Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Supporting Leadership Learning

After my sudden departure from the National Strategies (described in the previous post) I took a short but important break before embarking on the most recent period of my career, as a consultant and coach, working mainly in the area of education leadership.   Here I have been using my own experiences and skills to support and help individuals and organisations whilst at the same time deepening my own understanding.  I have been very lucky and privileged to do a great deal of this work for and with the National College for School Leadership (variously re-named over the period).

For most of this period the College’s Chief Executive was Steve, who I had appointed as one of my Assistant Directors in Blackburn.  Of all my decisions as a leader, that may have been my best and is certainly a good example of succession planning, to appoint the person who will eventually become your effective boss! Steve is the most talented leader I have ever worked with or for. He encapsulates the phrase which became popular in education circles in the early 2000s to describe the approach to school improvement, ‘support and challenge’ – when you work with him you feel valued and supported and at the same time you know you are being challenged to do more and better.  He is a good listener as well as an inspirational speaker, modest and self-deprecating and a person of real integrity whilst being politically astute.  He can also be tough and is very good at having those ‘difficult conversations’ to get people to perform at their best or move on and yet always handled with humanity.     He has been kind enough to say that he learnt some things from me but I can confidently state that I learnt far more from him.  Anyone who worked for or with the College over the period of his leadership knows the transformational qualities he displayed.  He paid attention to the purpose, the people and the processes of the organisation.  As a result he built an organisation which was creative, dynamic, sometimes messy but ultimately very successful and a pleasure to work for.

One of the major areas of my work for the College was Succession Planning. At the time there was a real concern about whether there would be enough people and of the right quality to become headteachers of schools into the future.  There is considerable research evidence that leadership  makes a significant difference to school performance and student experience.  (The only more significant factor is the quality of teaching but this in itself is strongly influenced by the right leadership).  I began as one of the consultants contracted to work on this issue and later was asked to lead the work nationally.  The approach which Steve had skilfully steered through the politicians was known as ‘local solutions’ – that meant bringing together at local and regional level a coalition of key partners to identify potential leaders and devise support and development programmes for them.  The concern was that despite the relatively high salaries, many prospective headteachers were put off by the perceived pressures of the job, the apparent bureaucracy and the concern of ‘losing touch with the children/students’.   There were also acute issues of recruitment in ‘church’ schools and a real lack of diversity – in particular very few black and ethnic minority leaders. These concerns all had some degrees of reality to them but we were equally convinced that if we could work together to identify those with potential, expose them to some of the best current leaders, give them rich leadership experiences with support and articulate how rewarding the role could be (many headteachers describe it as ‘the best job in the world’ with influence over the lives and futures of many more young people as well as staff) we could turn the situation around.        

For me this required leadership which was exercised through influence and building coalitions around a common cause, securing commitment, providing incentives and keeping people on board and focused on making a difference.  My experience is that much leadership is like this – rarely these days is it about direct power or even ‘given’ authority. It is about bringing together key players, some but not all of whom do you directly manage, and maximising their talents to achieve a given goal.   

We had some real successes in this work and what had been predicted to be a major problem became less acute (although this will continue to be a challenge for the system).  However, most of us involved became convinced that whether or not there was a crisis of recruitment this was the right thing to be doing.  If education can’t be good at nurturing and developing the next generation of leaders then something is wrong.  

At the same time I became involved in 2 other interesting leadership areas.  One was supporting the development of leadership of academies and chains of schools.  In many ways the requirements for academies were similar to those of other schools but the additional responsibilities, independence and the political and media attention probably required extra resilience, creative and entrepreneurial skills and political savvy.  Leading in the context of a group or chain of schools brings additional challenges and deserves a post in its own right.  I am about to start working as a leadership consultant with such a chain and hope to be able to apply some of what I have learnt but also to learn more, so watch this space. 

I was also involved, at the margins, in helping establish a leadership programmes for serving and aspiring Directors of Children’s Services, following a number of high profile cases of child abuse and neglect which highlighted the need for improvements in the provision of social care and an integrated approach to supporting children and families.  I have commented in another post on how challenging it was to take on the role of DCS, one of the most challenging in the public sector in my view, and yet most directors took on the role with limited or no specific leadership training.  The main 12 month programme devised by the College built on research and experience from around the world and included a supported self-assessment leading to a personal development plan, project work on real on-the-job challenges, network learning groups, residential experiences and the provision of an experienced executive coach.  I ended up as one of the team of coaches used on the programme. 

