’Everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the face.’ Mike Tyson
Iron Mike isn’t necessarily the person I turn to for quotable material on a regular basis. However, when I came across this quote it seemed incredibly apt for the school environment. From the beautifully framed question that draws blank stares, to the meticulously planned (and over-resourced) lesson that is in tatters two minutes in, all the way to the strategic objective that was so brilliant on paper and so not happening in real life. The modern world is all about change: volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. Inevitably, modern leadership is all about managing that change.
Change and how to manage it has been a continual question for me personally and for the team at Kensington from day one. Initially, change was about the here and now. OFSTED were banging on the door since the RI judgement – Section 8 inspection; Progress Board meetings – progress was expected and it was expected to happen now. (To note: as it should be. Schools not providing a sufficient quality of education do not have a moment to waste. The children don’t get a second chance at that year, month, week or day.) Later, when that pressure lifted slightly as the situation improved, it was about how to deliver change across the board and put in place the foundations for long-term improvement. Beyond that, it has been about how to sustain the high-levels achieved but also continue to evolve. The type of change and the style of leadership needed differed greatly in each stage. However, throughout all of this there has been one constant: the balance between enacting rapid change and ensuring it is manageable.
One of the many things I am incredibly proud of is that, since starting at Kensington, staff turnover has been incredibly low. Inevitably, in that first term, a few people decided it wasn’t for them. However, since that time, staffing has stayed extremely stable and the few people who have decided to move on have done so largely because they were moving abroad or going for promotions that weren’t available in the school at that time. Given the level of change the school has experienced, that is surprising.
One of the reasons for this is that we have constantly monitored what is happening on the ground. I made a decision to base myself in an office with my senior team. It has its challenges: mainly distractions, no thinking time, and the difficulty in having confidential meetings or discussions. However, it has also meant that communication is excellent and we are continually sharing the ‘small’ conversations. These might be little snippets: someone is finding it hard to set the homework; someone else is annoyed that the date of the class assembly has been changed; the photocopier isn’t working, again. This sort of information can often go unnoticed or be ignored but it is a vital part of the big picture. Properly monitored and fed into the overall feedback loop, it can provide an early warning of serious issues on the horizon, which can then be dealt with before they become catastrophic.
This information is gathered by myself and my senior team being out and about around the school. This isn’t a formal process. We make sure we take the time to say good morning to people. We’re out in the playground before school and after school. We walk the school daily. We’re in the lunch hall at lunchtime. All of these interactions and conversations potentially provide useful information. Don’t get me wrong, not every single conversation is pivotal! Most of the time it’s ‘business as usual’. However, if something is amiss, more often than not this is how it is picked up in the first instance.
We also have more structured methods for feedback – many of which will be common in many schools. We have weekly Phase Meetings, which have an inbuilt feedback loop in place: from Phase Meetings to Wider Leadership Team meetings and back to Phase Meetings. We have a weekly briefing for all staff and a shared noticeboard. We carry out an annual staff survey; using Survey Monkey to help us interpret the data. We invite as many visitors into the school as we possibly can, always taking the opportunity to take them around the school and listen carefully to their insights. We involve everyone in creating our School Development Plan and mapping out our calendar for the year ahead.
Of course, you can have all the information you want, what is important is what you do with it. And this is where Iron Mike comes in.
Through our multiple feedback loops, there have been three significant occasions when we have identified that the school has been close to breaking point. That is, the level and speed of change that is being enacted is not sustainable. At each point, we have responded rapidly and decisively. In one instance, we put on hold what we were doing, gathered anonymous feedback from all staff on the challenges they were facing, and then put together an action plan based on this: junking significant parts of our pre-prepared development plan in the process. In another, we stripped out chunks of what had been planned for that term to reduce workload. There have been so many tweaks and interventions as a result of the information we’ve gathered, it is impossible to know how many other potential crises were avoided at a much earlier point.
This might not seem like a great deal but I believe this ability to respond to the prevailing circumstances – to adapt plans when we get punched in the face – is one of the key reasons for the positive atmosphere, and stable workforce, within the school, and for our subsequent success.