Delivering change requires a cultural shift

I’ve just finished reading Sir Michael Barber’s fascinating book Instruction to Deliver, hot on the heels of the most interesting “Learning by Doing” by DuFour et. al.

Barber describes the exhaustion of relentlessly applying pressure on a reluctant civil service in trying to drive improvement. That will be a familiar feeling to any teacher trying to bring about improvement in their class – it takes vast reserves of energy. Just as soon as an improvement appears in one place, a problem crops up in another. Take your foot of the pedal for an instant and the class/organisation backslides.

What is missing here? Culture! A culture of success, of collaboration, of listening, and of independent learning. Good schools have it – that feeling that everyone is pushing in the same direction, for the same goal.

I heartily agree with Sir Michael that other key ingredients are clear vision and purpose, simple goals with clear measurements of progress, and being held rigorously to account. However, it seems to me that there is no point building an organisation that will only drive in the right direction when you’re holding the whip. You want an organisation where everyone passionately believes in the vision, and will strive to achieve it. To coin Jim Collins‘ analogy, a flywheel is much more likely to gather momentum if everyone pushes it than if one or two people are pushing really hard and everyone else is dragging.

To be a great school, I think the four central pillars must be include this aspect of culture. If I was to have a stab at summarising these interesting books I’ve been reading and list the qualities required then it would be something like these four key principles:

  • Culture – has every teacher bought in to the school vision? Do they feel supported? Are they free to innovate, without fear of retribution, but with careful support, enthusiasm and monitoring from their peers? Is every member of staff pulling in the same direction, reinforcing values, challenging those that don’t comply, and actively seeking ways in which to make new gains?
  • Information – Does every teacher have the necessary information, at classroom and student level, with which to measure the success of their teaching? Do the senior management use this data to offer both praise and support, where necessary? Can the pastoral team spot trends happening in multiple subjects suggesting a problem with a student or group? Is variation in achievement across the school made visible?
  • Collaboration – Does every teacher and leader invite the opinions of colleagues, and feel able to lay difficulties out in the open without fear of being undermined? Do opportunities (time, money, space) exist for teachers to work in small professional learning groups to carry out research and create a positive evidence-led improvement cycle?
  • Leadership – Is there a clear vision of what the school is about? Are resources being (demonstrably) spent on the priorities of the whole school, and does the public praise reflect these priorities? Does the leadership group challenge problems head-on without making excuses? Do staff feel able to contribute ideas, and take responsibility? Do they create systems which are self-sustaining and self-improving, instead of those that require constant decisions from the top?

I’m sure this is only the tip of the iceberg, and this is my first attempt to lay out my thoughts on this. I would very much welcome any feedback, criticism or praise! I would like to develop some illustration or diagram that represents the place of culture within an organisation, and I would love to hear ways in which positive culture can be nurtured and supported.

7 Replies to “Delivering change requires a cultural shift”

  1. The problem I have with school improvement is the extent to which it studies success rather than failure. It leads to the idea that we can simply find features and methods of good schools and impose them on failing schools, without directly addressing what makes a bad school bad.

    Perhaps the best guide to why this often doesn’t work is to watch “The Damned United”. You can be the best manager in the world, but still have a complete disaster on your hands if you don’t address your actual circumstances. You have to respond to context. You have to look at what a school gets wrong.

    I think if you do that then the priorities for school improvement change. Culture and leadership are vital. Information and collaboration less so. Management, as distinct from leadership, becomes vital.

    More importantly, you simply can’t talk in these generalities and expect staff to be impressed. You have to say what is wrong not just what you are going to do. “Culture” is too vague. If a school improver doesn’t use the word “behaviour” or “discipline” right from the start then no teacher will take them seriously.

    1. You’re right, the language is woolly, and I agree that discipline/behaviour can be overlooked as it isn’t exactly new and fashionable. However, by culture I mean the commitment of every member of staff to attempt to take responsibility for behaviour around the whole school. If everyone tackled the hard behaviour and learning issues themselves, head-on, instead of complaining that “someone else” should be dealing with it, then a school has a hugely improved capacity to improve. If every teacher challenged the colleague who says “well I go in there and teach, but they’re too lazy to learn anything, it’s not my fault” or offered help to the teacher who everyone knows is struggling, then maybe the often-cited “within school variation” would become less of an issue?

      I disagree that information is less important (perhaps not surprisingly), as I think that without clear information about what is happening (again, with behaviour and learning) then people can hide behind anecdote, heresay and ignorance. All very well-meaning, but something that only hard-fact can adequately challenge.

      In order to move from being a good school, to a great one, I am saying that a spirit of collaboration is key. That is one way of saying everyone is taking responsibility for whole-school improvement, and for each other’s success, and for every student’s behaviour.

      1. I wouldn’t deny that everyone taking responsibility and working well together are good things. The problem I have is with the idea that they might be imposed from above. (The Damned United example is relevant here.)

        Any manager that told staff that their priorities were staff “taking responsibility” or “collaborating” would give the impression that they were unable to do their own job and wanted their subordinates to do it for them. This would be even more obviously the case if it was meant to be a way of dealing with behaviour, where the usual issues are capacity (i.e. would there be time in the day for teaches to follow up all the bad behaviour they see) and unsupportive management, neither of which can be solved by classroom teachers.

