Trust us to lead ourselves

To say it has been a busy few weeks in education is putting it mildly. As well as headteachers having to navigate a route through the labyrinth of daily DfE guidance notes, schools have had to deal with the U-turn on free school meals, the 2 metre rule that was actually never there in the first place, the loss of the Year 7 funding, the postponement of Reception baseline testing, Ofsted’s intent to inspect catch-up plans, the launch of a new ITE inspection framework for September, and then finally being told that the entire catch-up fund isn’t new money after all. If that was not enough, the DfE then publish figures that show almost a third of teachers leave the profession after only five years of qualifying.  

When it comes to government policy, it is probably fair to say that there is not a great deal of trust out there at the moment. Thankfully, this is not the case within the teaching profession – far from it. We have seen many stories of inspirational leadership from schools across the country, as leaders, teachers, support staff and governors have worked tirelessly to continue to serve their communities, all in spite of the absolute lack of leadership from government.

Headteachers in particular have shown why they are great leaders and managers. They have continued not only to do the right things, but also do the things right. Their voice has always been measured, reassuring and consistent throughout the crisis. Schools single-handedly have kept their local communities together, all the while during the noise continuing to offer them hope and a sense of direction. The school has always been there at the heart of the community, despite the media claims of them all being closed.

Teaching is very much a self-motivating profession. Teachers intrinsically know what is right, and don’t need to be told continually what to do and how, by external bodies. Nobody became a teacher because they love a good government target. They did so in order to serve their communities and to strive for social justice. Key to this is a sense of belonging, not just within their local community, but also within their school. We have seen on social media recently, how teachers have expressed their pride and admiration for how their school and the profession as a whole have pulled together to respond to the crisis. Oak National Academy is a prime example of what can be done when hearts and minds are galvanised from within. People buy into this.

Alan McClean wrote an excellent book called The Motivated School, in which he identified three elements that motivate people: affiliation, autonomy, and agency. Affiliation is the extent to which teachers feel that they belong and have a sense of control, especially in the decision-making process. Autonomy is what McClean refers to as the gold-dust: How much scope or trust do I as a teacher have when it comes to making changes? The more autonomy a person feels they have, the more motivated they become. It is what Sir Ken Robinson refers to as the ‘giving out of permissions’, necessary when building a really great school culture, with trust at the core. 

Trust has often been described as the glue that binds us, the golden thread. ‘Trust is the connective tissue that holds improving schools together,’ write Byrk and Schneider (2002). They argue that without collective trust, nobody will embark on change, as it is too risky to do alone. ‘Yes’, we say, ‘of course I like change, but you go first.’ Social relationships are therefore the key to trust. Together they act as a set of shock absorbers. Relational trust diffuses the impact of change when there is a real sense of shared ownership, not just in a single school or MAT, but across the entire profession.

This is where agency comes in, the third element of McClean’s motivated school. As important as trust is, agency is perhaps even more crucial. Agency involves teachers actively working together to contribute and shape their work. De-professionalisation is the enemy of agency. Any school system around the world that has high levels of agency, is one where teachers feel trusted as professionals. Decision-making and policy come from the ground up, where teachers are consulted and involved in building consensus as agents of change. As experts, they have high levels of autonomy and are left to get on with their job, without continued external pressure that undermines what they are seeking to achieve. It does not mean they shy away from accountability; far from it, so long as what is being measured is of value and worthwhile. Thankfully, agency requires no secret skill-set or array of competencies. It is not something you have to learn or gain from experience. Agency does not concern itself with what people have, but about how people behave.

Government ministers would do well to remember this. They need to be reminded that teachers are highly skilled and competent professionals. Michael Fullan identifies competence as being one of the three elements of his Triangle of Trust, in his book Leading in a Culture of Change. (The other two elements being communication and contract.) The enemies of competence, writes Fullan, are micromanagement, continual external meddling, standardisation, and worst of all, constant criticism. No doubt, these all sound depressingly familiar.

So how do we reclaim the agenda? How can we ensure that as a profession we have high levels of agency, autonomy and affiliation?  Most importantly, how do we make the most of this unique opportunity as we emerge from a post-Covid world to ensure that we re-boot and don’t go back to the old ways of working? The answer, I believe, lies in hope.

One of the key elements of agency is hope – the fundamental belief that as an individual, you feel that you can make a difference, or influence change. It means that you are listened to and have a role to play in collectively shaping the future. If we lose hope, we become de-motivated, and our sense of belonging diminishes. The same goes for society as a whole, as it does for schools, or any organisation for that matter. Once again, politicians would do well to remember this.

Seth Godin wrote a book once called Tribes, in which he implored someone to lead us. Anyone can create a tribe, and it needs only two things: a shared interest and a means of communication (as referred to in Fullan’s Triangle of Trust). If we add to this the concept of hope, along with high levels of trust and agency, then as a collective force, we are in a strong position to influence change. As Leora Cruddas from the Confederation of Schools Trust so perfectly put it in a recent tweet about Matthew Syed’s book, Rebel Ideas, the only way we can tackle such complex issues is by coming together and harnessing the power of our collective cognitive diversity.

We must never underestimate the power of diverse thinking. It keeps us motivated and on-point. It is about feeling empowered. Collective action ensures that the reservoirs of hope remain full to the brim, and that as a diverse but united profession, we can indeed create a system that is built around trust. We all know that Johann Goethe once said that we need to be bold, not least because it has genius, magic and power in it. This is all well and good, but only if we have the courage to begin it now.

Andrew Morrish is director and founder of Makana Leadership, a former headteacher and founder Trust CEO, and author of The Art of Standing Out: School Transformation to Greatness and Beyond. He tweets @AndrewDMorrish.

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