Turning vision into action
The leader as re-imaginer and re-designer – the moral purpose
There is a legitimate image of the education system as being a form of UK Education PLC. Effectively, then, a corporately run enterprise with 24,000 local branches, much like a major bank, or supermarket chain, or Starbucks; each school compliant to the corporate design, values and operational procedures. In such a vision of the world, national policy dictats, Ofsted inspections and the public accountability expectations are the means to keep the system compliant and relatively standardized.
In such a world, school leaders are primarily the intermediate managers ensuring the ship runs efficiently and effectively within these corporate parameters. Managers first, leaders second.
Yet there is another view. This one says that there is no desire to standardize the system. In fact, it says, the whole thrust of policy has been to liberate schools to create their own unique ethos and design consistent with the local context and the ambitions of the school leader and the community (school and local). It says that UK headteachers have been given unprecedented freedoms and autonomy and that the only checks and balances (other than fiscal probity) sit with the public accountability expectations applied to all schools, and the Ofsted framework – and that these are as constraining or as liberating as each leader chooses to fashion them.
It will be obvious which of these world views I favour. But this second scenario doesn’t go far enough. There are two further dimensions of this leadership freedom beyond having the creative opportunity to lead as we might wish.
The first involves reimagining the school; the second reimagining the system.
‘School leader as moral agent and organisational architect’ (metaphors from Part 1 of this blog post) obviously means shaper of the design, creator of enabling conditions, entrepreneur of time and space. But there is a broader and bolder sense in which this is true.
Our model of schooling is more than 100 years old and it is way out of date. The rest of society – our industrial practices, technology, the media we use, our leisure activities, communication systems – has undergone a revolution. There has been a similar revolution in our approaches to adult education. For example, since the 1960s, the Open University has demonstrated that virtually every adult is capable of degree level study, given the right learning approaches and modes of assessment. More than 3 million people, most failed by their schooling, have now passed OU degrees. By contrast, our schools have hardly changed at all.
And yet this highly durable school model has singularly failed to achieve equitable outcomes, or to address socio-economic disadvantage, or to fully engage most learners. More profoundly, it has failed to equip all learners with a graduation entitlement of positive self-esteem, an affirming portfolio and a desire to continue learning throughout life – what Mick Waters calls “a narrative of success for every learner”. It has also notably failed to provide teachers with an intellectually and emotionally challenging and fulfilling professional context, or actively involved parents in the learning experiences of their children. And all this should not be a big ask – it should be the purpose of school; a moral entitlement for all.
The original purpose of school – designed to sort and sift, to separate sheep and goats – is now redundant. We need 100% of students to be skilled and capable citizens able to contribute positive agency to both their economic and social world.
Our UK government (and others around the world) are still flogging the dead horse of the out of date school model, when it is patently incapable of responding to the challenges set out above. And it isn’t the fault of the students (many of whom go on in adulthood to achieve remarkably beyond their schools’ predictions). It is the fault of the model of schooling – and no amount of Ofsted inspection, or examination rigour and reform, or teacher performance management, can make an out-of-date model fit for our times.
So what exactly is so wrong with this particular dead horse? Well, we have lived with the badly-functioning model of schooling for so long that we rarely ask ourselves obvious, glaring questions, like:
- Why have we retained so exclusively the subject-based curriculum, when no tasks in the real world segregate knowledge or its applications in that way?
- Why do we assess all students at the same time, rather when they are ready to demonstrate mastery (think music grades, or driving test, or sports coaching awards, or Open University modules, or PhD dissertations)?
- Why do we still have rigid age-cohorting? It certainly isn’t because we believe that all students mature and progress at the same rates. Watch rehearsals for a school production or a concert if you wonder about mixed-age learning.
- Why are schools designed into corridors and classroom spaces – such that it makes teaching the most isolated and un-stimulating of professional practices?
- Why do most schools set ‘homework’, when they already have students in school for 35 hours a week – and when the world outside school is rich in opportunities for self-initiated learning?
- Why do most schools have 25 one-hour lessons – when nobody can believe that it is a unit that is enabling of deep or applied learning?
- Why is the assessment outcome that matters still an exam written by pen on paper and marked by anonymous paid markers – when teachers know students and their capabilities from five years of engagement with them?
- Does speaking matter? Do so-called hard skills matter? Do so-called soft skills? Does making and doing matter? If so, why are none of these things given higher currency?
- Why do we persist with the corrosive language and practice of ‘ability’ groupings? Schools are the only places where it is deemed appropriate to classify people as ‘low ability’ or ‘less able’.
- And… given that schools are centres of learning, why are the adult learning norms and practices in many of our schools so poor?
Some of the most innovative, future-focused schools in the US – including High Tech High, Big Picture Learning and New Tech Network – asked themselves these questions and created alternative school models that share the following characteristics:
All include interdisciplinary and applied learning (project-based learning; ‘maker’ assignments; real world tasks; internships) – some engaging and empowering pedagogical model which, not incidentally, requires teachers to collaborate as designers and facilitators.
All focus on the centrality of relationships – they have ‘advisory’, where advisory is viewed as ‘the soul of the school’, embodying support for students as higher order than teaching curriculum.
All have powerful and sustained and participative adult learning norms that model the learning practices undertaken with students.
All have pervasive cultural identity and school-level ownership of what matters – including what is assessed, and how and by whom it is assessed.
Reimagining ‘system’ – educational above institutional leadership
A few years ago, I presented at a headteachers’ workshop in a challenging northern city. They were frustrated about perceived imperfections in the Local Authority and the subsequently contracted private sector delivery organisation. I presented to them an outline of how a system might function collaboratively and collegially; could unite around some shared principles; agree policy and strategy together; deploy expertise across schools; differentiate resources and personnel to places of most need; learn from, with and on behalf of one another. We walked through the dynamics of a collegiate and collaborative system aligned around collective responsibility for all children.
When I asked whether they wanted their system to be more like that they were confounded. They would, of course, but they couldn’t imagine how it could be made to happen – from where the leadership would come. My response was to point out that the educational leadership in that city was gathered in the room. Where else was the leadership to come? It just needed to be translated from institutional concerns to higher order collegial educational concerns – a shared commitment to the success of every child in the city.
It just needed, in fact, some leaders to step up with a bold and compelling vision of what was possible and an invitational offer for others to engage in active and participatory and collectively courageous followership. And some of them did just that.
The UK system is in flux. There has never been such a rich opportunity for school leaders to take hold of the agenda and reimagine what is possible across a local system of schools.
It starts, of course, with those of us privileged to lead getting in touch again with our true passions as our first priority – to be “engaged at the heart level” as Margaret Wheatley says – so that we can lead without fear.