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Who will get your vote in education? A return to our ‘why’

Jan Shadick

CEO

Haberdashers’ Academies Trust South

In election year 2024, this is one of a series of blogs – running through the year – in which we invite colleagues from across the country to answer the question: Who will get your vote on education?

Roy Blatchford is serving as convenor and editor of the series. If you are interested in writing, please contact [email protected]

‘At the still point

Where the calm is,

In the eye of the storm

Amidst the chaos of reality

There – I found myself.’

Tulasi Menon

Our next Secretary of State will take the reins of education amid a perfect storm. The profession is battling an onslaught of challenges which have come together, at the same time, in an unprecedented way.

Leaders and their schools are in the eye of this storm. Whilst deeply uncomfortable, the eye is, however, a place of calm and presents a moment for gathering breath. This moment is an opportunity, which I hope a new government, and the profession, will seize.

In my leadership I often refer to Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle. It seems appropriate at this critical time.

Most leaders, and most organisations, Sinek argues, begin at the outside of this circle; focused on ‘what’ they want to achieve. They may think about ‘how’ they will do this, but rarely discuss ‘why’ their work is important. Great leaders, and great organisations, on the other hand, begin in the centre. They are driven by their ‘why’, and pay close attention to ‘how’ this will be implemented. These together, drive ‘what’ they do.

I hope that whoever wins the next election will return us to the centre of the circle and reignite a professional conversation about the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of education. This will reaffirm our moral purpose and our ways of working so that every school can be an excellent school for every child.

It has become increasingly clear to me that over time, we have become too focused on ‘what’ we do, straying further and further away from ‘why’ we do it.

How did we get here?

I was appointed to my first Headship 20 years ago. At the time, the accountability framework for schools had rightly been tightened. As our understanding of school improvement deepened, so too did the realisation that many children were being ill-served by their schools, particularly those facing challenging circumstances. A lack of accountability for standards in these schools was considered a key factor. Given our moral imperative that all children receive a great education, standards had to improve, and something had to change.

The response was to tighten the accountability grip yet further. Today we operate within a high stakes culture which is suffocating our moral imperative and having a detrimental impact on school leaders, their staff, and ultimately on children. We have lost our way and are slowly but surely creating problems for the future.

Our current accountability framework is no longer fit for purpose. Instinctively we knew this, but recent events have exposed the cracks. Overtime our resilience as an education system has weakened, leaving us vulnerable in tackling the current challenges. As professionals however, our resolve is strengthening as we are questioning the culture around us. We are finding our voice and leaning increasingly into our ‘why’. This is a moment. Now, more than ever, we need our government to lean with us and refocus to the centre of the Golden Circle. This will see us safely through the storm.

How does it feel?

When stakes are high, the ends are seen to justify the means. This type of culture fuels behaviours which ultimately work against our desired ways of working and those we know bring sustained success. Whilst some thrive in such a culture, most do not. There is extensive research which supports this.

High stakes encourage competition when we know collaboration is more powerful. It focuses on numbers when we know it’s people that matter. It prioritises certain subjects and year groups when we know the importance of curriculum breadth and of securing the foundations of learning in every year. It legitimises exclusion when we know the importance of belonging.

Under a culture where the ‘what’ is perceived to be the only thing that matters, school leaders do not feel safe. Many are in an almost constant state of anxiety, heightened when ‘the call’ is imminent and during the build up to exam results. They carry the burden of command and this can feel very heavy at times. This is not a culture where our leaders can do their best work. And their best work matters.

I want whoever wins the next election to recognise and understand this and commit to change.

What is important now?

I want a new government, regardless of party, to seize the opportunity to liberate our profession. Not for unrestrained individuality which is as detrimental to the needs of children as high stakes, but to an accountability framework truly driven by our ‘why’, which pays attention to our ‘how’, to shape ‘what’ we do.

Our moral imperative now is to support our children in navigating the aftermath of the storm. To build a better, stronger world.

It is vital that our new government engage quickly in this movement.

Can it work?

Some may doubt this change can work. I know it can.

I trust my colleagues. We accept accountability. Our work is vitally important to a child’s future, and we expect to be held accountable for the trust given to us. We do not fear accountability, but this is not our starting point or our motivation.

We saw this during the pandemic. As challenging as this time was, we were creative, reflective, and collaborative in a way we have not been before. There was a sense of togetherness and community and we succeeded as a result. For a moment we were liberated from the constraints of high stakes accountability. Free of worrying about ‘the call’; spared the anxiety of exam results; trusted to assess where we believed our students to be. We did this with care, rigour, and integrity because we were focused on our ‘why’.

‘Human beings have an innate inner drive

to be autonomous, self-determined and connected to one another.

And when this drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.’

Daniel Pink

Jan Shadick, CEO Haberdashers’ Academies Trust South

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applications are now open for headteachers and senior leaders working across education. The programme gives leaders the opportunity to connect with your authentic self and equip you with powerful strategies to bring about the changes you believe in.

Who Will Get Your Vote in Education?

In election year 2024, this is one of a series of fortnightly blogs – running through the year – in which we invite colleagues from across the country to answer the question: Who will get your vote on education?

Roy Blatchford is serving as convenor and editor of the series. If you are interested in writing, please contact [email protected]

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