Both as a coach and consultant I had the privilege, over this period, to work with a number of headteachers, directors and those aspiring to these roles.  I also worked with leaders in the private and voluntary sectors.  All were different and the contexts they worked in varied hugely.  And yet the same issues and leadership challenges recurred and the skills and qualities needed to handle them were remarkably similar.  I will try to capture some of this in the final post of this series. 

As for the role of leadership coach and consultant, I do believe that someone who has had the opportunity to work through many of these experiences and developments themselves, particularly in similar contexts, is in a powerful position to support and help other leaders, whether they are aspiring, new or experienced.  However, it most certainly is not about telling others how to do it, rather to help leaders reflect on what they are doing, ask the kind of questions that will enhance decisions, offer occasional insights and support leaders' own personal awareness and development.   Often in the day-to-day pressures of leadership, the ability to step back and reflect on personal and organisational performance is hard.  A skilled and trusted coach/consultant can make a significant difference.   But then I would say that wouldn’t I!

I’d be interested in what you think are the best ways of supporting leaders, in context, and your own experiences of this.  

Learning to Lead

This is the first of a series of inter-connected posts about my experience of leadership.

Most people know from experience how critical leadership is in any organisation and I have already identified this as a significant factor in my own career.   My own leadership learning came partly from observing and experiencing others (good and bad role models), partly from coaching, a little from training programmes but most of all from experience, especially supported experiences.  I also had the huge privilege in recent years to work for the National College for School Leadership where I was able to refine my own thinking and at the same time practice leadership, working alongside some of the very best education leaders in the country and some of the foremost researchers and thinkers about leadership.
Leadership takes place in many contexts (sports, organisations, political parties and informal groups) and operates at many different levels (for example, in education we know that a teacher is a leader of learning in every lesson).   As I have reflected on my own leadership journey I have ended up writing a series of inter-linked posts.   In the first of these I reflect on my personal experiences and my own early development as a leader up to the point where I became a Director of Education.  In the second I will reflect on the ups and downs of leading major organisations and then, thirdly, my most recent work as a leadership consultant, supporting leaders and working for a leadership organisation.  Finally, I will try to summarise some of what I think I have learnt about leadership and about how to grow and develop leadership in others.

As a child and a student I would never have regarded myself as being a leader.  My best friend for the first 15 or so years of life, Pete, was the ‘leader’ among our group of friends.  At secondary school (a secondary modern which effectively became a comprehensive during my time there) I was a fairly nondescript, low key student – although I did start to show some academic promise in the sixth form.  I enjoyed sport but was never particularly good and certainly never a team leader.  Being an undergraduate at university was really important for my social and academic development and I certainly grew in confidence but I didn’t join much or put myself forward to lead anything significant.

It was probably my early days as a teacher where something happened that, looking back, started my leadership journey.  In my second year an inspirational headteacher spotted me as someone with something to offer and encouraged me to go on a course about ‘citizenship’ education and subsequently to lead a staff meeting about it. From that I began to establish myself as a voice for change within the school.   Then I left teaching for a while and went off to Nuffield College, Oxford to do a PhD.  I was never entirely happy or comfortable at Oxford - I was a more mature student who had experienced a bit of working life and I had done my first degree and masters at Essex, culturally a very different, modern university without the status or pretensions of Oxford.  Perhaps because of this I wanted to ‘prove myself’ and I ended up playing a leading role among the students at Nuffield and found myself negotiating directly with the College leadership about charges and conditions for students – something, I came to realise, at which I was pretty good.  I also captained the College cricket team -  although that is not as grand as it sounds as it was a small post graduate College and we struggled to get 11 players to turn out some weeks!

