Communicating the change agenda in a cruising school

Ken Moffat, Assistant Headteacher, Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, Canterbury, Kent

Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys is a selective 11–18 school in Kent providing for the top 30% of local students academically. The school is a specialist maths and science college of approximately 1,000 students, including 320 in a mixed sixth form.

The school is situated on the southern edge of Canterbury and serves a relatively affluent population with two universities, although with a significant number of students from less affluent homes outside of the city. Just less than 5% of students appear on the special needs register and less than 2% of students receive free school meals, although the school provides specialist provision for students on the autistic spectrum.

The school enjoys a high reputation locally and nationally and is known as a school of high academic achievement. A total of 98% of sixth formers progress on to higher education, mostly Russell Group universities (see: www.russellgroup.ac.uk), with some 15 or so moving on to colleges of Oxford and Cambridge each year. A total of 67% of students gained A or B grades at A-level last year and the latest performance and assessment (PANDA) data places the school in the second centile nationally at Key Stage 3 for value-added progress and in the sixth centile for Key Stage 4.

An Ofsted inspection in 2000 reported progress at KS4 to be lower than expected and a further inspection in 2005 reported improvement in this area.

 It is an orderly school where, traditionally, staff stay for a significant proportion of their careers and are generally very positive about the school in which they work. The consequence of this is a fairly robust and static school culture, and consistently sound academic performance. Like all teachers, the school’s staff were suitably cynical about the whole notion of change having, in their eyes, experienced 15 years of change imposed by successive governments that had done little to bring about significant improvements at the chalkface.

However, a slightly disappointing Ofsted report in 2000 commented on less progress than could be expected in Key Stage 3 and on a significant percentage of teaching that was merely satisfactory.

While the school’s league-table performance remained relatively high, aided by the high-ability intake, other statistics pointed to a less successful performance. The 2000 performance and assessment data suggested that KS3 results were not so pleasing, grading the school’s performance as D (poor) in comparison with similar schools. Value-added figures in KS4 were also poor with the PANDA scoring the school’s performance as E (the lowest possible comparative score) having slipped from a D two years earlier. The apparent success of the school served to mask significant underachievement beneath the surface.

The appointment of a new headteacher in 2001, Matthew Baxter, heralded a new era for the school and his research into the school’s performance, leading to a PhD, provided rich data and a new perspective on the school. Borrowing a phrase from Stoll and Fink (1996), Baxter identified the school at the time of his appointment as ‘cruising’ and highlighted the deficiencies of school leadership as a lack of vision, a patrician style of management and having poor lines of communication.

In indicating a way forward, Baxter placed his emphasis on:

  • making the professional culture of the school more focused on learning
  • distributing leadership among all staff
  • developing and articulating a set of aims that have meaning to all stakeholders
  • developing systems for monitoring and evaluating the work of staff.

Staff resistance to change

By January 2004, the school had been congratulated by the Secretary of State for having the fourth best value-added score in the country at KS3. However, subsequent to Baxter’s research (2004), and coming on top of concern expressed in senior management team (SMT) meetings, two documents seemed to verify the feeling that, while student progress was bringing about better academic results and improved performances from the students, the school’s staff were slower to sign up to the new change agenda than had been hoped.

Firstly, an internal SMT review based around questionnaires and interviews with the teaching staff highlighted problems in the way the SMT was still communicating with the staff as a whole. As stated in the review:

the progressive and forward-thinking approaches to teaching and learning, to professional relationships and to the development of the school have not been embraced by all staff.

Secondly, the Investors in People (IiP) report on the school in 2004 based on interviews with 40% of the teaching staff highlighted further hesitation to adopt the new agenda

Simon Langton School is no different to any other organisation in that change can be unsettling for staff and it was clear from the interviews that this is still the case. There were some staff interviewed that welcomed the challenges adopting new practices and working methods brought and can see the benefits of such. There were some staff that have concerns about the amount and rate of change and how it impacts on the traditions and community spirit within the school and there were a number of staff who feel it was too early to assess the overall impact.

Lower participation around decision-making than was previously the case was highlighted as a concern and staff, generally, were unhappy with the quality of communication at the school. ‘The effectiveness of our communications’ generated a score of only one out of a possible four from performance indicators following staff interviews.

Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys – Mission statement

Our mission is to lead a community of learners who enjoy an ability to think creatively, critically and innovatively, who possess a strong sense of responsibility for the school, for the community and for the environment and who have the will to use these skills not only for the benefit of themselves but also for the good of the wider world.

