Thanos - If you consider failure experience?
Loki - I consider experience experience.
Avengers: Infinity War - 2018
In the direct aftermath of the airing of ‘School’ I have been inundated with correspondence. It has come from all corners of the education world and beyond. A significant proportion of it has come from School Leaders wanting to share their stories with me.
In all the conversations with Headteachers/Principals, one common strand keeps coming to the fore. When asked a version of this question – ‘what support are you getting?’ the responses are all very similar. The similarity is that in all cases there has been an attempt by the leader to outline where they get support from: Governors, fellow HTs, Trusts, LAs but, in all cases, it has been wholly unconvincing.
That’s not to say that support is not available. All of those listed above are offering support, alongside a variety of other agencies that Schools and their leaders can buy or opt into. There is support available from NLEs, SLEs, School improvement advisors etc. etc…
There appear to be two separate issues:
1) The majority of the support being made available to school leaders falls into the arena of school improvement. Most of the school leaders I have spoken to have discussed how this is useful, but that it also feels limited. Many have shared that it is valuable to have an external set of eyes to assess the school improvement strategies and their impact. To cross check and benchmark your own evaluation is supportive. However, there are some limitations that keep being referred to:
a. There is a limit to the depth that can be achieved in a small number of visits made over the course of a school year
b. In challenging schools there may be a range of different ‘external eyes’ made available – whilst this support is welcomed there is a feeling that it is also disconnected. The SIA might reflect and suggest a different set of conclusions to the NLE to the LA/trust support to the HMI. This can be very difficult to manage strategically. To ignore the conclusions is not an option so they must be acted upon – How to respond to all the identified ‘priorities’ in a managed way? That does not leave staff feeling assaulted by the ‘oh and another thing’ approach.
c. The background context of the leaders offering the support. Our system is set up so that many of the individuals allowed or in a position to offer support are coming from a background of good/outstanding schools. (There is a broader problem with this in that there is evidence to suggest that the reliability of these judgements is questionable, but, let’s put that to one side and assume that all the inspection conclusions are accurate). The issue identified by the HTs that I have spoken to is that the advice being offered is limited by the experiences of the individuals offering it. It’s not that they don’t have useful advice but perhaps we need to recognise that the HT of a Grammar school that is outstanding is not necessarily the best person to advise the HT of a large urban comprehensive in a deprived area. I use an extreme example to illustrate the point, there will be plenty of less extreme versions of this phenomenon.
2) There is little in the way of support that is directly focussed at looking after our leaders and their leadership teams. In increasingly and endlessly challenging times, where not only are we being asked to do ‘more with less’ and achieve higher standards, I have to wonder, who, exactly, is looking after headteachers. I would hope that it is obvious that, there is the need to skill leaders up to look after themselves and their teams. The culture generated within an organisation for all the staff who work in it, stems from the leadership team and will be a reflection of it. If the senior team are not looking after themselves or being looked after it follows that this culture will be reflected in the rest of the organisation. This has been outlined in some detail (with yours truly as a reference point) in this blog post by Viv Grant. Where this support is available to schools it is contracted in – this in itself is a problem. At a time of decreasing money and HTs scratching their heads to find money to preserve front line services you can guarantee that the last thing they are likely to do is spend valuable monies on a coaching programme for themselves and their senior team.
I think it is time to rethink:
1) Can we take a more connected approach to school support and scrutiny?
2) Can we drop the assumption that the only leaders worthy of advising or supporting other leaders are those from a background of good/outstanding schools? I launched this blog with a quote from ‘Infinity Wars’ because in my more cynical moments I feel that to be the HT of an RI or SM school is to be tarred and feathered with ‘failure’ – I prefer to go with the God of Mischief on this one and regard any leadership experience as experience and therefor to be learned from!
3) Is it not time that we acknowledged that school leadership is inherently stressful (joyful and amazing too!) and that our school leaders deserve to be supported with free-to-access coaching support for them and the senior team. If we take this approach we have a chance of stress proofing school leaders through a proactive strategy rather than waiting for them to stumble and fall when the pressure gets too much.