Author Archives: George Gilchrist

Are we there yet?⤴

from @ School Leadership - A Scottish Perspective




I will provide you with my answer, to the question posed in the title to this post, straight away. No we aren't! However, I do think it is important we keep asking the question of our schools and our education systems, just as often as the young passengers in any car journey of over fifteen minutes.

The 'there' I speak of in education is the achievement of equity for all our learners and families. Our attention span, and desire to answer this question in the affirmative, needs to be longer, but just as relentless, as any inquisition by youthful travellers.  

We have had a focus on equity and social justice in our education system for over ten years in Scotland, and possibly even longer in other systems across the globe. In Scotland we can go back to 2001 to find the Scottish government taking the first steps to address issues for children and their families with multiple needs, which was to lead to Getting It Right For Every Child (GIRFEC) a policy and strategy designed to simplify the system for families, and agencies working with them, as well as seeking to make the systems more equitable. 

Since 2007, when the Scottish National Party (SNP) gained power in the Scottish parliament, and even before that with the previous Labour administration, the issue of equity in our society and in our schools in particular, has been at the forefront of many minds. Since Nicola Sturgeon became First Minister in 2014, she has put education at the very top of her priorities. Following her ascendancy to her role she said 'judge me on education' and she repeated that call often in the early days of her leadership. Like everyone else already working in the system, Ms Sturgeon was seeking to improve and develop our education system, but particularly in terms of attainment levels and equity within the system. She appointed Angela Constance as her first Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, and she was replaced by John Swinney in 2016. Both of these Ministers set a busy agenda of policy development aimed at raising attainment and closing 'gaps' that had been identified for the most disadvantaged learners and their families. The fact that they adopted a 'General Educational Reform Movement' (GERM) agenda, whose issues have been well documented by Pasi Sahlberg and others, has not helped their endeavours.

Recently we have had the National Improvement Framework (NIF), Attainment Challenge and most recently the new proposed Education Bill, Empowering Schools, currently being consulted on, but most certainly going to happen as detailed in the consultation documentation. All of these are aimed at structural change designed to address issues identified by our government and ministers, with the explicit aims of raising attainment and closing the 'equity gaps'. These are big pieces of legislation and structural reform, but we in schools have been wrestling with these issues before the current government came into power, and will probably still be doing so long after they have left power. Given this national agenda and focus over many years, and our own recognition of the issues, why are we still not there yet?

There is no doubt the focus at national and government level has been on schools and the education system. However, much of this focus has consistently failed to identify or even recognise the other societal features at play when we consider equity and the barriers that exist for many learners and families. There is no doubt education has a big role to play here, but we do need to get real at times and recognise the stratification that has existed and built up over many centuries within our society, as well as the government and societal decisions that have entrenched such features. Many governments, Scottish and UK, have been very vocal on the rhetoric of equity and social justice and cohesion, but have then adopted policies and behaviours that have re-enforced and deepened these injustices and inequities. If governments are rally serious about such issues then it really is time for them to walk that talk, not just pass responsibility onto others. After all, isn't that what socially-just government should be about? I like the late Tony Benn's expressed view that 'if we can find the money to kill people, we can find the money to help people.' Says it all, really.

Anyway, putting those bigger issues to one side, what things can we do in schools to help ensure our provision is just and equitable? We have been aware for many years of what the issues and barriers are for many of our learners and their families, but, taken as a whole, we are far from there yet, in terms of removing or breaking many of these down. There has been some fabulous steps taken, and work undertaken, by schools in Scotland, and across the rest of the UK, but such work is being undertaken by what are often 'outliers' of the system, because the practices in these schools is still not the norm.

Some of the norms that persist were again brought home to me last week on Twitter and Facebook. In my timelines, two common events were dominating. The first was Parents' Evenings, that seemed to be happening in schools across the country, and the second was the annual 'Children In Need' charity appeal happening on Friday. The narrative I was seeing about both of these, brought home to me how far we still have to travel in our systems, and for many of our families.

A Parents' Evening, in which parents have the opportunity to sit down with teachers, and perhaps learners, to talk about their children and where they are in their learning, is a right and expectation enshrined in our school cultures and legislation. They should be a seamless part of the 'reporting to parents' processes in any school. Some schools have developed very creative and innovative approaches to how they configure these in order to make them more meaningful and accessible to their parent body, and learners. Most, however, seem to be sticking to the traditional framework of five or ten minute appointments, which probably remain unsatisfactory for everyone concerned, and to their intended purpose. Such a format also presents barriers for some parents, especially if their own experiences of schools have been characterised by negativity.

Many schools still see such evenings as another chance to tap into the captive audience of parents for book sales, uniform sales, cake stalls and the like. I must admit I was just as guilty as everyone else in this practice, and our book-fair was seen as important in raising school funds or replenishing book stocks, given that there was so little budget available from anywhere else. However, as I approached the end of my time as a school leader, I was becoming more uneasy about our drive to sell books, as I witnessed the pressure parents were put under by their children to buy something, whether this was a book/books, or just pencils or rubbers. Some obviously struggled. I used to see parents ushering their children out the school door and past the fair as quickly as possible, possibly because they didn't have the money to spend and didn't want themselves or their children embarrassed further by this.

There were also the regular parents who never showed up at Parents' Nights. I do wonder how many of these were put off by feeling they would have to buy something, and were struggling already to make ends meet? I had a number of parents who would never come to such evenings, but would then contact the class teacher to see if they could come another time. I am beginning to wonder if there was a connection, and I think all schools should consider possible issues and impacts such as this continuously, if they are really going to get serious about making all that we do accessible to all in our school community. 

Children in Need, like Red Nose day, has become a staple annual charity fundraiser in schools across the UK and actually first emerged from a radio appeal in 1927! It was began to be televised in 1955 and since then has grown arms and legs to become this monolith of asking and giving, which this year has already generated £50million plus! Whilst I have concerns about the whole concept of Children in Need and what it has become, I think it is in schools that we really have to consider how we engage with massive charity appeals such as this, considering the impacts for both the givers and the receivers. 

As a school leader, I was swamped by appeals from charities asking for the school and the children to get involved in fundraising in some way. I could guarantee to get a minimum of three or four requests by post or email each day! You have to manage this aspect of the school's work, remembering that it is to the same people that you are going to each time you are raising funds for any cause. The smaller the school, the greater the impact of this. Also, this is only one of the ways we may approach parents for money over the course of any school year.

There is so much children can learn and gain from engaging with charities like Children in Need, that I would always wish them to be involved in some way. In the schools I led, we a made a conscious decision to only be involved with one charity appeal or fundraiser per term, a maximum of three per school year. This was driven by requests by children parents and staff. We would aim for one charity appeal for the local community, one at a national level and possibly another international one. So we might get involved with something for a local children's charity, one like Red Nose Day and another for some International Relief work, spread across the school year. The children would decide which ones they wished to support. When we had identified which charities we wished to support, then events would be organised and children and families could make a donation, if they wanted, or were able to. Too many time last week I saw schools saying it was £1 to dress up for Children In Need, and there would be cakes and other things to buy, on top of the £1 donation. I wonder if absentee rates went up in any schools last Friday? Probably less likely in England where parents now risk being fined for unauthorised absences. Now, that is a rock and a hard place! I know the funds being raised were for very worthy causes, most are, but I do think it is beholden of schools to consider the parents and learners for whom such events might bring more pressure and stress.

Charities, and appeals like Children in Need and Red Nose Day, also need to consider to pressure they put on schools, children and then families, as well. Too many see schools and children as easy targets and a guarantee of money rolling in. I wonder how much of this year's £50 million has come from schools and the lowest earners in our society? Ironic, given the austerity agendas we are all toiling under at present.

So, no, I don't think we are there yet. These are just two examples from my own timeline on Twitter, and Facebook posts, from one week, but I do feel they are indicative of practices that are still common across schools and systems. Such activity may look good at a surface level, but actually can create unseen stress and barriers for some of our school communities. If we are to address issues of equity and to remove barriers for learners and families, we have to keep considering issues such as these constantly. Not in order to stop them from happening, but so that we can still engage, but in ways that do not isolate parts of our community, but which allow all to contribute when and if they can, in ways that are supportive and non-judgemental.

We should examine everything that happens across our schools, and continue to ask hard questions of ourselves regarding all that we do. It is not until we recognise the barriers we create, often unknowingly, that we can take steps to remove or lower them. No-one should feel that there are parts of what we do that they struggle to access due to financial or social constraints. Our responsibility is to all our learners, and all our families, all of whom should be able to gain from the benefits of everything we do and offer, not just some of it.

When we achieve that, then perhaps we can answer 'nearly' the next time we are asked 'are we there yet?'

Empowering Schools Consultation in Scotland⤴

from @ School Leadership - A Scottish Perspective

The Cambridge dictionary defines consultation as follows:
a meeting to discuss something or to get advice or the process of discussing something with someone in order to get their advice or opinion about it.

