Is your leadership child-centred?

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At a time of increasing pressure on schools, how can we ensure our leadership remains child-centred? Educating Essex headteacher Vic Goddard tackles the question.

Let’s cut to the chase. Having an approach that puts the needs of each individual at the centre of all decisions is easier when you are not waiting for “the call” from Ofsted.

The challenge to work for the best interests of the young people currently in our care, while still planning and making decisions that will protect the future of the school and people’s jobs should not be underestimated.

A recent example has been the decision over early entry GCSEs no longer counting towards a school’s league table figures. This instantly meant that we had to reflect on our reasons for doing it – not a bad thing, because what is best for the individual is not necessarily best for the data published about our schools.

Combine this with a secretary of state who is  preaching increased freedoms for schools, but making curriculum and assessment changes on a daily basis which mean that freedom is actually more limited than ever, and it isn’t an easy time to be a school leader.

However no violins are required and quite frankly I am already bored with thinking about what makes the job difficult. It is still a privilege to have the jobs that we do; we are lucky to serve the most inspirational group of people on the planet – children. So how do we manage to remain focused on what is actually important?

What’s in a name?

The first thing I do is learn the name of every new student as soon as possible. You may be saying “of course you do, doesn’t everyone?” but actually this has become more challenging for many school leaders. 

For me, as our school has grown, alongside our involvement with other schools through being an academy sponsor, it has meant that I have less and less contact on a daily basis with the most important people in my school. But the simple act of learning their names means that they instantly become more than a line of data in a spreadsheet. 

This, combined with me being at the door everyday to say goodbye and to ask how their day has been, means it is impossible to remove them from my thinking when any decision needs to be made.

Unconditional positive regard

The foundation of our school ethos is built around “unconditional positive regard”. I can sense one or two of you already rolling your eyes, but I suggest that you need to open your minds a little.

At Passmores, it means that we accept that all young people can be a success no matter what their background and starting point when they arrive in year 7. That’s the easy bit with which I am sure we all inherently agree. 

Our view also reinforces that failure is a vital part of a successful journey through school and that we must embrace the opportunities that failure brings. What moves this on from the blindingly obvious is that it is just as important when discussing behaviour as it is when discussing academic progress.

Obviously when a young person makes a mistake with a poor behaviour choice it often has a negative impact on other young people and the adults working with them. Therefore we find it harder to accept that this “failure” is a vital part of any future “successful” choice; we take it much more personally and often carry some resentment into our next dealings with the young person. It is this resentment which often leads to a disproportionate response that escalates a future poor behaviour choice.

I am not suggesting this is about the unconditional love that we hope parents have for their children. In fact, I am not even going as far as saying that we have to like all of our young people.

However, we have accepted the responsibility of being in “loco parentis” – but do we accept that responsibility even when things are challenging and the young person is not behaving as we would wish?

More than grades

As teachers, we too often use the threat of poor grades to motivate students and then students only feel prized when they perform up to our standards (as measured by grades, exams etc).

We run the risk of our students learning some essential academic skills but also that they are not trustworthy, that they lack intrinsic motivation toward learning, and that only those aspects of themselves that meet particular academic criteria are worthy.

Is this really what we want them to believe about themselves and about what should be valued? Should we not be valuing their ability to empathise above everything else? I strongly feel that it is vital we take a more humanistic and less conditional approach to education. We must communicate to children that they are worthy no matter what; as a result, their sense of congruence and their tendency toward self-actualisation will remain intact.

I am not advocating an approach where we don’t hold students to account for their actions, just that we don’t let these be what define them. We have all seen the “permissive” teacher that thinks that students must like them and therefore doesn’t enforce the structures and boundaries that all young people crave. We can all be authoritative without being authoritarian.

Whatever your role is in education – whatever decisions you have to make that will have an impact on the young people you serve – be minded of the “unconditional positive regard” that must be at the core of each decision.

I strive for this and I can therefore treat much of what is coming out of central government as a bit of garnish that I can push to the side of the plate so that I can concentrate on the main course. Students don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.

  • Vic Goddard is principal of Passmores Academy in Harlow, Essex, which featured in the Channel 4 series Educating Essex.

Further information
Vic Goddard will be addressing the Education Innovation Conference and Exhibition in Manchester during a session entitled “Child-centered leadership at a time of increasing challenge” at 10:30am on Thursday, February 27. Entry to the two-day event is free. Register at http://educationinnovation.co.uk/


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