Autonomy with accountability. Implementing change from the ground up.

Lots of schools struggle with the challenge of implementing ideas and managing change. It’s not easy to get a large group of people to shift their practice in a certain direction.

Sometimes this is because the ideas emerge at the top – and it’s hard to get them delivered in a top-down style: there’s resistance, inertia, miscommunication, a sense that the initiative is too rigid, too much energy is needed to sustain it.

Sometimes ideas emerge at ground level, but they’re not part of a more widely understood process or can be misunderstood outside the originating team – and, again, run into difficulties.

I’m often fascinated by the situation where well-meaning people at different positions in a hierarchy manage to miscommunicate. The senior leaders think they are giving people a general steer; some guidance. The middle leaders hear this as a strong directive that feels like an imposition. The idea gets distorted to nobody’s satisfaction.

Where I think things go well, there’s a synthesis of the positives of both elements of this: whole-school thinking for coherence plus ground-up thinking for ownership and implementation. Essentially, within a widely communicated framework of general principles, teams are given the autonomy to diagnose problems and propose solutions and are then held to account for doing what they say they’ll do.

Example 1: Feedback and Assessment Policy. I’ve encountered all kinds of friction and perverse responses to whole-school feedback and assessment policies, implemented rigidly across all subject teams in a secondary school. Crazy tick-sheets and tracking graphs, preposterously unwieldy assessment gathering operations every six weeks, ludicrously inappropriate marking strategies or rigid quizzing regimes – all resulting from top-down directives. The SLT had an idea and now everyone has to follow it. Nightmare.

Instead, what works much better is to set out some principles for assessment and feedback and then to ask each department: What would be your idealised assessment and feedback regime to get the most out of your students, whilst keeping workload within reasonable limits? Let them design that regime for themselves taking account of the authentic assessment requirements of their subject discipline, their time allocation and so on. Then, senior leaders need to learn about the team’s choices: the rationale and the process, verifying that the whole-school principles are being adhered to.

  • How will students know what they’re aiming for?
  • How will they know how well they’re doing?
  • How will they know what their knowledge gaps are?
  • What is the optimum frequency and format for marking?
  • In what ways will you give feedback to maximise student progress?
  • Is this sustainable from a workload perspective?

Let people design their own model, explore it, put it to the test and, above all, ensure people follow through with it. It’s your model, off you go, make it work.

This creates a set of practices that are owned by people who are asked to deliver them – and yet, they fall within a set of sound principles. The school policy is then the sum of its parts…guided by principles with quality assurance built-in and senior leaders learning a lot about assessment from subject leaders.

Example 2: Improving Teaching and Learning. The same basic principles apply here. Each teacher team has a unique set of people with their own professional development needs and subject issues that students typically struggle with in curriculum-specific ways. This means that whole-school teaching and learning programmes need to combine general principles with strong ground-up implementation.

Establish the whole-school framework. What might a good, sensible set of general principles be that people can use to discuss commonly understood ideas in teaching. Run some of the CPD programme to ensure strong common understanding of these general principles, especially amongst middle leaders who will need to run their team training sessions.

However, give priority to departmental/team CPD time. Here, start with the students’ learning needs. What are they? What could the team be doing better to secure better learning outcomes? How does this relate to teacher knowledge and experience, curriculum design, instructional skills, departmental routines? Now, map out a sensible sustainable programme to develop the teacher techniques or curriculum design elements need to meet these needs. Again, senior leaders should be close to this discussion. This is where the accountability kicks in.

  • What needs have you identified? Does this match the data and observation?
  • What do you think the team’s priorities are? How will you run the CPD to ensure those priorities are delivered on?
  • How will you know if it’s working?
  • How can we help you?

In this way, the whole-school thinking provides a framework: a shared understanding with a language to communicate with. But the real action happens at team level and school leaders take it upon themselves to get close to this action – seeing it, supporting it, quality assuring it – without mandating it from the outside.

To some extent I think this is how all accountability processes should work. You engage people in identifying issues themselves; you support them to formulate an agreed plan of action; then you hold them to account for doing the things they say they’ll do. It’s a healthy blend of autonomy and accountability that I’ve seen work really well. Certainly where middle leaders operate in this kind of culture, they feel a lot happier and more motivated than when they don’t.

In general, if people have the capacity to drive their own improvement, it’s best to get out of their way. And, if they don’t, then the focus should be on building that capacity, not relying on telling them what to do.

Update: This image was posted on twitter by @AnthonyNEvans


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