The Scottish government likes to consult. At anyone time they seem to have quite a number of consultations ongoing. They have so many that they even have a separate section on their website detailing these. As I write this, they currently have twenty nine different consultations taking place. These range from 'Improving the Protection of Wild Mammals in Scotland' to a 'Consultation on Free Bus Travel for Older and Disabled People and Modern Apprentices.' Included in the current raft of consultations are quite a few that have an education focus or element including 'Extending Children's Rights-Guidance for education authorities and school staff on assessment of capacity and considerations of wellbeing of children who have attained 12 years of age in respect of additional support for learning in school education', 'Section 70 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 - draft guidance for users of the section 70 complaint process', 'National Improvement framework: Consultation on measuring the attainment gap and milestones towards closing it', 'Consultation on Excellence and Equity for All: Guidance on the presumption of Mainstreaming' and most recently 'Empowering Schools: A consultation on the provisions of the education (Scotland) Bill'.

The quantity and variety of the consultations demonstrates the government's commitment to democratic and open working,  which will include all stakeholders, to some extent, in the development of new policy and legislation. Looking at the scope of these consultations provides you with a snapshot of government priorities and focus. Given the commitment made by the First Minister towards improving Scottish education, it probably comes as no surprise to see the number of consultations taking place with regard to education and schools. I would suggest however, that the number of such consultations, and their focus, would come as a surprise to most teachers and school leaders slogging away in schools every day. remembering my own time as a school leader and the number of glossy Scottish government documents that used to arrive, almost on a weekly basis, about consultations or pointing to new policy and legislation. In the latter years of my career, these were replaced mainly by electronic notifications with more and more documents being made available online. We had to print them out ourselves if we wanted a copy, or request a copy to be posted to us.

My reaction to most was 'This is obviously interesting, but I just don't have the time at the moment to look at it in detail. I will print it out, or make a note, and come back to it later.' Most times, I never came back, as I was so busy with the day job of leading two schools. When I did think something was that important and crucial it required my immediate attention, I would create time to get to it and respond. I would also flag up to staff about such consultations, but I suspect 99% of the time, or more, staff paid them little heed, because they too were extremely busy with all they had to do. So, most consultations got few responses and little attention. The general feeling would be that 'someone will tell me when any of this is going to impact on what I do.'

I don't think this was an unreasonable response given the complexity and busyness of our daily roles, and the plethora of information from Scottish government, Education Scotland, Care Commission, HMIE, Local Authorities and various other bodies that flooded schools on a daily and weekly basis. We had to prioritise our time and our focus, and our priority was always the learners, learning and teaching. We know the other stuff is important, but we got to it when we could, and we would prioritise that as well!

As I have said, when I thought something was really important, I would get to it as early as possible and flag it up to staff. If I was still a school leader I would definitely be flagging up the latest consultation i.e. 'Empowering Schools: A consultation on the provisions of the education (Scotland) Bill.' This most recent consultation for all those involved in education in Scotland is going to have significant impacts on how we work, and those impacts will be felt by all teachers, and all school leaders. 

In the Foreword to this consultation John Swinney states, 'We know that to achieve success our education system needs excellent school leaders and teachers, strong curriculum and improvement support, more transparent measures of progress, and engaged pupils, parents and communities. The reforms set out in this consultation will strengthen all of these elements of Scotland's education system and empower headteachers, enabling them to adopt a relentless focus on improving learning and teaching.' Bold claims for structural changes within the system that seem to have been decided on by the Scottish Government with little real consultation with elements of the profession within Scotland. Be in no doubt, that the changes proposed in this paper are going to happen, some are already underway. The 'consultation' is only to gather feedback and views on the proposals that may help shape some of the detail and procedures when they are brought into place.

Having said that, I think every teacher and school leader, as well as other partners within the system, including parents, need to be active participants in this consultation exercise. Some of the headline changes proposed include:
  • The establishment of a Headteachers' Charter which will be set in statute their key responsibilities
  • Headteachers to have power to lead learning and teaching and design curriculum within general framework
  • Set as a duty that headteachers and leadership teams collaborate with other schools and partners
  • Require headteachers to involve school community (pupils, parents, staff) in key decisions
  • Local authorities to retain over-arching duties and participate in Regional Collaboratives to support schools.
  • Headteachers have full responsibility for appointment of staff in their schools
  • Shared accountability between headteachers, local authorities and collaboratives
  • Local authorities will retain their duty to improve school quality, but will do this through collaboratives
  • Remove the requirement for local authorities to develop separate improvement plans
  • Give headteachers the ability to choose their team and decide promoted post structures
  • Local authorities to remain as employers of all staff
  • Delegation of staffing budgets from local authorities to schools
  • Strengthen and clarify parental involvement in schools
  • Pupil participation in schools will be enhanced through general principles that will allow schools to shape what this looks like themselves
  • Regional Collaboratives established to support teachers and others working with young people
  • Each collaborative will produce an improvement plan by January 2018
  • The responsibilities for standards will be taken over by a new Education Workforce Council For Scotland, replacing GTCS
  • All professionals working in schools will fall under responsibility of the new workforce council
  • All professionals will need to be registered with the new council
As you can see, there are some major and significant changes going to happen in the structure of Scottish education, with great implications for all involved.

That is why I have already responded to this consultation and why I would encourage everyone involved to find, or create, the time to do the same. I have already stated that this is a done deal, as far as the government is concerned, but I think we all need to contribute in order to help shape what this new structure may look like, as well as to point out any areas we are not happy about, or where we think what is proposed has gone too far and is unhelpful to schools, learners and the profession. you may feel some of the proposals have not gone far enough.

Personally, I would have much preferred Mr Swinney to emphasise more, and focus more, on supporting and developing excellent learning and teaching in his preamble, because I think most people recognise, and research has shown, that this is the factor that has the greatest impact on performance of schools and learners. Indeed, the government's own panel of international educational advisors has recommended that the focus needs to be more on this, as well as school leadership, rather than structural change, if the government is to go some significant way to achieving its goals for education. We need to keep supporting and developing our teachers and school leaders to become the very best they can be, in order to achieve our aims for our schools, our learners and society. Structural changes may support this desire, but continual professional development is key. But we are where we are, and we have to engage in order to get the best outcomes we can for our learners, and our education system.

I believe we all are seeking the same outcomes, and we have a professional responsibility to help shape the journey to achieving them, as best we can. hopefully this is being discussed amongst clusters and organisations, but I think it important individuals take the time to respond too.

The consultation is online at consult.gov.scot It does take a while to complete, but you can save it and they will email you a link to your form and your answers. The consultation is running for three months till the end of January 20018.

How to protect your authentic leadership⤴

from @ School Leadership - A Scottish Perspective

In my last post I looked at some of the pitfalls that can beset school leaders as they settle into their role, or over time. In this one, I turn my attention to how school leaders can avoid the pitfalls and remain true to their original purpose and aims for their leadership. Having been a school leader for almost twenty years, I was proud that I was able to keep developing my leadership, but I still remained true to my values, beliefs and principles throughout my career. Such as stance is not without its difficulties or challenges, but I have met lots of leaders who have achieved exactly the same throughout their careers, despite the ever-changing demands of the systems and hierarchies in which they operated.

This begs the question, 'how do you ensure you stay true to your beliefs throughout your career?' By doing so, you can prevent your leadership mutating into practice and behaviours that you hardly recognise, and loses its authenticity.  The following are some suggestions garnered from my own experience as a school leader, as well as a continuous engagement with research on school leadership.

The first step is to keep reminding yourself of the reasons why you wanted to step into leadership in the first place. Hopefully, those reasons were around being able to make a difference in the lives of more learners, than you could as a class, or subject, teacher. They may have been connected with frustrations you felt as a class teacher around your ability to influence or shape school policy and practice. You may have worked for an inspirational school leader, or one who saw the potential in you and encouraged you to consider leadership. Alternatively, you may have worked for an awful school leader and determined that you could do so much better, because you didn't want other teachers and learners to have the experiences you had. You may have had a bigger picture in mind, and recognised that as a school leader, you could have an influence further afield and within the whole system. It may have been that, as someone who reflected a lot about their practice, and who read a lot about teaching and leadership, you saw that your thoughts and practices were very similar to what others had identified in high-performing school leaders. Whatever your original motivations, it is worth revisiting these from time to time, especially when times are tough as a school leader, and just reminding yourself why you wanted to do what you are now doing. Such as step, can help you get everything into perspective, as well as help you measure your current position. They will also flag up whether you have started to drift off-track from that original purpose.