We are a learning organisation. We believe that when people learn they change and grow. To that end we aim to:

  • provide high-quality education through progressive and forward-thinking teaching
  • provide learning experiences that are enjoyable, stimulating and challenging and that encourage critical and innovative thinking
  • foster fruitful relationships between the school and our partners in the community
  • provide the most appropriate and accessible resources for effective learning and teaching
  • nurture in all a sense of responsibility for the school, for the community and the environment for the benefit of their own future and the future of the world.

It was clear that any resistance to the new change agenda was not just from a self-appointed awkward squad. So at the beginning of 2002, a reorganisation of the SMT was undertaken to challenge resistance to the change agenda. This included appointing over three years three new assistant heads responsible for learning, development and communication respectively. (By 2006 no member of the SMT had been responsible for the school’s leadership at the time of the 2000 Ofsted.) In January 2005, I had accepted the position of assistant headteacher: communications and had begun an MBA at the University of Leicester.

This led me into school-based research and it seemed obvious to focus on the reaction of the school’s staff to the new change agenda, as part of this work.

The new approach at the school began with a return to basics and a new statement of the school’s mission and aims. Initially drafted by the headteacher and myself, a powerful vision of the school was discussed among governors and staff and finally presented after a year as the overall mission of the school and its future.

The school was remodelled as a learning organisation, along the lines proposed by Fullan (1992), placing teaching and learning (T&L) at its core. Our vision was that the whole school would have the opportunity to engage in learning and, to that end, we offered a number of bursaries to staff to encourage them to take up further academic study. The bursaries ranged from £700 for staff working on projects not linked to the school up to full fees paid for staff involved in school-based research. Soon six staff were working towards their Masters or PhDs.

The mission statement was launched at a staff meeting in a question-and-answer session with the head. The initial reaction from the staff was reasonably positive.

Alongside the reform of the SMT, and in line with the stated intent of distributed leadership, another body was formed, initially the school improvement group (SIG) and, latterly, the school leadership team (SLT). The purpose of this body was to deliberate important school issues with a view to offering recommendations to the SMT as policy. The new group consisted of no standing members, except the headteacher and an assistant head, but would be drawn from all areas of the school staff as well as head students and the chair of governors.

Staff were asked to attend where their skills or interests coincided with the needs of the school, which all did so willingly. Within a year of its inception, more than one-half of the teaching staff had sat on this body. On average we aimed to have around 10 people at each meeting chosen from all types of staff, subject leaders, pastoral leaders or assistant teachers and support staff — any more we felt would hinder decision-making.

Topics for discussion included the policy of distributed leadership, developing the student voice at the school, future strategic planning and reviewing the school’s food policy. The importance of this team cannot be overstated both as a means of effectively distributing leadership and involving significant numbers of staff in an organisational dialogue.

Driven initially by the headteacher, and overseen by an influential member of the English department, a voluntary teaching and learning group (TLG), open to all, was also established. This comprised more than 20 of the school’s academic staff who volunteered and met every half term to discuss the implications of new pedagogical initiatives for the school with a view to influencing future school policy. Again, the fluid nature of the group and its open brief to discuss and report back to senior leaders opened up the school to a level of internal discussion hitherto unknown.

Other leadership and management groups

The purpose of the Futures Group was to apply futures thinking to the direction in which the school was going and to discuss various possible future scenarios for the school over a 10- to 15-year period, particularly with a view to developing technologies and threats and opportunities in the local and national context. This group was drawn from a variety of departments but had a sharp information and communications technology (ICT) and senior management focus.

The International Committee sought to put the work the school was doing into a wider context, but managed to link the school successfully with other European schools in Spain, Germany and the Czech Republic and set up a successful programme of international work experience for Year 11 boys.

Principles of classroom practice

1 Lessons incorporate a variety of teaching and learning styles
2 Students are encouraged to look objectively at what they are studying, and to consider, ‘Why are we doing this and in this way?’
3 Teachers use open questioning wherever possible
4 Students are given opportunities to use speaking and listening skills
5 Teachers promote an anxiety- free classroom

6 All students are encouraged to participate actively in lessons

7

 Students’ success is celebrated
8 Teaching encourages lifelong independent learning
9 Teachers and students are reflective learners

10 Developing technologies are an integral part of teaching and learning

Increasing the opportunities for participatory leadership at the school inevitably drew more members of the staffroom into the process of change and refashioned them, consciously or otherwise, as agents of that change. Both the school leadership team and the teaching and learning group added on to the workload of colleagues, although no complaints were voiced. Rather, the staffroom became a more energised and excited place with teachers enjoying the opportunity for professional communication. Out of the TLG’s work came a statement of 10 principles of classroom practice, recommended by the teaching staff and immediately adopted as school policy.

