This blog comes from the author of A Manifesto for Excellence in Schools and CEO of Inspire Partnership, Rob Carpenter (@carpenter_rob)
The most common frustration vexed by schools I hear is “…if only we could…”
Faced with increased pressure to demonstrate progress through pupil outcomes, primary schools have developed learned behaviours, sometimes losing sight of our need to do right by students and communities. We have retro-fitted school improvement to accountability frameworks; the measurement of learning has become the proxy for success.
In blunt terms, we teach pupils to read nonsense phonics words because that is what we test. The impact has normalised the view that school improvement can only be measured through outcomes, rather than interactions. It is a misguided ideal, and as we are slowly learning, it hasn’t worked. An obsession with accountability has created an environment where unethical practice has become accepted—we view students as objects and over emphasise the importance of measurement as our proxy for success, a reverse engineering which retro-fits curriculum to fit an assessment framework.
Earlier this year, I was asked by a leading school improvement organisation to deliver a presentation to a group of executive leaders. Having carefully planned a session around learning-focused ethical leadership, which was warmly received by delegates, I was more than surprised to open an email from the event team, questioning the focus of my session, admonishing me for over-emphasising the leadership of teaching and learning.
They wanted to know whether future sessions could possibly concentrate on the more technical aspects of school improvement, including delivery of sustainable business strategy, processes and accountability frameworks. My response was unequivocal. I asked about the messages are we giving the teaching profession if the narrative of authentic School Leadership concentrates on dashboards, compliance checks and frameworks instead of the real substance of education—improving the life chances of the children within our communities?
I questioned why any worthy executive leadership programme should encourage the most senior system leaders, including MAT CEOs, to divorce their actions, behaviours and intentions from the most important element of our moral purpose?
Needless to say, I have not been invited back to speak at future programme events! The exchange helped me reflect on the simplistic representation of school improvement that has defined the public perception of what schools concentrate on to improve. We have tamely accepted that ‘increased rigour’ and ‘robust measures’ provide the script, which too many schools adopt.
Creating a Compelling Story of Leadership
Politicians, who have never taught in our most challenged schools or faced the pressures of being defined by a set of test scores, divorce the complexity of School Leadership from crude and basic of education measurements, resulting in an education system which shamelessly fails our most vulnerable students, year on year. It is a system which fails to draw the dots between funding, recruitment, ethical leadership and poverty.
This is what Philip Alston, the United Nations poverty envoy, speaking in 2018, described as ‘not just a disgrace, but a social calamity’.
It underlines the point—there is no compelling story of leadership in schools if it does not concentrate leadership behaviours and actions directly on deepening student learning, changing lives of young people and tackling the barriers of disadvantage.
Sure, the accountability frameworks and balance checks are important, but they should never become the story or dictate the narrative of school improvement. Senior leaders, at all levels, should be as deeply invested in learning, including curriculum design, pedagogy and assessment as they are school dashboards. Isn’t this how schools really improve? It highlights a dichotomy between how the policy wonks think schools improve versus the reality of leading complex, adaptive organisations.
Mature school improvement is founded on high levels of trust and shared accountability. It places greater emphasis on interaction and collaboration, instead of simplistic, headline-grabbing numerical measurements. Instructional change frequently falters because it fails to understand that schools are essentially complex, composed of elements which flex and evolve through relationships.
The illusion that schools improve in a linear fashion that can be determined simply by creating a measurement, often using crude proxy to evaluate performance, is a misguided ideal which distorts the reality.
Analysis of the most enduring education systems, highlights that trust-based, not test-based accountability, determines the lasting success of an education system. School improvement begins at classroom level, affecting change, classroom by classroom. It is practitioner driven.
In fact, prescriptive leadership often fails in the most complex organisations. Sadly, policy makers are only interested in looking for simplistic solutions that only serve to feed their pre-conceived, linear narrative of improvement—often rooted in their own middle class, childhood experiences of school.
Everyone can be an expert in education when it comes to transposing their own personal values and beliefs—which is what we have experienced most recently at multiple levels from DfE civil servants and ministers alike.
In the years preceding the National Strategies, our education values steadily eroded. Pupils became products, teaching viewed as a transaction; we valued the measurement of tests, more than the deep experiences of learning. Good teachers became defined by targets achieved rather than the meaningful connections students make between learning and the world. In other words, high stakes testing and accountability corrupted what our pupils most needed, often resulting in poorer outcomes for those students in greatest need of a balanced, rich and diverse education.
The impact of test-based accountability on both the teaching profession and our pupils has been significant. Only now are we looking back to scan the horizon. This includes the normalisation of test score inflation, our obsession with outcomes, and narrowing curriculum priorities, driven by anxiety to ensure pupils cross the magical lines of good progress or standards met—sometimes unethically.
Changing the Narrative
The measurement of a good school has been calibrated to the data it produces rather than its underpinning education values, behaviours, relationships, inclusion practices and ambition for every single child within its duty of responsibility. Or to put it another way, we now ask more what students can do for our schools, instead of what can we do for our students.
I believe there is an alternative approach for leading school improvement—one which places relationships and people at the centre of strategy—values led rather than test-based accountability. I want to champion a school improvement story which values teamwork and collaboration as the key to success; a learning-centred and authentic leadership that is not soft and nor is it necessarily comfortable!
It causes us to consider more deeply the principles of education and the role we play as educators to ensure pupils can find their place in the world, contribute more meaningfully and connect learning with making sense.
Together, we have the power to alter the narrative. Education labels, ‘top down’ instructional change limit belief; revolutions start in classrooms and not in the offices of policy makers. We have the power to alter the prevailing narrative. We are the change makers. Room by room, interaction upon interaction, we have the potential to change the story. It starts today!
Do you want to lead with greater authenticity?
We believe that authentic School Leadership is crucial for both supporting great leadership and developing healthy schools.
Yet being an authentic School Leader can be exceedingly challenging, particularly in the context of an education system which has not, as yet, found a consistent way to enable School Leaders to embrace their vulnerability and true sense of personhood.
Our schools, our young people need to be led by leaders who understand, as in the words of American author Brene Brown, ‘You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability.’
In order for that to happen and to learn to show up in this way, leaders need regular spaces where they can take off their leadership cloak and be themselves; a space where they can show their vulnerabilities, be open and honest about the issues, questions, doubts and feelings they are having and be supported to make sense of these in relation to the demands of the role.
Social workers have supervision to help them process their toughest cases, and corporate executives have a space for “lessons learned” and continuous improvement between projects. Yet School Leaders often have no such equivalent to support them on their journey towards greater authenticity.
That’s why I am now offering free “Coaching for The Soul” support calls for School Leaders to provide such a space where leaders can:
– Talk through the challenges you’re currently facing in your role
– Get support in locating next steps and solutions to help you overcome the issues you’re experiencing
– Reflect on recent events and the impact they have had on you as a leader and as a person.
– Gain clarity in your thoughts and your current situation
If you feel like you’d benefit from a call like this or perhaps know someone who would, please follow the link above!