How can school leaders and managers create an environment in which highly effective work can take place at all levels and all times? Former deputy head John Jackson suggests an approach.

The current era of objective measurement and relentless public accountability has brought unprecedented pressure to bear on school leadership teams and their governing bodies. To borrow from a now-famous dictum, they know only too well that to ensure their survival their three priorities must be ‘performance, performance and performance’. The unfolding story of this requirement to produce year-on-year improvement, if only in the form of raw examination data, has provided interesting insights into the ways in which school managers, over time and with experience, have perceived and responded to these kinds of demands.

Broadly speaking, early responses were unashamedly functional and were centred on ideas of effectiveness. The focus was entirely on outcomes, teasing out the best possible results by whatever means possible, regardless of wider educational considerations. The adoption of multi-award vocational courses, the implementation of Easter schools, the setting-up of mentoring schemes, even payment for results gained, were, and remain, some of the more common manifestations of this approach.

More recently attention has moved to notions of more sustainable school improvement and initiatives been more educationally focused. They have concentrated on enhancing the nature and quality of classroom teaching through training, monitoring and reciprocal observation, through courses on learning styles and the benefits of technology and, in some cases, by embarking upon Ofsted training which can be brought back to inform and instruct the school in the expected high standards.

These twin avenues have in fact complemented each other in many ways. Each has its benefits and their attractions for leadership teams faced with the need for both immediate and long-term improvement are obvious. There is hardly a school in the country where such work has not been readily visible in recent years.

The purpose of this article, however, is to provide a space in which the consideration of a third, longer term, but complementary, approach can be set in motion. This does not have an immediately functional, outcomes-based character, neither does it have a solely educational application. Its focus is not on the strategies that the leadership may or may not adopt but rather the very nature and quality of its management methods.

Put simply it asks those who run individual schools to ascertain whether their management methods enable the school to achieve and display what has become described as ‘a high-performance culture’, which by its very nature would open the door to the outcomes and quality that the two former approaches are, in their more confined ways, intent upon pursuing.

It requires real honesty and bold introspection on the part of the school’s leadership and management teams to put themselves and their own practices under the microscope and ask themselves if they are really doing all they can to create the conditions in which highly effective work can take place at all levels, at all times.

Changing the culture of a school requires time, often years, as well as clear, consistent leadership. Any attempt to move and mould the school towards this level of operation would require analysis and work on two connected levels – the motivation of individual members of staff and with the wider activities of teams and groupings right across the organisation.

Working with individuals When considering, firstly, the kinds of strategies that managers can adopt with individual members of staff, it is worth noting two sets of findings which have been well rehearsed in current literature and which provide real motivation for this approach.

In recent research it has been found that more than half of an individual’s job satisfaction is directly determined by the relationship he or she has with his or her immediate manager. Few workers, and especially teachers, cite earnings as the key motivator for their engagement with their work. Furthermore, when asked why they leave their jobs, employees rarely say that they did not like the organisation and had to get away from it. Rather they are adamant that they leave managers. They feel it imperative to do so because of a range of reasons; the way they have been treated, the lack of leadership afforded them, the absence of support for professional development and the lack of integrity and honour on the part of their superiors.

There are several necessary management actions which follow logically from these observations:
1. Always strive to add value and meaning to people’s work. Assure them repeatedly that their work is making a real difference to children’s lives, to the school community and to society in general. A sense of purpose is central to sustained application and achievement.

2. Find every opportunity to make work vital and challenging. Staff will develop skills and knowledge usually only if they need to do so by accepting new responsibilities or by undertaking new initiatives. This requires awareness and planning on the part of senior managers and must be accompanied by support and leadership to supply the necessary direction and feedback. People will accept being led by those who genuinely display an interest in their wellbeing.

3. Make every effort to create time – discard all unnecessary tasks and repetitive events – to talk to individuals on a regular basis. A valued and protected monthly one-to-one, for instance, with an open reciprocal agenda will develop a real sense of belonging and involvement amongst staff.

4. Paint verbal pictures for people so that they can visualise the goals they are aiming for and be able to recognise success when they achieve it. Too often plans and aims which are very laudable and desirable are, in their intended outcomes, too vague for individuals to deal with, imagine or work towards.

5. Be sure to build on people’s sense of personal value and professional wellbeing. Give praise generously in various forms for achievements gained and take an interest in the family and personal lives of colleagues. Gratitude and appreciation are always welcome but are particularly good for a person’s self-esteem when the giver of praise is really specific about what was done and why it was so valuable to the school.

