Leading through the inspiration of the Inspired

10 days ago on the last day of half term, my Dad died. Even though he was 84 and we could all see it coming it has hit me like a sledgehammer and the past week I have found my motivation and concentration all over the place.

My Dad was a great musician. The son of a butcher who chose not to go into the family business but to follow his dream and study music and then earn a living from it. As a performer, teacher and Dad he was simply the best. There is a picture at my parents house of me aged around 18 months sitting on a piano stool and that is pretty much where I stayed for the next 18 years. My Dad was my music teacher and what looking back i now find amazing is that it worked! Hardly ever did we fall out and when I took a year out  between A levels and going to Royal Holloway to study music we spent 2-3 hours a day, Monday to Friday working to make me a better pianist so I would be able to hold my own at University. These are my memories and there are loads more but not for this blog. I have spent the last week remembering him and wondering why at the age of 53 did I still phone him almost every day and tell him what I was doing. I think it was because he is still the person who inspires me the most. He believed in hard work but he believed that creativity and emotion was something that no pianist could live without. He wanted the best for the students he taught and he challenged them to be the best they could be. He loved the idea I became a headteacher and I think privately thought that I had tea and tiffin most days at 3 30pm which I never dissuaded him from even though 3 30pm for the past 29 years has been more about buses and meetings than relaxation! He did however completely get the fact that my passion is to make the difference to young people. He talked with me for hours about the students in Bristol and why they were so in need of something different and he loved the idea that we trained our own teachers and created the platform for more students to go to Vi Form and then to University

So there we are. My inspiration and mentor is no longer there for the daily phone call but my memories are rich and will remain undiminished every day that I work with the CLF team to give the children we teach the type of opportunities he gave me. A wonderful man.

Anthony Carter-1928-2013


Leading Teacher Improvement

Last week, a group of colleagues in the Cabot Learning Federation Teaching School led the interview process for the 26 secondary and primary School Direct trainees we want to recruit for our federation Academies next September. I joined them on Friday and was struck by the quality and motivation of the applicants to work in schools like ours. Some were young people coming to the end of their University studies and some were career changers from the financial sector, HR, and the NHS. One of the candidates was asked about a teacher who had made a difference to her learning and the answer she gave was brilliant. She described her A level teacher giving the group a University level written paper that mirrored the coursework essay she had been asked to write. She described how this was the first time she understood that her GCSE talents (A* I expect) were not going to get her to the same level at post 16. The modelling of her teacher showed her the distance to travel and what she needed to do to get there.

The reason I mention this is that for two days last week our newest Academy, Bath Community Academy (BCA) was inspected by OFSTED. This Academy closed in special measures last August and it was a real joy and thrill to be told that the school is making effective progress and is no longer requiring special measures. To be honest, I am not sure exactly what they said as Adam Williams the brilliant Principal there and I had probably stopped listening at the words “effective progress”! The point however was that when they saw teaching that was good or almost outstanding, the ability of the teacher to model what it was they wanted from the class ensured that almost every lesson achieved the kind of progress that students who are catching up on poor teaching in their past needed to make.

This takes me to the point! What is it that the best leaders do to improve the quality of teaching and help teachers to improve? From my experience as a head of a single school and now the leader of a federation of 10 schools, I think there are probably three things I have learned over the past number of years:

Thought 1-We need to bring clarity to what it is we want our teachers to do in the classroom. OFSTED makes explicit what they think good and outstanding lessons contain and I think great leadership de-mystifies this for staff. In the Cabot Learning Federation, (like many other schools) we have found two areas that we think support this notion of demonstrating progress through good and outstanding teaching.