The next step is to be absolutely sure about the values and principles that underpin your actions and attitudes, both as an individual and as a school leader. School leadership has a moral imperative and your values are key to your personal and professional identity. Hopefully, you have thought about these and had the chance to articulate them prior to your appointment, you now have to live them. Being clear about your values and principles, then articulating these within your school community is only a first step in bringing them alive. You then have to demonstrate them as your true values by the actions and decisions you make as a school leader. Some of these will be almost invisible actions and interactions that occur over time, but others will be more visible and may result in important strategic and structural changes for the school you lead. All are equally important. They are important to the school community, but they are also important to you as an individual. Do not fall into the trap of saying your values are one thing, but then fail to match these with your actions. Nothing destroys trust so quickly. There is a lot of talk about 'drivers' in education, Michael Fullan has even identified a number of 'right' and 'wrong' drivers for school leaders, and systems. I hear a lot of talk about being 'driven by data' or 'driven by evidence' at the moment. Actually, if we are going to be driven, rather than informed, by anything, then let it be values. Use these as the first port of call when self-evaluating. 'Are my actions reflecting my values?'

Connecting the reasons why you wanted to become a school leader to your personal values, then relating these to the school context and point of development, should then help you shape your vision for the school you lead. As a school leader, you need a clear vision for what you are trying to achieve, and where you are heading, in the school you lead. this is not about the school community vision for the school, though these are connected. As a school leader, you need a vision of where you would like to take the school to, during your tenure. Most schools were in existence long before you arrived, and will remain long after you have left. Your responsibility is to manage and lead them in a particular period of time, to continue to build their development and help them grow. To do this, you need vision combined with action. As a school leader you have to have that vision, then plan and take steps to bring this to life. You need to create headspace to keep reflecting on this vision as you journey together with the school community. Without that vision, you will be at the mercy of people and events that can send you spinning into unforeseen actions and destinations. Keep touching base with your vision as another check of where you are at any particular point on your journey.

Remembering to keep the main thing the main thing, is crucial in school leadership that is determined not to be deflected onto other agendas. At its most basic level, schools are populated by learners, who are there to learn, and teachers, who are there to teach. Of course, I understand that those roles can and will be reversed at times, and that there are many other factors and people at play in what is a complex social construct. But, our core business is learning and teaching. We need to make sure that this remains our focus, as we hold a relentless determination to improve both. We can develop the learning for all our learners, and we can all develop our teaching, especially given the new research and knowledge we have about both, and these aspects need to remain our main focus. I understand that there is so much more that is at play, and this happens on a daily basis in schools, that you might struggle to connect to learning and teaching, but anything worth spending your time on should impact on one, or both, of these. If you are spending time on anything that does not impact learning and teaching, then you need to stop it so as to focus on something else more productive. If you are asked to do anything that you feel will not impact positively on learning, you need to be questioning and challenging this.

Having said all that, people remain the key factor in your ability to achieve any of the above. You cannot do it all yourself, nor should you try or seek to clone everyone else as a 'mini-you'. People are what we are about, whether this is to help them learn, in the fullest holistic sense, or whether it is to support them to do this. Relationships are crucial to achieving your vision and aims, to develop learning and teaching, and in producing a collaborative and supportive culture in which this can happen. If you genuinely spend time building relationships, which develop trust, you are creating a culture and ethos that will support everyone to have the best opportunities to achieve all they can. I have always found that such relationship building is important in everything you do, but is crucial when you face your greatest challenges or most difficult decisions. With the right culture and relationships, people are more likely to make the right decisions, for the right reasons, not just yourself as the school leader. You should spend time with teachers, learners, support staff, parents and anyone else that can support the main purpose of the school in supporting those learners. Your values will come out as you genuinely and deeply engage with everyone. Always find time to talk to anyone who wants to talk to you from your immediate school community. If you feel yourself becoming isolated, then something is wrong and needs to be addressed.

The culture and ethos developed will support everything you are wanting to achieve. In particular though, you need to pay attention to the development of a deep learning culture within the school. In such a culture, everyone recognises themselves as a learner, understanding that this needs to be a life-long commitment and expectation. Teachers should model themselves as learners, as should you, admitting what they don't know, then taking steps to continually develop knowledge understandings and practice. The best learning and teaching practices are also the best professional development practices, so teachers need to feel active, supported participants in their professional development, just as we seek the active participation of our learners. Structures and systems should support the establishment of such a learning culture, but it is more the underlying, often hidden, cultural practices and norms that support and sustain this most of all. As a school leader, you need to appreciate this, then work to support and develop these further. We want learners, students and teachers, who know themselves well, are inquisitive and curious, understand the importance of making mistakes, are knowledgeable, who take risks and who collaborate to support each others learning. This can only be achieved, if we create the right culture and expectations within all. The creation of such a culture should be another factor that helps you keep on track with all that you are trying to achieve.

We should seek to develop teacher agency, teacher leadership and adaptive expertise, through the cultures we create and the flattening of hierarchies. In doing so, we reduce the focus on ourselves and produce cultures where everyone contributes to, and helps drive forward, school development. By the development of such qualities and practices, we contribute to the growing of collective cultures as described above, which become a positive obstacle to constant and meaningless change agendas from elsewhere. Such cultures recognise that the direction of travel is a collective undertaking, decided on by all, and grounded in the context of your school and its community. When such practices become more and more embedded there develops a whole collective that will question busyness for no, or little, impact for learners. It also helps keep you focused on what is really important in what you do.

Such cultures are informed by research and evidence. Note the difference between being 'informed by' and 'driven by'. It is important that you read and engage with research, and researchers who you trust and who have credibility. When you, and colleagues, do so, you are better able to identify change that is informed and which you can shape to your particular context. Such an engagement helps to ground your practice in research so that you are better able to defend and explain decisions you make. Better still, such an engagement, gives you the tools and knowledge to explain why you will not be swayed by the latest fad or 'silver bullet' being pushed by others from outside your school. Being informed helps you draw lines in the sand of what you will and will not do, without which you remain at the beck and call of other agendas, driven by people with different motives. Recognise that no-one knows your school as well as yourself and the teachers who work in it. You need confidence in the self-evaluations you use, and the research which underpins your decisions on the steps you are taking. If you have taken decisions, with regard to school development, based on research and your context, you are less likely to be deflected by the demands of others.

Both leadership and management are crucial aspects of school leadership. You need effective management procedures and practices to best organise and operate the school in efficient ways, so that everyone has the best opportunity to focus on the core business of learning and teaching. Management tasks will take up part of every working day, but danger lies in when they become the dominant focus of your activities. As a school leader you should try to focus more on your leadership role. With the right management structures and procedures this should always be possible. If you see yourself more as a manager, rather than a leader, again you will be more easily distracted from all that connects you to your vision, values and core leadership activities. Yes, management is important to allow you to do this, but it should never come to dominate your time and your thinking. To lead, you need headspace and you need protected time to get your head up to look ahead, and plan for how this will be fitted into your core vision and purposes, or whether it needs to be. Such activity is another protection from other agendas. If you do not identify what you need to do and why, you can be sure someone else will.

Finally, I would say, don't forget to laugh a lot, smile, and have fun. Enjoy the ride. School leadership is a fabulous role, and we should never lose sight of this. The times when school leaders feel stressed, and are most at risk of losing their focus, are when they are being pushed onto, or drift onto, agendas that clash with their values and vision of all they are trying to achieve. You have been appointed as school leader because you have been able to demonstrate values, vision and experience that the school will benefit from. Be confident in that, then determine to stay true to all these throughout your tenure. Be strong in the face of demands which you feel to be wrong, so that you keep total control of your own, and the school's, agenda. In that way, you will have the greatest chance to stay true to yourself and your beliefs, as well as your school community's, and truly enjoy one of the best jobs you will ever have. When you are fulfilled and enjoying your role it is so much harder to be deflected from all that gives you such feelings.

My advice is to focus relentlessly on all of these aspects of your role, because if you do so, you are much less likely to be deflected from your original purposes, your leadership will remain authentic, and your school and learners will reap the benefits. Good luck!


School Leadership: time to smell the roses?⤴

from @ School Leadership - A Scottish Perspective

It is some time since I wrote anything on this blog directly about school leadership. Having left my post as a school leader some seven months ago, I think I have had some time to reflect more on leadership in schools from a different perspective. I have still been writing and thinking about schools since I stepped down for a notional retirement. I say 'notional' because it would seem that I am just as busy and engaged as I was before, but now it is 'my busy' not someone else's. Anyway, I have also kept in touch with lots of former colleagues and school leaders, either directly, face-to-face or virtually, through platforms like Twitter. During this engagement and over the time, I have been able to observe and think about school leadership a bit further, having the time and the headspace to do so.

There is no doubt that school leadership remains a challenging role for anyone to undertake, and I have nothing but admiration for anyone who steps up and into the role. There is equally no doubt that the performance and culture of any school is still directly affected most, positively or negatively, by the  person who has the formal responsibility of leading it. This can lead to schools, and their staff, achieving fabulous things on a daily basis for all the learners and families that form the learning community. However, it can also lead to some schools suffering from a different type of leadership and experience, that leads to a lot of negative experiences for staff, learners and families.

