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A Bird’s Eye View

I have just completed the first year of working in a freelance capacity. This work has taken me into some fifty or more schools and brought me into contact with many more school leaders in a range of capacities including:

  • Working closely with individual schools as School Improvement Partner and external adviser to governing bodies
  • Leading professional development seminars with middle and senior leaders
  • Working with leadership teams using the excellent ‘Leadership Matters’ tools as starting point for team development programmes.
  • Coaching individual members of senior and middle leadership teams
  • Advising governing bodies
  • Speaking at conferences on aspects of school leadership
  • Helping schools to review their curriculum and other aspects of their provision
  • Working with 13 schools as an associate for the PiXL network helping them to improve outcomes for their students.
  • Helping schools to implement the PiXL EDGE programme developing and embedding employability skills into the curriculum
  • General advice and consultancy to a number of organisations
  • Serving on the board of the Careers and Enterprise Company.

 

So much for part time!

 

The purpose of this blog is to reflect on what I have been seeing and hearing in schools all over England.

 

First and foremost I am in awe at what I see. All over the country committed professionals are doing everything they possibly can, going way beyond the call of duty in their passion to make a real difference to the life chance of young people. I meet people who are fiercely self-critical – always seeking to see what more they can do, however excellent their work already is. I see great teaching, focused sharply on the needs of every single child who they know well though their sophisticated assessment and tracking processes. Above all, I experience openness and a willingness to share what is not going so well because I am not there to judge or label the schools. They want me to ask challenging questions and help them to think outside the box. The students, parents and communities these schools service appreciate and value the great work the staff do.

 

For me personally the work continues to be a pleasure and a privilege. Seeing all of what I have just described and receiving feedback that tells me I have been able to help has given me a renewed confidence.  Before doing this, I think I had forgotten just how much experience I had had in my 32 years in schools plus my time with ASCL. I am delighted to be able to share that with those who are interested.

 

Of course I also encounter schools which are struggling, where too much is reactive and often excessive, there is unnecessary workload caused by poor planning or financial management or, the spiral of decline that can be caused by pernicious labelling that comes from those Ofsted reports that start with the sentence ‘this is not a good school’. Helping them to overcome low morale,  sometimes a fixed mindset and the resistance that comes with this is a challenge, but it is one that can more easily be addressed by someone who wants to help, than by someone who wants to beat them with a big stick.

 

And let us be under no illusions. I know that this is by far the most challenging time I can remember to be a school leader. The hyper-accountability, the vulnerability of many postholders, particularly when working in deprived or challenging areas, mental health issues, racism, funding, recruitment and the immense difficulty of managing the rushed and chaotic implementation of the new qualifications are some of the challenges. And the greatest of all is the culture of denigration that persists amongst some politicians and regretfully the arrogance that allows them to put in place policies that are not underpinned by any kind of evidence base and have been developed without the involvement of experienced professionals. I also wonder how long a government can be in place before it stops blaming its predecessors. In this context it is not surprising, though deeply saddening, that some current or potential school leaders retreat into their shells or give up entirely.

 

Nevertheless I am seeing a strong and growing ray of hope. There is quite a rebellious streak in significant parts of our profession that is giving some schools a new confidence. Rather than waiting for the next government announcement in the way I have described elsewhere in my writings about constrained schools, these colleagues are inspiring their staff with a new vision based on a narrative that is something like this:  ‘we are highly qualified and experienced professionals who know what it best for the young people in our school. We have the highest ambitions for them so we are going to do what we know is right and refuse to be forced to do things we know are not in their interest’. And those are the principles that drive their planning of the curriculum and every other aspect of what they do. When Ofsted come they tell them with confidence what they are doing and why and get on the front foot. A risk strategy? Maybe, but certainly the high moral ground. And of course, you can only do this if you have the full support of your governors or trustees.

 

I look forward to working with more schools over the next year and helping them to build that professional confidence.

 

Brian can be contacted via www.lightmanconsulting.co.uk.

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