Leading change: reflections from Eltham Hill School

For middle leaders, leading change can be as challenging as it gets – but there are some golden rules that will help you. This article offers top tips from the middle leaders at Eltham Hill School in Greenwich, London, many of whom have completed the SSAT’s Middle Leadership course.

SSAT’s Middle Leadership programme offers 11 modules to develop middle leaders’ practice, including leading strategic improvement; leading innovation and change; and collaboration and communication.

So, what advice do these middle leaders have for colleagues leading change in our schools?

Communication

At the heart of much of their advice is the importance of clear and timely communication. Middle leader Ben Bishop explained: “There is one golden rule – communication. Everything then stems from that.” And communication must work in both directions. Clear communication from middle leaders will make change more likely, but the team must be able to communicate concerns freely – indeed middle leaders must actively seek-out these concerns in an open and non-judgemental way.

Mr Bishop continued: “Open and clear communication builds trust, so even if the staff member doesn’t agree, they know they have been consulted and feel valued.”

Remove the fear of the unknown

Linked to communication, we must avoid creating uncertainty. Barry Ryan, lead practitioner for biology, says that we must not allow “fear of the unknown” to take hold. He explained: “Avoid giving piecemeal information that may generate more questions and anxiety than answers. Fear of the unknown can often be avoided.” Lead practitioner Rosemary Osborne agrees: “Unclear communication leads to anxiety and stress.”

A clear reason for change

“Explain the rationale behind a change,” urges Jenny Roberts, deputy curriculum leader for English, including what you are trying to improve and what impact the change will have on students’ progress. Ms Osborne urges us to also “explain the impact of not changing”.

There must always be a clear “purpose”, Mr Ryan added, and this must be communicated clearly. And we cannot assume that our messages have been understood – so check!

A route-map and prioritisation

Our colleagues need to know what change will look like – what the process is going to be. Mr Ryan calls this “mapping the path”. He explained: “Convey simply the scale, urgency and steps in the changes and encourage early questions so staff are reassured and well-prepared.” We must be clear about success criteria, especially when we delegate – encourage colleagues to seek clarification if needed.

Protect workload

Avoid “overloading staff with too many priorities at once”, Mr Ryan advised. “If change is required, it must be prioritised at the expense of less urgent or less impactful strategies.” Likewise, Claire Sutton, curriculum leader for human understanding, urges “quality over quantity” when setting goals. Ms Roberts reminds us: “We must be realistic about how we are adding to people’s workload when leading change.”

Listen, listen, listen

We must never avoid “the voices of dissent”, warns Ms Osborne. “Dig deeper,” she advised, “and find out why people don’t want change to happen. Many times it is simply fear of change.”

Involve everyone so colleagues feel “part of the team” and avoid “being so set on a particular direction that you don’t listen to feedback about what’s working and what’s not”.

Time and patience

“Be patient,” Ms Roberts urges her fellow middle leaders. “Some will always be slow to get on board, but if you act with integrity and get a first few colleagues on board, most will come around.”

Ms Sutton added: “Build-in dedicated time for people to work towards the change and to reflect on what’s working and what’s not.”

You must also know your team, she says. “Some people embrace the idea of change; others might need a new idea to be drip-fed initially.”

Ms Osborne agrees: “Support staff through the process. Change is not always a smooth trajectory. Have key milestones for impact so that there is a focus and motivation.”

Lead by example

Avoid “back-office leadership” at all costs, says Mr Ryan. “Be prepared to roll up your sleeves and model completion of your fair share of the work.”

An example: Leading change

Lead practitioner for chemistry at Eltham Hill, Nicole Asiwe, delivered CPD focused on the science of learning and retrieval practice to the teaching staff.

This involved seven sessions across three years via a project which began as a voluntary exercise but then became compulsory, with teachers being asked to complete workshops during INSET.

To get colleagues on board and show them “a clear reason”, Ms Asiwe used student voice and data to “demonstrate how retrieval and interleaving strategies had improved my lessons, results and engagement in chemistry”.
However, initially, some teachers didn’t want to change their lessons and were worried about workload.

Listening to this feedback, Ms Asiwe modelled “quick-win tasks” to help address these concerns and provided teachers with activities that could be adapted to any lesson. She then “kept checking in and encouraging colleagues to try something new”.

At the same time, she continued to build the moral imperative, pointing teachers to research evidence from Ofsted and others. Departments were then empowered to develop this in the context of their own subjects with smaller CPD groups established to meet every term to share/discuss successes and difficulties.

Ms Asiwe concluded: “The main lesson I learnt was that in order to effect change, you have to inspire others and show the meaningfulness and importance of what you are doing. Once I was able to demonstrate this, my colleagues could see the benefits and it created a ripple effect.”

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