Searching for Hubs, not Apexes

Posted on July 24, 2013

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This week two things that I have read have influenced my thinking about Teaching Schools specifically and about collaborative working generally.

The first was a ‘thinkpiece’ by Peter Matthews and George Berwick called “Teaching Schools: First Among Equals?” published by the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL). The link to this document is here.

I have a lot of respect for both of the authors of this pamphlet as they have lived and breathed system-wide improvement through the London Challenge programme, but I do admit to being put off somewhat by the post-colon subtitle of “first among equals?” In spite of the exploratory nature of the question mark at the end of this, the piece regularly suggests that Teaching Schools are, and indeed should be, the first among equals.

“Teaching schools are seen as the transformative leaders of groups of 25 or more schools.”

“London Challenge was about infecting the rest with what was happening in the best schools.”

“Teaching schools may be the jewel in the crown of the school system, but within their alliances they must act as catalysts for change.”

Don’t get me wrong in this. I’m not saying that this document is loaded with self-congratulatory platitudes for Teaching schools: it isn’t. It frequently talks about collaborative working between schools and is a great read for anyone wanting to know more about Teaching schools but it left me feeling uneasy and I didn’t know why, until my second piece of reading.

This piece, originally a Guardian article, was a blogpost by Teaching School heads Chris Wheatley and Paul Stone called “Competition versus collaboration: are schools working together enough?” It can be found here and is very different to the first. This article talks about the potential (and emergent? or established?) problems of Teaching Schools that see themselves as first among equals. Quotes from this piece include the following;

“small groups of schools intent on protecting their privileged position at the expense of other less successful schools in the area”

“collaboration has been about the protection of interests and the advancement of certain views: empire building”

“steely competitiveness, in which schools form their wagon circles of protection”

The authors aren’t pointing any fingers at any particular school, but are suggesting the emergence of a dichotomy within all forms of school-to-school collaboration, not just Teaching Schools.

Together the two pieces of reading got me thinking about collaborative alliances, be they across schools or within schools. It made me reflect on government initiatives such as Beacon Schools and of other organisations’ attempts to foster peer to peer working such as the SSAT’s Lead Practitioner model and the Challenge Partners’ Directory. It then got me thinking about work I have been involved with this year such as our Pedagogy Leaders and a joint practice development (JPD, see Hargreaves here) research and development project across three local schools. It also got me thinking about twitter, in particular the discussions I get into with many senior leaders about whether or not members of SLTs must be outstanding teachers.

This reflection led me to think (as ever) in terms of symbols, images and metaphors. I began to see the dichotomy within collaborative working pointed to by Wheatley and Stone as being represented by shapes. On the one hand there is the triangular form of collaborative working, based upon hierarchies, with the Teaching School (or SLT member, or other dominant figure) at the apex of the triangle. On the other there is the circular form of collaborative working, anti-hierarchical, with the dominant entity (school or individual) as the hub of the circle.

I don’t want to say too much here about an ‘apex model’ of system leadership other than that I think it is the model we have most been used to in recent years under the umbrella term of “sharing best practice”. It is a model with which I have come recently to profoundly disagree with, not least of all because the “best practice” being “shared” is never a fixed concept: it is geographically, culturally and politically located. For example, pre-Wolf review the “best practice” in vocational provision for students would look very different to how it would look now.

Instead of looking at this flawed ‘apex model’ I want to focus on the ‘hub model’ of system leadership. I want to explore the metaphor in detail by likening it to the hub of a bicycle wheel. indulge me: the Tour de France has only just finished, marginal gains are all the rage and I do like to explore a good metaphor fully. I am going to apply the metaphor to Teaching Schools in particular but I have also used the ‘hub model’, as explained here, to inform my thinking about the bottom-up, classroom-focused, surplus-oriented approach to school leadership. After all system leadership, if done properly, is little more than a scaling up of school leadership.

The ‘Hub Model’ of School and System Leadership

School leaders and system leaders, particularly in the current climate of austerity and “doing more with less”, talk about themselves operating as hubs but what does that actually mean? For many I would suggest that it means little more than being connected in a network of practice or of leading within a network of practice. In engineering terms though a hub involves three constituent parts: the axle, the bearings and the hub shell. Each of these work together to ensure the integrity of what is, in essence, the unsexily essential component of any vehicle since the wheel was invented. If any part fails, the wheel does not turn.