I have been considering lately why this might happen?

It may be that the wrong person was appointed in the first place. Given all the application processes and interviews candidates have, for prospective headteacher roles, one would think the chances of appointing the wrong person for a particular post should be minimised. Of course, this depends very much on the right job description and person specification being drawn up in the first place, then appointment panels having the right sort of skills and experience to be able to match interviewees with what they are supposed to be looking for. Interview outcomes are still very subjective, despite attempts to standardise this. A lot of the interview processes I hear off seem more designed to show how clever the architects of these are, rather than finding the right person for the post! You can already see where this process might start to go awry. Add to this is the fact that there are definitely issues around attracting enough candidates, of the necessary calibre, for school leadership posts, leading to interview panels left with a very small pool to select from. Stories of one candidate, or fewer, applying for leadership roles, and of multiple searches and advertisements for these, are quite common in Scotland and I am sure elsewhere. At least in Scotland we are taking positive steps to address some of these issues through the Scottish College for Educational Leadership (SCEL).

If you have a faulty appointment process and fewer applications from which to select, then one can see how the job of finding the right leader, and best fit, for schools could go wrong at the very start. The longer the process of appointing a new school leader drags on, the more likely an eventually hurried or desperate appointment is made, ignoring any concerns about the 'successful' candidate, in that desperation to at least appoint someone. Then, in the case of local authority employers, they can move on to the next post to be filled. I would also suggest that the growth of Academies and Multi-Academy Trusts in England, and the quite obscene salaries now been offered for leadership of these, are adding another factor that might encourage some to apply for school leader positions with the completely wrong motivations towards school leadership.

However, lets assume the appointment process has gone reasonably well, and a suitable candidate has been appointed. Things can still go wrong. I am sure most headteachers or school leaders start a new role with a clear vision of what they would like to achieve, and the difference they want to make for the learners in the establishment they will lead. They will have shared this vision at interview, and may have refined it further as they get to know the school and staff better. There is definitely a 'honeymoon' period for most new school leaders, whilst they get to know and understand their new role and context, and vice versa. If you are employed by the local authority, they may leave you alone for a period of time, the may even provide support through mentoring or coaching, but even they seem to understand you have a lot to do as you get to know your new school deeply, then begin the process of developing it further.

As a new headteacher, you may have  a plan for your actions in the first week, month, three months, six months, and so on. Generally, you will be allowed to get on with this as you grow into the leadership of your new establishment.

If everyone who takes on school leadership is clear about their vision, their values, principles and aims, which are clear and positive in nature, what happens to deflect them from these so that their leadership mutates into something more negative? I have seen this happen many times, and have spoken to headteachers who were extremely positive and enthusiastic about all they hoped to achieve at the outset of their appointment, then have met them again a few years down the line to discover their view and their attitudes have changed. Some recognise this themselves, others don't. So, what happens to bring about such change?

Plenty of people in the system would say that a re-shaping of school-leader vision and approach is inevitable as they become more aware of the challenges and responsibilities of the post. They become more politically aware and begin to better understand their responsibilities as corporate and sytem leaders. To a certain extent this is true. I was always fond of saying if you were the same teacher as you were twelve months ago, you have wasted a year. The same applies to school leaders. I would expect any school leader worth their salt to be continually developing their understanding and practice throughout their career. With more experience often comes more responsibility and influence, school leaders need to embrace this. However, this is not the sort of professional growth and change I am talking about.

I am speaking of school leaders who have changed negatively because of the pressures of the role, or the demands of the system. Many of these leaders became leaders because they were excellent teachers and they understood learning and teaching deeply. However, they seem to forget all of this when they become school leaders, as the focus of their activity shifts from learning and teaching to systems, structures, accountability measures and meeting the demands of employers or governments. How often have you experienced school leaders who have forgotten, or decide to take no notice of, the daily demands on class teachers, as they seek to impose the latest directive from above them in the hierarchy? Equally, there are school leaders who have moved further up the hierarchical chain of command themselves, and have completely lost sight of the demands placed on school leaders on a daily basis, or how they coped with this when they were a leader in school. Either way, the effects are detrimental to their leadership and schools.

Having been a school leader for eighteen years, I think I have a good understanding of the competing demands for the time and attention of  leaders. I acknowledge that we have roles and responsibilities beyond the immediate confines of our school, and that we need to balance these against everything else expected of us. What I do feel is important is that we never lose sight of why we wanted to be teachers, then school leaders, in the first place. We must always ground our actions with our values and vision for education, and should continue to do so throughout our careers. Yes, we have to develop and improve our practice and understandings of all the aspects that fall under our remit, part of which is learning to compromise at times and pick the fights we are prepared to have. However, if we have our learners and families front and centre of our thoughts and actions at all times, then we are more likely to take the right actions for the right reasons. It is when we become focused on the demands of the system and structures that we can sometime loose our moral and professional compass.

I have met too many headteachers during my career, and since I left, who say things like 'I am just keeping my head down' or 'I am working from one holiday to the next'. When such attitudes and behaviours become normalised it points to something being drastically wrong in the system, and the portents for the future are not good. I would ask all school leaders to be aware of their behaviours and attitudes, and the subtle changes that can happen over time, and for our system leaders to think carefully about how they might be contributing to the destabilisation of the very system the purport to support.

Any system is made up of people, otherwise it is just a programme. Therefore, I believe it is important that all the people help to shape it, by challenging what needs to be challenged, and supporting everything that makes us better. It is too easy to slip into something that is detrimental for us all, but especially our learners and families.

Time to smell the roses of the system, methinks!


In my next post, I will look at some of the ways you can protect your leadership  from the negative changes identified here.

The Venus Flytrap of teaching and professional development⤴

from @ School Leadership - A Scottish Perspective



This post was prompted by a number of articles, reports, tweets and conversations I have seen or had recently. All of these were around teacher professional development and teacher professionalism. Some were by, or about, respected academics, and others were by teachers, school leaders, or those with an interest in education. However, there was a common thread or tone amongst them all. This was the frustration felt by many that there is still a persistent gap (yet another!) between what we know has the best chance of working in our schools, based on sound evidence or  research, and the practice and attitudes which still persist in many schools and classrooms. 

Why the Venus Flytrap metaphor then? 

As you may well know, the Venus Flytrap is a carnivorous plant that tempts prey, in the form of small flies and insects, through its attractive appearance, smells and the offer of easy food for them. When the unsuspecting fly or insect goes to investigate and lands on the plants pad-like leaves, these close and trap them, to be slowly digested by their benign looking host. I caution, I am not a botanist, but the scenario is suitably gruesome for consideration, as well as publication on Halloween!

What I was detecting, amongst the articles, posts and conversations I mentioned, was the frustration of many of the participants, leading to some to suggest we should be just continue telling schools and teachers what to do, especially if we know 'what works.' Therein lies the trap.

One report told of staff from a university working with school leaders and a member of staff from different schools, providing these representatives with professional development, or training, in strategies to close gaps in attainment. These school representatives then went back to their schools to disseminate what they had learned amongst the rest of the staff. The strategies they were covering were absolutely sound, based on research and evidence, but I was concerned about the model being used, which could lead to teachers being told again 'this is what to do', perpetuating the model of 'teacher as technician.' 

I was involved in conversations yesterday at the GTCS (General Teaching Council For Scotland) where we were considering the professional standards, and in particular teacher professionalism. The group I was part of was focusing on  the leadership standards. Part of the feedback that the GTCS has had so far in consultations with the profession about the standards, and their possible revamp, is that many of the profession had indicated they would like more 'exemplification' of what the standards look like in practice. This immediately concerned me, and others, because our view was the more detail and exemplars we put into standards, then the more likely they become boxes to tick, or directions to follow, when in fact, how each person interprets and brings the standards to life in their practice should be shaped by each individual and their unique context. I do think though, that such a request was a reflection of  the mindsets and attitudes that have been created in teachers and school leaders because of the way the system has operated over many years. We have de-professionalised teachers and school leaders by top-down direction and the strength of hierarchies.

This was contrasted in the afternoon when professor Kate Wall from Strathclyde spoke to us about practitioner enquiry. This is professional development that is grounded in each individual's practice and context, and which is shaped by them and the learning of their learners. It is not done to them, but very much by them. Kate spoke of how enquiry gets practitioners to think of questions about what is going on in their classrooms, which can lead to difficult, or even no satisfactory, conclusions. But the process of reflecting and thinking is still a powerful one, which we all should develop as a professional disposition. One of the difficulties she faced when working with teaching staff, was not giving them the answers when they asked questions, but providing them with the time and space to  discover these themselves. She pointed out that the characteristics of any systematic enquiry are also the characteristics of good learning practices.

