Course Correction. The leadership path is never straight.

Image: Atlantic Kayak Tours.
Image: Atlantic Kayak Tours.

Nothing goes according to plan.  That’s my experience of education.  From the scale of my lessons to long-term whole-school initiatives, nothing ever seems to work out in the way that I imagine.   I now see that as not only normal and inevitable, but a healthy, intrinsic part of the process.  There’s a business management book called Ready, Fire, Aim. I’ve never read it but that concept appeals to me enormously.  Of course, you need some clear long-term goals but, these are quite broad.  In terms of the details, most often you need to get things moving before you can properly set the course, simply because, until you get started, you don’t really know how different variables will play out.

This applies to many examples in my career and certainly since joining Highbury Grove, course correction has been and will continue to be required on many fronts:

Assignments:  Whilst Heads of Department are very positive about the concept, we’re discovering that, in practice, our original idea for assignments has led us to becoming bogged down in the details. They work well as course content outlines but, at the level of supporting completion, they’re over-complicated and, consequently, workload factors inhibit their development.  A class of 28 with 8 tasks for each student to complete, generates an unwieldy follow-up process, especially when, in a school like ours, you need maximum enforcement to ensure every student attends the interventions you assign to them. So – we’re going to simplify them in order to make them more effective.  Arguably we could have road-tested them with fewer year groups and taken longer; I wanted a full-scale trial right away.  Was I right? Probably not, but we’re further down the track now and within a year I think we’ll have established something really good.

Behaviour for Learning:  We’re continually reviewing this system. The devil is in the detail.  The imperfections in our first system were too great to persist with. Mark II is much much better and, already, the impact of same-day detentions is significant.  Staff feedback has been vital in this process. The problem remains the issue of students missing their lunchtime detentions and what we do if they don’t attend – pitching the level of severity right.  Meanwhile, we’ve also had to examine our positive-negative message balance.  A focus on behaviour risks giving less emphasis to a celebration of achievement in the minds of some students; it’s an issue we’re addressing.  Feedback from parents and students has been critical here; we’ve needed to listen closely. As ever, there is a range of views that all need to be heard.

Trivium in action: Rhetoric:  With this, we’ve found that there needs to be an explicit deliberate plan – a road-map – to take us from ‘the big idea’ to the daily reality for students.  Although staff have shown strong buy-in to the concept of rhetoric with structured speech events as a defining feature of our curriculum, we’re finding that it’s all too easy for this to fall away when other pressures dominate –  e.g. content coverage.  So, we’ve created a post to drive the initiative (Director of Spoken Literacy) and he is pulling together a road-map ready for next term. This will specify exactly which subjects in which years will be delivering structured speech events during particular units of work in each half-term.  The rhetoric strand of our CPD programme will support this.  It’s obvious enough, but arguably the organic sowing of seeds approach was a necessary precursor to the more structured delivery model.

Assessment without Levels: Our system has been launched and we’re now dealing with the reality of its implementation. What do the grades mean to teachers, students and parents? Already, we’re thinking that a change of language might be helpful.  Although the 1-9 scale originates from the new GCSEs, it’s been problematic for students to feel their Grade 5 or Grade 9 in Year 7 or 8 sets them on a particular path: either disheartening or too pressurised.  With a small tweak, we can use the 1-9 scale to define the standards reached in any given year (in a bell-curve marker style) whilst softening the direct implication that this is their GCSE trajectory which feels fixed and confining.  Ready, Fire, Aim  works here because we didn’t anticipate the strength of feeling on this from parents of students at both ends of the spectrum.

Review Systems:  We’re continually looking to improve these.  Any type of review has limitations and, most often, the effort to impact ratio is far too high.  In many cases, you could sit down for 10 minutes and right down what the findings of a review process would be without actually doing it – because we’re scrutinising and observing what goes on all the time. Still, we’ve taken stock of ideas about the need for subject-specific departmental processes, the value of looking a certain themes across the school, the need to explicitly explore the effectiveness of leadership and management within teams and the validity of book-looks. We’ve considered the need for data-driven reviews versus soft-cycle reviews, the value of feedback from external consultants and our systems continue to change.

The School Development Plan: It’s always been my experience that the minute you finish your SDP, it’s out of date. Six months in and some of the items seem irrelevant whilst other things are conspicuously absent.  It’s a rolling process. Nevertheless, the plan serves the purpose of setting out some sense of direction at a given point for all the stakeholders.  The trick is to keep its value in perspective and allow necessary changes to be made whilst keeping an eye on the long term goal.  I’m always wrestling with the idea that is should be possible to have a simple, clear set of core aims whilst, in reality, the to-do list grows and grows. It’s a tough balance.  At some point you have to accept that we can’t do everything we’d like all at once, if at all.

We’ve just finished a Local Authority review and RaiseOnline has been published. Right now, I’m preoccupied with finding simplicity amid the fresh wave of insight about the strengths and areas of weakness in my school.  I’m calibrating the course corrections that are needed and, more than anything, reflecting on how well we’ve articulated the long-term destination.  What is our ‘Port Jefferson’ – (referencing the maps above).  First and foremost, I think we need to be much more clear about that than we are now.  That’s where I’ll focus my immediate thoughts.  Perhaps it’s reasonable and necessary to take a year as Head of a school to work out exactly where the school could and should be going.  That’s where I am.  Ready, Fire, Aim!




  1. Indeed. Do need to know roughly where Port Jefferson is, or what routes should definitely not be followed.

    Questions to ask: Does the sum of the initiatives equal a coherent whole? What will help to discern if course corrections are needed? : I guess, these collapse to: Is the overall Intention clear?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Enjoying catching up with your posts after a few intense weeks focussing on my doctoral thesis, Tom. Found this especially interesting, as my thesis is about moving from deputy head to head, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of transition.

    One of my main findings is about pace of change – you can plan and prepare all you like but often the only way to get that pace right is to start, learn from experience and adjust (and it might be that your initial pace was too rapid OR too slow) – Ready, Fire, Aim. I think second headships may be particularly interesting in that respect as you’ve learnt so much from the experience of your first school BUT context is so crucial and that can be hard to appreciate fully until you’re in it. One of the things I’m writing about is this: “Although incoming heads may prepare as fully as they can, it is impossible for them fully to anticipate how it will be once they take up the role, as, although they have observed how their new school operates from the vantage point of the lead-in period, the context changes when they are in post and become part of that landscape.”

    And I think this is all relevant to other leadership transitions, too, so you may have to embrace ‘course correction’ when you move to your first Middle Leader role, from Middle to Senior Leadership, as well as Deputy to Head (and, perhaps, beyond headship – the transition I’m experiencing now!)

    Would love to have a proper conversation with you sometime about the challenges and opportunities of moving to second headship!

    In the meantime, have a great Christmas.


    • Thanks Jill. I’d be very happy to have that proper conversation. One of the most obvious and important factors in practice – that can’t be readily blogged about – is the calibre of the senior leaders and middle leaders you inherit as incoming Head. In general, HR and team-building issues can take up a huge amount of time and energy, if you have people that don’t pull their weight or don’t meet the standards you expect. The process of finding out what your new school is really like compared to the way it is presented at interview or is perceived by governors (and others who might be defensive when presented with some home-truths) can be challenging. Suffice to say, from January, we’re entering a new era – with some very exciting posts to be advertised!


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