Ten Commandments for School Leaders

Posted on April 7, 2013


A word or two about this religious-sounding blogpost before I begin in the form of an explanation and two apologies.

The explanation is that it is a Sunday morning and I’ve found myself meditating on the nature of school leadership, particularly the type that gets my goat in its limited nature. Coincidentally I have just listened to the choon embedded at the end of this post called ‘Thou Shalt Always…’ and, well, one thing led to another.

The first apology is that I mean no offence to anyone of a religious disposition in commandeering your commandments for the purposes of a slightly tongue-in-cheek post. If you are offended then maybe it would be best to not read any further and fall back on the certainty that your beliefs have survived millennia and are hardly likely to crumble and fall under the weight of a cheeky misuse.

The second apology is that these commandments are negatively phrased. Now I’m not one of those tenderhearts that think rules shouldn’t be phrased negatively for children (I used to be, and then I had one) but I like my posts to contain more than the average whiff of positivity – just call me Action Bartle – but unfortunately the material I had to work with was a bit Old Testament. Ah well, never mind and on with the show. If you see a lightning strike at the very end of the post then I’ll see you somewhere very warm in the near future.

So here it is, my application of the Decalogue to school leadership. It’s not written on tablets of stone and I didn’t have to descend from Mount Sinai with them, merely from my high horse which I am wont to mount on a pretty regular basis. 🐴🐴🐴🐴🐴🐴🐴🐴🐴🐴

Thou shalt have no other gods
Number one rule for you budding school leaders: teaching and learning should be your one and only object of veneration. I have been unfortunate enough to spend my whole career in the ‘standards and accountability’ era of education. I don’t have a problem with either of these things, but it means I have seen too many school leaders on a mission to ‘improve’ standards without improving teaching and learning. And I have seen too many school leaders meet accountability targets for governments and their shock troops but not necessarily meet the ultimate accountability test of being able to look themselves in the mirror each evening and say “I did something good today”.

The false gods of school improvement for me (and I stress, for me, because I’ve had these arguments before) in the recent era are Ofsted, Exams and the Curriculum. I’ll stress again that all of these are important – Priests, Bishops and Cardinals if you wish me to retain some metaphoric consistency – but they aren’t the Big G of the educational firmament. As school leaders we shouldn’t be seeking to be outstanding in our next inspection but for our next day through what children experience in their classrooms. As school leaders we shouldn’t be seeking to enter students for the easiest exam to pass but should instead be preparing them, in their classrooms, for the most challenging tests (not merely exams) that they may one day face. As school leaders we shouldn’t be seeking to pigeon-hole students into academic, vocational and work-related boxes because that’s the best or only chance they’ll have of hitting 5A*-C grades including English and Maths but should be letting them access all three elements of a rounded education as best suits their multiple needs in their classrooms.

Truly great teaching, not the showy stuff designed to ‘stand out’ but the earthy stuff that helps students learn better consistently, should be your only goal as a school leader and all else (a broad curriculum, exam success and Ofsted validation) will follow. So make your classrooms and your classroom practitioners your number one focus.

No graven images or likenesses
In religious circles this is the commandment that warns against the worship of false idols. In terms of a commandment for senior leaders it is a warning against falling hook, line and sinker for the latest pedagurus and their snake oil. There’s a lot to be said for reading educational theory and trying to weave elements of it into your work, but too uncritical a reliance upon other people’s ideas rather than a belief in your own philosophy renders the title leader meaningless. And yet it happens time and time and time again.

Worse still are the school leaders who blow with the breeze and switch ‘their’ philosophy pretty much every time they read a new leadership book or blogpost. The teachers of schools with leaders like this must dread it when the school holidays roll around for fear that a new approach is sure to follow that may, or may not, dovetail with the latest leadership fad they have only just got used to.

Instead of this idolatrous approach genuinely inspirational school leaders that I have known have a series of constants that underpin their every decision. They know why they are leading, what they want to do with their leadership, and they didn’t need to pinch it from a best selling pedaguru. Instead they built it themselves using materials foraged over many years from their experiences and from all kinds of reading they have done and all kinds of conversations that they have had. No new reading can by itself blow them from their course and nor can it reveal to them something they hadn’t already understood. Theirs is a wisdom gleaned over time and if you are a school leader who doesn’t already have an emerging, distinct philosophy to underpin your decision-making then why not?

Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain
This is, religiously, an invocation not to blaspheme against God. In an educational setting in a post for school leaders I mean it as an invocation not to diminish the importance of education with students and teachers. How many times have we all heard school leaders fall back on phrases such as “I don’t think that this is right, but…” or phrases such as “this is something that we have to do for Ofsted”. Worst of all are the school leaders, at all levels, who don’t even have an explanation for why they are doing something when challenged about it or who don’t even stay for the challenge to be heard.

Not taking education in vain means doing things for the right reasons as often as is humanly possible, avoiding being bounced around by the whims of the policy makers or policy enforcers that encircle our waggons. It means being able to explain clearly the positive reasons for such choices and, in the face of disagreement being able to articulate a clear and distinctive underpinning vision for your decisions and actions. This willingness to hear discordant voices, listen to what they are saying and persuade them is the hallmark of effective leadership. To be persuaded by them is the ultimate sign of a confident leader who doesn’t take the name of learning in vain, but who lives and breathes the spirit of learningness through their own example.

Remember the sabbath day
Never has this one been more relevant. We are in danger of turning into a 24/7/365 profession (says the man ironically blogging about educational leadership on a Sunday morning). We have become a bit like Boxer the cart horse from Orwell’s Animal Farm with his incessant “I will work harder” mantra. Because holiday interventions have proven successful at raising standards of attainment (do they actually improve learning though?) we throw money at them and encourage our teachers to extract more juice from their batteries rather than spending holidays recharging them.

Parallel to this the developments of emails, social media, virtual learning environments, remote access and cloud technologies have all pushed us further and further into this Boxerish stance. And yet we are all going to be working much longer than before. If we don’t get of this accelerating treadmill with its incessantly increasing gradient then we are all going to burn out. The very least we can insist on is one day of rest a week. Senior leaders need to be at the forefront of this; modelling it, vocalising it, prioritising it, giving permission for it. And when this permissiveness runs into the hard reality of expectations then school leaders need to be as good as their word in the policies they write to ensure care for their staff (and their students by the way) is infused within such policies.

If we don’t then we are all as good as dead anyway.

Honour thy father and thy mother
In some senses this feels like it should be one of the hardest commandments to align with an educational context but for me it is one of the easiest. Twice now I have turned down almost certain promotions because the Headteacher involved in the process has shown a complete lack of faith in the community they serve and this has always been the biggest of leadership nonos for me. As school leaders we need to honour the communities we serve, as represented by the children, their parents, our neighbours, and that shared local history that can be used to permeate an institution and make it a living, breathing entity.

In particular I believe that effective school leaders cultivate effective and challenging governance structures even when they make life harder rather than easier for members of SLT. Governance is the Cinderella figure of school leadership, so easy to bully and intimidate and avoid inviting to the party. It can look dowdy and frumpy compared to the executive body that is SLT but, properly empowered by a Fairy Godmother of a leadership approach, it is the belle of the ball because it is the one part of school leadership that can most effectively represent the community we are all supposed to be serving.

If you are a budding school leader don’t take the easy path with governance. Like an unchallenging weight on an exercise machine this can allow you to show off with the ease with which you can lift it, but ultimately it won’t be strengthening your leadership muscles for when you need them most.

Thou shalt not kill
Sometimes the certainty that comes of being a member of the leadership team can be a blessing for a school. I have seen up close how such confidence can breathe life into the most hopeless situations, or can protect the staff and students of a school (sometimes when those people had no idea that they were ever under threat). But confidence is always a double-edged sword, and sometimes certainty and decisiveness by members of SLT can kill the energies, passions and beliefs of other members of staff at a school. The skill of being a school leader, for me, lies in the ability to project humility and even uncertainty alongside your confidence and certainty.

This is particularly important for me in the field of teaching and learning and is something that I have held many arguments about in the past (and probably will do so in the future). It is too easy for school leaders to project the belief that all teachers should be outstanding all the time when observed. And it is easy to model this on a lighter timetable load, a school presence for students of being able to get things done, with your closest colleagues sitting in on judgment. But it doesn’t make it any easier for the colleague with a full timetable, no leadership presence and being seen by the bosses. And if we perpetuate the myth that all should be outstanding all the time because school leaders have shown them the way, then we are in danger of strangling the life out of the experimental, creative an innovative practices of the teachers with the most impact upon students in the classrooms.

Thou shalt not commit adultery
What on earth could I do with this commandment in a school leadership perspective that won’t raise eyebrows? It’s clearly about being faithful but how does this manifest itself in an educational context? Well, for me, it is about school leaders doing their job to the best of their abilities and for the best of reasons. I have huge respect for the many thousands of school leaders who work their backsides off to the same level as their classroom-based colleagues: who fill every period with productive work that allows others to see that they don’t see additional non-contact time as an opportunity for extended coffee breaks. They remain faithful to their roots in the classroom even when they become (in some instances) non-teaching Heads, so that they are respected as equals by those who carry full timetable loads.

