On November 13th fifty West Sussex Deputy Heads gathered for our annual Leadership Conference. Representing 33 of the 39 secondary schools in West Sussex, both academies and maintained schools; faith and secular; and age ranges between 10-13, 11-16 and 11-18. This is now a well-established conference offering local schools the ability to meet, network and learn from each other as well the opportunity to be inspired by exceptional national educationalists and practitioners. This year was no exception and local expertise, national updates and inspirational speakers provided a day that not only lived up to its hugely relevant theme but also echoed the principles behind the network:
Run for West Sussex deputies by West Sussex deputies.
Sharing, talking, learning, leading. Inspire and be inspired!
Making Sense of Change: Bill Watkin’s aptly titled presentation again set the scene for the discussion as he ensured that colleagues had the up to date information to be able to make the choices that will impact on students and schools outcomes for the next 2-3 years.
WSDN Local update: provided colleagues with the context of the network, our activities and outcomes for the year 2013-4. This slot also saw us profile the work of local Teaching School alliances that are well placed to serve the needs of all member schools and keen to develop collaborative professional links: The Millais Alliance, Inspire, Blue Flag Alliance and the collaborative South Downs Alliance. Shaun Allison also profiled the interesting work that Durrington High School had done with the DfE Innovation grant, developing approaches to assessment without levels.
The aim of the conference was to explore in more depth the extent to which it is still possible for school leaders to develop values-led leadership in the current climate of education. The high stakes nature of accountability is very real and local schools have felt the harsh effects of its application whether through inspection frameworks, changing exam results, squeezed budgets or incessant curriculum change. Are we doomed to simply become the technicians delivering the prescribed experience decreed by the government of the day?
Martin Robinson had given us all a teaser to his ideas in this Leaders: who do you love? before the conference when he asked to what extent should teachers “love” children and by extension to what extent should school leaders “love” their staff? In Athena versus The Machine: Values-led Leadership in a Time of Change he took this a step further, he challenged us to create and protect the environment in which staff can flourish and grow, shield them from the “tanks on the lawn” that Bill Watkin referred to and allow them the support, trust and professionalism to be the excellent teachers we appointed them to be. He challenged us to consider that in seeking change we often overlook what already exists “Values are principles, morals, standards, we pass them on because they matter”. Referencing 1789 he asked us “as a leader are you a complete Burke or an absolute Paine?” Are we like Paine trying to establishing a new identity from scratch, based on “better” principles and new ways or are we like Burke willing to remain true to old habits and traditions, seeing the inherent value that was once even if no longer absolutely relevant. Martin argued “Education is a place where the generations, past and future meet, the teacher representing the past meets the pupil who will make the future and they meet, crucially, in the present.” It is here in the present that we work and impact on the staff and students of our schools “Here we are heirs of the past and makers of the future, but we are of the present… in the now, working collegiately in doubt, and hope and love.”
As a “maker of the future” Robert Wilne, currently working with NCETM gave us an insight into his innovative and bold experience as founding Headteacher of the London Academy of Excellence, the first 16-19 sixth form to open as part of the “free school” programme. With only a flip chart and a high level of energy as his tools he had us working and thinking about our values, brand and collegiality. To establish what we fundamentally believe in, to recruit and develop the talent to develop it and give it meaning and life in all aspects of the schools work “the problem with vision statements is that they become meaningless simulacra”. He reminded us of the importance of working collaboratively such that there is commitment and common understanding; “words don’t have innate meaning, so when we say achievement, outstanding etc, do all staff mean the same thing?” To ensure there is sufficient support to keep focus and engagement, but enough challenge to ensure that your supporters are not simply a collection of “yes-men”. His message seamlessly built on the principles that Martin Robinson had explored
Vic Goddard, headteacher of Passmores Academy was charismatic and highly credible, exploring the experience and understanding gained from the Educating Essex experience he made clear the principled and authentic approach to school leadership for which he has become known. “Remember you make the weather”, he characterised a deeply values-led approach to school leadership that reminded us in no uncertain terms that our role is to create the environment that is right for our students, albeit with a weather eye on the framework in which we work, but with outcomes and well-being for them as the immovable priority. Vic provided some salutary advice about the importance of working alongside people to ensure they are with you, to understand and to be understood; to support and hold all staff and students in “unconditional positive regard”, being clear about the difference between “radiators and drains”. Referencing Jim Collins work Vic revealed how much investment and importance he places on the quality recruitment and development of staff. There were clear links to the points made earlier by both Martin and Robert in developing trust, identity and commitment. Vic left us in no doubt that he does indeed have “the best job in the world”!
There was little debate about the value of the principles outlined throughout the conference; the panel discussion at the end of the day showed the clear thread between all three speakers and the absolute belief that leadership has to be values-led. Acknowledging the challenge for schools in differing contexts to balance this against a climate of high stakes accountability, the input over the course of the day left us inspired and reinvigorated. It is clear colleagues are not on their own. It is through the collaboration and networking evident throughout the day and across the county that we will be able to maintain the courageous principled leadership that is required to ensure we hold true to the values that brought us together in the first place and that will provide the educational experience and outcomes that West Sussex deserves.
Watch this space for how the network will support you to do just that!