A casual glance at my professional library will reveal titles ostensibly associated with change management. And this is fine. Leaders of any organisation, at whatever stage of development, manage change. When I arrived at DHSB in 2008, planned change moved us into an outstanding Ofsted category and enabled us to innovate with our curriculum.
But change has changed in the last few years.
Since the publication of the White Paper in 2010 change has been about responding to a steady churn of reform and before this begins to read like another headteacher whinge, many of the reforms have been excellent. Increased autonomy has given our school further room to innovate with service procurement, the curriculum and the estate.
However, heads are far from the masters of their own destinies, as the prevailing ideology would have us believe. The drivers of centralised change have crept up on us through inspection, examination and funding reform. Choose to do what you will but funding models are challenging, qualification and assessment reform are shaping curriculum choices and Ofsted are turning up the heat with seasonal updates to their inspection framework.
It is easy to forget amidst the operational considerations of incessant, radical change that the recruitment, retention and development of teachers is the main driver for raising standards in the long term. Read John Tomsett and Tom Sherrington for erudite expressions of this with practical approaches for school leaders.
In Rage Quits and Mountain Goating, I explained how my frustration with DfE policy led to a decision to defer a National College Teaching School bid. The deferral was aimed at giving the system time to stabilise post-GCSE fiasco and pre-KS4 consultation report and, for our Governors, time to consider what the system consisted of before we put our names to a bid committing ourselves to leading it.
Six months later, a few days after Computer Science has been photo-shopped into the EBacc and the Education Committee reports “serious concerns” with the structure and pace of change and before the long awaited decision on the legal challenge into Ofqual’s ability to manage standards, we are no closer to consensus. In fact, I suspect turmoil in Sanctuary Buildings. See Geoff Barton’s blog for a simmering summary of anger.
It is on these seas that school leaders are navigating a course towards the laudable ambition of a self-improving school system – led by Academy Chains and Teaching Schools. Both vehicles for developing professional capital. But building partnerships during a period of threat for many schools is not easy. Add to this uncertain landscape falling rolls and burgeoning provision in the shape of UTCs, Free Schools and Studio Schools and you would understand why school leaders and Governing bodies would wish to batten down their hatches and focus on saving their own ship from foundering.
It is to the immense credit of secondary schools in Plymouth that this hasn’t happened. Notwithstanding the eclectic nature of the eco-system (we have every denomination of school among our number), we all meet regularly and operate a mature programme of committees that have undertaken such sophisticated activities as agreeing a data sharing protocol and negotiating a school direct offer with two HEIs. Our collective work on inclusion, health and funding supports Plymouth children, irrespective of the school they attend.
Plymouth secondary schools will be meeting this month to discuss moving from Building Capacity to making a bid for cohort 4 Teaching School designation. Much of the work we’re doing together is at this level of partnership. I hope there will be a challenge for DHSB to move away from the language of deferral.
At a SW teaching school forum meeting Maggie Farrar, the outgoing interim CEO of the National College, was keen to hear from Teaching Schools already designated and those holding Building Capacity grants about the issues on the street. Having been close to the Teaching School brief since its inception, I shared some of my concerns about the vision for growing a mature self-improving system:
- Partnerships’ capacity to sustain activity on School to School support, CPD, ITT, Talent management, SLE deployment and research and development;
- the physical commitment and capacity of the founding headteachers, accountable for outcomes;
- the changing nature of the college’s interaction with schools. Provision seems to be at more than one remove from where it used to be. Accessing CPD is straightforward but going through the DfE site, to a list of licensed providers connected to a Teaching School alliance will feel convoluted / diluted in comparison with previous interactions with the college.
- It could be suggested that Aspirant leaders and heads are suffering from some form of dependency on the National College but it has to be acknowledged that a change of branding has made some colleagues feel as if they’ve lost an important professional voice – especially as teachers’ relationships with the DfE can be “conflicted”.
I finished by appealing to the college to engender further links between colleagues using Social Media intelligently. I’m not sure they understood what I meant. I meant going beyond using corporate tweets. A note was taken by the head of policy. I wonder if they’ll get back to me?
Social Media can remind us of our purpose as well as distract us from it. A serendipitous quotation can lift spirits and encourage communication, as happened last weekend following an RT from inspiring blogger @huntingEnglish:
We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. —President Obama
These few words helped galvanise my thinking about any role DHSB may play in Plymouth’s secondary partnerships. Developing teachers from initial training to leadership is our professional responsibility and we have to embrace every opportunity we are given to do this. I have re-considered our deferral – doing nothing would be reprehensible.
We can’t expect the perfect conditions to exist before we start. We can’t even influence those conditions so we’d probably better stop complaining about them (and each other) and get on with it.
We must act. This is our one chance to be responsible for our system – despite the system. We have to make it work or stand accused of a failure of leadership .
The pronouns are crucial here. We can’t do this as one or two schools – it will need all sixteen to open a vein and commit through word and deed and the challenge is to us all.