a) Annotated seating plans will be found in all of our Academies where the visitor to the classroom sees the names of the children, their context and background data, their KS2 and target data and most importantly their current performance grades. The calculation is done for the observer to show which students are making the most and by definition least number of sub levels progress. This makes the case then for the teacher to re think the plan and have those struggling sitting closest to them, where differentiated work by task supports the catch up theory

b) This might be an old fashioned viewpoint but the exercise book or folder still tells me the journey of a child’s learning. We have worked hard to get the concept of learning dialogue into the books so that students engage with their teacher to respond to the marking and feedback which has to be excellent. We have bought thousands of green pens across the CLF, and the green pen moment happens when the teacher asks the students to use the green pen to write their own reflection on the feedback and to repeat the work that the feedback has requested. Now when I look at books, I see more of a learning journal than just a set of exercises. (OFSTED quite like this!!) The quality of presentation, literacy skills and work completion rates still worries me with our most vulnerable students, and we are working on a trial system of getting teachers to mark the work of these students first when they tackle a set of books so that the weakest get the freshest teacher mind to help them. We will see if this is working in the next few months.

Thought 2-Leaders need to ensure that every teacher continues to be on a teacher improvement plan. At Bristol Met Academy we call this an ITAP (Individual Teacher Action Plan) and every teacher has one irrespective of how good they are. For us it is vital as our schools are on a journey and we are not so awash with outstanding teachers yet that we can afford to let those we have slip backwards. The best teacher to help a good one  become outstanding is an outstanding teacher. The best teacher to move a  weak teacher from requiring improvement or inadequete to good and better is the teacher who has already made this journey. The responsibility of every teacher to improve is a part of their performance review, and in keeping with my view that outstanding schools have a moral obligation to help a weaker school, the same applies to those who are outstanding teachers. Let’s not glory in our own success and leave colleagues and students to flounder if we have something to contribute.

Thought 3Great leaders lead great teaching and all school leaders need to be able to deliver good and outstanding lessons.

I am sure there are examples where this may not be true but I have not seen many schools where teaching is outstanding and leadership just OK. However I think there are things that great leaders do that goes beyond expectations. One idea I am working on for the federation, is that every colleague paid as a leader, or those who have been selected to be specialist leaders in education (SLE) must spend some of the time they have from their reduced teaching load, team teaching every week with another colleague. I have extended this to include SLT working with cover supervisors or cover teachers to raise the quality of learning in cover lessons so that the absence of the class teacher is not such a deficit experience. The dialogue around the planning and objective setting, coupled with an agreed aspect of teacher improvement that the pairing agrees to focus on is a dynamic learning experience for both. If the average secondary SLT have 5 members including the Principal. then 10 lessons a week and potentally over 300 a year can be used as live coaching and support. This shifts the culture from being observational to one of collaborative practice and when we have used this model it has never ever failed to have a great outcome. it also brings school leaders closer to the action so that their colleagues see those tasked with leading teaching and learning delivering quality lessons for students.

In summary, great schools have great teachers who inspire great learning. it is part cultural and part practical but the relentless pursuit of outstanding is a journey worth taking

Leading with Moral Purpose

Over breakfast this morning (Feb 9) I was reading the letters page in the TES and read a letter that said the following-“Am I the only reader put off by pious talk of moral purpose when leadership is discussed by the likes of the National College or Sir Michael Wilshaw…When was educational leadership ever informed by immoral purpose?”

This got me thinking about this. On face value it is a very fair point but I think if we assume that the author is correct and that no-one leading a school today has anything other than morality at the core of their decision making, then what is it that makes leaders think and work differently?

There are two elements to the descriptor. Moral as in morality and purpose as in intent and focused directional thinking. The core must be that belief in doing what is right for all students. Every head I have worked with or helped to train has this. But there are different ways to see this in action. For example:

  • Moral Purpose for the most vulnerable students in our community has their lifelong learning and adult experiences at their core
  • Moral Purpose underpins the belief that success is for everyone and that every student has a right to the best education we can give them
  • Moral Purpose about teachers having the right to teach and the right to learn
  • Moral Purpose about the quality of the working day expereince and support we provide to those entrusted with the delivery of great learning
  • Moral Purpose about a group of schools working together to take responsibility for students across a community irrespective of which school they attend

