Rob Ford: "A Smooth Sea Never Made a Skilful Sailor"

Author: Rob Ford

Posted: 01 Apr 2017

Estimated time to read: 7 mins

This week's guest blog is written by Rob Ford, Principal of Wyedean School.

Bio: Rob was appointed Principal in April 2015 having been a senior leader in various state and independent schools in England and in Wales. Rob has a background in international education, leadership and the International Baccalaureate working with schools and school boards on these areas across the world for over 20 years. Rob is also a British Council ambassador. Wyedean School’s work in global learning was recognised in the school’s inclusion in the 2015-16 annual Parliamentary Review for education as a case study. Wyedean School is also a member of Challenge Partners and of Sir David Carter’s “Race to Outstanding” group.

A Smooth Sea Never Made a Skilful Sailor

Reflecting on the journey of Wyedean School over the past year as a new principal, it cannot be underestimated the distance that has been covered in the last 2-3 years from the OfSTED “Special Measures” label in 2013, back to “Good” in November 2014, localised industrial action, a fundamental change in the school leadership; all coupled with a significant falling roll and untenable financial deficit. It reads like a horror story for NPQH candidates. You could also place in there a fractured relationship between staff and leadership based largely on mistrust, which also extended into the relationship of further mistrust between leadership and Governance. Pondering the way we escaped being forced into a wrong MAT last year and still being in control of our own future still keeps me awake at night.

It is the strength of the school as a whole, but in particular, the staff, that moved Wyedean from “SM” to “Good” in less than one year and which has built the foundation that permitted the new Leadership Team to tackle the fundamental issues described above including a much reduced deficit and the school numbers rising rapidly.  My appointment by the governors in May 2015 was based on the strategy I proposed of creating a “positive school culture” coupled with learning rooted firmly in a world-class, 21st century approach. I repeated this on the 1st Sept 2016 at the inset straight after the summer and also made very clear that a systemic approach with stability in the way we achieve this is the only way forward as a school and was the defining factor in the way we created the success of 2015-16.  

There have been plenty of curveballs and steep learning gradients to climb along the way and we are not there yet, but empowering our colleagues to be leaders is central to this success. This weekend I read John Kotter who has published frequently on the notion of “urgency”.  Big changes cannot happen without it, but there is a need to focus our efforts in order to avoid what Kotter calls “a false sense of frenetic urgency” rather than a “true sense of urgency”.  I think, this half term, there has sometimes been evidence of the former and it has, on occasion, felt as if we are being pushed a little off course.  Our true sense of urgency is to get the school to be high performing in everything that it does and the only way that will happen is when all staff are working towards this goal.

The only way we can take our school forward is by building capacity in our staff – in the leaders with the formal titles and particularly in those without. OfSTED noted this very point in November 2014 as a key school priority.  To this end, Andy Buck’s work with his notion of “discretionary effort” – getting the staff to go the extra mile, is influencing strongly leadership culture at Wyedean. This is a key feature of all successful schools and organisations and it is why the foundation of a “positive school culture” has been fundamental to Wyedean over the last 12 months, be it the Creative Festival or the school’s summer picnic, the Sixth Form student run café, or just simply people picking up cover for a colleague.  

A well-executed and properly targeted Quality Assurance System is a key part of building capacity in individuals.  I witnessed and was part of the leadership of such a QA system in my former school in Wootton Bassett. In 2011, because of this work, the school became the first 11-18 school to obtain 27 “outstandings” in 27 OfSTED categories. The new developed QA system of Wyedean has laid the foundations and been a key part of Wyedean moving forward in 2015-16 to the point where we can say we are now “a strong Good” not just “a wobbly Good”. The next steps with more responsibility for middle leaders are going to be harder in terms of enormous efforts yielding what appears small returns and dividends. My great hero, the Canadian writer, Michael Fullan says this about accountability:

