The roles of principals and their senior leadership teams continue to evolve, particularly as schools become larger institutions, either running more populated schools or part of a consortium of schools. Executive leadership in education now calls upon school leaders to have a stronger grasp of business processes, financial strategies, and economies of scale to ensure they are achieving the best outcomes more consistently across the organisations they serve.
The conundrum that many leaders face today, is the pressure to deliver a system of high-quality education, whilst delivering a profitable business. Balancing these spinning Greek plates pulls at the moral chords of educators. The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted how dependent and vulnerable the continuity of the education sector is on the economy, and the need for principals to act as CEOs, keeping staff and the business afloat whilst waving the flag of outcomes for young people. This requires a set of competencies not always readily available in the arsenal of education leaders. This challenge isn’t limited to educators operating in the private sector. The increase in multi-academy trusts in public systems of education also operate with similar pressures.
Answering questions relating to ‘why’ is critical for individual leaders to flourish. Every leader needs to start (and constantly reflect) with the question ‘Why am I an educator?’ and as their role becomes more executive in nature, the question turns to ‘why am I looking to optimise and refine my school?’ and ‘why am I learning lessons from other businesses to deliver efficiency in my services?’ Reflecting on these questions helps contextualise their intended outcomes as leaders, using operational efficiency as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. The risk of poor reflection, results in misguided educators who get trapped into making the economy that they function in, into the primary source of their motivation.
Being a Meta-Thinker
Schools can be extremely exhausting places because individuals are responsible for so many processes and projects at a single moment in time. Leaders must take out the time to be meta-thinkers, that is, to think about all the thinking we do! One of the most useful exercises I’ve done is conduct a brain dump (more on what technology to use later!) separating all the strands of thinking that goes on in my mind. I defined the school through projects, including assessment, well-being, and health & safety (and many more!). I then listed all of the tasks that I had to complete in relation to these projects, splitting my thought process into one of two strands:
- Back-Burner Projects – Projects and tasks that every school does every year. A road map of repetitive processes that take place with very little change. This counts for approximately 70% of activity at the school.
- Live Projects – Projects and tasks that relate to school improvement and are new into the school environment. For example, becoming an Apple school, Health & Safety protocols relating to COVID-19 or implementing a new phonics programme. These typically account for 30% of the activity of my leadership team.
Defining live projects is a typical practice for most organisations. However, though defining back-burner projects is atypical, it has major benefits. Firstly, it helps leaders who exhaust their staff with initiative over-load appreciate how much effort actually goes into sustaining the quality of provision already embedded in the school. Secondly, it ensures that leaders are never taken off-guard, using project management tools to prompt them with upcoming activities in the school or across schools in the group. If the tasks are fully articulated, the budget and human resource implications will also become far more predictable. Often, leaders never break out of the firefighting cycle, exhausting themselves before they even get round to implementing their new projects. Ironically, there is nearly always a focus on developing plans for the future, but the relentless efforts required to sustain unscheduled tasks that should have been pre-defined and optimised, stifles innovation.
The standardisation procedures that need to be developed extend to the academic as much as they do to operational. In schools that operate in clusters, traditional centralised governance/coordination tends to focus on economies of scale, related to procurement and human resources. Where centralised education expertise exists, it is often limited to outreach and coaching for senior leaders. Whilst this remains important, large all-through schools and leaders who manage multiple sites need to provide more prescriptive and properly articulated expectations for teaching and learning, assessment and curriculum management. These expectations define clear non-negotiables, success criteria and accompanying processes of monitoring. Many policies, unfortunately, fall short of this because instead of demonstrating what good practice looks like, they stop at the point of vague and ambiguous first principles.
This is even more important in international settings, where, typically, teacher turnover can average 25%. In such environments, especially where there is regular inspection of schools, clearly published expectations can help to ensure that there are minimum standards of operation in place, to secure consistency in outcomes and equip new teachers to hit the ground running.
Most importantly, taking a meta approach forces us to use our brain for thinking and not for the storage of information. For all layers of personnel in the school, this provides more time to personalise actions, such as nurturing of people. For leaders, it provides the mental space desperately needed to have strategic capacity to constantly innovate the services they are delivering for the particular cohort they have at that point in time.
Using Technology to Manage Effectively
As explained earlier, it is imperative for leaders to free their minds from endless to-do lists for the projects that they manage. Instead, they should adopt a system of task management to ‘dump’ their actions and use their mental space to reflect on refinement and improvement. Methodologies such as David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD), are effective tools to developing cycles of review for major projects and tasks at the school. GTD, in particular, suits the flow of information that we all tend to experience: random thoughts in the most unassuming places (like the shower) which need to be quickly captured, followed by a separate process to clarify and action. Most importantly, there is an emphasis on reviewing projects constantly, ensuring nothing falls off the radar. Implementing such a methodology effectively would do away with the age-old problem of writing copious school improvement plans only to collect dust on the school’s shared drive.
Whilst David Allen does not promote the use of technology necessarily, the agility needed by school leaders would be aided by some of the great apps that are available. Microsoft To-Do is a great place to capture and prioritise actions on a daily basis and syncs well with Outlook. Microsoft Planner goes a step further and acts as a more strategic tool to grant a bird’s eye view of the organisation. I’ve recently adopted the ever-popular app Notion, and have not looked back. Notion acts as a multi-layered database, and as a second mind where I can capture all of my projects, notes, agendas, reading lists and write-ups. I have personalised my own dashboard which keeps me on track with back-burner and upcoming tasks, as well as asks me to review their status without me having to remember.
Importantly, I continue to refine my lists every day as it would be short sighted to assume, I know my job in its entirety. The first principle of self-reflection ensures an improvement cycle. The whole approach described above means that I have a more decluttered mind to focus on the expansion of knowledge, reading books, best practices and the great online edu-forums that can be benefited from. Creating a culture of knowledge acquisition in leadership teams, in conjunction with effective implementation, is the perfect storm to be able to deliver a constantly improving school with an unshakable foundation.
This returns us to the primordial question asked earlier: ‘Why’? The most operationally efficient schools enable leaders and teachers to free themselves of the brain drain that repetitive tasks burden us with. Instead, a free mind keeps us passionate, frees us up to learn new skills and promotes a knowledge-based culture rather than a task-based one. It also promotes a sustainable school that offers consistent quality in every classroom and is resilient to staff turnover and leadership changes.
By: Mr. Attaullah Parkar
Ataullah is the Principal at ISCS Nad AI Sheba. He has been a Senior Leader in schools for 7 years, including being a Head Teacher in the UK. He has worked for a number of government agencies in the strategic education departments including Ofqual as a policy advisor to the UK Government. He is currently completing his Doctorate in Education focusing on values-based education inspired through faith. Ataullah completed his National Professional Qualification for Head Teachers in 2017.