A-Z of school life examines maintaining the momentum, sorting out the important from the not important, making the most of opportunities, people and questions, questions, Jane Golightly has written extensively on school improvement and has more than 30 years experience in primary educationuestions

We are entering the season of mixed emotions. Those who will be leaving the profession, perhaps looking forward to retirement or new challenges. Others reading this will be preparing for the next big step. Perhaps a leadership promotion which will mean new hats to wear and skills to learn. For all, there will be a sense of anticipation about the future. Like Christmas, the answer to a smooth transition from one stage to the next lies in preparation. If you are moving on and up the leadership scale, the A–Z of school life helps you in that preparation.

M = Momentum, management, money, meetings, motivation
Just as there are fixed points in the school year, there are times when it is much harder to motivate staff. It’s a foolhardy leader who introduces new policy at the end of the autumn term. The wise school leader knows that maintaining the momentum for effective improvement across the school year takes skill and timing. So what do you need to get it right?

The answer lies in planning, doing, reflecting and evaluating. Not rocket science but when we don’t get the result we want it is often because we fall down at one of these stages, or, worse still, miss one out. If this happens you lose the momentum for improvement. Too fast or too slow and you can take work back months. Staff can become disillusioned; confidence is lost in the school leadership’s capacity to bring about improvement. If you are serious about improvement in your school take each stage seriously. Give it the time it needs. Maintain the momentum for improvement by going through each stage and moving forward at a steady pace and with confidence.

N = Not important, nonsense, needs
What are the most and least important things you have done today? Perhaps the most important was catching up with a year 3 child who is growing quieter day by day. What about the not important? When I talk to headteachers they will often say photocopying is high on the list of the not important. No one is going to argue that there will be times when leaders need to spend some time doing things that aren’t important and it’s true that dealing with the important is harder than dealing with the not so important. But if you get it wrong you can walk your school into challenging situations which will take time to resolve. Effective leaders are ‘tuned’ to the important. Leading learning or being accessible to parents, staff and children are some of the areas they prioritise as important. Sorting lost property, tidying the staffroom and store cupboards are not important to you as a leader. Good leaders know who should be doing these jobs and makes sure the right person does them.

O = Opportunities, objectives, ownership, options
How often has opportunity knocked for your school and passed by? It’s a good time of the year to think about what you have done as a leader to create opportunities for your school. First, consider all the opportunities your school reached out for this year. Perhaps an award, or possibly the school became a centre for other staff to visit and learn from good practice. Opportunities you have reached out for and which have enabled your school to carry on developing and improving.

What about the staff and children? What opportunities have you created for them to grow and develop? Don’t be fearful of new experiences, letting opportunities pass your school by. Be alert to what they can offer. They can make a real difference to your school. No one wants to work in the dull school where nothing changes or happens. New experiences can be good.

P = People, problems, practice, policy, parents
I haven’t met anyone who won’t admit to liking people watching. But that’s not enough for you as a leader. Your job is to bring out the talents of your staff so that they can do the best job in whatever role they hold. You do this by praising, motivating, supporting, advising, coaching, modelling, scaffolding – the list could go on. It’s about judging the right approach at the right time. Performance management should also be much more than a statutory requirement. In good schools it’s a process about improving people in their job. There will also be a strong culture of people as learners, and systems are in place to support this. People have opportunities to learn from each other, and from other schools, organisations and institutions.

Q = Questions, queries, querulous
Questions are about answers and solutions. Through the process of self-evaluation, schools are asking questions. How well are we doing? How do we know? What should we do more of? Less of? Stop altogether? I hope you are a school that asks questions of itself. Or are you apprehensive about asking, as you may find out something you don’t want to learn or hear.

Don’t let these natural anxieties prevent you from asking questions. My top tip for schools is to involve everyone in the questions and that includes parents and children. Tried and tested ways of doing this are forums, surgeries, open meetings, online communication, newsletters and bulletin boards. Engage as many people as possible in finding the answer or solution and you are more likely to get one that will work.

We can’t know everything about leadership and we need to keep on learning. Good leaders carry on learning from other leaders. Full members of NCSL can access ‘LES50NS’ on www.nationalcollege.org.uk/index/leadershiplibrary.htm

‘Fifty lessons’ is a series of video lessons for busy leaders from a range of people and organisations. These short leadership clips will give you much to think about.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in June 2010

About the author: Jane Golightly has written extensively on school improvement and has more than 30 years experience in primary education