To boldly go; what next for school leadership

Now is the time for bold leadership

Co-Director Big Education

Humans need rules. For thousands of years, we have created social expectations, laws, constitutions (written or otherwise) – frameworks that set out how things are to be done. Once the domain of royalty, we have now built huge infrastructures around our institutions which determine and govern these, with another set of institutions to ensure these are adhered to.

Now is the time for bold leadership

As children, we are socialised into these norms, some explicit, others cultural. They become our normal, the things we accept unquestionably about life. This lack of challenge is what perpetuates the status quo. 

To challenge, or even imagine how things can be different outside of some of these norms, can be extremely difficult for us, as we get on with living our lives. There is only so much we can cope with – and so, few of us find ourselves questioning the underlying assumptions of the things we do. 

This ability to do this, to step out and ask the big questions about why we do things certain ways, is what change consultants think is critical if we are to ‘disrupt’ – think about Uber challenging the assumption that taxi drivers need to have a taxi, or Air BnB that hosts need a special type of accommodation. 

In the public sector, this kind of disruptive thinking is rare, and there are understandable reasons for that. As front line public servants, there is an immediate need to deliver a service to the best of our ability, and this is a hugely time and effort consuming activity. We also do not invest in large ‘research and development’ functions as you would find in all private sector firms. Nor do we have richly venture capital funded start-up initiatives allowing teams the space to radically rethink aspects of our system.

But we have had Covid. Despite its huge downsides it has done us one big favour – it has disrupted our existing assumptions and experience of school. It has catapulted us out of our largely passive acceptance of ‘how we do things’, and exposed us to the necessity of radically rethinking our model.

So what does this mean for leadership?

The Covid experience has exposed our system to leaders in a new way. The ‘Department of Education’, a rather foreboding concept pre-Covid, is now seen by leaders in a totally different way – namely a group of people sat on laptops in their bedrooms like the rest of us, trying their best to figure out something sensible. We have seen the DfE in a new, more accessible light. They have sensed and experienced the true power they have as leaders on the ground – they are the ones with direct accountability to their communities, and they made decisions on that basis. I have seen creativity, flexibility and a deep passion to do right by the children and young people in their care, all to a soundtrack of ‘They didn’t teach us this on NPQH!’  It was scary for many – a sense of responsibility that weighed extremely heavily. 

But that experience has been profound, and now is the time to build on it. We have choices now. We can scurry back to ‘the old normal’ as quickly as possible, with the feeling of safety of doing what we are told. Or we can be bolder – using the unique moment to stick with pondering on some of the old assumptions and deciding to do things differently.

As a head, I always felt a huge sense of autonomy. High stakes accountability – for sure – but actually a lot of freedom to do it how you thought best. Many pieces of guidance are simply that – guidance, not statutory. Even the National Literacy and Numeracy strategies which (for good or ill) dominated our practice for so many years, were not obligatory for schools to do.

So my call now is for us all to lean in to the true autonomy and power we have. Never has there been a more powerful moment for us a school leaders. We have the trust of our communities, we have shown our ability to ‘pivot’ and totally redesign our practices overnight. Now is the time to dig deep into what we know is right, to engage in powerful dialogues with colleagues, to engage in evidence and research in meaningful ways, going beyond the often superficial use of it in the sector to justify a certain ideological position. 

Big leadership; leadership of the head, heart and hand

Our approach is to think about ‘big’ leadership; leadership of the head, heart and hand. We must now support and encourage leaders to deeply engage each of these parts of themselves as we plan for recovery and beyond. Our evidence informed leadership framework is a powerful reflection tool for leaders to take a breath, and consider what is needed from them for the next phase. We have designed our Our Big Leadership Adventure programme to give leaders the tools they need to redesign practices – and never has that been more important. We are incredibly proud of the work coming out of our first two cohorts, with leaders stepping up and creating approaches which can be of use to the wider sector, such as this roadmap for renewal from two 2019 participants. We are excited to be recruiting for our 2021 cohort. 

The great change makers of the world and through history had the insight and tenacity to challenge the assumptions and to stand up. Rosa Parks, Gandhi, Marie-Curie – they did not simply accept the rules of the status quo. They were leaders. It is time to lead. It is time to be bold.

Liz is the Co-Director of Big Education, working to ‘change the story’ about education, former head of Surrey Square Primary School and programme director for The Big Leadership Adventure.

Liz Robinson

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