Talking your way to great management

Leadership is paramount when it comes to effective management; it brings teams together and is a sure way of getting the best out of your staff and your school. How you lead can improve student outcomes and can be the difference between a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating. One crucial factor is communication and so here we look at Leadership Dialogues

Managing your school’s staff can be complicated. As a school leader you are, essentially, tasked with ensuring your team bands and toils together, that trust thrives and mutual respect is maintained. An open culture, where discussion is king and dialogue is a two-way street, is core to this and requires an active approach on the part of leaders.

Leadership Dialogues: Conversations and activities for leadership teams – a leadership in education title authored by professor John West-Burnham and Dave Harris – promotes just this. It works on two basic assumptions; that communication and introspection are key to learning and development and that school leaders more often than not lack the time to focus on these. John and Dave suggest an active approach to leadership using discussion and dialogue as a resource and open questioning as a means of reflection in order to create a healthy and inclusive school culture that works to develop effective learning and personal understanding.

There is currently much uncertainty in the education sector and so, with a nod to the future, the following excerpt, taken from Leadership Dialogues, looks at exploring alternative futures and poses the questions that school leaders should, perhaps, be asking themselves and their staff. The premise is based, in part, on a quote from William Daggett, founder and chairman of the International Center for Leadership in Education: “The world our children are living in is changing four times faster than our schools.” It’s intended as a stimulus to discussion, to spark dialogue about your school’s structures and future. Happy talking!

Exploring alternative futures

Are schools fit for purpose? Given all the social changes that are taking place, do we need to radically rethink schools and schooling? Why is this important? Schools exist to serve the needs of society. However, they are also fundamental in creating a future society. Many aspects of our public services have changed in recent years but schools seem to be remarkably resilient in resisting transformation. Change in education tends to be incremental, but is it time to question the status quo and rethink the basic assumptions under which schools are working?

In most important aspects education in England, and almost every other major education system, has hardly changed for over 100 years. The architecture of schools (buildings etc.), the deployment of time (terms and the school day), the nature of pedagogy and the content of the curriculum are fundamentally the same. True, there have been significant shifts of emphasis, but the core assumptions underpinning schools are substantially the same as they were in the 19th century.

There are a number of factors that now point to the need to question prevailing orthodoxies in many education systems. For example:

  • The lack of equity and limited inclusion across the system
  • The failure to engage with the impact of social and economic factors on education
  • The changing nature of employment and employability
  • The impact of information technology
  • The implications of continuing social change
  • The potential impact of continuing climate change.
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Consider how the nature of personal transport, travel and communication has been transformed. How would medical practice be now if it had only changed to the same extent that education has?

In education, there are a number of areas that might be seen as offering the potential for significant change and realignment, with schools acting on their own initiative rather than being directed by government policy:

  • Focusing on social, physical and emotional well-being as the precursor to securing equity
  • Engaging with families and communities by seeing them as partners in education
  • Developing schools as community resources
  • Seeing employability as a valid educational outcome for all
  • Realigning teaching and learning around information technology
  • Developing collaborative relationships with other schools, social agencies and businesses
  • Schools leading social enterprise to recognise social and environmental issues.

Take a stock check – how are things moving in your own school? In many communities schools are the most significant social resource and, potentially, powerful agents for change and innovation. The danger is that schools become living fossils, reflecting a view of learning and education that is only valid and relevant in the internal worlds of education. Develop a ‘what if?’ approach to change management.

What if the school continues to work unchanged over 50 years? What if the school had never existed? Don’t let the conversation stop here – make sure that you widen the discussion around your school. This process, in essence moving from incremental improvement to transformational thinking, is very much what leadership needs to become if schools are to avoid becoming increasingly irrelevant. This will require leaders who are comfortable and confident in challenging deeply help assumptions, who are open to alternative perspectives and innovation and who are willing to change their own approaches and behaviours.

Key questions posed in this chapter:

  • Why does the teaching profession continue to reify the position of head teacher?
  • Why are most schools closed for over 80% of the year?
  • Why don’t schools focus on well-being as the essential precursor to successful learning?
  • Why is the totally artificial process of transfer from primary to secondary at the age of 11 still the norm?
  • Why are many schools still an island ‘entire of itself’?
  • Why are schools designed around the curriculum rather than learning?
Publishing information
This extract has been taken from Leadership Dialogues: Conversations and activities for leadership teams, by John West-Burnham and Dave Harris, published by Crown House Publishing.

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