More importantly than this perhaps is what the hub of a wheel is connected to, the spokes and wheel rim, and what it is there to do in terms of driving the whole vehicle (read individual school or school system dependent on the scale of the leadership network) forward safely, efficiently and with certainty. Without an effectively functioning hub, or network of hubs, the juggernaut of the education system in the UK isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. We need the wheels on this bus to go round and round, hence the writing of this post.

The Hub: Axle

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Wikipedia describes the multiple purposes of an axle as being to “transmit driving torque…maintain the position of the wheels…bear the weight of the vehicle”. If school leaders or teaching school wish to function effectively as a hub for their institution or alliance then they need to see themselves in these terms.

In order to “transmit driving torque” these leaders and schools need to stop seeing themselves as the engine of change, the active deliverers of kinetic energy to the passive bearers of potential energy within their school or across their alliances. Instead it is their job, these leaders, to harness the energy generated by others (and as many others as possible) and use it to get the whole vehicle moving.

To “maintain the position of the wheels”, in relation to each other and to the rest of the vehicle, involves leaders and teaching schools seeking careful alignment of the individuals in their schools and the schools within their alliances as effectively as possible. By necessity this means knowing all about their partners’ relative strengths and areas for development, being open and transparent about their own and creating mutually beneficial interchange partnerships for sharing expertise.

Better still it might involve using ‘joint practice development’ improvement mechanisms with teachers and leaders within and across schools. Through this approach relative positions of strength and enquiry focus are actually aligned from the start and mutual benefits achieved collaboratively like tyres being inflated to the same pressure simultaneously.

Finally, in terms of hub schools and leaders seeing themselves as an axle for the system, they need to “bear the weight of the vehicle”. In some ways this is the least rocket sciencey (or rocket engineering) part of being a hub school: it simply involves holding external accountability pressures off individual teachers. Clearly this doesn’t mean removing individual accountability for the quality of teaching and the learning of students, but it does mean not transmitting the fear of failure as if it were a management tool. It does mean not replicating external, summative processes of school assessment for internal, formative purposes. I have blogged about this extensively elsewhere.

The Hub: Bearings

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Linked to the previous post about bearing the weight the word ‘bearings’ comes from the verb ‘to bear’, but instead of carrying weight the purpose of bearings within a hub is to “constrain relative motion between moving parts to only the desired motion”.

In terms of Teaching Schools or senior leadership this involves providing an ethos, policies and school processes that guide the moving parts (staff, students, other schools, etc) into streamlined, almost fluid, interactions. It is the mechanical equivalent of applying WD40 to the organisation. Such engineering-led lubrication is “important for efficiency…reduces wear…facilitates extended use at high speeds…avoids premature failure”, all of which ought to be amongst the key success criteria for institutional or systemic leadership.

Clearly though, individuals and schools are not mass produced, factory perfected, homogeneous entities. The bearings needed to make them work efficiently over time need to be custom engineered for their unique circumstances. What works to facilitate the motion of one department or school cannot simply be transported and transplanted into another, regardless of how successful it has been. Or, as wikipedia has it “the most sophisticated bearings for the most demanding applications are very precise devices”. The ‘apex model’ of system leadership fails to recognise this sometimes, foisting ‘off the peg’ solutions onto situations that almost always require a more ‘tailor-made’ approach.

The Hub: Shell

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The hub shell is, quite simply, the “part of the hub to which the spokes attach”. Although uncomplicated as an engineering construct in comparison to the axle and bearings of a hub, the importance of the hub shell cannot be questioned. In terms of Teaching Schools or senior leaders seeking to act as hubs for other schools and other colleagues, this means securing ‘buy in’ for their axle-like supportive qualities and their bearing-like streamlining qualities.

Truly effective and transformative institutional and systemic leadership involves securing the respect, trust, willingness and eagerness of people for the work you do. Without these things responses to leadership within and across institutions become transactional at best, compliant at worst and catastrophic when they fail completely. The hub shell needs to have the right number of holes into which the spokes of the system (see below) can connect. In the case of Teaching Schools this means ensuring that every partner has a significant and appreciated role to play in the maintenance and improvement of the alliance as a whole.

The ‘apex model’ can all too often lead to the Teaching School monopolising the alliance in terms of governance, leadership of ‘The Big 6’ and the deployment of key staff such as SLEs. This can leave other alliance members under utilised or purely seen as recipients of support, rather than as equal partners. Given time this patrician approach will lead to suspicion, detachment and possible disengagement from the whole school-led system improvement agenda. It is a threat not to be underestimated, which is why the hub shell is as important a consideration for Teaching School leaders as the axle and the bearings of their hub status.

