by Clemmie Stewart @cstewartSHS
I’ll start this piece with a disclaimer: I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for a bandwagon. I loved a Polly Pocket when I was little; I grabbed girl power with both hands when the Spice Girls burst into the scene; I pretended to skate board with the best of them and I longed to travel in my GAP year. As I have got older, I have become more reflective and I’m now pretty sure why I leapt on to each bandwagon with such alacrity: I wanted to belong. To have a shared set of values and interests. And I wanted to dance like Geri, high kick like Sporty and pout like posh.
Fast forward a few years and I find myself in the wonderful world of education. I say that without a hint of sarcasm. I genuinely love education and all that comes with it: the glorious children we work with, the incredible staff who inspire them everyday and a wider leadership team and Governing body who empower me on a daily basis. However, as ‘industries’ go, we are a bit of a sucker for a bandwagon. I daren’t dice with the legal world of slander by naming a few, but what I would say is on many occasion as a young teacher, I would find myself leading on initiatives, sessions and approaches with a growing sense of unease. What on earth was I doing? Anyone who knows children and has the pleasure of working with them will know how perceptive they are. Put it this way: I wasn’t the only one questioning why. I was just the most polite about it!
As a Head Teacher and Governor, I have never lost sight of the need to approach new initiatives with a healthy sense of curiosity. Our school prides itself on the traditional foundations we are based upon, as well as our innovative approaches to education. However, all educational leaders must be bold and brave enough to approach the latest idea with an open mind, an open heart and curiosity. So here are my top tips for embracing innovation without having a heavy dose of hindsight reminding you that you should have been a little more sceptical:
1. Do you know where you are going as a school? With a carefully considered strategic plan for the next few years, you should have a great sense of what will help you to get there. It may be that others are going there too. Share best practice, steal with pride and collaborate. If others are travelling in a different direction, leave them to it. You cannot achieve everything and you need to focus on your school’s priorities, regardless of other initiatives gathering swell around you.
2. Avoid the green-eyed monster. I’m the first to trawl Twitter, see great ideas from other schools and think we should be doing that. But other schools shine in different ways and I’ve learnt its best to focus on what you are doing, rather than worry about what others are getting up to.
3. Do your research. I’m sure we can all think of projects and programmes in the past which we all embraced and only later, realised they were having little or no impact. At the time, there seemed such a swell of support that everyone must be right. Correct? No. It only became apparent later that there was no research in support of the idea and feedback was showing it didn’t work. So before you buy into it, do your reading. Does it stack up? Ideally go and see it in action elsewhere. Alongside the data, is there anecdotal evidence from other leaders and practitioners that it works?
4. Get the right person to lead it! As a leader, you have a responsibility to empower others to lead, influence and drive initiatives. As a Head, you have a responsibility to put the right person in the right role. They must truly believe in what you are asking them to do. And if they really don’t, you also have a responsibility to wonder why not. They may well be right!
5. Be willing to change your mind. You have employed a SLT to support, challenge and collaborate with you. This should extend to all your staff. They will bring a wealth of expertise and experience to the table, both on the ground currently and also from years of teaching and leading. So listen to them and be willing to change your mind if they are right and you aren’t. This will not only help you avoid pitfalls, it will also model to staff that you are open, honest, reflective and human.
6. Finally, ask this question. Are the children at the heart of this decision? How will they benefit from this initiative? If the answer isn’t clear, forthcoming or convincing, don’t do it.
Ultimately we are here to serve our children and our staff. Any initiative must be rooted in improving their experience, their outcomes or their personal development. A positive impact upon those three areas will make the planning, the implementation and the investment a resounding success. Anything less will leave you wondering if you got away with it! The key thing I’ve learnt in 5 years of Headship is simple: do less but do it better and make sure that the children are at the heart of every single decision you make. With a moral compass like that, you can’t go far wrong.
Clemmie is Head Teacher at Surbiton High Girls’ Preparatory School.