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How an Across School Change Team can lead the way as more children return to school.

‘Leadership is needed for problems that do not have easy answers. The big problems of the day are complex, rife with paradoxes and dilemmas. For these problems there are no ‘once and for all’ answers’.

Fullan, M. 2001

In March 2020, in the space of 48 hours, schools transitioned from business as usual, to providing remote teaching and learning, day care for key worker children and became the local lobbyists and delivery service for free school meals. When the national delivery plan failed we saw again how teachers and school staff persisted in finding solutions, because they know and care for the children and families in their communities.

Following the announcement on Sunday, we can expect more children to attend schools from as early as 1st June. On the plus side, we have a longer lead in for the return. School leaders, teachers and support staff are already thinking about how this can take shape. Our international school colleagues have been generous in sharing their plans and experiences too. See

The challenge ahead requires that we make returning to school safe in order to minimise the health, education and wellbeing risks of staying away.

Baroness Shirley Williams, in her leaving speech to the House of Lords in 2016 referred to the ‘…special genius of the United Kingdom. That is the great public sector imagination.’ Inspirational as always. One of the pleasures of a long career in the public sector has been seeing how this ‘special genius’ and ‘imagination’ is in no way limited or only to be found by those in positions of leadership. I’m often inspired by the creative, everyday solutions made by committed and passionate staff throughout organisational hierarchies. For this reason, I’m making the case for Across School Change Teams to collaborate on the many and varied solutions we will need as we plan for the coming weeks and months.

In schools we have good knowledge and experience of this tried and tested strategy. In 2004, Remodelling the School Workforce was a new policy which all schools were required to implement. I was appointed to the post of Remodelling the School Workforce within the Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council School Improvement Team, having led the Early Years and Childcare team through five years of unprecedented change and reform.

Remodelling the school workforce was of course different. The change model underpinning our work was from Michael Fullan’s Leading in a Culture of Change. Fullan asserts effective leaders have characteristics of hope, energy and enthusiasm and he’s committed to the need for an explicit change model to underpin planning and action.

With the small team appointed in Bolton, we had 122 schools to work with. The Education Secretary at the time was Ruth Kelly (our local MP), so DfE (Department for Education) scrutiny was high. We implemented the policy change throughout the schools over the following two years, with no industrial action and a very positive HMI report.

Fundamental to the successful implementation in schools were the Across School Change Teams established in every school. The teams had a minimum of five members and included headteachers, an SLT member, governor, teacher, teaching assistant and support staff. The teams worked collaboratively through the change model: Discover, Deepen, Develop and Deliver. The transparency of the model and thinking process ensured everyone knew what kind of conversation was taking place at each stage. I’ve outlined the model here:

Discovery – What’s really going on and how well is it working? This stage ensures shared understanding of the current challenges and opportunities.

Deepen – Are we sure our initial understanding is right? Have we missed anything? This stage focuses on ensuring we really understand and are not constrained by assumptions which could undo our work further down the line.

Develop – What are possible ways forward? What could work? This stage is about generating possible ideas - in this case, to support the objective of teachers focussing on teaching and learning and being relieved on administrative tasks. Decisions are made once all possible solutions have been considered.

Deliver – What is this going to look like in practice at our school? Delivery plans follow a thorough process. Thinking slowly and collaboratively prior to action is the key.

There are a myriad of change processes to choose from (Kotter, Cialdini, Egan). The benefits of an Across School Change Team include:

· Senior leaders being able to listen and be advised by staff who understand day to day details, challenges and practicalities

· Transparency and trust being built throughout the process

· Capacity building as staff in a range of roles experience strategic planning

· Shared ownership and motivation throughout the school

· Collaboration across the school rather than a feeling of being ‘subjected to change’ which can result in discontent and anxiety

· An embedded team to continue reviewing progress, ensuring as the context changes new solutions and plans can be found.

Schools are often at the cutting edge of hard things – children’s safeguarding, rapid changes of government policy, financial pressures, and unwanted media attention at times of great sensitivity and struggle. Importantly, our networks are strong, our experience substantial and learning is held as a core value. Particularly in times of uncertainty, curiosity is king. And, we’re not going to get it right every time. We’re going to have to try out ideas and be ready to change track when it’s clear a different solution is needed.

Curiosity and working collaboratively with our colleagues will help us listen to what matters, keep learning and find ways through for the benefit of the children and families in our communities.

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