What are schools for? Rethinking accountability and policy development

 

Like many headteachers in the UK, I am grappling with a new norm in my school on a daily and sometimes hourly basis. However, unlike most headteachers, I have just completed a doctoral research project involving teachers and senior leaders in my school. I had presumed that my post-research self would gain some of the balance in my life that I felt sure I had lost. Instead, quite the opposite has happened. This imagined ‘end’ has become the ‘beginning’ of a newfound determination to utilise and share my research, for the reasons summarised below.

My research explored the potential that a coaching culture, as a leadership style and process of professional growth, could have in a school. It was with a distinct sense of déjà-vu, when preparing for my viva during lockdown that I began to reflect on its wider impact. During this time, many educationalists have recognised that we need to rethink the role of schools and the meaning of education for future generations. This is nothing new, but COVID-19 has added a heightened sense of urgency to the debate.

The aim of my research, (which began in 2015, when I was appointed headteacher) was to explore alternative approaches to leadership; promoting an integrated model of continuous professional growth as part of the solution to the many problems that schools face. The focus was on:

  • building trust and resilience among teachers and senior leaders; an emphasis on improve not prove
  • generating a culture of openness and reflection that supports collaborative professionalism
  • making links between effective pedagogy and the best approaches to professional development.

My school is the fourth most deprived school in Ealing, with 99 per cent BAME students, 97 per cent EAL students, 41 per cent pupil mobility, and 37 per cent of pupils identified as ‘vulnerable’. When I became the headteacher in 2015, recruitment and retention of teaching staff was an issue, and behaviour and attendance were major concerns. This is no longer the case.

I used a mixed methods approach over a 15-month period to collect research data. I conducted semi-structured interviews with senior leaders based on the Skilled Helper Model (Egan, 2007), which is widely used in counselling and coaching and involves three stages: exploring the mentee’s current situation, achieving a greater understanding of their situation and their goals, and helping them to develop strategies to achieve their long-term goals. Alongside this, I conducted focus group meetings with class-based teachers. I used an Appreciative Inquiry (AI) framework to evaluate the data (Cooperrider and Whitney, 2005). AI focuses on strengths instead of weaknesses as a way to address organisational change. The senior leaders were invited to use reflective journals to record key moments between coaching sessions. Data was transcribed and coded for emerging themes, culminating in an evaluation that identified the convergence of viewpoints from senior leaders receiving coaching and teachers in the focus groups.

The data showed that a more trusting style of leading had emerged which had contributed to a transformative and highly personalised approach to professional development, rather than a transactional one. For example, learning walks had evolved into instructional coaching sessions, with an emphasis on questioning and reflection. These and other approaches began to develop a coaching culture across the organisation, impacting on relationships across the board. The evolving nature of the research gave me the opportunity to witness, as an insider-researcher, the emerging professional trust between leaders and teachers. Alongside the research, I introduced other aspects of a coaching culture, enshrined in a new professional growth model. An example of this involves teachers carrying out an action research project as part of their professional growth objectives (Rees, 2019), with coaching sessions built into the process.

The findings from the research, alongside the coaching culture that was developing across the school, suggest that building a culture of trust and resilience amongst practitioners is about getting the ethos right; something that starts with the style and tone of leadership. In particular it was through daily rituals between practitioners, identified by one participant as ‘little conversations’, that deep and trusting professionalism began to build momentum towards ‘collective teacher efficacy’ (Goddard, et al., 2000). The term ‘little conversations’ was identified as a contributing factor to deeper practitioner reflection. This approach developed a culture of openness, reflection and risk taking. This might seem simplistic on the surface, but in reality they involve the daily ritual of senior leaders engaging in informal coaching conversations with teachers, rooted in an authentic leadership style with a focus on creating a trusting culture. Trust allows you to ask insightful questions that are seen as supportive rather than critical.

Small changes – listening, asking questions, sharing information – alter beyond measure the ideas, insights, and connections those systems are capable of producing. (Heffernan, 2015, p. 2)

The research explores how deep trust can also lead to high levels of ‘discretionary effort’ (Buck, 2017, p. 19) where people go the extra mile; the vital component that can take a school from good to great.

The findings of my study have implications for leadership development, recruitment and retention of staff, and the workload, wellbeing and professional growth of practitioners. This includes the recommendation to move away from stringent accountability, linked with notions of school improvement, towards a more humanistic, integrated model investing in career-long professional growth. The answer is to view teachers as professionals that are given spaces within which they can improve, rather than challenging them to constantly prove themselves. At my school this does not mean a soft approach to accountability. It means everyone taking responsibility for their professionalism. We feel that you cannot flourish as a pupil or member of staff unless you feel valued, safe and supported. Our latest wellbeing survey shows the very positive impact of our approach. As a Gold Healthy School and UNICEF Gold School we have also built a firm foundation of wellbeing and resilience amongst our pupils.

A coaching culture takes commitment, courage and a huge investment of time. It is not an easy or ‘soft’ option, but done well it can be hugely beneficial. It has given me the confidence to lead my school in an authentic, supportive manner. In doing so, it has helped me to support my whole community to try and make sense of the devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

References

Buck A (2017) Leadership Matters: How Leaders at All Levels Can Create Great Schools. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational.

Cooperrider DL and Whitney D (2005) Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Egan G (2007) The Skilled Helper. 8th ed. Belmont: Thomson Brooks Cole.

Goddard RD, Hoy WK and Hoy AW (2000) Collective teacher efficacy: Its meaning, measure, and impact on student achievement. American Educational Research Journal 37(2): 479–507.

Heffernan M (2015) Beyond Measure, the Big Impact of Small Changes. London: Simon and Schuster UK

Rees C (2019) Action research: Developing a reflective community of practice. Impact 5. Available at: https://impact.chartered.college/article/action-research-developing-reflective-community-practice/ (accessed 1 July 2020).

 

 

Share your experiences with educators globally by joining the discussion below. How does a culture of accountability play out in your context and what are educators doing to counter it?

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