The Shape of Things to Come?

Posted on November 9, 2012


By New Year 2012 I’d reached the stage in my career where, for the first time, I was looking at the prospect of becoming a Headteacher and thinking “I could – perhaps – do this”. Since becoming a Head of English in 2000 I knew that Headship was something I really wanted to do, but through my Assistant Headship, my NPQH and Deputy Headship I had never felt that I was actually ready for it. And then, last academic year, I enrolled on an NCSL Aspiring Leaders course which included a ‘next stage’ coaching conversation with an existing Head and a peer-to-peer Quad programme of school visits with others on the course.

The net result of these activities (far more so than the actual professional learning or talks by renowned London Heads) was to give me the last top-up of professional confidence to actually think that I wouldn’t be an imposter in applying for a Headship. I even wrote a mock application letter as part of the ‘Next Stage Promotion’ module which was incredibly affirming as I realised that I had to leave important things out in order to meet the word count.

In writing the letter I came to realise that I hadn’t ever taken the time to think about what kind of Head I wanted to be, and about what kind of vision I would bring to any school brave/foolish enough to appoint me as a Head. Don’t get me wrong: I haven’t been acting without any sense of vision over the last seven years as a member of two senior leadership teams. It’s just that I had never put together the pieces of the jigsaw I had been making in all that time. Nor had I tried to identify what pieces of the jigsaw were missing. As a result I didn’t really have a clue what the big picture of the completed puzzle of my leadership vision would look like.

Since that time I have spent a lot of time thinking about what makes me tick as a school leader. In doing so I have reflected on what I have achieved, how I have achieved it, what I would do the same and what I would change with the benefit of hindsight. I have distilled these and reduced them to the core beliefs – sometimes intentional an sometimes accidental – that I try to live and work by. In doing so I have identified five key principles that I think have underpinned all of my work so far and that I want to continue to underpin my future work as a Headteacher.

The aim of this blogpost (which is aimed solely at the me who will be sat nervously awaiting an interview for a Headship I really want) is to make sense of these five principles so that they do not simply become meaningless weasel-words. Instead I want them to resonate with me because of their inherent etymological significance. I want them to empower me through their seemingly infinite array of multiple meanings. I want them to forewarn me through their nuance and subtlety of interpretation.

The Sustained/Sustaining/Sustainable Principle

Etymology: “hold up from below, support, endure,”

Synonyms: assist bolster brace buoy buttress comfort confirm defend endorse feed foster nourish nurture preserve prolong prop support uphold validate verify

This is probably the most already refined of my principles thanks to the work of Alma Harris and other on ‘distributive leadership’ (note distributive not distributed – the first is a process, the last is a product) which I first used in developing student leadership at my previous school, but have more recently applied to engaging staff through our outstanding pedagogy project at my current school. I don’t see a difference between the concepts of sustained, sustaining and sustainable as others might because I believe that it is the role of school leaders to sustain staff and students, to nourish them and feed them with a school policy diet that is focused on teaching, learning and the intellectual and emotional care for students so that their commitment and energies are prolonged and so endure.

If we are successful in doing this then we will help bolster and buttress them, to provide the props and support so that they are able to deflect the slings and arrows of ministerial and Ofstedian criticism, rather than mimic this criticism in our own actions and words. Instead our staff and students will KNOW that what they are doing, however removed from the cookie-cutter model of learning, teaching or leadership, can and will achieve success. Instead of chasing the next initiative, targeting the next group or responding to the next inspection schedule they will have a sustained approach to their own improvement, a sustaining focus on their own learning and a sustainable response in the face of their own challenges.

The etymological significance of the word ‘sustain’ as meaning “to hold up from below” is for me the most recognisable image of what Headship should be. I see the management of schools as being necessarily hierarchical and top-down, like a triangle that points downwards. The Head is the broad base at the top, ensuring that these management processes work. But when it comes to leadership, particularly in terms of teaching and learning, the triangle points upwards with the Head at the bottom, holding up the more expert everyday practitioners from below and allowing them to dictate the direction of pedagogy within the school. Only when Heads (and their leadership teams) reconceive their role as being to sustain staff and students in THEIR leadership of learning will they help their schools achieve a sustained, sustaining and (consequently) sustainable model for learning.

