Effective school leadership is about creating a culture of continuous improvement and thinking through the implications of endless change. Former head Roger Smith looks at how it’s done.
Groucho Marx is famously supposed to have said after an evening out with his agent: ‘I’ve had a wonderful time – but this wasn’t it.’ As an anecdote, it could apply to headteachers when we think about the last 20 years. And why didn’t we have a good time? Well, the most obvious explanation is the relenting pressure of change and development.
I understand that this is going to stop and the secretary of state for education is going to halt all changes for the next five years and allow every school to consolidate their good practice and develop their own new ideas instead. I can just imagine the sighs of relief – the shouts of joy and the sheer excitement as the pressure lifts.
Unfortunately I made this up. Like many others, I can only envisage a future that has the same educational mantra of change, change and more change. Given this inevitability, one of the key features of good school leadership will continue to be how to manage these changes without losing either heart or motivation.
Think positive Many headteachers will see themselves as experts in making smooth and efficient changes. They will be good at developing new initiatives, even better at implementing the changes, and then expert at monitoring their success. But this is a stressful process, especially if it is continuous and after one success everyone knows that there an avalanche of other initiatives will follow shortly.
The first way to relieve the stress and make change ‘easier’ is to work as a team and then recognise that for change to be successful there has to be an understanding about what motivates teachers and how this motivation can be harnessed to the good of the school.
A leader who is always moaning won’t help anyone, but thinking positive will. This is best done by shouting and screaming about some new government ‘instruction’ that will involve enormous expense and a complete review of all the systems and structures that are already in place, in the privacy of your office. All real ranting should be done alone!
Then, on entering the meeting to introduce the new initiative you will be the picture of cheerful calm and will get across how easy the changes will be and what a positive impact they will have an all teachers and all pupils. After all, what’s the point of oozing negativity. It will only depress you and everyone else and there will be enough negative attitudes to win over as it is. And, of course the more cheerful you are the more you will convince yourself that everything is OK with the world and the less stress you will suffer.
‘In many ways, managing change is about solving problems; recognising what they are, suggesting why they exist and knowing what needs to be done to resolve them’
Be an agent of change So, you have convinced everyone that the current change is a marvellous thing to happen and you are all praise for those ‘experts’ at the DfES for thinking up this great move forward. They have recognised, once again, that you can’t be trusted to know your own school and the strengths of your staff or even the mood of your parents and have lessened your workload by relieving you of the need to use your considerable professionalism by doing it all for you. It is, if you think about it, a wonderful system! Making the change work will mean that you or whichever ‘senior manager’ is going to work on it will have to do three things:
Firstly act as a catalyst and put pressure on individuals and groups to start to think in different ways about things that had previously been accepted as going along quite nicely thank you.
Secondly, someone will have to be able to offer solutions. This must not mean that any one person is supposed to have all the answers. It is always much better to be in a position to help people do their own problem solving and find their own answers.
Thirdly, someone, and you will be brilliant at this, will have to put in place all the necessary systems and structures. For example, how to diagnose potential problems, set objectives, create a time framework, make up the teams, recognise possible solutions, etc.
Beginning to solve the problem
In many ways, managing change is about solving problems; recognising what they are, suggesting why they exist and knowing what needs to be done to resolve them. This is best done in careful and methodical way. If you go too quickly and push things forwards faster than all those around you can go, you are likely to make mistakes. Think of the teacher who asked her class to give her a sentence staring with the letter ‘I’. One pupil had their hand up instantly and started to say, ‘I is …’ but the teacher stopped her and said, ‘No, remember what we did yesterday and say ‘I am’…’ ‘OK’ said the girl, ‘I am the ninth letter of the alphabet’.
The process of managing change As early as 1947, Kurt Lewin in Human Relations (University of Chicago Press) described managing change as a balance between two sets of forces. On one side are the forces that will drive the change forward and on the other are all those people and circumstances that will either resist the change or contribute to creating a situation that will make change difficult. These are the restraining forces.
This may seem a long-winded approach but making a mistake and failing with changes that have to be made is not really an option. The driving forces have to overcome the restraining forces so the first thing to do, preferably with senior managers, is to describe the people, reasons and circumstances under which the change could be promoted fairly easily. These are or will become the driving forces and with your leadership and your senior managers’ management skills you will develop strategies to decrease the restraining forces and increase the driving forces. By doing this in a thoughtful and structured way which involves colleagues, it should be possible to see the change through more easily to a successful conclusion.
There is a process that will help do this in stages:
Stage 1 – identify the change and the precise problem that it sets for you, your colleagues, your school and all its stakeholders.
Stage 2 – look at where you are now in relation to the changes that have to be made. In other words, what is happening at the moment and what exactly should be happening and needs to be made to happen?
Stage 3 – remember the restraining and driving forces? It is important to list them at this stage and to ask, what do we need to do to make the driving forces work and what do we need to do to counter the restraining forces?
Stage 4 – by working through Stage 3, it will be possible to develop ideas about what extra resources will be necessary to promote the driving forces
Avoiding negative responses to change We are all allowed to moan about constant change – occasionally and in private. But, as I have already pointed out, once we realise that it has to happen we need to pull all the stops out to make sure that it takes place effectively. As leaders and managers there are certain things that we need to make sure don’t happen. For example:
i) Be specific about what the change actually is. Not being specific and being vague is likely to be demoralising because no one will understand what is happening and what is supposed to happen. Even more important it is impossible to drive the change forward if you don’t know what it is.
ii) Change for its own sake will not be welcomed by anyone. Be able to justify the need for change.
iii) Involve colleagues because most change will depend on everyone being on board with you.
iv) Always make sure that each stage of the change is communicated to everyone that it effects. No one likes surprises that affect how they work.
v) The change process should be part of the normal cycle of meetings, School Improvement Plans etc. If the process itself means a lot more work there will be quite a few negative comments because it might be felt that when the change is actually in place it will continue to mean more work.
It seems unreasonable to expect a positive working atmosphere to arise out of random events. To make change work – and we have all had plenty of practice in this – there has to be committed and detailed leadership and planning.