. Developing a sense of teamship is vital, which brings with it ownership by all partners; personal investments of time, effort, professional practice and CPD; and common goals centered around a common vision that is understood by everyone. I am reminded of the famous story of an encounter President John F Kennedy is said to have had when visiting NASA HQ. He had been talking to scientists, astronauts, the experts charged with putting together the plan to deliver on his bold objective that America should be the first nation to land a man on the moon. As he left, he saw a cleaner, with a mop, and asked him – though it must have seemed pretty obvious – what he did. The reply came: “Sir, I am here to help put a man on the moon.” I find this story inspiring: the cleaner knew the overall vision, and he had a sense of partnership and of belonging to that vision, because it was being taken forward all around him. Most importantly, he knew that to be successful the people heading moonwards needed to work in an efficient, spotless environment, and his job was to be part of the cleaning team that created it. My message to any school community is this: “whatever your job title, whatever your role, you are here to enable this school to be the best it can be so that all learners are pushed, extended, encouraged and expected to be better learners than they presently are.”

 

“If we are together nothing is impossible. If we are divided all will fail.” WINSTON CHURCHILL

 

My first priority was, and remains, to foster positive relationships with all partners – and I use the word “partner” rather than “stakeholder” because that surely better demonstrates the personal investiture that school leaders should look to build with people. People skills are crucial here: in my job I begin every morning by standing outside the school and welcoming every parent and pupil who passes me. I stand not in the corner of the playground nor on the steps by the railings. I stand on the corner of the pavement – a strategic spot where I know that everyone hasto pass me. I shake the hands of parents, I know them by first name, and I smile as I speak to each child. Its not a gimmick – and it is without doubt the best thing I do each day because it sets the right tone, it creates the right mood and it makes the school personal.  Of course there has been the odd call or letter or complaint during my tenure in headship, but I’m certain that my early morning routine captures 99% of issues early and allows me to “nip them in the bud” before they escalate into anything more serious. Parents feel they can talk informally, and it’s the same strategy which I believe helps to build and maintain a positive reputation in the wider community. This is something that I suggest school leaders should seek to establish quickly – it is, as Keith Grint would describe, part of the “art of leadership.” Similarly one should seek to get to know their entirestaff team as quickly as possible. Most days in my schools, because I am in early, the caretaker, administrator and support staff are often the first people I see. All have a crucial, specific, role within the school. But they also have a wider role: if you build up a rapport with them they reciprocate ten fold – the influence they have on how everyone else operates is tangible. These people matter so much to the mood, morale and performance of a school. They don’t just do their jobs; they make the team tick.

Of course, teamship alone does not make a good school. Teamship alone does not guarantee good quality learning. Strategyand leadershipare also required, and when these two philosophies are placed alongside teamship, I believe that a school is in a strong position to move forward successfully.

Strategy is founded upon a strong vision which has a clear objective. An ability to think and plan strategically is a skillset worth practicing. Good teams excel at devising strategy. Good teams excel at implementing strategy. You can have all the talent and ambitions you need, but without clear strategy from the top of the school and throughout, the ambition will not be fulfilled. That is why one of the most crucial tasks in school leadership is to sit down with the staff, pupils and parents, and re-examine the school’s vision from time to time. From there, especially in the first throes of a new headship, the early strategy would be to watch, take-in, intervene and change only where absolutely necessary, and get under the skin of the school. Making this strategy explicit is vital and allows all partners to be invited to share in casting a critical, reflective and observant eye over everything.

Another strategy to keep at the forefront is to focus attention on all aspects of the school environment. It may sound like a small detail, but having had experience of working in a large school requiring urgent improvement, I have seen first hand that raising expectations for displays, cleanliness, tidiness and organisation has an incredible, and rapid, impact on levels of pride and care amongst all stakeholders which contributes massively (and positively) to improvements in standards.

Beyond that, the strategy will come from continuous school self review – the operational objectives, the action planning, the mindsets and philosophies that underpin the direction will all form the strategic approach, as will looking to build in the wider goals of Government, governors and policy-makers, and the financial budget delegated to the school. And everyone will be part of that – communication will be part of the strategy, as will developing that all important teamship I have already talked of.

The third prong to this approach is to provide and develop leadership within the organisation. This is an important concept for me, and interweaves through, with a strong connectedness, my philosophies of teamship and strategy. It is the agent that binds my approach. It’s about being clear with all partners about your beliefs; it’s about building a vision; it’s about realizing the wider goals to which you are part; and it’s about bringing people with you. The best people. And helping to make them better through appraisal, through coaching, through CPD and through expectation. Never be afraid of helping people become better at something than you are and avoid obsession with control. Authority is different to control; delegation is different to control. That, for what its worth, is what I truly believe.

My leadership tries to emulate this: recent examples would be developing leadership in EYFS through the Manx Step into Quality Programme, or giving a TLR3 to staff members to lead a development of inclusive practice through the IQM Award. I have seen for myself how school leadership is a dialogue, a continuous and relentless self-evaluation, and a desire to grow those around you: staff and pupils. We are all learners, after all.

 

“Bravery is knowing that school leadership is not all about you” DAVE HARRIS

 

My belief is that good school leadership is people focused and community centered: inclusive and relentlessly passionate about developing teamship. As Dave Harris says, to do this is brave but ultimately it is right. And the best leaders do this with a thought-out strategy and strong, inspirational leadership.

 

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