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‘The Times They Are Achangin’ – but is your School Ready and Able?

Education is changing, and rapidly.

Okay, that’s not news, but for anyone who thinks this is almost over, think again. It gives me no pleasure in saying that we are still experiencing ‘cause’ and the ‘effect’ is in its early stages.

Some would say education didn’t need to change at all. Others, that as a public sector, it was riddled with inefficiencies that could no longer be afforded and as this became obvious, it presented a perfect opportunity for the political ideologists to have their way.

With hindsight, we might now ask, ‘Could we have changed the Local Authority model to make it work, rather than throwing it in the bin?’.

It’s long been said the public-sector lags business by ten to twenty years in terms of process. This is perhaps a result of the respective need to change; if businesses don’t adapt and maintain revenue, they risk going bust. It’s not the same, or at least it wasn’t, for schools.

The move over the past five years towards a more corporate style sector may be beneficial for a few but it comes with huge challenges for many, challenges which schools were not necessarily ready for or equipped to deal with. Change can be complex and uncomfortable and that’s why few volunteer for it and why change management is a profession in its own right.

The degree of change imposed on the education sector would be incredibly difficult for any organisation to navigate successfully without impacting on their core business. Many private sector businesses who attempt change actually fail or only partially succeed; it’s not easy, even when it’s by choice and preparation has taken place.

So, what are the symptoms of a school that needs to change?

One of the greatest characteristics of a school that needs to change is where there is a disconnect between the top and the bottom of the organisation. For clarity, and with respect, I’m not assuming any superiority of one person over another, I’m just creating a mental picture of the organisational structure.

What happens is that those with whom the responsibility and accountability rests, are often fearful of, or ambivalent to, the outcomes of their actions (or inactions) or simply believe their ideas are always the best ideas. In addition, the pressure to succeed often has corresponding timescales, and tight ones at that. The result? Quick decisions are made rather than the right decisions.

We experience this in our own business when clients make requests for change. We can often give them what they want straight away, but if we invest a little more thought, time and effort, we can deliver a more flexible ‘change’ which will benefit all clients.

What’s the difference between those two approaches? The first is quicker, immediately responsive to the request and cheaper, but in the long run, wrong.

The second approach takes a little longer and costs more but ultimately delivers better outcomes for a larger group and triggers even more innovation from which more people will derive a benefit. In summary, it’s short term versus long term thinking, or, alternatively, responding to the request rather than responding to the need.

In the context of schools, these quick decisions are sometimes manifested in more and more resource being driven into the classroom. Surely that’s the right thing to do because that’s where learning happens. Right? Not necessarily.

If the decision to invest in classroom resources is not sufficiently well informed, i.e. there is little or no ‘organisation intelligence’, then it probably doesn’t make any difference how much you invest in the classroom.

This can indicate there is a disconnect between top and bottom and it highlights the need for a strategic re-think. In business terms, it is symptomatic of leaders working ‘in the business’ rather than working ‘on the business’.

Where this scenario exists, and I believe it does in a significant number of schools, the impact or ‘collateral damage’ is experienced throughout the organisation and ultimately at the frontline, by the teachers and learners, although they may not realise it immediately, if ever. Yet these are the very people we were trying to help the most.

The solution? Step back from ‘classroom thinking’ and engage in ‘organisation thinking’. Think about your deliverables at all levels, not just the classroom and not just teaching & learning; identify the intelligence you need to make informed decisions about those deliverables. And by intelligence, I mean information, not simply data.

So, the questions I’m posing here are;

  • Is there a disconnect between the top of your organisation and the frontline?

  • Do you recognise that to meet the changes imposed on the sector and therefore your school, the school as an organisation must change its approach?

  • Do you see yourself as a firefighter, or a fire preventer? And which would you rather be?

  • Do you recognise that in order to make intelligent decisions about your school improvement strategy, you need full and accurate organisation intelligence?

  • Do you recognise that for the school to prosper, everyone is a stakeholder and they must all be involved in the strategy?

  • Do you recognise that as leaders, you must step back from working in the business, to work on the business?

I’ll declare my interest before signing off. Change management is an area we encounter when working with schools although it isn’t our primary function. We do impact on key processes associated with managing school improvement and change is often necessary but I hope my comments are useful, or at least thought provoking, for all schools, not just those we work with.

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