Leading Change, Assessment after Levels & why we should talk less and do more…

2015 was an exciting and challenging one for us all and brought to an end a turbulent year of change and uncertainty in schools. The world of assessment without levels has arrived and many teachers and school leaders still feel like they’ve been asked to play a new game but without the rules being fully explained yet. Let’s imagine for a moment how the All Black and Australian teams would have felt as they walked out to play the Rugby World Cup Final at Twickenham last November; warm up, stretch, national anthems, Haka if only then, at the eleventh hour with all the preparation done, would the referee reveal the rules of engagement whilst leaving the explanation of how to score to follow gradually over the Tannoy system at 10 minute intervals throughout the match. This is how many colleagues appear to feel with so many unanswered questions around assessment that still remain this late in the day.

Of course teaching hasn’t changed THAT much. It’s still very much the same game, but with a greater focus on deeper learning through the mastery agenda rather than a rush to push children on from one quickly-acquired concept to another. Many school leaders are now able to describe new assessment systems with admirable values and principles which, refreshingly, aren’t infatuated with data but are based on reflective teaching rather than constantly weighing the pig. A growing belief exists that great teaching should bring great learning which in turn, will lead to high achievement, however this is measured. But when it comes to the crunch, will schools be able to carry through their ideals around learning and assessment against a backdrop of fear and high accountability on testing, or will they resort to relying on tests to generate data which drive their thinking and actions? Let’s see.

In a recent meeting with our Academy Trust Headteachers, we had an impassioned discussion about the role that tests should play in our new trust-wide assessment system as we move forward through this pivotal year. There is a role for testing but strong views exist on why and when we test and what we do with the resulting information. Dylan William’s words, ‘assessment is a good servant, but a terrible master’, may be a helpful mantra for us all at this time.

Nottinghamshire Deputy Headteacher, Michael Tidd, is providing us with great leadership on this subject at the moment and has written several key posts including the excellent ‘Testing Times’, in which he articulates the heart of the issue well.

Tests have had a bit of a bad press over the years, but in reality it’s the way we’ve used tests that has been problematic. The over-use of high-stakes tests trying to predict outcomes or to usurp teacher assessment was an error, but the fault didn’t lie with tests themselves. Used appropriately, carefully-chosen tests can support assessment in the classroom, and help us to benchmark our pupils’ attainment against external measures.”

It’s Just Change…

Trying to keep perspective at times of change is so important. There’s an image of the change curve in my office to remind me that negative emotions and behaviours such as denial, fear, anger and resistance are all very normal parts of the process. This is important information when working in education where the only constant is change.   What I’m learning is that, where I see these reactions to change (whether amongst the children, staff or parent community), it’s my job to answer the following 2 questions:

  1.  Is the change that’s happening well thought through and worth fighting for?
  2. Is the change being managed well?

If the answer to either of these is no, it’s time to go back a step and revisit either the strategy or delivery. If the answer to both is yes, it’s important not to slow down or shy away but to see it through. They say that dawn follows the darkest hour so make sure you keep on going and get to enjoy the fruit of your labours once positive change has occurred or new systems are embedded.

Change Curve

As someone who’s been involved in leading technology across schools for some time, I recognise these emotions on the change curve well. It never stops surprising me how a computer is capable of generating such a range of primal responses in grown adults (including myself). A technical crisis still holds the power to hijack meetings, presentations or lessons; I do admire the technicians who work across our schools who are able to deal with the many pressures and requests that come their way without appearing to raise their heart rate.

A key part of supporting colleagues through change is through useful and timely training; this is a real challenge in school where professional development time is so limited each week. The current system of set training days and contracts is so restrictive that it doesn’t allow for all the necessary training that teachers and school staff need. I envy industry in this regard where week-long inductions are common place and going out for training doesn’t involve finding good quality cover. Pay teachers more and reduce their holidays by a fortnight to allow for two more weeks of quality inset perhaps? Not in a million years…

