What makes a school world-class? Part 2

Written by: Phil Denton | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

What process of change is needed in order to create a ‘world-class’ educational environment? Phil Denton continues his series looking at what makes an organisation world-class

In my first article in this three-part series (see further information) I set out the vision I am encouraging in my role as headteacher of St Bede’s Catholic High School.

That vision is for “...a world-class Catholic education that encourages our students to want to make the world a better place”.

Initially I discussed vision and culture as being crucial to any world-class school. In this second article, deliberately prior to identifying the operational specifics, I hope to share an understanding of the process of change which is recognised by outstanding schools in the UK as well as by exceptional companies that are highly successful.

Understanding the process of change is imperative if we are to implement and embed sustained and successful improvements that lead to world-class organisations.

Rooms and steps

It would be difficult for any colleague to argue why they would not want to be the best teacher they can be and for that not to be something comparable with the best practice in the world of education. The same goes for any school.

However, reaching this pinnacle of educational excellence requires changes which are often challenging and uncomfortable. When leading this, individuals encouraging the change can get frustrated by the process itself. World-class leadership in any capacity must recognise the complex process of change and operate accordingly.

One model leaders use to understand this process is the Rooms of Change Model. The model was developed by the Swedish psychologist Claes Janssen, who recognised the psychological states that are present when change of any sort is initiated in an institution. These include denial, confusion and renewal. Such a theory can be used to map the starting point of any change required to move a school toward world-class.

Another model I have seen used to great in effect is John Kotter’s “Eight Steps of Change”. In order to move people from a negative psychological state to one which represents confidence and enthusiasm one can plot actions to support the desired change of psychological state. Kotter defines these actions in eight clear steps:

The first three create the climate for change:

  • Creating a sense of urgency.
  • Building a guiding coalition.
  • Forming a strategic vision and initiatives.

The second three engage and enable the organisation:

  • Enlisting a volunteer army.
  • Enabling action by removing barriers.
  • Generating short-term wins.

The final two implement and sustain the change:

  • Sustaining progress/acceleration.
  • Instituting change.

Key for me is the gathering of momentum from supportive parties in the first instances. These individuals must recognise the “burning platform” or the need to make a change before a situation becomes perilous.

Then a clarity around vision must be defined in order to start with the end in mind. And then the journey of developing “buy-in” or relationships based on the matter of change need to occur in order to create a ground swell. World-class schools do this instinctively as they have a cultural buy-in, a belief and a trust. In my first article, I outlined how I have seen both schools and companies achieve this.

There is then a need for quick-wins to be explicit about the change and celebration of those who are championing the vision. Finally, there is the cold November morning when world-class schools don’t let up – they make it stick by being relentless.

Excellence is a habit

Our habitual behaviour is who we are. Much of Matthew Syed’s work, including his sports-focused publication Bounce, reflects this notion that excellence is indeed a habit. Syed describes excellence in sport or music as requiring 10,000 hours of purposeful practice. And indeed, this is the wording writ large over the dining space at Dixons Trinity in Bradford.

Staff at Dixons Trinity discuss their “learning habits” regularly, and frequently discuss the elements of these habits as they relate to motivation for students.

The executive principal, Luke Sparkes, visited some of the US Charter Schools and was inspired by the relentless focus on mission and vision that he witnessed. As a member of the Future Leaders programme, like Mr Sparkes, I was fortunate to hear him speak twice about the ways in which this experience had inspired him. He was also inspired by the writings of Dan Pink, who discusses three key elements for motivation: mastery, autonomy and purpose.

What struck me is the simplicity of these approaches. At Dixons Trinity, students are given strong direction through teachers with good subject knowledge and pedagogical skills. Then students are given autonomy with the space and encouragement to get better at what they do, and the time to deepen their knowledge of key concepts. Finally, they are offered a lot of inspiration about the future to add a purpose to their study.

World-class schools make being excellent a habit. They make students believe that their destiny is in their hands, that this destiny can be exciting, and that they are in the right place to fulfil this destiny.

World-class schools have staff that have the freedom to enhance their own practice, they have belief in the school vision (which offers a purpose) and they are trusted by the school leadership, as professionals, to get on with the job.

I would also say, having worked with some fantastic leaders in my time, that when there are those within the staff or student body that actively try to undermine the vision of the school then they are engaged with swiftly and in a way that shows compassion but also a relentlessness about the commitment and standards expected.

Behave yourself

Our behaviour is driven by our habits. World-class schools have behaviours which achieve several goals. In particular, the behaviours of the adults create a special atmosphere between the staff and the students.

A text I have found which has been tremendously enlightening is Paul Dix’s When the Adults Change, Everything Changes (2017). This book goes deep into the engrained beliefs and bad habits that teachers have developed over the years in an effort to “control” student behaviour. Dix makes the point throughout his text that it is adult behaviour which is the determining factor, alongside clarity and transparency over a school’s approaches.

Tuesday Humby, former principal of Ormiston Chadwick Academy (OCA) and now the regional director for the northern Ormiston Academies, is gifted at creating special relationships between staff and students. One only needs to follow her on social media to see how she cherishes each and every student.

Another product of the Future Leaders programme and again inspired by the US Charter School movement, Ms Humby turned around a school that was in special measures to one which is in the top 100 performing schools in the country.

The behaviours at OCA are of love for all students, but tough love that demands resilience and ambition. That is upheld and modelled by staff, who have a no-excuses approach for both their students and themselves. It is such a core, underpinning value, and when coupled with quality assurance, rigorous monitoring and checking of student progress it leads to the outcomes that OCA has seen.

Building on the foundations

In these first two articles I have shared some of my experiences and reading around what makes a world-class school. The fundamentals of understanding culture and then the process of change towards ambitious targets is pivotal. However, we cannot overlook the systems and processes that are also vital in order to establish and sustain a world-class school environment. In the next article (on November 22), I will consider some of the excellent systems I have experienced and read about which allow a school to excel for the students they care for.

  • Phil Denton is headteacher of St Bede’s Catholic High School in Ormskirk. You can email him at p.denton@sbchs.co.uk or follow on Twitter @Phil_ TRFC. You can read his previous articles for SecEd, via http://bit.ly/2szXIgl

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