My recent study tour in the West Midlands reaffirmed my current thinking that one of the largest obstacle that stands in the way of school improvement is “fear”. Fear generally stirs emotion of being scared but it also means to be “apprehensive”, to “cower” and to “shrink from” and can manifest itself into many forms. Too many times fear is common in schools to drive performance, however, the schools I visited did the opposite. They did not make threats of firing under-performing staff, they did not use performance management to set unmanageable expectations or allow mistakes to been seen as capability concerns. Instead, they encouraged challenge and support, provided professional development opportunities and allowed for risks to be taken. This was underpinned by creating a culture of transparency and trust. Fear is the result if transparency and trust is lacking and which can paralyze school improvement and erode confidence.
On the tour I listened to how lesson grading was replaced with peer to peer coaching and I could not agree more. Too much emphasis has been placed on the grading (1-4) and how it defines you as a teacher and not actually being used to improve practice, reflect and to apply new learning. Lesson grades bring fear, especially since studies suggest that grading lesson observations are unreliable. In some cases they will used to performance management people out of the classroom. The process of teacher development becomes mechanical, compliant. It restricts creativity and fear because teachers become apprehensive to push boundaries in fear of making a mistakes and being seen in incapable. Instead, lesson observations should be about challenge and support that allows the teacher time to reflect and embed new learning. Lesson grading does not and cannot allow for a culture of true development.
It was evident in one school we visited that fear was replaced with training provision and lots of it. The principal to did not rely on managing staff out, even though many of them were the ones striking and making life difficult for the leadership team and students. Although the majority of teaching was inadequate, he worked with them. He set up a system of coaching that included peer support. This was similar to another school in a similar situation across town. Peers set objectives that facilitated marginal gains. The impact has been soaring results with the same staff who were inadequate – what was the change? Lots of support and a belief in their abilities as professionals. To illustrate impact there was an English department we met who achieved 98% A*-C. There were many factors in play and an incredible amount of determination and hard work for their success but collaboration, not fear, was at the centre of their rapid improvement.
Fear can cause some middle leaders to cower from responsibility and shrink from challenge. It is easier to be dictated to than take initiative. Dictation is someone else’s fault, initiative becomes too risky. Middle leaders are the engine driving schools forward. If fear is the approach to challenge and develop their skill set than we are not going to go too far. Middle leaders need to be challenged, however, support must be provided and a culture of trust developed. Key ingredients for rapid improvement at many of the schools I visited were trust and development of middle leadership. I met with many of the middle leaders and their confidence was high. I noted down words they regularly repeated in our discussions to describe the change in relationship with leadership: we are told to strive, think outside box, aim for outstanding, be leaders and lead, take risks and learn from mistakes. They felt supported, empowered and assured by their principals to make change happen and they have.
The leadership team is not immune to fear. It can make them become inward looking and closed off from the students, staff and community. For example, I listened to how a principal refused to speak to parents and teachers believing that if they don’t like it they can leave. This resulted in staff and student strikes and parent protests at the school gates. Three years ago this school was regularly in the press and deemed inadequate. Now, it is a “good” school making incredible impact in the community and in the classroom. As future leaders we cannot close ourselves off. Each of the schools I visited had open door policies, actively encouraged community engagement and work closely with staff. It became apparent to me that sometimes we view communication as us talking to people but from my experience this week it is more about listening. It’s about hearing the stories, concerns and ideas of the people we serve to alleviate fear and set the foundation for change.
It is difficult for people to perform when there is a culture of fear. This week made the case that fear is an obstacle to school improvement and that there are other ways to strive for excellence. We must be prepared to rise against fear whether popular or not to create an environment that allows for people to reach their potential, empower them as leaders and to push boundaries. Only then can we create a healthy organisation that creates a culture of trust, challenge, commitment and accountability to drive forward necessary change to improve schools.