Change-management: Tips for success

Written by: Helen Seath | Published:
Photo: iStock

After leading significant change in her science department, specialist leader of education Helen Seath discusses some of the lessons she has learned

Ormiston Denes Academy (ODA) is an oversubscribed coastal academy in Lowestoft. It faces all the challenges of a catchment area of high deprivation and declining employment.

When I set out on my journey with ODA in April 2014 our academy had a principal not long in post. I was also relatively new to the school, entering a largely vocational science department in need of curriculum change to better serve its pupils.

The principal had just nominated me for the Teaching Leaders Fellows programme, much to the dismay of my new Springer Spaniel puppy who seemed to sense, with more than 350 hours of CPD over the two-year programme, that I would be spending less time with him!

Starting my first term at school, I quickly realised that, in order to be effective in my new role, I would need all the leadership skills that the programme aimed to develop in me. By mid-October I had submitted my Teaching Leaders Impact Initiative, which would provide my area of focus over the coming two years.

Working towards my Impact Initiative goals meant leading substantial departmental change in order to create stability and an optimum platform for pupil achievement. Here are some of the key lessons that I have taken from the experience.

Don’t be afraid of change

An initial scrutiny of our department and curriculum left me in some doubt about the suitability of a largely vocational provision for our pupils. In addition, I sensed that key staff may not have been teaching to their strengths.

I was able to use skills acquired through recent sessions on the “developing others” strand of the Fellows programme. At the academy, an internal appointment of a high-potential head of department and the external appointment of four new teachers came into effect. The promotion of an effective middle leader increased the pace of change. Within her first term we had changed and mapped the curriculum for the long-term stability of the department and to broaden opportunities for pupils.

All change creates uncertainty, and it would be wrong to say that there were not misgivings. However, as my Teaching Leaders coach advised, “cosy clubs” are very comfortable but in a dynamic educational landscape, big changes are sometimes necessary to create long-term stability and better outcomes for pupils.

All pupils now study for two or three academic qualifications in science. The challenges are huge for both pupils and staff but knowing this is a path founded on educational research has empowered me as well as the new head of department.

With a shift to a new curriculum and streamlining to just one examination board, which better suits our pupils, we can clearly identify an increase in engagement and performance.

Use your network

As a new member of staff, there have been moments when I questioned my knowledge of the pupils and therefore the big decisions I was making about their futures. Drawing on my training, I sought out the staff in the school that had far more experience of the cohort than me. Using other people to inform decisions is critical when making high-impact changes in a new role and a new environment.

Another important lesson I have learnt is to have a very broad network within the school – having “allies” in all key areas.

Before starting the programme, if I was unsure about a decision I would phone a friend (who knows nothing about education) or ask the dog! Now I ask someone who has faced similar challenges and implemented a successful solution: a small shift but one that has had a large impact on my practice.

Empower your team

  • The programme has made me more aware that it is essential to value and trust your team. Teachers are natural leaders. They could not function in a classroom if they were not.
  • Know the strengths and weaknesses of your team and make them aware of how they act under stress – it’s not something they can easily change. Being aware of how we behave enables us to see the effect we have on others.
  • Spending time in lessons across the department and school, looking in pupils’ books and spending time talking to pupils will tell you just as much about their teachers as it does about the pupils. It identifies talented teachers who may not always shine in observations.

Final word

I have taken advantage of an excellent opportunity. The principal knew that the CPD would increase my impact and the support and trust has not been misplaced. The strategic development of the department may not equate to instant gains in exam performance – that will take time – but early data suggests pupils taking the new qualifications will make and exceed the national average. I am now off to take the dog for a much needed walk!

  • Helen Seath is a Specialist Leader of Education and lead practitioner for science at Ormiston Denes Academy in Suffolk. She is also a Teaching Leaders 2014 Fellow.

Teaching Leaders

Teaching Leaders is an education charity whose mission is to address educational disadvantage by developing middle leaders working in schools in the most challenging contexts. Visit


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