6. Help and encourage people to talk about their career goals and don’t concentrate attention solely on those activities which will help run the school. Don’t be frightened of some self-disclosure of your own. It makes reciprocation so much easier. The trust and sense of loyalty that accrues from understanding a colleague’s personal ambitions will be invaluable in retaining well motivated staff and ensuring cooperation in future times.

7. Don’t allow difficulties or negative perceptions to fester or hold up progress. Encourage people to alert managers to issues and unhappiness that they come across as soon as these things rear their heads. Not only can these negative matters be resolved quickly but the interest and concern shown will help develop strong bonds between members of staff.

8. Always think strategically and be finely tuned to those inevitable times and events in the school’s evolution when difficulties may arise which may cause people to deviate from their normal focus. Large scale structural or personnel changes at any level or for any reason, as well as unexpected or unpleasant events, are times when managers must be seen to make the time to get out and talk with staff as much and as regularly as possible. The reassurance created by this will calm the waters and develop real ties between individuals and teams.

9. Always do as you say and ask. Aligning your actions tightly and visibly to your words provides you with immediate and lasting respect from colleagues and supplies them with a tangible model to promote and emulate.

It has often been said that a school’s staff are its major asset. Perhaps it is wiser and more correct in this day and age to reformulate this rather clichéd viewpoint and suggest that managers should, rather, view teachers as investors in their school. These people are not, after all, mere commodities but are individuals who have chosen to direct and apply their vast range of skills and experience to the benefit of this particular organisation and therefore deserve to know that their investment is not only valued but is being carefully nurtured to ensure maximum appreciation for all concerned.
Viewed from this standpoint the school manager becomes someone who must recognise that he or she must create an environment in which people are helped to achieve both their own and the school’s goals. As a result the model of management and leadership created is one of release and enhancement where value is not fixed but constantly accumulating and unfolding.

Strategies for the whole organisation
On the organisational level there are many essential considerations for school managers to foreground and act upon.

Leading from the front
High performance requires the overt and relentless pursuit of continuous learning on the part of all staff, not just teachers. CPD and the role of the CPD coordinator, who should be a senior member of staff, must be placed at the centre of the school’s annual management cycle, in the school development plans, in performance reviews and in strategic planning for the future. All staff and departments need personal and team development plans and all should be required to see that sharing and cascading their learning to their colleagues is as much a part of their role as teaching children

Drawing a line
Whatever has happened before, whatever the diverse nature of the individual and group approaches have been, needs to be laid bare and thoroughly reformulated. Success requires the acquisition and maintenance of certain, well-defined types of behaviour which need to be discussed and established as the benchmark for subsequent action. This model or ‘common language’, described and demanded by the school’s leaders, enables clearer communication and provides a framework upon which planning for the future can be constructed.

Creative systems of communication
Managers need to speak regularly to all staff at all levels in the school. In addition meetings, training sessions and working groups should be constructed as non-hierarchically as possible to allow staff the chance to understand the work of others and explain their own. All staff need to be given opportunities and to feel comfortable in supplying others with feedback and open to receiving honest comments on their own efforts and the quality of their performance.

Monitor what is happening
All staff, departments and groupings need to be accountable through self-evaluation, observation, review and feedback. The resulting understandings must be used to highlight what has worked well and to encourage and promote beneficial, long-term behavioural improvements for both individuals and teams

Emphasis the role of middle managers
Heads of department and heads of year are often described as the ‘engine room’ of the school and certainly play a crucial role in its continuing success. These individuals will require intense training and support from senior colleagues to become aware of what high performance looks like from themselves and their teams and to be prepared to accept nothing less than this in their work

Eternal vigilance An emphasis on high-performance must be present in all the school does in both its external and internal dealings. Morning briefings, selection procedures, school events and the like are just as important as formal appraisal sessions as opportunities to reinforce the behaviours that the school requires. As systems of accountability gradually evolve and school managers become more responsible for conducting their own self-evaluation it becomes essential that this is not regarded as a paper exercise but an extraordinarily valuable tool in the drive for school improvement. Managers must also be certain that they are capable of conducting such an exercise by being very clear as to the standards of performance they wish to promote to secure their own vision of the school.

It is even more important that such work should begin and follow from a critical analysis of the leadership team’s own practices so that the criticism of some areas of school life does not inadvertently raise difficult questions about their own management of the school.

John Jackson has 24 years’ experience of teaching, including being a deputy head responsible for CPD. He also has experience of professional development in the commercial sector.