Anyone, who has worked in schools and taught for a length of time, comes to understand more and more the challenges posed by learning and teaching, and the shifting-sands of relationships and contexts. Skilled teachers are not merely technicians, they display high levels of reflection, adaptive expertise and professionalism based on a body of knowledge, understandings, professional development and growth. If we revert to the model of just telling them what to do, when to do it, and what to use, we are being lured into that trap of treating them as technicians, and seeing teaching and learning as a technical activity. It has to be recognised as more than this. Whilst I understand the frustrations of those that 'know' what works best, from years of research and study, on how it can take a long time for such knowledge and understanding to percolate into schools and classrooms, but they have to refrain from the trap that is more top-down direction, and telling.

Equally, the profession, individuals, teachers and school leaders, have to move from the position of saying 'just tell us what to do.' Such a position leaves us open to more fads and an ever shifting change agenda, set by others with little, or no, educational expertise or knowledge, all of which will continue to keep us very busy, but with little positive impact for learners, teachers or schools. Learning and teaching is complex, and those charged with delivering this have to understand that, as well as the impact of context and the myriad of other factors that are at play in any learning situation. Teachers, school leaders have to shape their own professional development. They should not have such professional development dictated and directed by others, but need to take control of this themselves, shaping it to meet their, their school's, and learners, needs.

I think that top down direction, and the viewing of teaching and professional development as technical activities, are the Venus Flytrap of education. We have to be wary of the allure of having others telling us what to do, taking the thinking, and responsibility, out of our profession, passing it to others. When we agree to do things that we know to be wrong, or harmful to learning, we are letting our learners and our profession down. After all, when things go wrong, it is never the ones who have told us what to do that shoulder the blame or responsibility, it is teachers and schools. 'I was just doing what I was told to do' is never an acceptable professional response. When we act and behave more professionally, then we can begin to shape our practice, our schools, and our systems, based on sound values, principles, ethics, knowledge and research, rather than letting it being configured by others with different agendas. Scotland's education system and the profession, like many others, is under attack by neo-liberal agendas, and we need to act even more professionally if we are to repel these and do our very best for all our learners.

Lets not act like flies, attracted by the smells and colours of quick and easy fixes. We need to look out for, then stay away from the traps that are being laid out before us. If we are not aware, or fail to heed warnings, we are responsible for the consequences!



Happy Halloween!

Another day, another policy change?⤴

from @ School Leadership - A Scottish Perspective

It would seem that the Scottish Government, and its Education Secretary John Swinney, are brimming with structural and systemic ideas for change in Scottish education. With their avowed aims of raising attainment and improving equity, they seem determined that they are the ones that will come up with the ideas of how to achieve this, rather than anyone actually working in schools, like teachers and headteachers for instance.

Yesterday, at another run-of-the-mill education conference in Edinburgh Mr Swinney stood up and seemed to promise that, within the new  statutory Headteachers' Charter currently being envisioned and drawn up by the government and Education Scotland, headteachers will no longer have to accept compulsory transfers of teachers, who are displaced from other schools, into their own. In answering a query about what he had said from Keir Bloomer, the chair of the Reform Scotland conference, Swinney stated  that headteachers would be given the ability to choose their own staff in the new Charter, which would mean they were not 'obliged' to take such staff, as was currently the situation in most local authorities.

This is a major change of policy and direction in terms of both education, and workers rights for teachers. There are many reasons why teachers may be subject to compulsory transfer, such as falling school roll, changes in structures and closure of schools. When teachers are employed on permanent contracts with local authorities, they are entitled to be redeployed when employment or personal circumstances change that are beyond their control. Like many headteachers, I have been frustrated by this procedure at times, when I have had to take people into schools I led, who I knew were not the best-fit for the roles I was seeking to fill. But, I accepted that as part of my system responsibility to the local authority, and to the teachers involved.

Sometimes, teachers were subject to compulsory transfer because of a breakdown in relationships, usually with senior leaders, but also maybe with other teachers. Those were more problematic, but if the decision had been taken that the best course of action was for them to have a new start somewhere else, probably for their own wellbeing, and that of their current school, I still saw it as a responsibility to take them, then work with them to help them get back to delivering the best learning they could for their new pupils. Such compulsory transfers should rarely be about underperformance, though I know some headteachers have been guilty of using the system to help teachers 'decide to move on' when they had identified they were not what was wanted in their establishments. To me, this is an abrogation of our professional responsibilities as school leaders to work with all the staff we have, and to ensure their continual development as teachers. Where there are issues of 'underperformance' these should be dealt with using support and procedures laid out by each local authority and the GTCS.

Getting back to Mr Swinney, I wonder if there was any consultation with local authorities, the GTCS, unions and other partners, before his announcement yesterday. After all, it is they, and headteachers, that would have to make any change like this work. Given his past record regarding 'consultations', I would suspect not. There are massive implications for Human Resources and local authorities as teacher employers. Given the government's apparent desire to reduce the influence of local authorities in education, this is hardly surprising.

The trouble with coming up with new ideas, which then are turned into statutory policy, or Charters, someone has to make them work. They need to be ethical, moral and work for everyone, not just some. There are headteachers who constantly moan about the staff they have, but who never look at themselves and what they have done to support and develop the staff they are talking about. I am sure there can be no-one who doesn't recognise the impact of teacher shortages at the present time, and the fact that there are not hundreds of teachers waiting to step into vacancies. as Dylan Wiliam has said before we need to 'love the one your with' in terms of teachers, and school leaders. That is, we have to accept where we all are, and work collaboratively to assist  everyone to get better at what they do. Not one headteacher appoints all the staff they have in a school, unless it is a complete new-build, in an area where no schools have been before. We all inherit staff as we take up post, then may have the opportunity to appoint one or two as we are longer in post. Yes, we all want the best people we can in our schools, but it is our, and the system's, responsibility to develop the people we have, not turf people out, or send them elsewhere, if we feel we can get somebody better.

As it was described yesterday, I don't feel this change is workable within current regulations and guidelines. Pronouncements like this one will just add more pressures and frustrations to headteachers, and they hardly make teaching any more attractive to new entrants. I do wonder if this strategy is yet another step towards more 'Englishfication' of the Scottish system, designed to create issues that will lead to more headteachers and parent councils getting frustrated with local authorities, and becoming an encouragement to push for schools to become more independent, as down in England. I have spoken to headteachers in England who have told me that they can get rid of a member of staff in 6 weeks, if they decide they are 'no longer suited' to the school. This is not a scenario that exists in Scotland and I feel our system is all the better because of it.

Should Mr Swinney's latest proposal go forward, I predict a whole raft of 'grievance' procedures and employment tribunals, which will clog up the system further, divert headteachers and local authority staff, and prove very costly, whatever the outcomes. If we can't behave ethically and treat all our teachers fairly and properly, what messages are we sending out about our values to our learners and our parents?

I have said it before, and I will say it again, if we are serious about improving what we do, we have to support teachers and school leaders to be the very best they can, not introduce less trust and more threats into the system. People are key to what we are all trying to achieve, lets move on a little form low trust, high accountability and a preoccupation with structures and systems.

Words⤴

from @ School Leadership - A Scottish Perspective


There is no doubting the power of words. They shape our thinking and our conversations, often revealing more than their simple literal meaning, especially when joined together, forming more complicated concepts. Combine those words with our actions and they become even more revealing, especially when the words we use do not match our actions. What do we believe when there is a mismatch between our words and our actions? For me it is our actions that reveal our true self. However, our words, our conversations, and the discourse around these, which inform, shape and colour our actions and our thinking. We do not act in a mindless vacuum. How we think and act is shaped, positively or negatively by words, and how we interpret them and the concepts they create.

The world of words tells us much about our actions, decisions and focus. With this in mind, I have been thinking a bit about the words that exist and are given primacy within our schools and education system, and what these reveal about those systems, as well as our own focus. 

I have created two pictorial representations, using WordArt, of the types of words that currently dominate our actions and our work in education, and have done so for some time now. In my opinion, one representation portrays a much more negative picture of our professional activity and focus than the other. 

I could write lots about each word in each representation, and indeed have during the course of this Blog, and elsewhere. You may have your own words to add to either, and you may think some words have been put in the wrong representation. Some are actually in both, and may be perceived as positive or negative according to your understanding and experience of them. Indeed, you may feel that all of these words are necessary as part of the complexity of any education system, that requires checks and balances so that it is not too skewed one way or another. My own contention would be that one of these representations is a lot more desirable for our focus than the other, and the words, and concepts, therein are much more likely to lead to the development of an education system able to address many of the issues that we understand to exist, giving all learners the best opportunity to thrive and grow as lifelong learners.