The list goes on but it is a reminder to me and probably others that the DNA of outstanding practice is often related to knowing and understanding why it is we do what we do and what we believe in. The hardest decision we face as school leaders often have their origins in decisions and outcomes where there was a contradiction between our core values and the actions we need to take. Few of us enjoy seeing that our vulnerable groups do not perform as consistently as we want. Few of us enjoy managing difficult relationships with parents where the triangle of learning  between school, the student and the parent is fractured and few of us enjoy the conversation that shifts from supporting a weak teacher to the one where the support moves to something more formal. Yet this is the arena in which moral purpose underpins what we do and for this I reject the idea that the National College or OFSTED are pious in their talk when they remind us of the obligations we have to be the best, teach the best and produce the best. When this is true, we can hold our heads high as a world class education system. When we are one, both moralilty and determined focus will be in sync

Leading Together-A Case for Distributed Leadership

Many school leaders are advocates of distributing and sharing leadership responsibilities and accountabilities as widely as possible. I am no exception to this. The power of an organisation is its abilty and capacity to take joint leadership decisions for the benefits of as many young people, adults and parents as possible. I have yet to meet the Principal who believes that every decision has to be made by them although I have it on good authority that a number of them exist!

Leading a federation is a complex challenge but one that is made easier when leaders across the organisation take great decisions and ensure that great outcomes evolve. I have a brilliant team of Principals to work with. I am currently working with them to complete their performance reviews which we operate on a calendar basis rather than an Academic year. We prefer the exam outcomes to come in the middle of the process rather than at the end. It gives us time to digest the feedback and then respond to it intelligently.

Leading a team of Principals is different to any other team I have led. They are accountable for what happens to the young people in their Academies. However, the really significant development I have seen emerge in the past 18 months is a genuine sense of collective responsibility for the students in all of the Academies and not just their own. This for me is a collaborative form of distributed leadership.

Anyway…my colleague Dan Nicholls who is the Principal of Bristol Brunel Academy writes a leadership strategy update for his staff every week. This week he wanted to talk about the process and importance of distributing leadership. He opened his blog with two real life examples of how the lack of distributed leadership created catastrophe! If you ever need to find a definition of what we mean by the term, this might be it!!!!

Here are two dramatic examples of where top-down leadership can go horribly wrong and why our strategy of seeking to distribute decision-making, enable others to take control and find improved ways of working, avoids disaster, over-reliance on a few and sustains improvement.

“I ordered the turn too late.”  –  Mr. Francesco Schettino, the former Captain of the Costa Concordia, which ran aground on 13 January 2012 with the loss of 32 lives.

The first example is the Costa Concordia that ran a ground a year ago. David Marquet suggests that the Captain’s delayed decision to change course caused the ship to hit rocks. The leadership culture on board meant that no one acted without the authority or direction of the Captain. Had a distributed leadership culture existed, where decisions are with those best placed to make them, then others at the helm could have ordered the change of course and saved 32 lives. 

…the chance a manger will stop a member of staff’s incorrect order is 86%, while the chance a member of staff stopping an incorrect order from a manager is only 20%. 

Example two, Korean Air Flight 801 flying from Korea to Guam (1997) was going through bad weather and stormy clouds. The captain had committed the plane to a visual landing:

  • First officer: Do you think      it rains more in this area?
  • Captain: (silence)
  • Flight engineer: Captain, the      weather radar has helped us a lot.
  • Captain: Yes. They are      very useful.

What the first officer is trying to do is warn the pilot that it may not be safe to do a visual approach without a backup plan for landing, in case the runway is not visible. Such communication of hinting from first officer to pilot is not uncommon in Korean culture. However, driven by respect to authority and fear of upsetting their superior, the co-pilots allowed the pilot to start a visual landing without an alternative. The plane crashed before the runway became visible – 228 died.

Both examples underline the importance of building flatter organisations, where decision making is moved closer to the action; where staff decide on the best course of action and involve themselves in securing the best possible route towards challenging destinations. In this model the majority create and develop the path in a collective search for improvement. Whilst our decision making may have less dramatic consequences the dangers of top down leadership for stifling progress towards outstanding is real.

