Every learning organisation has a culture. This forms an underlying set of values and ways of doing things which determines how practice is maintained, and changes resisted or embraced. This culture changes slowly over time and resides in the experience and experiences of staff and other significant stakeholders in the organisation.
A wise leader, before embarking on significant changes, would do well to ensure they understand the cultural drivers of the particular school for these may accelerate, or hinder the pace and direction of change.
In the short-term, and this is most apparent in those schools which are led by a so-called ‘Superhead’ the underlying culture can be overridden in the short time by a command and demand economy, or a bullying personality. Initiatives built by such methods do not prosper over the long-term as the underlying culture re-emerges. It is fortunate that the ‘Superhead’ seldom stays long enough in the school to witness the unravelling of their short term expedient programmes, but moves on to cast their ‘decisive’ leadership that ‘brooks no nonsense’ elsewhere. In this context the term ‘brooks no nonsense’ is synonymous with ‘autocratic’.
The second element a wise leader must encompass is the wide range of existing experience and expertise held by the staff.
Without acknowledging this, the headteacher risks starting each new initiative from a blank sheet of paper and in a discrete and free-standing format. For the Headteacher this has the benefit of making the new initiative uncontaminated from what has gone before. For the staff this merely dilutes their energies, overwhelms their creative capacities and gives their daily life in school a bewilderingly discontinuity. They are left trying to service a multitude of seemingly random and demanding independent initiatives which have no coherence or economies of scale and which pull them in different directions using different methodologies and key performance indicators. The result is sub-optimal performance.
Some pre-planning by the Headteacher could avoid this, bring a structured coherence to the development priorities of the school and work with the grain of existing knowledge and culture.
Prior to setting off on a new initiative the Headteacher must evaluate how the proposed initiative relates to existing priorities and were efficiencies and effectiveness can be enhanced by mapping it against existing priorities and structures. This mapping exercise will also ensure that the new initiative is relevant and congruent with existing priorities. The really wise educational leader will also take this opportunity to audit workload and decide which previous initiative/projects have either run their course, met their goals, or are now redundant. Deleting old initiatives and requirements on staff is as important in the momentum and direction of the school as introducing new initiatives.
In a rigid school structure, leadership of a new initiative is usually decided by position in the school hierarchy. The senior leadership team will hold close to them the most important developments, retaining both accountability and responsibility. Unfortunately, this makes most staff feel that initiatives are things ‘done’ to them rather than being joint improvement endeavours.
In more enlightened schools, the senior leaders, whilst holding ultimate accountability for the success and direction and momentum of the school, delegate the running of projects to teams with either particular experiences, or the ability to mentor others, or the need to build their professional development experiences.
Schools would do well to study how major projects outside the restricted remit of education are organised.
Many schools will have experienced recent major building work and will have come into contact with project planning methodologies used to bring in complex projects by architects and builders. Although the whole methodology embodied in such planning methodologies as PRINCE2 are instructive to educators, the terms of reference of delegation are particularly useful for schools.
They state that each element of a project has a set objective and timeframe to be achieved. The success of the element depends on other tasks being completed to time and budget – these are called, not surprisingly, dependencies. The whole element can therefore be encompassed in what is called the SCOPE. As long as the element of the project remains in scope, the named person entrusted with delivering the element is delegated to proceed using agreed methods or being able to improvise and innovate to achieve the key performance elements of the element of the project.
To ensure the element is progressing to plan, there are regular reporting sessions were progress is monitored and any successes celebrated, or shortcomings remediated. As well as these regular monitoring sessions, it is incumbent that the person who is entrusted and therefore ‘owns’ the element of the project must report where the project element moves ‘out of scope’. Moving out of scope occurs when the project element exceeds agreed boundaries. In a building context these are usually time or cost, in school the boundaries will be related to staff performance over time and a combination of cost and time.
Although I usually resist the more ‘managerial’ elements of general management practice being drafted into the education world, because it dehumanises the process and treats schools like a general production line of students, I think the project planning methodologies do bring some useful insights into the education world which could address some current education planning shortcomings.