The Holistic Principle

Etymology: “entire, unhurt, healthy,” “undamaged”

Synonyms: aggregate choate completed comprehensive conclusive consummate entire exhaustive fulfilled full inclusive integral integrated outright perfect rounded total unabbreviated universal

If my thoughts about a sustained, sustaining and sustainable principle to my future Headship came initially through my work with students, then my beliefs about a holistic principle were established in my stint as an Acting Deputy Head with responsibility for staff well being and development. In particular they were shaped by the working relationship I had with a wonderful school-based HR specialist that I line managed, the amazing Jill Steward. One of the first decisions I would make as a Head would be to employ a HR person. The reason? Because teachers and students are whole human beings with all the infinite varieties of positives this brings and with all the attendant infinite varieties of issues this brings. It is not the job of school leaders to treat them as teaching or learning machines incessantly making progress to a predefined end goal written down in a school improvement plan or a performance management target or a minimum estimate grade. Learning is wrapped up somewhere deep in the wholeness of a person and it is endlessly messy trying to delve into these folds and protective coverings.

Thinking about the synonyms for ‘whole’ shown above the two that stand out for me are ‘integrated’ and ‘fulfilled’. Schools regularly talk about being inclusive for students, and I take great umbrage when some bloggers suggest that looking after the emotional wellbeing of students is not the job of teachers (because it is a fundamental prerequisite of helping students to learn). At the same time though I am horrified when, as happens so often, school leaders use the euphemisms ‘moving staff on’ or ‘getting them off the bus’. I am a passionate and unapologetic advocate of the belief that any student and any staff member can be a highly successful and fulfilled part of the school community, and that the moment they appear to be giving up on themselves is exactly the point at which Heads have to show them that the school hasn’t given up on them.

The etymology of the word ‘whole’ includes the notion of ‘entire’ that I think most school leaders are happy to accept, but it also means ‘unhurt’, ‘undamaged’ and ‘healthy’. How many of us can honestly say that we haven’t allowed an unhealthy system of national accountability for children and adults in schools permeate our termly, weekly and daily interactions with those adults and children. We aren’t Ofsted and we aren’t the DfE. We don’t have to replicate their systems to focus merely on the academic and professional outcomes of children and adults, and we shouldn’t because we actually know that in doing so we cut them in half and throw away the human part. Instead let’s invest wisely and humanely in both the professional and personal capital of staff and students and be unashamed in doing so. Let’s not relegate wellbeing to a corner of the Staffroom, some termly choccies and an occasional staff soirée, but instead make it infuse every part of our pedagogic policy, programme and practice.

The Authentic Principle

Etymology: “canonical,” “original, genuine, principal,” “one acting on one’s own authority,” “to accomplish, achieve.”

Synonyms: accurate actual authoritative bona fide certain convincing credible creditable dependable factual faithful legitimate official original pure reliable sure true trustworthy valid veritable

I have blogged about the principle of authenticity elsewhere and so I don’t want to unnecessarily gild the lily. Instead here is the conclusion that I reached in that post.

“From now on when I use the word authentic about an institution I will be talking about it as being so original in its thinking and acting that it plays a principal role in the system it serves. It will be an institution that uses these thoughts and actions to be self-authorising and self-validating, respectful of external agencies and their evaluation but never slavish to them. And it will be an institution that enables all of its people to accomplish whatever they set their minds to and achieve success in all of the ways that it can be measured.”

What I would add for the purpose of this post is that the word institution above needs to be replaced by the word Headteacher. They too need to be original in their thinking. This isn’t easy. The NCSL model of building school leaders, whilst incredibly necessary and often very good, employs a ‘cookie cutter mould’ to the training of Headteachers and reinforces a DfE-and-Ofsted-know-best belief which causes far too many SLTs to approach every aspect of school improvement with a What Would Ofsted Think mindset. Instead we need Heads who will add the rocket fuel of “acting on one’s own authority” to their actions in order to achieve escape velocity from the gravitational pull of national accountability measures. And to achieve true authenticity Heads need to encourage, support and validate equally innovative, bold and creative thinking from all school leaders: Deputies, Assistants, HoDs, HoYs, Teachers, LSAs, Students.

The Purposeful Principle

Etymology: “aim, intention” “to put forth,” “to put, place” “by design”

Synonyms: decided deliberate determined firm fixed intense intent obstinate persistent positive resolute settled stalwart staunch steadfast strong-willed stubborn tenacious undeviating unfaltering unwavering

Of all my principles this is the one I find most closely relates to my own animus (just checked the word to ensure its relevance and discovered that in Jungian psychology it refers to the masculine inner personality as present inside every woman – how Freudian!). I don’t know how and when I became so obstinate and stubborn (at its worst) and/or steadfast and resolute (at its best) as a person and school leader, but there’s no doubt it is perhaps the defining aspect of me, good and bad.