Beyond the hub: Spokes

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In terms of describing the nature of a truly hub-like Teaching School or truly hub-like senior leader my work here is done. They need simply to be the axles, bearings and hub shell that the staff and students within their alliances and schools require them to be. But of course a hub is the central (indeed pivotal) point within a network and, to finish, I want to suggest two elements of that network upon which the effectiveness of the hub is utterly dependent: the spokes and the rim.

There are two competing engineering approaches to using spokes that are, I think, similar concerns to educational leaders. On the one hand “wheels with fewer spokes have an aerodynamic advantage”. Taking this approach involves keeping partnerships structurally tight by involving fewer people or fewer schools. On the other hand a “reduced number of spokes results in a larger section of the rim being unsupported, necessitating stronger and often heavier rims”, suggesting that small, structurally tight alliances have disadvantages in comparison with larger, structurally looser ones.

For my money school leaders and Teaching Schools cannot, and should not, look to ensure tightness of purpose through structural means only: they have a moral imperative to involve as many people or schools as possible. Instead they should learn the lesson from engineering which suggests that “wheels with spokes distributed evenly across the circumference of the rim are considered more durable and forgiving”. In other words the tightness of intra-school and inter-school alliances comes not from the number of partnerships but from the equal engagement of partners, from the fair spread of opportunities for all partners and from the peer-driven quality assurance mechanisms to ensure that the partnerships are effective.

A “first among equals” approach (and I’ve never fully understood how there can be such a thing as a first among equals) does not lend itself to equality of engagement and fairness of opportunity, because the apex school or individual will always see themselves, and other trusted partners, as net contributors and non-trusted partners as net consumers. Nor does it lend itself to peer-driven quality assurance because it judges success in terms of what has worked for the apex school or individual, particularly where this has been validated by Ofsted and league tables. As a result the ‘apex model’ struggles to understand alternative ways of doing things, let alone allow these ‘black sheep’ to become school-wide or alliance-wide measures of success.

Beyond the hub: Rim

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The rim is quite simply “the outer edge of a wheel, including the tyre” and is, just like the hub, firmly connected to the spokes. In terms of educational leadership at institutional and systemic level the rim is the outer edge of the influence of the hub, the place where our connections as leaders make their connections with the wider world. It is both a theoretical rim (a vision of what the alliance is there for) and a real rim (what the alliance actually does). Both are important, but in cultivating our connections within our schools and across them it is arguably the theoretical rim that has the greater potential.

Within the ‘apex model’ of school and system leadership the theoretical rim is largely constructed by the ‘apex school’ or ‘apex leader’: consider the non-negotiable ethos imperatives of the majority of academy chains. This is a fundamental of the top-down nature of the model. The ‘apex school’ did A, B and C to achieve X, Y and Z and so the ‘base schools’ need simply to do A, B and C as well.

A truly ‘hub model’ cannot function like that. Instead it needs to co-construct with its partners a theoretical rim that is rooted in what works for all partners and that is a messy business in two ways. Firstly it is messy because it involves negotiation, compromise and adaptation from all partners, including the seemingly apex school or leader. Secondly it is messy because it is never a fixed outer rim when it is co-constructed: it shifts with the involvement of new partners, the development of old ones and the changing circumstances beyond the alliance.

But it is this messiness that is the core strength of a genuinely ‘hub model’ approach because it allows for growth, and unexpected growth at that. It doesn’t impose floor targets to be complied with and met, but instead asks for ambitions and aspirations to be shared. It is also a strength because it asks individuals and institutions to become co-authors of their own destiny and the destinies of others, collaborative agents rather than isolated egg-box dwellers.

The ‘Hub Model’ versus the ‘Apex Model’

In many ways the ‘apex model’ of school or school system leadership is an alluring one. It can be reassuring to stand on the ground, like visitors to the great pyramids of Giza, looking up at the so-called pinnacle of school and system successes. But if we are to effect system improvement on any scale then we need to have as our guiding imperative a belief that all can rise to the top, that the apex will be ever-changing and ever-ascending. The reification of those currently occupying those positions only serves to limit the scale of our collective ambition.

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There is no room for tourists in a self-improving school system: all must be workers. And like the workers who built the great pyramids many thousands of years ago using rudimentary hubs to convey the stone blocks (including those stones at the apex) over huge distances, we need to be prepared to strive collectively and sweat profusely with our common goal in mind. Teaching Schools at the system level and senior leaders at a school level need to focus on bringing these alliances of workers together not on carving out their reputations as “jewels in the crown”.

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