Back in teaching and having moved to Yorkshire, my journey continued as I experienced ‘shared leadership’ of a department and then head of department in 2 schools.  I also became active in politics and the union (NUT) which gave me new opportunities to influence things, represent others and refine my own views. 
This is the point (described in my previous post) when I became a Humanities adviser in Kirklees.  I was given considerable freedom to develop the role and to take responsibility for new initiatives.  I played a key role in setting up and running a new national association for humanities advisers, my first taste of operating at a national level and doing something new which challenged the conventional structures.  It was at about this time when I vividly remember my boss, Geoff, saying,  ‘Mark, I think you could lead this team one day’. I had honestly never thought about this until that moment and yet within about 18 months I was heading up the curriculum support service.  

As head of service I had a wonderful Director as my boss. Jennifer was one of, at that time, a rare number of women directors of education (most of whom, including Jennifer, experienced  serious challenges, operating in a hitherto largely male and often sexist world of directors and politicians).  She gave me tremendous personal encouragement and support which I recall as a wonderful mix of giving me lots of freedom to get on and do, with regular opportunities to check things out with her and knowing she was always there if I needed specific help and advice.  

What I also remember about this period was the first time a training course had an impact on me.  It was in-house, introduced by the then Chief Executive (widely recognised as one of a new breed of innovative, entrepreneurial CEs in Local Government). It was about cultural change in organisations, it was very participative, lasted from memory one session each week for about 6 weeks and I loved it.  I could reflect on each session and try out things in context and throughout my career I have used ideas and practice I was first introduced to on that programme (eg. the importance of vision, ownership and co-construction, listening and questioning before talking..).  In particular, I have regularly used a quote from Goethe, written in about 1800 and used on the course - ‘whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it…boldness has genius, power and magic in it, begin it now.’  Only writing this now do I realise just how significant that may have been for me – I have done a few bold (and some would say foolish) things in my career and most have turned out well! 

In Leeds I probably learnt more about how not to do things than how to do them.  I also learnt about realpolitik and real Politics – how to get things done, managing up as well as down, knowing where the power lies in an organisation, the cut and thrust of local Party politics, the art of the possible, being prepared to compromise in order to get something important to happen.  My boss, John, understood the politics well and helped and protected me.  I vividly remember one conversation with him.  I said I thought I needed to develop a thicker skin and he said, ‘no, a thick skin implies things bounce off and nothing gets through, you need to stay firm on what really matters but absorb some of what is coming at you and learn from it so you can adapt your tactics in order to achieve those things.’  Much later I put a name to this as a key leadership skill – resilience.

I will mention one other course or programme that was significant for me.  It was run by a wonderful organisation called ‘Common Purpose’.  It brought together people from the public, private and voluntary sectors in an area (in this case Leeds).  It opened my eyes to some of the amazing skills on offer from people in the other sectors and challenged my prejudices about the values and motivations, particularly of those from the private sector.  It almost certainly influenced some of my future decisions including working for 2 large private companies later in my career (more in a future post).

It was at this point, still in my early 40s, that I became a Director of Education in Blackburn with Darwen.  In the second part of this post I will reflect on my time as a Director of Education and then as a Managing Director and Chief Executive in the private sector.

Meanwhile I would be interested in other people’s reflections on what has influenced your leadership journeys and/or what you have observed in others.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Reflections on the effectiveness of Local Education Authorities (part 2)

In part 1 of this post I outlined a few of my person experiences of working for and with LEAs.  Given that range of experiences , what do I now think about whether LEAs can have a meaningful role in improving education and is there an alternative?   

First, I am convinced that it is essential to have a middle tier or other structures between the 24,000+ schools and central government to provide some support and challenge, make key strategic decisions (eg. about school places), protect the most vulnerable who fall out or are failed by the system and provide accountability to parents and communities.  I am also convinced that schools benefit from collaboration and that we need mechanisms to allow the best school leaders (and teachers) to share their learning.  The fact that LEAs have survived this period of challenge suggests there is a role to play and that they are surprisingly (given the tendency to bureaucracy) good at reinventing themselves and responding to changing circumstances.   

My experience is that at their best LEAs can make a positive difference, create a shared purpose and culture, raise aspirations, tackle problems decisively but sensitively, encourage,  support and where necessary lead innovation, champion the disadvantaged and work across agencies to achieve more joined up services for children and take an overview of performance and intervene or commission solutions to problems, including from schools themselves.  They can do this without inhibiting and indeed by encouraging school innovation and excellence.   I saw bits of that in most LEAs (and still some of it today) and for a magic period in Blackburn we were doing most of that well.