Some words, and agendas attached to them, have come to dominate the discourse in many schools and systems, I would argue that this is to their detriment. The prominence given to these words, they dominate so much thinking and practice, has led some to lose sight of all that we are trying to achieve, and how we might do that. Education and learning are complex activities, but ones where people sit at their core. People should be central in our thinking and our actions, not systems, structures and devices designed to manage what is often unmanageable.

I read an article today put on Twitter by Rachel Lofthouse, 'The empty brain' by Robert Epstein @aeon.co, about how it is a nonsense to view the brain like a computer. Epstein argues convincingly that our brains do not operate like computers in that they aren't controlled or programmed by algorithms, they don't store words, memories and information like computers do, for retrieval later. For this to happen each individual cell would need to have these capabilities. In truth, we still understand very little about how our brains do work, but what we are coming to recognise is that every single brain is unique to the individual, and as we seek to understand more we will have to focus more and more on individuals and their particular ways of thinking and being, in relation to their particular context and experiences! That may take a while.

I think that schools and education systems are similar. Every one is unique and different. To my mind this has to be so, because every school, classroom and system is made real by different individuals, with their individual ways of thinking and being. Trying to devise a model or a system that will work in all circumstances is possibly a fruitless waste of our time or energies. In a later tweet today, Rachel suggested that the way forward may lie in '..the need for a little phronesis. Wisdom in and through thoughtful practice' when she responded to a query about dealing with conflicting pieces of 'evidence' and research. I think we discard such suggestions too easily when we still feel we can 'manage' and 'control' complex systems. The best we can seek to do would seem to be to better understand them and their particular characteristics, then seek to grow and develop them organically from within.

If we were to adopt such an approach, then perhaps our focus would return to where it should always be, the learners and the people around them who are trying to support their personal development and growth.

My two pictorial representations are below. I am sure everyone could construct their own. They would all be different in some way, as will your perceptions of this piece.







Structure and systems versuses learning, teaching and leadership⤴

from @ School Leadership - A Scottish Perspective

A couple of days ago Education Scotland announced that they planned to make changes to how they carried out school inspections as, 'the first step in a radical new way Education Scotland will work to support and drive improvement in schools.' This new 'radical' approach was to carry out more inspections, coupled with employment of new HMIEs and 'associate assessors' so that they could raise the number of inspections from the 180 expected to be undertaken this year, to a target figure of 250 for the following year. Amongst their stated aims was a desire to engage with every school in Scotland each year in order to support schools, teachers and school leaders and to drive forward improvement. They will also seek to include the 'younger voice' in inspections and include more use of learners in the inspection process, aiming to produce a How Good Is Our School (HGIOS) for young people to help them become engaged. (give me strength!) In addition, they will be seeking to co-ordinate a 'single approach' to the inspection of early learning, nursery, settings, through collaboration between themselves and the Care Inspectorate.

As usual, this is a bit of a mixed-bag from Education Scotland. Some of these steps may be welcomed by schools and their staff, especially if they emphasise the 'support' element of inspections; meaningfully engage with learners and really listen to what they have to say; and especially if the demands on early learning and childcare centres can be changed so that they are part of a single process and are not subjected to a 'double-jeopardy' inspection regime from both Education Scotland and the Care Inspectorate.

However, what difference are these changes really going to make? Graeme Logan seems convinced that the organisation, that he is currently leading, has to drive educational improvement in order to provide 'excellence and equity' in Scottish education. I do wonder if he felt the same way when he was a school leader? I am not sure he waited around to be told what he needed to do to improve outcomes for the learners in his school, nor that he and his staff did not pay enough attention to the aspects that really made a difference for all his learners.

The first time I met Graeme was at an event which showcased some of the strategies he and his staff had been using to improve learning and teaching in his school. He was a bit of a disciple of Alastair Smith at that time, and was heavily involved in his 'Accelerated Learning Programme'. Turns out, this programme was all about good learning and teaching practices and the application of many of the strategies identified by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, as well as other research emerging at that time, or earlier. My reminder to him and others would be that this is still where all our attention should be, instead of being fixated on changing structures and systems, or ramping up accountability, in the hope that this will have major impacts.

The Scottish Government's own panel of international education advisors published a short report earlier this summer about their findings and recommendations at this stage of their engagement. In this they warned that one of the key areas of Curriculum for Excellence, the development of the 'whole child', could be missed by the way plans to drive up performance were being implemented. They cautioned about undue attention and significance being given to changing systems and structures at the expense of developing teaching, leadership, and the promotion of cultures of collaboration. Culture and capacity were  more important in helping us achieve our aims, and that is where attention should be directed. That was their advice.

Was anyone listening? It would seem not, because announcement after announcement from Scottish Government and Education Scotland still focuses on structures and systems. No-one would argue that these are not important to education systems, schools and classrooms, but there is a wealth of research which points to teachers, their practice, leaders and cultures of collaboration and trust, as the prime factors for improving outcomes for all learners, and it is there that we should maintain our focus. John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon have both stated the desire for us to be informed by research, as well as from what is working elsewhere. However, the actions of the government and its quangos continue to betray that desire. It seems that they will ignore research if it goes against political ideology or decisions already made, and they continue to adopt policy and practice that has been demonstrated to have been unsuccessful in other systems.

Graeme Logan is between a rock and a hard place in many respects. He is trying to re-brand education Scotland, and put his stamp on the organisation. Count how many times you see this in a presentation or press release, 'Education Scotland is a partnership of people who believe passionately in the power of education to change lives.' Oh really, Graeme. Every school in Scotland is full of staff who believe the same, and who are working day by day to deliver that. What they need, and deserve, is Education Scotland and Scottish Government to support and trust them with this, not add to the pressures by ratchetting up accountability agendas, or trying to micromanage from above, with thinly veiled threats. It would  be great if an Education Minister or head of Education Scotland came out and said something like,

'We have fabulous teachers and schools in Scotland, and I trust them to deliver for every one of the learners, in every one of our schools. My job is to support them in this, by listening to what they require, then providing them with the resources to achieve even more for all our learners, and ultimately our society. Teaching is not easy, it is complex and demanding. Our schools and teachers deal with this professionally and compassionately every day. The wider community should value and support them too, and recognise that teachers and schools often have to address individual issues for learners and families before they can begin to properly address the learning ones.  They, and we, want to help develop and educate the whole child, whatever their background and context, recognising their unique individuality. Not everyone learns at the same rate, but our teachers recognise that everyone can and will learn, and I am proud to support them in any way I can. We should all do the same. Education is too important for it to be a political football, and I trust the experts we have in every school.'

Then, they would need to match their actions to those words, which they would need to keep repeating at every opportunity and to every audience. Perhaps then, we would start to establish a different culture and narrative around education, which would really help us to tackle the issues that have grown and persisted over many years. Teaching, leadership, cultures and collaboration cannot be improved by imposition and mandate. They can be developed and improved through support, time and access to research and researchers, which can help in every area. When that happens, we will truly see a sustainable and deep change across the system and in all our schools. We may even find headteacher recruitment and teacher retention are not the issues they currently are.


Is it time to make the ‘hidden curriculum’ more visible and valued?⤴

from @ School Leadership - A Scottish Perspective

It has been recognised for some time now that there are two curriculums at play in any school or learning setting. Firstly, there is the formal curriculum and structures that shape the learning activities and experiences of the learners, which are common to schools and establishments across any system, as well systems themselves. These may include curricular areas, teaching strategies employed, school structures and the formal rules created by schools. The second however, is not so visible but is at play constantly across schools and systems. This is what has been described as the 'hidden curriculum'. This is the practices, experiences, attitudes, behaviours and biases that permeate any school, or system, and which send out messages to learners and families about what a school, or a system, really thinks is important as it brings true values, principles and ethics out into the open.

Having been a primary school leader for almost twenty years, I came to recognise the power and the importance of this hidden curriculum to everything we do in our schools. In my experience, school leaders, teachers, support staff, and others, spend a lot of their conscious time and energies dealing with aspects of this hidden curriculum as they understand its power and importance in eventually helping learners engage and succeed with more formal curriculum structures and learning. What concerned myself and others was that the time we spent prioritising, and taking action, within this hidden curriculum was rarely recognised or valued by others from outside who sought to assess or measure the effectiveness of our efforts.

It is a lot easier to see and try to measure progress in aspects of the overt formal curriculum than it is for the hidden one. We can put in place structures, systems and assessments which purport to measure and show progress with the formal curriculum a lot easier, even though those in the profession might challenge the validity of many of these claims, than it is to measure or recognise the work and progress schools and their staff are making within hidden, but vital, aspects of their activities. This, of course, is if you even recognise or value the importance of such activity.

