On Saturday evening I somewhat started, and then missed – due to playing Bananagram all night – a conversation about leadership between Michael Tidd and Barry Smith. It began with a tweet from Laura McInerney who was present at Northern Rocks. I once read somebody (please let me know if it was you!) describe two types of leadership: shit funnels and shit umbrellas. The funnels make life worse for everyone else in the gutter: any poorly-conceived, time-consuming idea is concentrated, sometimes with this leader’s own interpretation, and flushed onto those below. The umbrellas, however, take the pressure off their staff; they look for nuance and flexibility – they remember what it was like to teach a full timetable.*
Well, this sort of thing is what I meant by the above tweet. There are at least a couple of views on this which were demonstrated by Michael and Barry.
On the one hand Michael believes that despite Ofsted’s recent clarification document Heads often feel vulnerable, especially at the hands of potentially rogue inspectors. His excellent recent blog explains that whilst he believes Ofsted is trying to change the inspection process schools are too often at the mercy of an idea about what inspectors want to see rather than what might be great learning:
Following the post, Sean Harford pointed out the clarification document (which I think is great), and Paul Garvey tried to persuade me that I should have the courage of my convictions. But as I said yesterday, I just don’t. I can’t. And I’m in the fortunate position of being only deputy – imagine how hard it might be for a Head to have such courage.
Barry, however, said that whilst it might be hard for an under-pressure Head the alternatives crush staff morale: In the discussion that littered my notifications Michael was pragmatic and Barry more idealistic. But should he be? Should it be idealistic to want staff to feel valued? Should Michael have to be pragmatic? I don’t think so.
The more reading I’ve done and thinking I’ve been exposed to the more I’ve become courageous. I’ll now happily and purposefully pursue anything I disagree with: if there’s evidence or thinking to the contrary I’ll find it. I want to instill this in my colleagues; I want others to feel like someone is sticking up for them; I want others to benefit from what I question. Ooh, I’m so altruistic, aren’t I? What a good guy I must be. Well, maybe. Hopefully. But I actually try to be more courageous because if we’re all following different paths we’re probably hindering each other at some point and this leads to the students’ education suffering.
I even wrote this about not being able to see progress in a lesson.
I also want to be led by someone courageous. I want to feel as though I am supported by my leaders, and I want them to trust me. Moreover, I want to be able to trust them. I can’t, however, trust a funnel. If my leaders pour more work into the gutter then I’m hindered, and if I’m hindered then it stands to reason that my students are too.
Marking is the classic example. I’ve written about marking not being the same as feedback. What if my leaders decide that because my red pen isn’t as visible in my students’ books I must not be feeding back? That my students can’t be making progress? This is obviously ridiculous but without the courage to stand up against this kind of nonsense we end up working far harder, and often more ineffectually, than we should. I think that any leader who isn’t bright enough to understand that feedback occurs in many different ways, or who isn’t courageous enough to support staff who might actually know what they’re talking about, has no business being a leader – is that so controversial? Should that be an idealistic view? I don’t think so.
So leaders have to decide what kind of workplace they want to create: one where staff are wallowing in a gutter, swallowing everything they’re fed or one where teachers can get one with teaching and students with learning. I work in an RI school and I know the pressure that my SLT feel. I get that the school needs to move up the ladder. But the problem with anyone in any school valuing only the next step is that the staff so often lose out. And if the staff lose out so do the children. It’s so myopic.
I think we need much longer-term, people-focussed values: stop calling everyone stakeholders, stop assuming more invalid data will hold the answers and stop creating more work for bruised staff. I think leaders need to be courageous, even if that courage comes at the potential cost of upsetting an inspector. I think that we need to move away from a corporate culture in schools and replace or at least reform the NPQML, for example. I think we all need to care more about the people we work with.
This photo of an Ofsted news release from Schools Week has just appeared. Despite Sir Michael’s intentions for leaders to be brave, however, I fear that many will still ignore this.
In the recent general election I voted for a party which had no chance of winning nationally or locally. I completely understood the arguments thrown against me as to why I should vote tactically. However, imagine my horror if a tactical vote led to that party winning and then doing something I totally disagreed with. At least I know that I stood up for my values – I can stand tall.
So I absolutely understand Michael’s argument, that Heads and SLTs often feel under enormous pressure. Thus I’d always try to question the action rather than the person. But if that leader destroys the staff’s morale for a potential short-term gain then question I will; if that leader compromises children’s learning, however well-intentioned, then question I will; and if that leader funnels shit on everyone else then question I will. And if I make a colleague’s life harder then I expect the same.
*Incidentally, despite my many failings as a middle leader these past three years one thing I can say is that I’ve always been an umbrella.