Opening up the debate about teaching and learning allowed us to introduce the staff to the work of Alistair Smith (an expert on accelerated learning — see: www.networkcontinuum.co.uk) and brain-based learning styles as well as inviting the likes of John West-Burnham (Senior Research Adviser at the National College for School Leadership) down to talk to the staff as part of their training days, which was funded from our staff development budget. The staff were openly engaging in focused discussion on learning and specific learning styles and the implications for teaching. More committees were formed independently by staff, looking at the long-term future of the school and involving the school in more wideranging international perspectives, all capable of significantly influencing the future strategy of the school.

So far so good, but all the research clearly states that in any organisation where change is on the agenda communication must be protean in form, but consistent in content. As Handy points out (1995):

Ask any organisation what its chief problem is; they will reply, nine times out of 10, ‘communications’.

Kotter (1996) identifies eight potential errors capable of jeopardising an organisational change agenda.

Mistakes are often made in schools and elsewhere because communication is not seen as a two-way exchange, but also because management teams are often unwilling or afraid to vocalise their vision, or tell the story of their school. As Ridderstralle and Nordstrom point out in Funky business (2001):

Communicating a vision not only involves repetition and a carefully distilled message; it demands the ability to tell a story.

Factors jeopardising organisational change

  • Allowing too much complacency
  • Failing to create a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition
  • Underestimating the power of vision
  • Undercommunicating by a factor of 10
  • Permitting obstacles to block the new vision
  • Failing to create short-term wins
  • Declaring victory too soonNeglecting to anchor change firmly in the corporate culture (Kotter, 1996)

 Improving communication

We determined to harness the school’s communication processes to try and tell the school’s story over and over and link it always to the school’s mission and aims.

The half-termly newsletter sent to all students and on to their parents grew from a flimsy four-page photocopy to a robust stapled edition of anything up to 32 pages, celebrating all and any short-term wins — most notably, perhaps, the nationwide top five KS3 placing in 2004.

The weekly diary, for staff and students, was replaced with a newssheet called the News in Brief (NiB) aimed to catalogue all the events, happenings and meetings at the school for that week designed to cancel out the NETMA principle (‘nobody ever tells me anything’) by placing all the school’s information in the public forum.

Also a new SMT newsletter — The Langton Insider (for staff eyes only) — published termly gave all the staff free access to any and all current SMT thinking regarding the school’s strategic development. The appearance of a regularly updated five-year development plan allowed staff to buy in to the roadmap to improvement.

For openness, the minutes of SMT meetings were pinned up in the staffroom, although hindsight tells us this caused as many problems as it solved. Staff were occasionally quick to misread items that had been minuted concisely for reasons of brevity and came to occasional twisted conclusions. In the end, we compromised and put up the meeting agenda but not the minutes.

But all of this communication is top down and based on the old source-message-receiver model of communication which, by itself, is not enough to win hearts and minds. Sergiovanni (2001) is perhaps right to urge a rejection of the term ‘communication’ altogether:

The secret both to successfully practising ideas-based leadership and to helping schools become moral communities is to replace communication with conversation. Conversation may not move mountains, but it can get teachers, citizens, state official and other stakeholders to think differently.

Role of focus groups

We developed a series of one-hour focus group meetings whereby groups of staff were invited to discuss the development and vision of the school over a working buffet lunch (provided by the school) with me. Discussions were open and honest and, although the minutes of the meetings were displayed in the staffroom, individual anonymity was guaranteed.

The response was exceptional as was the feeling that we were at last embarking on an in-house full-scale conversation. The make-up of the groups was constructed around staff with similar interests such as subject leaders or pastoral mentors, or staff with no specific management responsibility (yet!) or staff with more than 20 years’ service. The meetings have proved to be both popular and positive Where there was criticism, it was generally discussed at SMT at a later date and taken on the chin as fair comment.

