Why change is needed, now: Some thoughts on culture

Why change is needed, now
Sue Williamson, Chief Executive at SSAT, considers how our experiences throughout the pandemic can help create a positive shift in school culture to better support our students

The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture and the unique talent of leaders is their ability to work with culture.
Edgar Schein – Organizational culture and leadership, Jossey-Bass, 1985

The organisations that will be most successful in the future will be those in which it is everyone’s job to be creating and using both big and small ideas.
Thomas Davenport

SSAT Summer Series – Why change is needed, now

The simplest definition of culture is ‘the way we do things round here’. Culture is about the assumptions made by the members of a group, organisation or society as they are reflected in what those members think, say and do. When cultures change slowly, the change is barely noticed and is relatively painless. When a culture changes fast and under pressure, the experience can be disorientating and distressing. The pandemic meant that schools had to change their delivery mode immediately – teachers had no option – they had to do things differently. As we emerge from lockdown, school leaders, teachers and governors need to reflect on what to retain from the new way of working and what to reject. School leaders need to provide:

  • a clear direction of travel for the future
  • an opportunity for all stakeholders to play an active role in shaping that future
  • extensive support in the process of change.

SSAT is advocating that schools have to create a culture of personalisation. Students are not simply pieces of data, but individuals with needs to ensure their success as learners and human beings. Now is the time for school leaders to innovate, co-construct and distribute leadership. The following are key ways to create a culture of personalisation:

  • The school leaders’ enthusiasm and rationale for change is based on an unrelenting focus on learning – not simply as acquisition of knowledge or skill, but as the capacity to learn and to become an independent learner. I am not talking about giving them a bit more individual attention, but being totally focused on meeting their needs and aspirations. To achieve this, all the staff have to be learners too, and the school’s leaders must model this deep appetite for learning. The focus on student learning increases the likelihood of early buy-in from staff.
  • The watchword for the leaders is ‘think big, start small’. This means that the tasks the staff face are sufficiently small to be doable, but they are always a step towards a larger shared vision.
  • Trust is at the heart of a school culture of personalisation. This is indicated in the frequency of team working and networking; mentoring and coaching; the confidence everyone feels to take considered risks; and the readiness to learn from failure.
  • All the relevant people are involved from an early stage. This is essential to creating the culture of co-construction and gives everyone ownership of the process and outcome of change. In some areas of innovation students need to be involved as much as staff.
  • A determined implementation of priorities. Once the priorities are set, a firm but flexible timetable for implementation is established, even though some staff, students or parents may not yet be on board. Some of each group of stakeholders will either oppose change, accept it reluctantly or resent the pace. This has to be accepted, but not treated as a reason to wait for consensus to emerge.
  • A shared language and/or shared frameworks for learning and teaching are established. All the stakeholders need to be able to talk about learning and to agree some of the basic practices that will promote and support it.
  • Carefully planned and sustained professional development is a high priority. This is one of the most important ways of providing practical support for change.
  • Leadership structures and strategies get modified in the light of changing circumstances. If they do not, you can be sure that leadership is not truly being distributed.
  • AI/new technologies are utilised to develop blended learning. What lessons have been learnt during the pandemic? How can disadvantaged children be supported to get equality of access?

The pandemic has meant that schools changed their way of working as they went along. In Diana Pheysey’s words: ‘Organisations are designed while they operate. Their structure has to serve changing tasks, so we could more accurately speak of an ongoing process of redesign. This is usually the responsibility of managers at the top level’. At SSAT we believe that we are at a critical moment for schooling and in a series of online conferences are looking at Why change is needed, now? We strongly believe that change needs to be led by the profession – join the conversation and let’s redesign schooling, so that every child, whatever their ability or context, leaves school fully prepared to lead fulfilled and purposeful lives.

SSAT support

In How do strong schools stay strong?, Alex Galvin shares strategies from schools in the Leading Edge network on strengthening ethos and culture in a school – SSAT members can download their copy from The Exchange.

SSAT’s Culture Audit enables reflection and assessment of current school culture, designed to give leaders a greater understanding of how intentionally focusing on culture will support their school community. Alternatively, the Building the capacity of your senior leadership team programme focuses on the learning culture in a school through an in-depth review and practical training sessions.

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