However, as I described in part 1, there are many examples of poor practice and these suggest some inherent weaknesses and limitations.  Do the undoubted achievements outweigh the ineffectual and even harmful examples of practice?  Can the successes be sustained and spread?  Sadly I do not believe it has been in Blackburn, for example.  (Is that because so much of this is about the people in leadership roles and those people - politicians and professionals - rarely stay long enough?  I am aware that I am open to criticism on this count – it’s hard to know because I’ve seen the opposite as well where someone has stayed too long and things have stagnated - I probably averaged between 3 and 4 years in key roles and it may be better to aim for at least 5).  It may be that better succession planning is the answer (more in a future blog).  However it may also be that LEAs are inherently unstable, particularly in the most challenging of contexts – subject to political change, the pressures on schools and staff, financial concerns, etc.  The particular combination of people and policies to get the role right are complex and subtle.  Perhaps most crucially, with LEAs having been under attacks of one kind or another for so long now, it simply has not been an attractive career choice and the number of people of real quality and experience to take on the key leadership roles has diminished.

Size may also be an issue. Blackburn was a small unitary – I could see almost half of the schools from my tower block office! There is something about being able to get all the headteachers in a room on a regular basis and have a meaningful dialogue, the LEA leadership being able to visit every school regularly, schools feeling they have a genuine say and are an active part of the venture.  Small LEAs have not all been successful of course and there are perhaps a few large ones that have consistently done well – although not in my experience among those serving the most disadvantaged communities.    Proposals for regional or sub-regional tiers will take things in the other direction.  There will undoubtedly be economies of scale but if I am right that relationships and a sense of ownership are key then this could be detrimental unless there are other ways for schools to work together.   

One of the big arguments for local authorities is that they are better placed to join up services.  The big push to create ‘Children’s Services’ happened just at the end of my period as Director.  In principle it is hard to argue against it.  However, I have seen a loss of focus and expertise as a result.  It also puts an even heavier burden on the key leaders.  I used to believe that being head of a large inner city school was the toughest job in education but more recently I think being a director of children services has taken over – often responsible for well over half the local authorities budget and staff and having to oversee the most challenging of child protection cases as well as working with an increasingly diverse range of schools is a massive t/ask.  That there must be processes and structures to enable collaboration across services for children is clearly essential; that this is best done through large local authority departments I am far less convinced about. 

At the heart of this issue is accountability and democracy.  Do we want schools and school systems to have some accountability to the communities they serve?  Do we believe in local democracy and if so how should this work for education?  I have no time for those who say, ‘keep politics out of education’ – decisions about allocation of resources, how schools are organised, governed and led as well as, at some level, what is taught are essentially political. In the end schools must be accountable in some form for the public money they spend and surely that can’t be left to national government or its agencies.  Nor can it rest simply at individual school level. My experience is that school governance is one of the weakest aspects of the school system. 

One possible way forward may lie in the development recently of more formal groupings of schools under charitable trusts.   Most of these currently are academies but there are also alliances of schools linked to the 500 or so Teaching Schools spread around the country and some longer standing trusts.  More on this in a future blog post but one challenge is whether such arrangements could or should be put in place for all schools and whether these trusts have sufficiently strong links into communities and local democratic processes to provide accountability and engagement.  At the moment most don’t but it would possible to build this into future arrangements.  (It is, however, interesting that some of these ‘chains’ of schools  are experiencing some of the very same issues that LEAs have faced including how much money to hold back at the ‘centre’, how much freedom for individual school leaders and the sustainability of the leadership of the trust which has often been based around a charismatic and entrepreneurial individual).

A Way Forward?
In these last 2 posts I have tried to give an honest but inevitably partial perspective on LEAs and raise some issues which I think are still important for the future.  Do I have an answer?  Certainly not a complete solution but my suggestion would be to look at some combination of the following:
-further reform of LEAs, including investing in their leadership and clarifying responsibilities;
- expanding and improving the trust arrangements for groups of schools – including links into the local democratic process;
- considering a sub-regional structure for some of the decision-making and support but with the involvement of school leaders and links back to local councils.  

