October Update

It has been a while since I last updated this blog but, as I had hoped, that’s because things are running smoothly and there are lots of staff involved in lots of Trio work.  It is worth perhaps pausing at this stage to remind ourselves of  the research question, which is all about the leadership of great pedagogy:

How can leaders lead successful teaching school alliances which enable the development of consistently great pedagogy?

Although this project runs alongside others looking more closely at ‘great pedagogy’ itself, as well as professional development leading to great pedagogy, the leadership of such an enterprise cannot really be separated from what is happening in the classroom because that is really the test of its success.

So, where are we now and what leadership lessons have been learned so far?

On Thursday last week we had a very successful Teaching Schools Cultural Education conference.  The aim was to explore ways of promoting joint activity across the alliance which would lead to the creation of models and materials aimed at encouraging colleagues in other schools to extend and develop their school’s cultural offer.  We already have one ‘Arts Trio’ set up but it was interesting once again to observe the degree of enthusiasm amongst delegates for this way of working, and arts providers were keen to get involved.  Arts practitioners in schools are also very keen on this approach as they are often very isolated in terms of sharing pedagogy: often they are the only person in the school teaching art, music or drama, so the chance to interact with others through Trio working offers an excellent opportunity to extend their knowledge.

From a leadership point of view, previous blogs point to several emerging themes, many positive but some negative. And most of the negative issues surround communication and commitment.  The original idea of the Trios was to ensure there was a way of binding colleagues together across the alliance at classroom level, rather than a SLT level, and I think it is fair to say that this has worked.  Last year’s Trio feedback presentation evening was a superb event and revealed an outstanding degree of engagement with research and pedagogy across the alliance.  However, setting it all up was incredibly demanding.

As the head of the lead school, I am conscious that an enormous amount of personal drive is needed, first to engage personnel from other schools and second to get them to commit to a long term project.  It is clear that one of the answers to the question ‘How can leaders lead successful TS alliances etc.’ must be down to the drive of the person leading the charge. The second step is to engage colleagues sufficiently so that some of the burden of leadership can be shared – distributed leadership at its best.  Obviously generating enthusiasm for the project is essential but finance is also an effective way of oiling the wheels.  With the Trio project, the offer of £500 per Trio member has certainly helped the leadership teams of the various schools involved maintain their commitment.

It is also important to remember that things can’t be set up and forgotten; they need to monitored and periodically reinvigorated.  Again, this comes down to the person in charge, if only in the sense that it is he or she that has to remind others to keep up the meetings, etc.  A clear goal, like the Trio presentation meeting planned for the end of the year, also helps keep people on track.

So, there is a certain irony in the fact that the pursuance of great pedagogy  in the classroom often depends upon the ability of the person leading the project to nag and cajole!

Of course, this research project must been seen in the wider context of running a teaching school.  Research is only one aspect of what we are trying to do, with various parts of the Big Six puzzle dominating our thinking at various times. Keeping it all going is a fantastic plate spinning exercise – and that’s not even to mention the day job of running the school.  The common thread in each area brings us back to drive and commitment.  Each project must be driven.  At the moment, for example, one deputy is doing a fantastic job of pushing forward our School Direct work, battling valiantly against the Kafkaesque world of the NCTL, the DfE and UCAS, while another is fighting with the Closing the Gap dragon.  Both activities depend upon the involvement of our alliance partners but it is very difficult to secure the same level of commitment that we have here.  And why should they be equally as committed? From their point of view they buy into what is good for their own schools and contribute to the rest out of sheer goodwill.

There is always a great deal of enthusiasm at steering group meetings but leading a TS alliance is a very different thing to leading a school.  In a school, the leadership team has considerable power – though they like to pretend they haven’t – and, if pressed, they can direct staff to do things.  You cannot direct staff from other schools and action is therefore always contingent on good will and enthusiasm.  The key skill required to lead a successful alliance must therefore be the ability to take others with you; and keep taking them with you. And that may be asking for leaders of almost mythical calibre.  The leader of a federation has the power to direct; the leader of academy chain has the power to direct; the leader of a TS alliance has only persuasion. 

And persuasion takes time. And it is exhausting. And it often leads to the question, “Is the flame worth the candle?”

The simple inability to communicate with other members of the alliance is surely the most frustrating feature of TS leadership.  The plain fact is that many staff in many schools simply do not answer their emails.  Moreover, they often turn up at meetings denying all knowledge of recent events, when they have clearly ignored emails, newsletters and phone messages.  Frustrating as it is, this all has to be borne with in order for the alliance to work. Leadership of great pedagogy is therefore about tolerance too.

It is all very well having a strong sense of moral purpose but much more is needed to run a successful alliance. Everyone needs to share in the moral purpose and be prepared actively to take part and actively to communicate.  At best, in the real world, partial engagement is possible.  There is no reason, however, even where engagement is only partial, outcomes shouldn’t be strong, and the development and sharing of pedagogy across the alliance deep and profound.

So, it is an imperfect structure, with real people with better things to do involved, but progress can be made and, if  Trio working is anything to go by, progress is being made.