But these constraints challenge us to think more innovatively about how we solve the problems and using ‘just-in-time’ training is a really useful concept I was introduced to last year that might help. This works on the premise that lots of training is wasted because the gap between training and implementation is usually too long. How many times have we heard staff saying that they don’t know how to do something whilst using for the first time whilst leaders get grumpy and retort ‘But you’ve had the training’? The just-in-time model requires us to be able to release experts (these may be children as we have plenty of them on hand who are usually fairly tech-savvy) to go and support staff at the moment they need it. This has certainly helped in our school with a great example being 10 year old Caleb, who spent lunchtimes in September happily setting up staff with their new wireless connections to their classroom screens, showing them how to work it just before they needed it.  At another level, having consultants and trainers working in the classroom alongside teachers has become effective common practice as has lesson study with teachers coaching each other in the classroom.

 No blog post would be complete without a list of suggestions and tips so here are 7 things to consider when leading change in your school: mainly learnt (and still learning) the hard way…

  1. Take People with You:       No-one likes being ‘done to’ and so any significant change of any significance should be consulted and discussed with those it affects and tailored with them. A rushed implementation can often end up as a false economy due to the amount of time then managing fall-out that comes from resistance to change. When we converted to becoming an academy in April this year, the Governors and Leadership team set up several high profile events alongside lots of informal discussions so that staff and parents had several opportunities to air any concerns and seek reassurances and clarification.       As a result, the formal consultation period was smooth and the process a very positive one for our school community.
  2. A Focus on Well-Being:       The emotions that accompany change can be draining and exhausting so it’s important to look out for staff during times of change. Little things can make a real difference and with this in mind, we made tea and coffee free for staff at Simon de Senlis and discounted the Christmas bash so that more staff can get together at this important time of year. This term started with some CPD around time-management for all staff and we are all trying to be more effective and work smarter (not harder) in 2016.
  3. Look After Number 1: Any well-being initiative should also extend to the person who is leading change so make sure you eat well, get plenty of sleep at times of challenge as the last thing anyone needs is for you to be ill half-way through a testing time (I’ll let you know when I’ve found a way to model this myself).
  4. Face to Face Time Beats Email:  Although it’s important to provide clarity through communications such as email, memos and letters (if it involves the parents), nothing is more important than hearing it from the ‘horse’s mouth’ so make sure that you are visible. I find that 15 minutes a day on the school gate can save hours of potentially more difficult communication where there are issues that need resolving.
  5. Size Doesn’t Matter:  One of the most painful lessons I learned as a new Headteacher several years ago was that it wasn’t always the big changes that caused a stir. The most controversial and unpopular policy change I have ever led wasn’t the academy conversion or the inevitable side-effects of managing underperformance through an RI cycle, but an adaptation to the Healthy Eating policy as this impacted directly on the shopping habits of parents. This was a time-expensive piece of learning and taught me the benefits of informal consultation and testing ideas with the parent community first.
  6. Pick Your Battles:  on too many fronts is the shortcut to certain defeat and so assessing the impact of any change including the risks and unintended consequences. If the majority of leadership communication with parents is spent in conflict around uniform expectations, it’s possible that there are more productive areas of change to enact (Sutton Trust Research tells us that Uniform has an effect size of 0 on pupil’s progress). At Simon de Senlis this year, we’re really campaigning hard for more reading at home and school as we believe that the impact of this will be well worth the struggle!
  7. Just Do It:   Whether it’s a new website, assessment system or way of working, often we can get caught in cycles of too much discussion or hypothesis and not enough action. It’s important that sometimes we throw caution to the wind and just make something happen that we know is right and we feel passionate about.  A great example of this is my colleague Headteacher, Leigh Wolmarons, who leads his remarkable school, Lings Primary, from the front through his passion for Drama, Sport and Technology. Leigh has an distaste for meetings, a tardis (I honestly don’t know how else he finds the time) and an indomitable spirit which combine to make extraordinary things happen for his children.

Times of great change can cause unrest and uncertainty in schools but also offer a time for our staff to grow professionally as we develop new practices, learning from our mistakes along the way. A wise man once told me that ‘complex problems are rarely solved with simple solutions’; so enjoy wrestling with the headaches and spending time to find the right answers.


This post was written for and first published in December’s edition of ‘The Feed’, an online publication for schools by Microsoft Education UK.

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