And I believe it is needed. Not that I believe in inflexibility or failing to heed the voices of others or failing to divert when the path you have set is clearly the wrong one. But any path of Headship will be through a minefield: the fact is that in education we are surrounded by potentially disastrous, highly explosive and combustible materials, and as we negotiate our way through we are often in the dark and need to light the odd match or two to help us see where we are. It doesn’t make the path wrong and it doesn’t mean that we should stand still in the hope of being rescued because it is not going to happen. But neither should we be foolish enough to stumble on with a lack of regard for the consequences of our actions (all explosions risk collateral damage and the lives of adults and children in schools are not acceptable casualties in institutional improvement).

The fact is, though, that school staff and students (not to mention the wider community) want to know the way forward and it is the primary role of the Head, interdependently by collaboration but also independently through tenacity to map that path and share the map regularly and wholeheartedly. Without it everyone is lost and lost schools cannot hope to be purposeful in nature. Of course once that path has been mapped out then the route to the destination needs to be negotiated and renegotiated: it is endlessly twisting, frequently tortuous and occasionally treacherous. There may be significant detours and even the odd U-turn as Heads and school leaders respond to the greater wisdom of the majority but Tour de France riders don’t make it to the summit of the Alpe D’Huez by riding in one direction straight up it.

The Ethical Principle

Etymology: “study of morals,” “moral character,” “custom”

Synonyms: conscientious decent elevated equitable fair fitting good high-principled honest honourable humane just noble principled proper respectable right-minded straight virtuous

I suspect that I’ve more than covered the ethical dimension of my thinking in discussing the four other principles that underpin the kind of Headteacher I would like to be, but I feel it does need to be explicit as a principle in its own right. As far as I am concerned schools need to be ‘explicitly ethical’ places, not merely ethical by chance or as an afterthought (which would seem to be to be ‘managerially ethical’). Headteachers need to be honest and conscientious in their approach to their school’s ethical dimension, and openly state that in thoughts, words and actions the school (and all it’s inhabitants) will endeavour to do what is proper, decent and equitable. More importantly they need to ensure that there are powerful mechanisms in place to allow unethical behaviour to be called out and addressed in an ethical way.

What this means in practice is huge, and I’m more than aware of the Blairite ‘ethical foreign policy’ that ended up in Iraq and the resignation of Robin Cook. I’m also aware of the fact that one person’s ethical behaviour is another’s unethical behaviour, but just because an objective of an entirely ethical institution is difficult (impossible?) to achieve does not mean it should not be an explicit goal of that institution. After all if we don’t strive to achieve this what is the point of any of the rest of it.

The SHAPE Principles

Etymology: “to create, form, destine,” “create, ordain” “to cut, scrape, hack” “to create.”

Synonyms: accommodate adapt assemble build carve cast chisel construct crystallize cut define develop embody form fashion forge hew grow guide knead make mint model modify produce remodel sculpture sketch stamp streamline tailor

At this stage I have to apologise for turning these principles into an acronym (I have recently been publicly shamed by Alistair Smith because of my love of acronyms) and to reassure anyone not bored to sleep by the long-winded and navel-gazing nature of this post that the acronym followed the choice of principles. I hereby promise you that I have not compromised my explicitly ethical beliefs by only choosing principles that allowed me to form a new word out of their initial letters: leadership by acrostics.

Instead I have put them together in this way because the happy accident of the combination of initials suggested to me (by serendipity?) that what I am looking to do is shape a school community. And that in doing so I am seeking to combine the individual principles discussed here into a coherent whole; into a recognisable shape. The root of the word shape, with its constant reference to creation fits perfectly with my firm belief that leaders at every level need to be restlessly creative, but perhaps also with the capacity to cut and hack away at the non-human obstructions and distractions.

In shaping a school as a Headteacher – if I am given the opportunity – I recognise the need to be able to turn my hand to each of the synonyms listed above, and I sincerely hope that I have the wisdom to know which ones to apply at each stage of the shaping process (or the fortune not to get it wrong too often). I appreciate that sometimes I will need to display the capacity to work intensely hard in order to hew and knead the institution and its inhabitants. At other times I will need to demonstrate subtlety in order to develop and fashion that which may initially appear unmalleable. At still other times I shall need to deploy harder-edged skills, to chisel and stamp in order to make a mark on the granite-like obstacles I know I’ll have to face. But most importantly of all I am relishing the opportunity to streamline some processes, remodel others and construct ones of my own so that I simultaneously connect to the existing ethos of a school and challenge it to be something more than it has been in the past.

That is part of what I mean by shaping a school. I want to do so in a way that sustains people by recognising them holistically; in a way that is an authentic expression of a community’s real and imagined identity; and in a way that is purposeful in achieving all forms of success but never shirks from doing so in an ethical manner. It’s a bold ambition but if I express it here, and express it on interview, and express it throughout my Headship then maybe – through my own actions and my influence on the actions of others – I can achieve it or get close to achieving it. Wish me luck.

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