“ At best, carrot and sticks work only in the short term, and always become dysfunctional in the middle to long terms, as Daniel Pink (2009), has convincingly shown in his book, “Drive”, an examination of motivation…my colleagues and I have shown time and time again that if you give people skills, they will become accountable…tighten the screws and they will game the system… ”

Fullan (2015)

It is implicit that professionalism and professional responsibilities underpin our organisation and structure – professional courtesy, compliance with duties and tasks, relevant standards etc. In order to develop an organisation where leadership is distributed, professional capacity building in individuals is targeted and where there is a sense of common purpose, where the only deciding factor is “what is for the good of the school?” in leadership conversations and decisions, we need to trust and devolve more not less.  We can see this already in the Performance Management cycle and the way middle leaders are conducting appraisal in a much more professional climate linked to raising standards, attainment and to building capacity in the individual staff member.  This is not happening by chance and it is partly due to both a positive school culture but also a targeted strategy aimed at getting staff to want to offer more discretionary effort.

I read Doug Lemov’s blog “teach like a champion” and there are a number of things he has tweeted that have resonated in terms of where we are now in November 2016 as a leadership team having been through the first serious test with Challenge Partners Review of the school at the start of November:

“Following a period of turbulence when the school was in special measures and staff felt very pressurised, the new Headteacher has worked tirelessly to develop a culture of openness, transparency and trust. In particular, leaders have been empowered and are enjoying the freedom to innovate. As a result, the school now has a clear vision and is a harmonious place where everyone feels valued. This is helping to drive school improvement because all stakeholders are pulling in the same direction.”

Challenge Partners Review Report Wyedean School (Nov 2016)

Lemov tweeted Monet’s “…resistance is always proportional to the scale of change being attempted” but he also commented on Katherine Birbalsingh’s recent blog “The Head/LT’s main focus should not be the kids, but the staff. Happy staff means happy kids”. Once the darling of the Tory Conference, now leading a Free School in London.  Lemov’s discussion goes on to say “maybe surprising, but possibly the most transferable and effective element. It’s the job of the executive to enable the operational. “I serve the teachers”.  This is what we are working towards with our staff at Wyedean.  We need to enable all colleagues and we need to build their capacity. Variability within leadership was referenced about Wyedean in OfSTED 2014 and it is still there to a small extent, but improvements are underway and having real impact.  Every external verifier will question variability in leadership standards as a key thread to pull as a school priority. We may have to model and scaffold the steps sometimes, but ultimately their ownership of their QA, their learning areas and the raising of standards and attainment linked to where Wyedean wants to be as a school can only be achieved by building their capacity.  

We have seen already the impact of NPQ courses and allowing people to network and bring ideas back to school.  Taking fear, capriciousness and inequity out of the school with a positive school culture has allowed us to tackle fundamental structural weaknesses across the school in only 12 months.  My talk to NPQH candidates at Cabot Learning Federation in Oct did sound almost unreal to my own ears.  I am yet to see the leadership strategy or philosophy that says fear and metaphorically bashing the staff over the head regularly will improve outcomes in the medium and long terms. That is certainly not the school I will lead as a principal or encourage as a culture.

Wyedean School needed to move from a “vicious cycle” to a “virtuous one” if we were to get forward and control our future as a school.  There can be no elephants in the room when you do this and only one united school serving the needs of the students.  We lead and direct this climate as a Leadership Team and the honesty in our dialogue and discussions is always central in the way we achieve our aims because we are all motivated by making decisions that can only be for the good of the school. Our strategic future direction is now the focus, as we have built positive school culture first and, sad as this may sound, I am looking forward to the discussions with Challenge Partners in that next stage of development as we pursue our aim to make learning compelling and the school a high performing school. Lastly, I used Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle” theory – we start with “why” we are doing something not what we are doing. We need to get back a little more to this as we go forward this year (catch his TED talk to see what I mean).

Simon Sinek's TED Talk - How Great Leaders Inspire Action

Wyedean School and Sixth Form Centre was selected to appear in the 2016 edition of The Parliamentary Review as a result of the improvements made because of leadership across the school.


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