  • ·       In  a culture of compliance, when the leader is wrong, the organisation      follows over the cliff
  • ·            Competence cannot rest solely with the leader. It has to run throughout the entire organisation

Leading Collaboration

Since 2007 I have been the leader of the Cabot Learning Federation and leading collaboration has been the backdrop to everything I have tried to do since then. It is based in the core belief that by working together and sharing successes and overcoming challenges we can move forward more quickly than we can when we work as single schools. Collaborators give and receive ideas and they do not do this in equal measure. At times one of our Academies needs more help than it can give but recognises that within a few months this role will be reversed.

Collaboration is not easy. Ensuring that schools become centres of excellence in their own right whilst at the same time taking a collective share of the responsibility for the outcomes at another Academy in the federation needs a different type of leader to the one who “pulls up the drawbridge” and looks inwardly for collaboration. I have learned a number of lessons over the past 6 years of what has been a brilliant, challenging and powerful learning experience. Having used the word headteacher or principal in my title since 1997, I can confidently say I have learned more about leadership, and have needed to, in the past six years than I did in the previous nine. For the sake of brevity, I would summarise my learning around three main points below. To lead a collaboration, the leader needs to understand the following 3 principles:

1 To lead a collaboration you have to be prepared to step back and coach, monitor, challenge and praise in equal proportion. The moment the collaborative leader tries to take responsibility for the implementation of ideas in an academy where they are not the Principal, autonomy is threatened and quality reduced.

2. To lead a collaboration you have to hold fast to beliefs that are constant. For me, it is about building a culture of trust that is based on authentic feedback that moves adults and young people forward together. Teachers judged to be “good” in one Academy have to know that colleagues in another part of the CLF are judged the same way.

3. To lead a collaboration you have to be able to capture the germ of innovation that results in an idea or strategy being moved from its original school source to another part of the CLF. Very often it is not the outcomes that are shared but the processes of how that radical outcome was reached that makes the difference to learning and innovation. The collaborative leader knows when the time is right to move practice and when it is not.

I find it hard to conceive that we will not need more and more leaders who can work across more than one school in the future. It is a brilliant way to work. it does not need to diminish the role of the Principal in their school and it does not need to result in schools in a neighbourhood competing against each other. It does however depend on the leaders in the organisation recognising that even though their work is based in one building, their impact can be felt far wider. That is a great place to be!

Leading out of 2012 into 2013

There are sadder things to do than write a leadership blog on New Years Eve but cannot think what they are at the moment. Have wished my parents and my children a HNY, I will tell my wife the same before midnight but this time next week we will have been back in school for one whole day and the holidays will seem like a misty memory. 2013 promises to be another significant year in the world of education as change comes down the fast track to greet us as we try to embed what came our way last year and the year before! As a leader January is always a good time to reflect and think ahead. I am not one for resolutions as I can never think of what to do and when I can I fail miserably. However, as I lead the Cabot Learning Federation in 2013 I am going to try and remember these 3 things that will hopefully help my colleagues to do their best for the children in our care who deserve nothing but the best

1-Saying well done and thank you to people is more motivational and inspiring than telling them what they could have done differently or better

2-Remembering that our staff are also husbands, wives, parents, children, uncles and aunts and have to confront the realities of modern life on top of being outstanding professionals is part of the rich make up of our federation team and unless we give them space to manage these challenges they will be less capable of being the outstanding people that they are and want to be

3-When all is said and done, the only thing that makes a difference to children’s learning is how good the quality is of their teaching and learning experience. This is underpinned by the quality of the relationship they have with the adults in their school, hence numbers 1 and 2 above!

Happy new year to everyone and much love to my wife who thinks I am sad writing this on Dec 31 at 6pm but without her nothing much I do would be worthwhile

Leading Together

Since I discovered twitter around a year ago I have been amazed and impressed with the quality of leadership ideas that are shared by school and system leaders via their own blogs. Reflection and review are two of the key leadership qualities I admire in others and so I thought I would give it a go and see if any of the ideas I share have any worth for others!!