There has been a quote going around  for some time now that says something like 'we have to deal with the Maslov stuff before we can deal with the Bloom stuff.' I think this attributable to Katheryn Craig, but similar feelings have been expressed by others. This statement points to our need to address basic human needs in our learners, as identified by Abraham Maslov in one hierarchy, before we can address the learning and intellectual development identified in another by Benjamin Bloom. No matter what you think about either of these models of human development and behaviours, I do believe this linking of them both points towards a fundamental point of prioritisation for schools and their learners. When they have learners, who have not had, or are not having, those basic human needs addressed, or when they have been disrupted by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), attention has to be focused on these areas before we can hope to make any inroads and progress with the more formal curricular aspects of our work.

I see such a recognition as a staging point between the formal and informal, or hidden, curriculums, because when we are faced with learners who have not had their basic needs met, we have to be quite overt in helping and supporting them, before addressing their learning and intellectual needs. This then becomes part of the visible curriculum and activity of any school and many educators, though the time spent on addressing such issues is still not recognised, or valued, by many, especially those outside of the system. We are very much still focused on supporting the development of the whole child, and not just aspects, especially those most easy to test or measure. We deal with the complexity of this challenge daily and understand the challenge to show this to those not directly involved, or who lack understanding.

The hidden curriculum is much more than this though. It is contained within the culture that pervades each classroom, school and system, and it is sending out messages to learners continually. A lot of it is premeditated and thought about by educators, as a deliberate attempt to bring expressed values and ethics to life. But, there is also the unconscious thinking and biases that we might not recognise ourselves, but which our learners, and their families certainly do. The only way to deal with and think about these is to be aware that they exist, recognise their power, and to determine to reflect on and change when these when they are brought to light. If they are unconscious, you will not be aware of them until someone points them out or tells you they have experienced them. We all have them.

Taking a considered and informed decision as an individual educator, or as a school or system, to promote certain values and ethics, then to make them real, means you have to give these attention in all your actions, measuring all you do against these, as well as prioritising them ahead of other agendas. When you do this, it may deflect you from the more formal curriculum and practices that are so highly valued and easily measured. In my view, time spent in such areas and activity, is time well spent, especially in the early years of education, but whenever necessary, if we are to equip our young learners to succeed in their holistic development, and their ability to contribute as successful learners, responsible citizens, with sound physical, mental and social well-being.

If we are to be driven by our values in education, and I believe we should, then these are what drive our actions as well as our thinking. Your values are what you do, not what you say you do. You may express the desire to be fair and honest in your school values, but if some members of your school community fail to feel that is how you have been with them, then you have an issue to be addressed. It may be an individual issue or it may be a systemic one,

All of this takes time and is reflected in daily actions of individuals within and across schools. Relationships are key in school performance and time has to be spent maintaining and developing these at all levels for a school to achieve all that it can, for all its learners. In my experience, most schools recognise this and their days are filled with interactions and activities essential to the protection and development of a school's culture and ethos, upon which everything else stands or falls.

My main point in this post is that we know all this is going on every day, and this can be more demanding for some schools in areas of challenge or high deprivation, so how come all this deep and important work is hardly recognised or valued in many schools, until it is also reflected in percentages and grades? Important though attainment and exam results are, they are not the only determiners of a successful and achieving education, or life. My fear, and I have seen it expressed by others recently also, is that we are losing sight of the vital work happening in schools and systems every day, when we lose sight of the individuals in it and begin to view them as data-points. Data is made up of figures, percentages, percentiles, test scores and can be very useful to schools when used to inform actions, but our work and education is bigger than just this. Society, politicians and system leaders have to value the work going on that is not easily measured or quantified, but is vital in building positive relationships and equipping young learners to contribute meaningfully to society and their lives. I like the quote from the Character Education Frameworks of the Jubilee Centre at Birmingham University, and Character Scotland that states, 'we should help prepare students for the tests of life, rather than a life of tests.'

If we narrow our focus to only attainment agendas, then we lose many learners along the way, failing them, our schools and our systems. We should celebrate the fact that in schools every day people are going out of their way to work with and understand individual learners and their families, so as to better be able to support and help them, not just in their learning, but in becoming well-rounded, healthy human-beings able to succeed in lots of different ways. They are considering deeply what they do, how they think and the ways they impact on all those learner and families, determined to help and support to help them develop their own values and thinking.

There are still some who look to direct and impose their view of what a successful life looks like onto learners, then who make judgements about families and life-styles, not recognising the barriers and difficulties they create by doing so, never mind the fallibilities in their personal models. But, I like to think such establishments, and individuals, are in the minority, as most take a more empathetic and understanding stance which recognises their own imperfections rather than looking to find them in the learners and families they are supposed to serve.

All that I describe above, is happening in every school, across every day and every year. It strikes me that it seems that it is only the people who are directly involved in this process, who truly recognise it's happening and the impact it has. It is time others, including politicians, media and commentators, took notice and valued all that happens in our schools to help support young people find their way and place in society, so they are able to help re-shape that for the benefit off all in the future. This is not just about attainment and data, it is about people and life their fullest sense, and we ignore it at our peril.

Some thoughts on Scottish education⤴

from @ School Leadership - A Scottish Perspective

This week I was asked if I would go along to speak to labour MSPs and MPs about Scottish education and schools. My brief was to talk about education. its current state, the reality of how the attainment gap can be tackled, how teachers can help government address the challenges of poverty, and how we might start to reinvest in our schools and our teaching staff. The politicians did not want to hear from the 'same people' who always spoke to them, and wanted to hear from someone 'fresh from the chalk-face'. I had forty five minutes, about twenty minutes input from me then a discussion and question and answer session. No pressure there then! Anyway, I gave it my best shot.

I started with a brief introduction to myself and my background, to give them some idea of who this person was, and why they might be able to help them and I tried to cover most of the following in my time slot.

I started with some the positives from our system.

Stuff we should be proud of:
  • Our learners and their achievements. I pointed out that we had the honour and privilege to work with fantastic young people every day, and we never cease to be astonished by all they achieve, at all stages of their education. They are enthusiastic, creative and knowledgeable, and as they move through the system they become more curious and inquisitive about their role in our society and how they can help shape this.
  • All the staff who work in our schools, and elsewhere, and their commitment to what they do. We have fabulous people who work in, and lead, our schools, who want nothing but the best for their learners. They are professional, well educated and prepared for their classroom roles and to support our learners. They want the best for all learners, but understand that they can get even better, with the right conditions and support. I spoke of Henry Hepburn's recent survey of teachers on Twitter, about why they feel they are in the best job. The results were so affirming of what we are about and what we think about our role.
  • Our Parents. We rarely, if ever, come across parents who want nothing but the best for their children. We have many committed parents working on a daily basis with their child's school to help support their learning and development. Part of our role is to tap into, and reach out further, to our parents, so that they feel better able to support their children, and we break down many of the barriers, perceived or real, that still exist between some parents and their local school.
  • The commitment of communities. At all levels of the system, we have communities that are committed to helping develop and improve the educational experience of our learners, and to support schools to do this. Some of these communities are populated by education, health or social work and political professionals, but many of them are from different backgrounds and just want to support local schools, and wider education, as best they can. Like everyone else in the system, they are looking to make a difference.
  • Curriculum for Excellence. Despite the well-founded criticisms directed at CfE, and what it has become, there is still a belief by many in the system in regard to the original principles that sat behind this curricular development, especially in our primary sector. It is still a radical and different curricular approach to many others, that still has much to offer, if we are able to get back to it's founding principles. My message is that it has to be seen as a verb, its what we do, rather than a noun, and some other 'thing' for schools and teachers to do. Of course we still have to address the issues, in particular the middle to upper secondary years.
  • Our higher education sector and the expertise therein. For a small country, Scotland has lots of high performing universities, spread across the country. There is a wealth of educational expertise that resides in many of those universities. I mentioned Edinburgh, Glasgow, Strathclyde, Stirling, Dundee and Aberdeen to illustrate this. and the geographical spread Within those universities we have world-class and leading educationalists, and perhaps we are a bit guilty of not tapping into that expertise first, before we start looking further afield. Good examples of university, local authority and school partnerships are beginning to emerge and be more common.
  • Collaborative structures and practice. We are a small country, and so we should be able to collaborate easier than some larger ones, and we do. We are not perfect, but there are many examples of collaboration happening at national, local, and school levels that help us become greater than the sum of the individual parts. We are better at speaking to each other, across sectors and across agencies to help connect all that we do for our young people and families, and to improve our performance. We understand the power and necessity of collaboration at all levels.
  • SCEL. I singled out SCEL as an example of structures and practices in Scotland which had been recognised as world class. The work that has been done by SCEL over the last two years to develop system leadership and teacher leadership has helped to greatly improve and develop the practice of many school leaders and teachers, with positive impacts for learners. Members of the Scottish Government's International Group of Advisors had particularly commented on the impact SCEL has had, and as an example of new structures that are sector leading and have impact.
I then turned my attention to some of the major issues or concerns felt by myself and others. I broke these down into bigger policy directions and then into specific issues that resulted from some of these.

