In this e-bulletin we consider how productive working relationships and conversation can be encouraged through reorganising the structure of staff meetings

Numerous books are written about strategies for school improvement that focus on key areas such as strong leadership systems, clear and effective monitoring cycles, and adaptations to the taught curriculum. These are all well and good but sometimes miss the point that there is a human aspect to all change management in schools; someone has to initiate the proposed change and someone else is often expected to implement the strategies. Unfortunately many good ideas fail at the implementation stage because the person tasked with this role either does not have the capacity or motivation to fulfil the requirements. How do we overcome this situation without resorting to extensive training courses but instead tinkering with how our school operates?

Middle leaders as a focus
My belief is that one of the key activities for senior leaders is to build the drive and capacity in middle leaders to take the school forward. These members of staff are the real engine room of the school and are often the gatekeepers to meaningful change. In order for these teachers to work effectively we need to build trust and hope in equal measure, however, this is not easily achieved within the normal meeting structure in schools.

Changing the structure and format of meetings
We decided to review our meeting structure and put developing relationships at the forefront of our thinking. It was obvious early on that meetings were viewed as a burden to be borne rather than an opportunity for meaningful dialogue, unlike the staff response to continuing professional development sessions. These sessions often involved pair and small group discussion yet our meeting structure usually involved a cast of hundreds! Another aspect was that very few staff really involved themselves in the discussions. Our response was to introduce a new structure and format for meetings to promote more meaningful conversation. The changes included:

  • cluster groups (for heads of department)
  • senior leadership team (SLT) link meetings (between head of department/head of year and SLT link teacher)
  • breakfast meetings (for heads of year)

Cluster groups
In most schools the heads of department meeting involves a large number of staff and can often be very disappointing as individuals try to dominate discussions with personal issues. It can also develop, in the worst instances, into a ‘them and us’ situation between senior leaders and middle leaders. Our school answer to this was to divide the staff into smaller groups of three or four middle leaders.

These newly formed groups now meet with one or two senior leaders within a non-contact period during the day rather than after school. The available slot after school has been given to departments to enable middle leaders to work more regularly with their team. Groups can be manipulated to get the right mix or a school can just use the timetable to match up free lessons of different staff. In my school we have a mixed economy, as one cluster is for English, maths, science and ICT, whilst the other groups are picked randomly using the timetable.

All meetings involve tea and coffee and are discussion forums rather than information-giving sessions. Staff report that they feel the cluster groups are beneficial as they all have the opportunity to contribute and gain a lot from them. Many of the discussion areas have been translated into meaningful change at classroom level instigated by the middle leaders. Relationships between middle and senior leaders have also improved significantly.

Senior leadership team link meetings
Most schools have arrangements where a senior leader links to a particular department/subject and/or a year group. This link is often under-developed leading to frustration on the part of middle leaders. In order to address this issue we have redesigned the link role, in consultation with middle leaders.

Senior leaders now carry out at least one performance management lesson observation of all staff in their link area with the middle leader as well as carrying out an additional solo observation (at the direction of the middle leader). The senior and middle leader meet every four weeks to review the work of the department or year group and work to a set agenda. The senior team have worked hard to get the balance of support and challenge right so that relationships are developed positively whilst ensuring that positive change is managed effectively.

Middle leaders indicate that the support is valued, although that is now after 18 months of this approach; the initial response was more guarded. The thing that has made the difference has been the consistency of the senior leaders and the support and advice they have offered through their one-to-one sessions.

Breakfast meetings
Year leaders in my school would usually meet once a week within a non-contact period to discuss issues. The meetings were rarely developmental and were viewed as a necessary evil by staff. By changing the meeting time to before school we have ensured that staff ‘gain’ one non-contact period each week, which has been well received.

Breakfast is provided at these meetings and it is amazing how something as simple as this can change the dynamic of meetings (not unlike tea/coffee at the cluster meetings). It is now a more social start to the session and it is obvious that relationships are developing as a result. Another change has been to initiate a three-week cycle for the meetings as follows:

  1. Information and business items
  2. Developmental discussion
  3. One-to-one review (10 mins) with senior leader in charge of pastoral

This system has operated since September and the response from year leaders has been very positive, so much so that they would not wish to go back to the previous model.

It is clear that we need to invest in our middle leaders if they are to have a positive impact in school. The investment, in my opinion, should be time spent in stimulating, meaningful and challenging conversation that not only develops capacity but also boosts relationships as well.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in January 2010

About the author: Kieran McGrane and the leadership team at Federation of West Sleekburn Middle School and Bedlingtonshire Community High School, Northumberland