Thank you, if you have persevered through both parts of this post.  I do believe this debate is an important one and if you have some suggestions for the way forward then I’d love to hear from you. 

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Reflections on the effectiveness of Local Education Authorities (part 1)

This is a longer blog post than normal, but there is a lot to try to cover.  So I have split into 2 parts.  In this part I have reflected back on my experiences working for and with LEAs and in the second part I will use these experiences to comment on whether LEAs could and should continue to play a role. 

The Context 
I have spent the largest part of my career working for or with local education authorities.   I worked at senior level directly for 3 northern LEAs and under contract to a 4th.  (I will use the term LEA although more recently the preference has been to refer to Local Authorities, LAs, in recognition that they are part of a wider council structure). In my various roles since, I have also engaged with LEAs throughout the country including coaching a number of Directors and Assistant Directors.  In this blog I am going to attempt an overview and some reflections on that experience.  It’s an interesting time for this as both Labour and the Lib Dems seem to be developing ideas for a different ‘middle tier’ for the next election.  It is perhaps worth recalling, at the start, that almost from the moment that I first worked for an LEA – Kirklees, in 1986 – there were commentators predicting their demise and yet they remain a significant, if reduced, part of the system. 

Throughout this period I experienced examples where the LEA was clearly making a positive difference to the performance of schools and through them (or in some cases directly) the learning and achievement of young people and there was external evidence for at least some of this. (LEAs had and have other functions but this core area of school improvement is the one I am going to focus on). However, I also experienced dysfunctional LEAs and specific LEA activity which at best made no difference (and therefore was a waste of public money) and at worst got in the way and made it more difficult for schools to do their job.   Here are some examples of each.

The Positives – innovation, cultural change and improvement

In Kirklees in the late 80s and early 90s relationship with schools were generally very good, there was innovative curriculum development led by teachers for teachers, genuine efforts to respond to the challenges of an increasingly ethnically diverse school population and, in a collaborative approach with Headteachers, increasing funding and decision-making was devolved to schools.
In my first job as an adviser I had a boss who was passionate about child-centred and experiential learning.   Interestingly, for his time, he believed in freeing up schools and was an opponent of too much regulation and of any ‘political’ interference.  He gave me the freedom to develop my role and work alongside teachers to improve teaching and promote a relevant and challenging curriculum. 
Three years later, I was leading the Curriculum Support team.  Now that most of the funding was where it should be, in schools, I had to learn fast about business planning,  value for money (public money) and marketing in the best sense of understanding and being responsive to the needs of schools and teachers.   It was possible to do this and to be creative and innovative – in fact it was only by doing these things that the service could survive and develop. Almost all schools bought into the service.   I like straplines (see earlier blog) and at this time we used ‘A network of services for a community of schools’ and it really did feel like a community.  When Ofsted inspected Kirklees (after I left) they commented positively on much of this work.

In Leeds, when I was Assistant Director, we developed with schools a programme called RAISE.  This included provision of high quality, benchmarked data and a ‘shared review’ process in which the leadership, including governors, of the school jointly negotiated and undertook a review process with our advisory service.  This process, ahead of its time, was instrumental in allowing school leaders to develop their own self-review skills, provided schools with a robust but ‘owned’ improvement tool and at the same time improved the effectiveness of advisers.   In retrospect it would have been even more powerful (and prescient) if we had also included a leader from another school in the review process.   At the same time a home grown programme known as Sustained Reading Intervention had a demonstrably significant impact on literacy levels.

In Blackburn with Darwen (which deserves and will get a post in its own right at some stage) we – and it really was a team effort, including all the staff in the schools – brought about a remarkable transformation in the quality, performance and approach in schools and other learning partners.  An Ofsted inspection of the LEA, 3 years into its life, spoke of the marked impact on standards, outstanding work with schools causing concern and good relationships with schools.  The report said ‘ this is a remarkable, unique record that is not paralleled anywhere else in the country’.  Blackburn was awarded ‘Beacon Status’ for its work on school improvement.  The foundations of this achievement, in my view, were a strong emphasis on building open and positive relationships with all partners and in particular headteachers, a really focused approach to school improvement where a dedicated team of credible professionals provided the right mix of support and challenge and with the quality of school leadership and teaching and learning at its heart. The whole LEA was focused around ‘aiming high and including all’ and demonstrated high quality, people-centred leadership through the senior leadership team in education (myself, Steve, Jill, Peter and David – all exceptional in their own way but even stronger as a team) as well as an astute Chief Executive, Phil, who gave us our head but helped us to play a meaningful corporate role, key politicians (Bill as Chair and then Leader was particularly skilled at giving a sense of direction, having creative ideas but not interfering in the daily work and being keen to praise the good work of professionals) and some key headteachers willing to play their part to help other schools as well as their own.      

The negatives – horror stories and missed opportunities
On the other side of the coin, I experienced some very poor practice.   Bureaucratic procedures that frustrated innovation, slowed down decision-making and wasted money.  Politicians who didn’t trust officers/professionals, were more interested in promoting their own careers and made decisions on the basis of personal prejudice rather than evidence.  Senior officers who were protecting their own backs more than promoting the service to the public or who were well meaning but stuck in a rut and unable to see the need for change or perhaps not given the support to change.   Failure to tackle difficult issues such as struggling schools or expensive but ineffective services for children with special needs.   Disjointed approaches where people worked in silos and rarely looked for or found ways of maximising collaboration and impact.  A number of advisers in the secondary (and to some extent special) sector who had good subject knowledge but did not have the credibility or experience to advise or support school leaders on overall improvement.  Above all, too often I saw weak or unprincipled leadership (professional and political) in key roles. 

More specifically, in my early days, the service lacked rigour, there was little use of data (preferring  ‘professional judgement’ – an important  tool but only if the judgement was based on clear evidence as opposed to ideology ) and looking back there were some pretty poor schools serving some of the most deprived communities  which were never really challenged, effectively supported or decisively dealt with.

Then later, in one LEA there was a senior officer, at assistant director level, who regularly took his instructions from a politician who was not even on the Council but rather an MP.   That same LA failed to appoint a permanent director of education for well over 2 years and when they did an insider got the job.   Here also, I saw an essentially good education initiative around groups of schools high jacked by politicians as a way to get funding for, and some political leverage over, schools in certain areas of the city.      

In Bradford, I came into a seriously dysfunctional LEA.  I can name this one as it was all in the public domain when the LEA failed its Ofsted inspection. There were many good people working in education in Bradford but the culture was wrong, relationships with many headteachers had broken down, decision-making was flawed and little had been done to tackle serious underachievement, particularly in the most deprived communities.   In a future blog I will write about the attempted solution to this situation (involving the private sector) and my challenges and limited impact there. (It is important to say that in Bradford, even in the most dysfunctional period, there were a number of good things which the LEA did.)

I will stop there for now. I have included only a few examples but I think they reflect the range I have experienced. I wonder if any of this rings true for others.  I’d be really interested in your own experiences of LEAs whether you worked for one, came across them in some form or simply found them irrelevant.

In the second part of this blog I use these experiences to reflect on whether I believe there is a role for LEAs in the future.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Teaching and Learning

I’ve had a long, diverse and, overall, successful career in education.  I believe I made a positive difference at particular times and in particular circumstances – although there were also times where I was less effective and/or where circumstances meant I was banging my head against several bricks in the wall!  However, I actually only taught for 9 years.  I’m sure there are many teachers who will feel that wasn’t enough to then go on and be in influential decision-making roles in local and national government.  I have some sympathy with that view (although I have experienced excellent leaders in education with even less or no such experience), so I thought it important early on in these reflective blogs to look back at me as a teacher.

I was a good teacher but not a great teacher.  I taught some great lessons and was particularly good at stretching bright kids and inspiring some kids who lacked motivation and were frankly bored by much of what happened in school.  However,  I wasn’t very good with kids with really challenging behaviour and I didn’t always know my subject as  thoroughly as I (or Mr Gove!) would have liked – this was particularly true of the history I taught where my knowledge of  dates  and key events is often hazy and was mugged up the night before ( Janice and I often refer to ourselves as ‘conceptual historians’ – we preferred to look at why something happened, how it changed people’s lives or how an event could be interpreted differently depending which side you were on – but maybe that was just an excuse for not knowing the date it happened!).  If the Ofsted of today had been in my lessons of 30+ years ago they’d have been critical of the limited differentiation and whilst some kids were making progress not all were and these kids often didn’t know what they needed to do to make that progress.  (Robert Hill in a recent blog noted how 20 years after the seminal work on assessment for learning, it is still a seriously underdeveloped skill in schools*).  I will also confess that there were times when I gave whole classes low level tasks just to keep them under a semblance of control. The other rather shocking thing, looking back, is that I had no training!! I entered teaching in what I believe was the last year where you could do this straight from a subject degree (in my case also a masters) without any teacher training or PGCE.  Unsurprisingly I had a lot to learn and made a lot of mistakes early on.

However, I was interested in how kids learn.  My experience then was that a number of secondary teachers wanted to teach their subject and paid less attention to the overall learning experience for the kids.  I later learnt that primary teachers were far more focused on the learning process.  (I was very proud recently when my daughter Jessie, who is training to be a primary teacher through Schools Direct, said she wasn’t particularly interested in teaching drama  - the subject of her degree - but rather in teaching children –including how to use drama to help children learn.)  I wanted to find ways to motivate young learners to want to learn.  I believed then and still do now that good teaching is about finding the approach that sparks that interest and providing the experiences which could lead directly, or via reflection, to new and powerful learning – we called it active and experiential learning then.   So I tried a range of strategies such as role play, paired and group work activities, hands on use of artefacts, educational visits, etc.  Also I got involved in real curriculum development (this was pre-National Curriculum where there was more scope for this), particularly in humanities, where we developed thematic programmes based around current events and areas relevant to the lives of our students with the aim of developing active citizens who understood history, geography and politics in context.

I also wanted to learn more myself.  So I went on courses, I volunteered to lead projects, I sought out opportunities to play a wider role in the school , I changed schools and I got promoted quickly to head of department (the journey was more complex than this because in the middle I did a PhD – more of that another time perhaps).   It was those things that brought me to the attention of the LEA adviser – by now I was teaching in Kirklees, West Yorkshire - and I was encouraged to apply for a job with the team. 

My career from then was outside the classroom.  I spent a great deal of time in schools and in classrooms but not primarily as a teacher.   Looking back I think this was wrong but the system worked that way.  To put it crudely, if you were seen as successful or innovative or ambitious (or all 3) and you were lucky/good enough to secure a post, then you were moved out of the classroom to be an advisory teacher or adviser.  Then, the most successful and ambitious of them went on to be chief advisers, assistant directors and, for a few of us, Directors of Education.  Later I became Chief Executive of the National Strategies – the national programme for raising standards in literacy and numeracy (as well as improving behaviour & attendance, assessment for learning, science, etc.). There I encountered other professionals who had been encouraged out of schools and out of LEAs because they had real expertise in the classroom and were now to develop this in others, getting further and further from the classroom in the process.

Of course another career path was into senior school management.  This had some similarities in providing a career path which took teachers further away from teaching and sometimes into management roles for which they had little training or expertise.  Although I should say that in my experience good senior leaders and headteachers never lost touch with the classroom - more of that in a future blog on school leadership.

Meanwhile, there were (and are) many really good teachers who simply wanted to carry on teaching and get better at that for themselves and their students.  I’ve met many amazing long-serving teachers who inspired and empowered generations of students. Until recently (and possible still) the career structure never really rewarded these people. 

So now, as I look back on my period as a teacher from the perspective of someone who ended up being a system leader, I think ‘if only I’d known then what I know now’   I learnt so much more about teaching and learning as I moved up through the system but I never had a chance to put into practice myself.  That suggests there is something wrong with the system and I’m pleased to say there are some signs of this changing.  In one of my last contributions to education I worked for the National College for School Leaders to help implement the Teaching Schools programme.  For those who don’t know about this it is similar to the idea of teaching hospitals but in the school sector.  Up to 500 schools are being designated as ‘Teaching Schools’ because they have demonstrated their excellence in teaching and learning.  They are then being used, in school partnerships, to support other schools and to provide in-service and initial teacher training.  There are inevitably some teething problems with this programme but, in principle at least, it provides the chance for excellent practitioners to help to support other schools and teachers whilst continuing to develop their own practice in the classroom and in schools. I certainly hope it proves a success.