  • The drift towards Tory education policy. From day one of the first minister's work she has said 'judge me on education' and she, and her education ministers, have said they will not be afraid to look outside of Scotland for examples of what works elsewhere. There is nothing wrong with this approach, if you look in the right places. My suggestion was that perhaps they have been too quick and keen to look down south and at England, for these examples. Many of the announcements and actions of the Scottish Government over the last few years have looked a bit like 'Tory-light', if not exact replication. This is a concern for many in Scottish education, but people feel they can't voice those fears, or if they do they are soon pulled to one side to have there voice quietened, or become easily isolated.
  • The belief by some that improvement can be mandated. There are too many micro-managers in Scottish education, and they tend to want to focus on changing systems and structures to bring about improvement. Lots of research has shown that, whilst these can help and support development, it is people, and in particular teachers, who bring about real change in our schools. That is where our attention should lie, a relentless focus on learning and teaching and supporting our teachers to be even better.
  • GERM agendas. One of our Government's own international group, Pasi Sahlberg, described the various government reform agendas for education around the world as GERMs. These were characterised by greater accountability, league tables, top-down direction and high-stakes testing supposedly to measure the performance of the system. Examples he identified included, USA, Sweden, Australia and England. Such countries that followed these tended to also be characterised by falling attainment, wider gaps and less equity. We seem to be heading down the same path.
  • Everything being dropped onto schools. There is no doubt that we have lots of gaps that need to be closed, as much as possible, in education. A concern around this is the feeling by many that the onus for dealing with all of these is falling entirely onto schools and teachers, when we all know there are wider societal problems at play here. In the discourse around 'raising attainment' and 'closing gaps' it seems that it is only schools and teachers who are being targeted. We recognise that we have important and vital roles to play, but the impact of other factors needs to be similarly recognised and addressed also.
  • School resourcing. It remains a concern that resourcing for schools is very much a political football and is not as clear and as transparent as it could be. The algorithms for allocation of resources are only as good as the people who constructed them, and all their biases. Whilst 'extra' resourcing to schools and headteachers is welcomed, the tools used for allocation of these seem to be very broad and arbitrary. Leading to individuals and families missing out just because of a post-code or whether they take free school meals. Throwing money at schools, and demanding impact in a school year is unrealistic, and promotes short-termism.
  • The failure of policy makers to understand the complexity of schools and learning. As with any field of knowledge, the more you come to know, the more you recognise what you don't know. So with education and learning. The very best practitioners, can make it look teaching and learning easy, but we all understand it is not. What works on one day and for one teacher, might not work the next, or for other teachers with different children and contexts. We still seem to suffer from policy makers who went to school once, or have visited schools, and think they know what works. If it was that easy, we would all be doing it!
  • Structures and systems that don't do what they 'say on the can'. There are examples throughout our system of structures and systems purportedly designed and created to 'support' schools, but which actually muddy the waters of school development and get in the way of what schools are trying to do. We have organisations and policy that are high on rhetoric around meeting and supporting needs, but in reality they pass all this responsibility down to schools and their leaders, failing to understand, or connect, all that we want, and have, to do.
Then I looked at specific concerns people have, that are a direct result of some of these bigger concerns.

  • The governance review. Another attempt to change structures to bring about improvement, which is likely to lead to greater issues for school leaders and teachers, as well as learners. I am concerned about the impact on local-democracy of this proposed change, believing, as do the Government, that education decisions should be taken as close to source as possible. The danger of this proposed change is that headteachers will find themselves between a rock and a hard place, i.e. the LA and the Collaborative and their will be a 'pitch-war' between the different parties involved that school leaders will have to deal with, and make sense of.
  • Teacher shortages and Teach First. There is no doubt that their is a big problem with recruitment and retention of teachers and school leaders at present, not surprising given some of the above. We have to continue to make teaching an attractive profession, and terms and conditions need to be addressed to help with this. We need to look at different pathways into the profession, but not at the expense of a dilution of standards and expectations for those wishing to enter our profession. teaching should never be seen as a stop-gap till you find something better. 
  • The National Improvement Framework. I have written and spoken before about concerns myself and others have about the NIF, not only in its wording but also in the elements it contains. Stephen Ball spoke in Glasgow a couple of years ago about his concerns with the NIF and how it looked very like a typical GERM agenda. Despite verbal reassurances from civil servants, and Government ministers, it still looks and feels the same. As ever, it not what you say that counts, but what you do.
  • A narrowing of the curriculum. All anyone wants to talk about, it seems, is literacy and numeracy, with health and wellbeing getting a cursory nod in its direction. No-one would argue that these are not crucial, but we do our learners a dis-service if we fail to meet their holistic development and growth. Already we can see evidence of subject hierarchies being established and promoted, at the expense of the creative arts and other areas. This should concern us all.
  • The introduction of high-stakes testing. No matter what the rhetoric around this says, this will very quickly become high-stakes with consequences that are detrimental to learning and learners. These tests were never designed to measure the performance of systems, and cannot do so in any meaningful way. They can however destroy learning and raise stress levels. as Stephen Ball noted, systems that introduce such testing always talk about them 'supporting teacher's professional judgements' at their outset. But very quickly the results of these are all anyone wants to talk about, then look to improve.
  • Education Scotland. There are some fabulous people working at Education Scotland, but many of us feel that the organisation has an identity crisis. It is not sure what role it is now fulfilling, and neither are many people in our schools. There were a lot who expected the organisation to be split from its inspection and support roles, to help give it more clarity. But that has not happened, and now it has subsumed SCEL into it. Is it to support or is it to push and measure Government policy? I think many people are unsure, but more think it is now the latter which dominates its thinking. Time will tell.
I finished by looking at some of the ways we could make a difference, that are supported by sound research and evidence.

  • Build trust and collaborative practices. Trust is crucial at all levels, and politicians have to demonstrate they have trust in the profession to do the right thing. Yes, we should always be accountable, but it needs to be recognised that the expertise to improve, and to close gaps, resides within the profession. To achieve this we need structures and systems to support us to collaborate to find solutions to issues and to improve learning.
  • We have to use research and evidence to inform practice. More and more teachers and school leaders are beginning to recognise this, and perhaps the gap between the research base and practice is one we can begin to see closing. We have to support the profession with this, through organisations like SCEL and GTCS.
  • Focus and resource properly interventions for pre-school and early years. There is a raft of evidence that firstly identifies issues have grown and developed in many young learners before they even start school, and that money and time spent in those formative years reduces the interventions and resourcing needed in later years and adulthood. We have to get better at understanding and dealing with the impact of attachment issues, ACEs, and learning through play, not starting to test our children soon as they put foot into a school.
  • The professional development of teachers and school leaders. It is generally agreed that teachers, followed by school leaders, are the most important determinants of school performance and learning. Therefore, we need to support and develop our teachers, with a relentless focus on learning and teaching, so that we develop teacher agency and adaptive expertise. We need to develop our school leaders in the same way.
  • We need national policy that support and expects collaboration. Not just policy we also need practice that promotes, encourages and develops collaborative practices within schools, across schools and beyond schools.
  • Focused and fair resourcing. We need resourcing that is fair and which targets practice that has been shown can make a difference. We need to use resourcing to encourage our best teachers to work in schools facing the most challenges, and which gives them time out of class to improve their knowledge, develop their practice and know their impact.
  • Time. This is an issue for every school and every system. But, it is really important that our politicians, and others, understand that deep embedded and sustainable change happens over time, not in a few months. Then they need to support schools and teachers to achieve this.
  • Culture and ethos. There is also a lot of research that demonstrates that culture and ethos are crucial in growth and development. This needs to be recognised and supported at national, local and school levels. Headteachers and teachers need support to explore how they develop deep learning cultures focused on impact for learners within schools and beyond, so that we develop the social capital that will allow our schools to thrive.
As I said, I only had forty-five minutes, and I could talk about all of this for forty-five days if required! My input acted as a stimulus for interesting conversations and hopefully I helped the audience develop their own thinking and understanding around some of these issues, as they consider their own policy direction with regards to education in Scotland. I certainly appreciated the time I was given, especially as they had spent time before my arrival considering the process of finding their next leader after Kezia Dugdale stepped down earlier this week.

The message they tried to give loud and clear was that they understood and recognised many of the issues I spoke about and they wished to support the profession with these and others going forward. They pointed out that we ourselves had a role to play in addressing issues that exist, and they also wondered aloud about why there had not been more push-back from the trade unions on some of these important issues.

Whether you agree, or not, with what we discussed there is no doubt there is much for us all to consider throughout the year ahead. I concluded by repeating my own view that it is perhaps time for us to have another national conversation around education and what we want from our schools, before we continue down paths that may lead to further problems for the system and our learners. We owe it to all of them to not let this happen.