Sailing the ‘C’s of Educational Leadership by @HelenaMarsh81

‘Rough seas make the best sailors’. A leadership analogy that many head teachers will recognise. It’s the times of complexity and challenge that really test you as a school leader – the things that they don’t teach you on NPQH that require you to dig deep and use your moral compass to guide you through a battering experience.

The educational landscape (or seascape – if you will humour the extended metaphor) is awash with potential icebergs, primed to sink even the most robust and resolute of leaders. Three of the most prominent ‘C’s that leaders are having to navigate at this time in the school calendar are compliance, cash and competition.

With the exam season upon us, GDPR implementation deadline looming close, and the challenges of being able to balance a budget and staff a school for the coming academic year on the forefront of our minds, it’s easy to forget to focus on the most important ‘C’ of educational leadership: children.

Being distracted from our core purpose is a dangerous yet understandable risk in the current climate. A daily barrage of email spam warns us of the need to ensure that our data handling/website content/safeguarding processes are compliant; we are hounded by agencies offering us staff that we can’t afford, reminding us of the impossible recruitment and retention crisis that we face on skeletal funding; our consciousness is infected by scaremongering stories of fellow head teachers that have vanished under a curious cloud of accountability issues and scapegoating rumours.

The easiest thing is to get swept along in the toxic panic in fear of becoming another leadership casualty in desperate avoidance of the fate of flotsam and jetsam. The default position in this state tends to feature a desire for two other ‘C’s: control and consistency. Often with the best possible intentions, top-down directives and obligatory uniformity prompt a franchise style of education with a reassuring sense of measure and predictability. One that risks squeezing all the joy, distinctiveness and creativity out of teaching, and fatiguing staff with unreasonable and unfulfilling workload expectations.

The parody twitter account @trustchiefexec and that of his fictional CEO PA Lynne are humorous because there so much truth and resonance in the outrageous memos and diktats that are posted. It is uncomfortable to hold a mirror up to academy leaders’ behaviours and shine a light on the some of the nonsense that has become deemed as acceptable. I don’t recognise the MAT expectations in my own practice but I do worry about the consequences on such an audit trail climate on the teaching profession as a whole.

While it’s not fair or reasonable to solely apportion blame on Trust executives and head teachers for the choppy and treacherous waters that we find ourselves in, there needs to be some responsibility accepted for the waves that we have helped to create and amplify. Inspection myth busting is welcome but if many institutions live and die by such practices, they aren’t myths.

There is no doubt that the last eight years of education policy have been a turbulent odyssey of curriculum and accountability reform, requiring schools to tackle a plethora of monstrous challenges in quick succession with depleted resources. However, there is only so much time we can afford to take to reel from the trauma endured by the sector’s Cyclops and Siren equivalents, for our own sakes and for the sake of our schools and children.

The moment at this year’s ASCL conference at which the union’s General Secretary Geoff Barton reproached delegates for directing jibes and heckles towards the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, was an important watershed event. Geoff articulated, in a respectful yet direct way, the need for all of us with an influence on education to engage in constructive and pragmatic dialogue to achieve system-wide improvements, rather than resort to Punch and Judy-style retorts. Flipping the system may be an act of revolution, but it is arguably best and most credibly achieved through professional partnership and principled and pragmatic leadership.

Without intending to sound glib, naïve, or blindly optimistic, it does feel as though there is a genuine opportunity to steer education towards a more hopeful and wholesome position. Having ridden the storm, we now need to capitalise on the DfE’s commitments to embed curriculum and assessment changes and invest in teacher training and development.

We need to work together to and focus on the most important destination: children’s education, rather than get swept away surfing other divisive agendas. There is a need to brush ourselves down and focus on the future. Licking our wounds and bemoaning the state of the nation’s education may be a necessary ‘storming’ phase but we now need to move to performing.

All too often, the implicit call of ‘m’aidez’ is characteristic of staff struggling in our schools under the strains and stresses of the current education system. Important PhD findings by Emma Kell published in her book ‘How to Survive in Teaching Without Imploding, Exploding or Walking Away’, plus current research being conducted by Suzanne Culshaw highlights how school leaders, and the education system at large, can stem the tide of teachers exiting the profession, disillusioned and broken.

Values-led leadership with compassion and courage at its heart is crucial. As is the coherence of a connected, collegiate profession in which there is clarity, collaboration and a genuine sense of community, rather than competition. WomenEd’s 8 core ‘C’ values and fellow co-founder Hannah Wilson’s lighthouse analogy for ethical leadership chime with this call to arms.

Today’s May Day Bank Holiday officially welcomes the start of summer but it also has connotations with protest, riots and a celebration of workers’ rights. Perhaps a fitting time to commit to continuing to provide constructive challenge to those in positions of power and influence, and to making sure that the profession’s time, energy and intellect is invested in rowing in unison for the future success of our schools and the children within them. The time is now for us as system leaders to turn the tide on toxic, divisive and negative discourse about education and collectively chart a course for calmer, more productive seas.

We all have a responsibility to ensure that the members of our school communities are waving, not drowning; we need to create the conditions to make this happen, rather than merely blame omnipotent external forces. School leaders are not the mere pawns of a government-inflicted tempest – we make the weather in our schools.

Helena Marsh is Executive Principal of Linton Village College and Chilford Hundred Education Trust.

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