So , these are a few reflections on my teaching and the system of which it was  a part.
I'd be interested to know if this strikes any chords, provokes any reactions/disagreements or generates any ideas  for how to improve things for future teachers and, most importantly, learners.


Saturday, 5 October 2013

Why blog? Well, life is all about learning.

This is my first blog.  It feels a strange experience.  I’ve been saying I’d have a go at blogging for a while.  My wife, Janice, blogs regularly and has clocked up over 100 blogs, has had over 30,000 viewings and has over 50 regular followers many of whom also blog.  Janice has been seriously ill this last year and her blogging community has been such a fantastic support network.  (I’m pleased to say she is now doing well and I’m sure that is in part due to the support she has found around her, not least her fellow bloggers).

So why have I found it so hard to get down to it?  I think it is partly because I’m not sure who I am blogging for/to (friends, relations, former colleagues, educationalists , a more generalised audience, the blogasphere?) , quite what to blog about (lots of ideas which started with reflections on my career in education and some of the lessons I’ve learnt but then why not wider experiences and topics) and what style to adopt (academic , polemical, serious reportage, ‘amusing’ reflections, honest autobiography…)  .  Nor was I really clear why I would be doing this – and one of the lessons from work and wider life has been that’s its best to know why you are doing something and what you are trying to achieve before you start, even if the purpose later changes (a possible blog in itself!). 

In the end a good friend, Diane, gave me some advice – blog for yourself, write what seems interesting/amusing/important to you at the time and just have a go and see what comes out.  Pretty straightforward really (as usual, thanks Diane).   If I enjoy doing it then I’ll want to do more.  If other people enjoy reading it that’s a bonus but writing for myself is a perfectly valid activity.  Actually I think it’s more than that, I think it’s an important part of the learning experience. 

When I worked in Blackburn with Darwen I had the privilege of leading a fantastic team to set up a brand new education authority.  We had a couple of what I have always thought were rather good mission statements (to put a grand title on it) or (more prosaically) mottos/slogans – a phrase that summed up what we were about.  (Sometimes these phrases seem trite and meaningless but I can only say I am confident it worked for us as a simple way of letting people know what we stood for and often bringing them on board with the venture).  One was ‘aiming high, including all’ which encapsulated the need to have the highest expectations of all our learners, our schools and ourselves and to strive to make sure no one was left out, particularly those with the greatest disadvantages and challenges.  The other one, developed by David and his team in our lifelong learning area, was simply ‘life is all about learning’ and encouraged all those we worked with and for us to see learning as a continuous, rewarding and enjoyable experience.   So if that’s true then maybe one of the tools for continuing to do that is through blogging.  We all – and I do mean all – have a fantastic accumulation of learning experiences from our lives – things that worked well, things that didn’t , serendipitous episodes , light-bulb moments…   Surely we should try to capture these and then share them as best we can.  Whenever possible of course this should be face to face but I do think we can also do this by blogging (and other forms of social media). And maybe the art of blogging brings a different dimension – reflecting and capturing on our own, then sharing, commenting and developing our thinking across a virtual community. 

So this is the beginning of my attempt to do this – to capture for myself some of the key learning experiences from my life to date, focusing mainly on my work as an educationalist but if the fancy takes me branching out into other areas.  And this is primarily for me, a chance to reflect and to capture some of this learning. However, it may be that these blogs are of interest to others – friends, those I have worked with and complete strangers.  And if that creates a dialogue around any of these experiences or links in with others’ reflections, then so much the better as it will build on that learning and perhaps create a new learning community, or link with an existing one. Creating a learning community sounds rather grand and writing for myself sounds rather self-indulgent, but somewhere between the two I think there is enough of a purpose, at least for now for me.   

I asked Janice why she blogged and what she got out of it.  She said it is the closest she’ll ever get to writing a book and what she loves is the network of people that she has become part of who are simply interested in and care about each other.   Now that will do for me as well.  It would be interesting to hear about other reasons that people blog.   

So, this is my first go and I’ll need another one soon because I can’t simply blog about blogging – or can I?