Similarly I have great respect for those members of leadership teams who clearly identify themselves as part of the school community and are faithful to that community in everything that they do. These leaders are, in turn, identified by others as being faithful servants to their schools and are held in contrasting regard to those who merely seem to be using their school leadership role as a stepping stone to the next pay grade or the next dream job. In this respect they are not dissimilar to professional footballers and, like these counterparts, there is a creeping mistrust on the part of the crowds about the fly-by-nights who come and dazzle before disappearing. New school leaders would do well to consider this and ensure that they betroth themselves fully to any school (and school staff) that they are fortunate enough to serve.

Thou shalt not steal
Now this is a simple one. Too often the verb ‘magpieing’ is used in school leadership. You all know the deal. An Assistant Head pops off to a swanky conference, or goes on a ‘leading edge’ visit or even finds a friend via #SLTchat. Emails are exchanged, PDFs are shared, agenda items are discussed back at base and a new initiative is born on an INSET day or at the next staff meeting. An idea that worked in one context is stolen and welded onto the new context with no amendments or some limited cosmetic changes.

No. No. No. No. No. No. Don’t do it.

By all means listen to exchanged ideas. By all means hear what it is that works for others. By all means consider how elements of the work of others can be blended with the features of your own school’s unique features. But don’t, for the love of a higher being, please don’t ever justify a decision in your time as a senior leader with the hackneyed and spirit-sapping phrase “we don’t want to re-invent the wheel”. If you do that then you are stealing. You are a thief. You are unworthy of the title leader. You need instead to find a job that involves stripping lead tiles from roofs, or taking candy from babies, or learning how to speak like Jack Sparrow.

Instead take your lead from hip hop (not least of all from the second of the videos below which reverberates with the riffs of Radiohead) and sample the work of others instead. Sampling requires careful selection, creativity an an artistic ear. Sampling requires the musician to understand the original context and the new one equally well, and the ingenuity to be Abel to bring the two together. Sampling is honourable homage, not theft, and school leaders should do more of it.

Thou shalt not bear false witness
This entreaty not to lie, or indeed spin truth, is one that I suspect all school leaders would readily agree with, at the very least publicly so. Which is as it should be. But I would go further and argue that great school leaders need to be scrupulously honest in their dealings with staff and students. They need to make the time for people to ask questions and respond to them with as much candour as they possibly can. They need to line manage middle leaders frequently and establish strong bonds of trust based upon forthright words (including blunt ones where necessary) and a willingness to engage in discussion as equals regardless of their respective roles in the school.

Further to these personally honest relationships I believe that school leaders need to deal honestly with people when they aren’t face-to-face with them through the policies, structures, practices and expectations of others. I have blogged about this elsewhere so I won’t dwell on it here but it is about being visibly and invisibly ethical as a leader: of being certain that you will be able to sleep at night.

Thou shalt not covet
School leaders need to love their schools and all the elements that make it up: from crappy buildings to resistant parents, from grim socio-economic context to resistant students, from historically poor reputation to resistant staff. Instead, all too often, we can fall into the trap of seeking reasons for failure such as the ones above which are sometimes real and sometimes imagined. And when school leaders do this they start to covet the BSF edifices of other schools rather than make the best of the buildings they have. They start to covet the children from other postcodes that go to schools with other postcodes rather than make the best of the children they have. They start to covet the reputations of others rather than make the best of the best of their own reputation.

Let me tell you friends, that way lies madness. I used to work in a non-selective school in the shadow of a number of selective schools including two nationally-renowned grammar schools. Every year the Head would say at Open Evening to every parent that came to see us “we are not a pale imitation of a grammar school” and it was the most inspirational thing I have ever heard from a school leader because it lacked any sense of covetousness when there was so much to covet.

Don’t get me wrong in my reasons for writing this post. School leaders are wonderful people, as committed to raising standards for schools as classroom teachers are committed to raising standards for students. But we (and I have been and am still guilty of all of the above) are humans. That means we are mistake-makers. The points listed above are drawn from these mistakes made by myself and others, because the other element of being human is that we are learners and communal learners at that. By writing this post I’m hoping that I will make fewer of these mistakes.

And, for fun and because I love it, here’s the more positively framed message of ‘Thou Shalt Always…’ By the brilliant Dan Le Sac & Scroobious Pip.

And because it’s kind of related here’s a second video by the same pair called ‘A Letter from God to Man’ which is brilliant.