Interestingly, the first real focus group was an SMT group. We had to begin by establishing that the vision we were promoting was the same one. Thankfully, it was. The nature of the focus groups was casual and relaxed and we deliberately avoided policy speak. To all intents and purposes these were five or six colleagues sitting down to lunch and having a chat — although the conversation was always focused on the school.

The results from the focus groups were dynamic and their usefulness as a means of explaining the school’s emphasis on learning and innovation, as well as being a powerful listening device, soon became clear. Comments from the staff — involving the awkward squad and all — became progressively more positive. The last word goes to another subject leader who simply said, ‘It’s buzzing’. Surely an indication that the school can now align itself more with Stoll and Fink’s definition of a moving school rather than a cruising one.

Focus group comments

The teaching and learning group is a good example of what doesn’t happen in other places. It’s really come out into the open.

The devolved leadership that now exists in the school means that everybody does actually have access to almost all of the information.

One senior subject leader, and influential opinion former, said:
Three years ago I was unhappy about all this, but now I’m afraid I’m fully signed up. I’ve totally bought in.

When asked what had prompted the change he said, simply:
I understand it now.

Another long-standing staff member commented:
This used to be a traditional boys’ grammar school with public school pretences. Now it’s an exciting and unique organisation. It still inspires me to be a teacher.

Evaluating progress

The follow-up to all this was a quick questionnaire filled in by the majority of the staff, which showed a very positive view of the school’s communication systems, pleasing understanding and acceptance of the school’s mission and ethos and its relevance to classroom performance and a sound endorsement of the policy and practice of distributed leadership.

This represents a very favourable understanding, awareness and acceptance of the ethos of the school.

For devilment, I differentiated the questionnaire for teachers and support staff. The upshot was that the support staff felt wholly differently from the rosy view of the school espoused by the teachers, but that is a different story and we are addressing that now. I have asked the IiP team to focus on distributed leadership for their next visit.

Taking stock

So where are we now, five years down the line? Some old and sentimentally cherished traditions have been lost. One or two staff had to be challenged directly by the headteacher about the reasons for their continued negativity. Some people were promoted and others let go, but that is inevitable. The teaching and learning group still meets regularly and has developed into an excellent forum for the induction of new staff as well as continuing the in-house conversation about education.

The most recent PANDA data placed us in the second centile nationally at KS3 and the sixth at KS4, record numbers are going on to Oxford and Cambridge, we have had our best ever A-level results, the sixth form is growing but still oversubscribed and Ofsted inspectors were gracious enough to concede in 2005 that ‘the headteacher’s leadership is outstanding and has driven many positive changes’. We look forward to the return of Investors in People next year to see their updated comments on our lines of communication in particular.

However, most importantly we feel we have the support of the overwhelming number of teachers at the school who share the vision and feel proud to work here. We have married the prose of educational theory with the passion of our teaching staff and are firmly on the path to continued improvement. We are not declaring victory just yet, and we will always avoid complacency, chiefly by repeating the message that change is, and ever will be, part of the culture of the school. If, as Ridderstralle and Nordstrom (2001) state, the funky businesses and organisations of the future will be the ones that accept and respond to change, so be it. This is a funky school.

Ken Moffat, Assistant Headteacher, Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, Canterbury, Kent

How to communicate change effectively

  • Make sure the top team all understand and believe in the vision. Without their unanimous support any change is doomed — and, yes, you will all have to walk the walk.
  • Involve your staff completely — distributing leadership is empowering.
  • Do not be afraid to tell your story — if you don’t, you can be sure someone else will, and tell it differently from you.
  • Up your organisational communications by 100%. Understanding the vision is key. Whenever you think you have communicated enough, you haven’t. Think again.
  • Above all — talk to your staff. Involve them in a conversation about where you are and where you want to be. And have faith. All staffrooms can have their philosophy changed. Even the most cynical.

References

Baxter, M. (2004) The cruising school: an investigation into its characteristics and professional culture, PhD, unpublished, University of Lincoln

Fullan, M. (1992) The new meaning of educational change, Cassell

Handy, C. (1995) Inside organisations, Penguin

Kotter, J. (1996) Leading change, Harvard

Ridderstralle, J. and Nordstrom, K. (2001) Funky business, Prentice Hall

Sergiovanni, T (2001) Leadership: what’s in it for schools?, Routledge

Stoll, L. and Fink, D. (1996) Changing our schools, Oxford University Press

Simon Langton School has always enjoyed a reputation as a school for academic achievement among the local community and features among the better performing grammar schools in the country in terms of league-table performances.

Category: