Great School Leadership 5: Communication

Communication is complicated. You're always saying more than you think.
Communication is complicated. You’re always saying more than you think.

Choose your cliché: It oils the wheels. It’s the glue that holds everything together. It’s the institutional life-blood.

Without effective communication things go badly wrong. The school ethos is incoherent, the vision is a fragmented collection of ideas that no-one has confidence in, improvement strategies fall at an early hurdle in confusion. People feel frustrated and demotivated.

On one level communication is simply a matter of letting people know what is going on. Most obviously that is about events and activities….it’s so annoying to find that the lesson you planned clashes with the trip or special assembly you didn’t know about. It’s also vital for effective behaviour management and learning support systems.  But this post isn’t about having a good diary system, staff bulletin and referal process.   It’s about how you communicate the other elements in this series: Ethos, Vision, Strategy.

From a leadership perspective, there are various aspects to communication than I think are worth giving some thought to


You can’t write down your ethos and expect it to come into being. You can only describe what it actually is or what you’d like it to be. It’s an ephemeral atmosphere or spirit that permeates a school.  However, what you choose to communicate and how you do it go a long way to shaping the ethos.  At KEGS we use assemblies and set piece events like Prize Giving, Remembrance Day and House Music to communicate our ethos.

But the main vehicle is the way we teach; our expectations, our commitment to learning and the relationships we forge in the classroom.  Teaching IS communication. Woven into the algebra, grammar and verb endings are messages about values and ethos…and to some extent, these messages matter more than the facts and figures.

Shared Vision

We’ve got a four page vision statement.  It’s part of my office display.  It’s a valid record of a highly consultative process but now it would be just wallpaper unless the content was being communicated regularly.  Our vision has a number of lines of attack and we keep to these themes each year as we go through our development planning process.  We don’t chop and change our overall direction even though the details are adjusted.  It’s helpful to have a few headline goals that can be routinely and repeatedly reinforced.

Communicating a shared vision to all stakeholder groups is challenging…but it’s a lot easier if they are involved in shaping it in the first place and have regular opportunities to give feedback.  When we face challenges or people are getting frustrated by government policy or budget cuts, it pays dividends to invest energy in refocusing people on the core purpose and long term goals.  In fact, if individuals or subgroups in the school are dissatisfied, I often feel it’s because I haven’t communicated the bigger picture as well as I could have.

Documents. Live it; don’t laminate it.

I’m not great with reading documents…policies and reports and papers. I like to have meetings where we bring things off the page.  It’s more important to know the thrust of a policy than to have a copy on file…so I want the headlines before I worry about the specifics.  Sometimes people send me copies of minutes of meetings I didn’t go to…I rarely read them. I’m not one to fuss over Section 5.4 clause iia of a policy.  Most of the time these things make no difference to anything. I want to communicate the essence, the kernel, the meat of a document…it needs to live …or it dies, via the bottomless hard-drive pit or the recycling bin under my desk.

Expectations and standards

I could write a book on this…the way schools communicate high or low standards in the messages they give.  I once visited a school where the laminated set of Classroom Expectations was: Be on time; bring a pen; follow the instructions; stay in the class at all times.  Effectively the message was: we have the very lowest imaginable expectations of you.  If students are never trusted, the message is that they are untrustworthy.  If teachers accept low quality work without challenge, or if average achievements are overly praised and celebrated rather than presented as normal, it communicates the wrong message.

The point is to be conscious of these messages…rather than allowing well-intentioned initiatives to be undermined. Poor grammar and spelling, age-old litter, inarticulate speeches, defensive messages about exam results…all of these things communicate something unintended.


The nature of relationships between colleagues or between staff and students is often determined by the way people communicate.  Sharply worded emails, boysy banter in the staff room, high drama and stressy reactions to a playground incident, passive aggressive silence in meetings, shouty or sarcastic teachers,  gossipy senior leaders, straight talking that’s just a bit too direct…the way people communicate says as much as the words that are said.  A friend recently changed schools and found that the whole atmosphere was different – refreshingly positive, supportive and free from cynicism, despite being a more challenging school.  She realised just how bad things had been before.

The role of the leader is to set the tone and to challenge people whose mode of communication is counter to the school ethos.  You can’t expect people to behave better than you do…If you model the collegiacy you want and the warm friendly relationships with students you want, it goes a long way.

A colleague complained to me that the first letter she received from her child’s new school was all about detentions and uniform. Not achievement and the love of learning they hoped to instil. It gave a message she didn’t want to hear and changed her perspective in the wrong way.

Personal presence and profile

The daughter of a friend told me that she hadn’t set eyes on her Headteacher for the first three weeks of term, despite being in Y11. Not in assembly, not in lessons, not anywhere at all.  Until the Head appeared at the school gate one morning.  Oh.. but that was the morning of an OfSTED inspection.  What was the message there then?

In some schools kudos and respect comes from walking the talk in the corridors, the dinner hall and the playground; in others it comes from delivering the goods in the classroom – or both. Showing an active interest in the work of others, being visible, maintaining a profile and being hands-on, all communicate a message of support; of giving value.  This can be a bit double-edged because you can’t go to everything or satisfy everyone’s expectations; merely showing your face doesn’t necessarily add up to much.  But the message you give through being genuinely interested is strong.

Power dynamics! Status and responsibility

At Holland Park in the 90s, we used to laugh that every time someone got a responsibility post, the first thing they’d do is ask the repro technician to make them some ‘status reinforcement’ documents – memos with their new title on.  I’ve known situations where people do get awfully hung up on status.  Being ‘out of the loop’ can be a horrible feeling but people can read too much into organic communication flows that somehow pass them by.  I’ve also known leaders who are basically a bit power-mad; control freaks or blatantly autocratic and domineering.  This isn’t healthy in any role.

However, there is a completely legitimate, important role for someone stepping up to make decisions – showing that the buck stops somewhere.  At SLT meetings we generally make collegiate consensual decisions…but occasionally I feel I need to assert my view with a definite No or Yes…and it’s my call.

Preparing the ground for change

This is a tough one.  I’ve made plenty of mistakes in this area and always aim to do better. If tough decisions are being made that affect lots of people – budget, curriculum, workload, pay, appraisal, changes in the school’s status – then it pays to be as transparent as possible as early as possible.  Another balance to strike is to avoid saturating people with information or forcing them to ride the anxieties and uncertainties of some decisions with you…whilst still telling them enough to make them feel involved in the process.

Most of the biggest mistakes I’ve made have been around the timing of decisions and the extent to which other people were able to engage with ideas.  The SLT or Governing Body might debate issues for weeks and months, getting to grips with the details.  However if a final solution is presented as a fait accompli without people knowing what the detailed discussions have been, then it can create resistance and resentment.  With reason.

There are confidential issues for sure…but often simply telling people that certain things are on the table and inviting them to look at the detail if they choose, builds trust and secures better buy-in in the long run.

Celebrating successes; admitting to failings

It’s really important to celebrate success.  This is a powerful mode of communication, reinforcing the school’s core purpose.  Of course you choose what to celebrate…and standards for that can be high. It’s also important to communicate a healthy response to failure and disappointment.  Some schools have a toxic blame culture that usually coexists with a  culture of back-covering and defensiveness; the stakes are too high if things go wrong.

It isn’t easy but it should be the goal to create a culture where the phrase ‘we’re all in together’ has meaning. Mistakes and failings can be down to one person… that can be very serious and might need to be addressed. But in general we should be walking the talk so that risk taking and collective responsibility feel real; that’s the challenge for us all.


  1. It is a thought-provoking idea that the activities that bring kudos and respect to leaders are different in different schools, depending on the institution’s spoken or unspoken understanding of “the way we do things round here.”

    “We have the very lowest imaginable expectations of you” is a great summary! This is always an interesting way to read school rules – rarely statements of aspirations; usually quite an eye-opening description of things that have gone wrong in the past.


  2. As you say Tom, the difference walking the talk can make is enormous. This is what impresses me most about Mr Mitchell in ‘Educating Yorkshire’. It first struck me in my previous organisation many years ago when a new President of the Royal Society (they are all Nobel Prize winners or equivalent) walked into my office and asked me for some specific information related to my job area – I was shocked as we regular staff had grown used to seeing the previous President on very special occasions, with all information filtered upwards appropriately through senior people. In terms of effecting policy change, communicating visually is key – people don’t want to read enormous tomes of text, they want the meat of the message and quickly i.e. the elevator pitch, but without words.


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