This blog is based on ideas from the recent book Leadership for Tomorrow – beyond the school improvement horizon by Malcolm Groves, Andrew Hobbs and John West-Burnham and published by Crown House.
There is a growing sense among school leaders that no matter how hard they work it is increasingly difficult to achieve improvement. Indeed many indicators suggest that at a national level we have seen little overall improvement in standards, especially for the most disadvantaged, over the last decade. Combined with the expectation to deliver more for less, and contradictory education policies, this means those who work in schools are faced with increasing complexity. And over time all this leads to is increasing frustration and sense of impotence.
The situation is exacerbated by huge changes in the context in which schools work. For example, the increasing polarisation of society (rich and poor, north and south); the growth of virtual relationships and communication; environmental factors, such as the implications of climate change, and changes in employment. These factors are within the context of potentially increased life expectancy, meaning schools are educating young people today of whom many will be alive, and well, at the end of the century. The leadership challenge is how to balance managing current complexity against leading long-term change for the better.
A helpful analogy to understand what is happening can be borrowed from the energy industry. According to Andrew Curry and Tony Hodgson (2008), the challenge of achieving sustainable energy supply can be conceptualised through the lens of three horizons. The first horizon represents the way we generate and use energy at present. It is inefficient, damaging to the environment, short-term, and ultimately unsustainable. I think this is equally true of school improvement today. The third horizon represents the outlook of those who understand these limitations and are trying to create alternative, more viable, sustainable solutions to meet future needs. These might include, in energy terms, solar and wind power, hydrogen cells, biofuels, and changing consumption patterns. Such solutions are currently still experimental, not yet proven, may be contradictory, and none are yet to scale or fully tested. However, at some point, a new way forward will emerge from this experimental cauldron to supersede the unsustainable status quo.
Between the first and third lies another conceptual horizon, termed the second horizon. This is the space in which leaders try to make sense of and navigate between the failing, unsustainable present and an as yet uncertain and unrealised future, to try to create a meaningful way forward for their organisation, and, in the case of schools, for those in their care. For one big difference between running a school and a running an energy business lies in the fact that what school leaders do and how they do it directly shapes individual lives now, as well as impacting on the futures those individuals are able to create for themselves.
Some implications for school leaders of this understanding might include:
- Schools being as efficient and effective in managing and leading within the first horizon.
- School leaders developing the confidence and courage to work more in the third horizon i.e. focusing on long term, strategic development and focused innovation
- School leaders (and their consultants) paying more attention leading in the second horizon, working to carefully move beyond current constraints towards a more appropriate way of working that anticipates and responds to future needs.
Leading in the second horizon, based on our study over an extended period of time of school leaders working within the Schools of Tomorrow Fellowship, involves all these characteristics:
Clear values and personal authenticity: second-horizon leaders work with explicit values that guide their decision making and demonstrate authenticity through personal integrity and consistency.
Quality relationships: their schools are emotionally literate, maintaining high-quality relationships work through mutual respect, high levels of trust and open communication and involvement.
Understanding complexity and sensitivity to context: leadership and governance recognise the conflicting demands on school leaders develop strategies to accommodate contradiction and imposed change while also prioritising the demands of their context and its implications.
Leading change through collaboration: the demands to change are met by interdependent partnerships, within the school, between schools, across MATs and LAs, and crucially with families and communities. The prevailing culture is very much ‘all for one and one for all’.
Building community capacity: the school is seen primarily as a community working in partnership with other communities through shared norms and values, open communication, trust and shared learning. This community is inclusive and confident in responding to internal tensions and imposed demands.
Working through loose-tight relationships: second horizon leaders across partnerships, in schools and in classrooms, achieve a consistent and sensitive balance between the non-negotiables and areas where there is opportunity for choice and diversity. The emphasis is on maximising the loose whenever possible and appropriate.
What is important about these six characteristics is that they are not alternative elements in a menu but rather the components of a recipe to be used in varying proportions according to the situation.
The Schools for Tomorrow approach works through an interdependent and mutually reinforcing strategy, within its four-quadrant framework for school purpose and quality (see Fig 1). Each component is enhanced through interaction with the others and so becomes embedded across all dimensions of a school’s work and life.
FIG 1: THE SCHOOLS OF TOMORROW FRAMEWORK FOR SCHOOL PURPOSE AND QUALITY
To quote one of the headteachers involved:
This journey has got a vision, but we’re having to modify as we go along. You try something and it doesn’t work. It’s a bit like evolution, sometimes appearing haphazard. But we’re not just changing as result of chance or external pressure, but because of reflection on our journey and learning.
A major problem with many approaches to school improvement and the reason why long-term improvement has made so little progress over the last decade or so has been the piecemeal and incremental approach to external pressure that is too often involved. And as consultants we carry our share of the blame for this.
Curry, A. and Hodgson, A. (2008). Seeing in Multiple Horizons: Connecting Futures to Strategy, Journal of Futures Studies, 13(1): 1–20.