  2. The problem is, you can’t *make* other people feel or think certain ways. To require humans to be 100% committed to a single vision of school leadership AT ALL TIMES is impossible.

    I love the school I work at, and I believe in what it is trying to do at its basic core. But there are days when I disagree with SLT, there are times when I question what we’re doing and criticise actions. Sometimes I think policies are wrong and while I try to implement them, I’m afraid that implementation *will* be half-hearted because my heart is not in it.

    You can’t recruit around this problem, nor should you want to. If all you ever do is recruit the same sort of person your students will miss out on an important diversity in the adults they encounter and you will run yourself into ‘group-think’ meaning circumstances could change, something you are doing might not be working anymore but no-one will have the courage to change it.

    Gallup ran a survey of over a million employees and came up with 12 things each employee needs for job satisfaction AND productivity. If your employees say they have these things then they (usually) do a good job and stay in their position a long time. You can find the list here:
    (page 3)

    How many schools can say they provide teachers with these things? Andrew, one of the things you talk about is behaviour as an important resource for teaching – without it, it’s impossible to teach as well as you would like. Therefore, if you’re in a school were you are not getting this resource you will be dissatisfied and unlikely to work as well as you could. No amount of information, vague focus on ‘culture’ or ‘variance’ will make a difference to this.

    Honestly, if schools asked their staff about these statements and could fulfill their needs for each one then I think that school would be successful and efficient.

    1. I agree, it is impossible that everyone will agree at all times, and a sign of good leadership is that people must be open to criticism, and take on board different opinions.
      I also agree that if you don’t believe a policy is correct then it is difficult to throw your weight behind it. However, you’re also arguing against a point I didn’t make. I don’t believe, nor did i say, that schools should be recruiting ‘yes-men’ or unthinking drones who will pursue school policy unquestioningly. This would clearly be disastrous, and you explain why clearly in your comment.

      However, it is perfectly legitimate to only hire teachers who share the aims and values of the school. It may well be these people agree with these aims and value but have different ideas about the means to get there. They will add to healthy debate and will help avoid the ‘group-think’ that you mention. I don’t see the point of recruiting teachers who do not have the same standards for behaviour and the same aspirations for learning that the rest of the staff have, and I suspect this is something we agree upon. To otherwise wouldn’t be encouraging diversity, it would be weakening the power of the school to achieve a good education for everyone.

      The 12 Gallup points are excellent, and notably do not include mention of pay which only goes to show the dubious logic behind performance pay. Thank you for sharing those, I would like to work those in to my next draft of the key principles.

      Focus on variance is not remotely vague, it is incredibly precise. If one department, teacher, or student is doing markedly worse than the rest of the school (on a rich mixture of measures) then that is precisely what good managers should be dealing with, by providing support, sharing good practice from outstanding colleagues. In fact that supports the Gallup points: 5 (someone at work seems to care about me), point 6 (someone at work encourages my development), point 11 (In the last six months someone has talked to me about my progress) and 12 (In the last year I have had opportunities to learn and grow). Here too culture and leadership are not vague or woolly, but vital. If the staff culture is one where any support is viewed as a threat or weakness then there can be no improvement, and motivation will decrease. If variation is ignored then people are not being given the opportunity to learn from their colleagues or examine the effectiveness of their practice.

      Finally, good behaviour is not a resource that is supplied by management – this is something that fosters the attitude of “someone should be making these kids behave before they walk in my classroom”. I want everyone to take responsibility for improving behaviour directly, with all the resources and support from senior mangement that they need. I absolute don’t think anyone should be throwing their hands up and saying “why doesn’t management deal with this class?”

  3. The four central pillars you list are key ingredients in any sucessful organisations not just schools and they are deeply aligned with Becta’s Self Review Framework too.
    The problems I encounter is that far too many schools have some elements of the above four but usually not all. One missing element causes the whole fragile card tower to collapse and so the school never really progresses. It could be argued you could have 3 out of the 4 but I was discussing this with a colleague the other day who said they had a weak head teacher (on what grounds he was judged to be weak are another story) but they had a strong staff who knew where they wanted to grow and develop. I argued that a weak head teacher would eventually lead to the school not achieveing its goals. It deos remain to be seen but I feel this will be the case.
    A big problem in schools is that a lot of (and I mean a lot of) head teachers rarely understand learning. I think this is changing (or was changing until May 2010) and many more have an understanding of how a process driven approach to school life is more effective in improving learning that a knowledge led one.
    I love the ideas that Sugata Mitra has developed in his SOLE project. Do we need schools at all?

  4. David, I did say a ‘vague focus on variance’ was the issue – not that variance, when looked at properly, should always be ignored.

    If there is a problem – highlighted across a ‘rich mixture’ of measures then of course people should be supported. I think I’ve spoken with you before about my fondness of the PAR System in America, where any new or under-performing teachers are given the structured support of an ‘AST-like’ teacher. People working as PAR Advisors *must* have taught for a minimum of 5 years and can only be PARs for 3 years before returning to the classroom, meaning their skills remain fresh. The other great thing about PARs is that teachers who feel as though they are struggling can also self-refer ( even though their data may be fine because they are working to cover their tracks).

    I guess my point is that it is all very well to say that we *should* use data, or encourage culture, but being specific about *how* we do this – and making sure that how we does it treats the human beings involved as dignified autonomous humans – matters more than making data super-accurate or voluminous.

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