Absorbing people’s pain: A Leader’s Role

Norman Drummond led a wonderful session this morning at our Headteachers’ Conference.  Today’s theme was “Developing a Coaching Culture in East Lothian”. Norman is an exceptional presenter and his focus on co-coaching seemed to resonate with many of my colleagues.

Norman has an uncanny knack of helping people to unlock their own hopes and ambitions, and getting them to reflect upon their experiences.

In the course of a conversation with Norman I quoted one of the greatest pieces of advice I’ve ever received. I was a Depute Headteacher at Selkirk High School and I had been sitting in my office one afternoon feeling a bit sorry for myself having seemed to have dealt with four or five members of staff in the course of the day – each of whom had a complaint or a concern. I was talking about this with a colleague, Robin Ross, who had been a Church of Scotland minister in Jerusalem for many years before returning to Scotland and starting a teaching  career.  I think I said something along the lines that I felt a bit like a punch bag with people unloading their problems on me.  Rather than feeling sorry for me Robin told me that throughout theological history it has been the role of the leader to bare his/her back and absorb the pain of others.  I’d never considered this before – but it did seem so powerful. From that time on – although I’m sure some of the people who have worked for me will probably disagree – I’ve tried to be aware of the need to absorb people’s pain, particularly in times of stress.  Sometimes it’s too easy for the leader to simply rebound or even amplify people’s concerns.

It’s not something I’ve ever come across in any leadership book or manual but that piece of advice has had a transformational impact upon me throughout my career.

Last small observation – Robin Ross was a teacher, I was  Depute HT, yet he acted as a mentor/coach for me (his line manager).  So often we expect coaching/mentoring relationships to be characterised by a “downward” direction of travel.  I believe we need to actively challenge that notion as some of the best coaching advice I’ve received has come from people I managed.

Using outcomes to focus the planning process


We had a meeting on Friday where we looked further at how we could use outcomes as drivers of our new service improvement plan.

It was good to give this topic a significant amount of time and it looks like we are making progress.

We have agreed that each part of our plan will have:-

– an overall outcome, e.g. Every school will achieve a very good level of performance in Learning and Teaching. This replaces the aim or objective section.

– a desired impact, e.g. Children will experience a consistently high level of education. This is the “why are we doing this”

measurable outcomes, e.g. we will identify a range of outcomes which will relate to the overall outcome. It will be important that these outcomes are well balanced and possible to gather.

– the actions, e.g. develop learning teams in every school.  In the school’s version of this we will be less interested in the actions and maintain our focus upon the outcomes.  Hopefully this will free up some of the bureaucratic demands from which the planning process often suffers.

In the past the success criteria (OUTCOMES) came tagged on at the end of the planning process.  What we are proposing is that the process is actually driven by the outcome and desired impact.  I hope to have completed a draft version of our plan for general consideration by the middle of February.

We are replacing the National Priorities as the strcutural framework of the plan with the UN Conventions rights of the child: Safe and Nurtured; Achieving; Included; Healthy and Active; and Respected and Responsible. The example given above would fit within the Achieving dimension.

So much of this relates back to something I encountered last summer relating to Social Return on Investment.

Christmas Leavers


Ever since I started teaching I’ve been frustrated with the idea of “Christmas Leavers”.

The school leaving age regulations read as follows: 

Children may leave school once they reach their statutory school leaving date, this is dependent on date of birth. For children born between 1 March and 30 September it is 31 May of their 4th year of secondary school. For children born between 1 October and 28 February it is the last day of the December term of the school session in which they are 16.

It’s this latter group which cause such concern.  It never ceases to amaze me how many of the most challenging children are in this group. I can’t track down the link but I know there is a correlation between low attainment for boys and the age they started primary school education, i.e. the younger they were the lower their attainment in S4 (there is no such correlation for girls). Rather than trying to tackle this by ensuring that boys don’t start school too early we exacerbate the situation by demanding that these (often) disenchanted young people have to stay on at school for another four months.  Ridiculous!

Big Picture


I know I’m guilty of talking to people about the “big picture” as if I expect them to have the same appreciation of what’s going on in education in East Lothian as I have. 

It was a bit like that today when I briefed the team at John Muir House about our Service Improvement Plan; the wider national a local context for change; and the values and principles which characterise our approach to education. 

The feedback has been very positive but it did strike me that there is a real need to continually provide people with the “big picture” – the fact that I am in a privileged position means that I engage with this wider view on a daily basis, this is not the case for others who have a more focused, yet just as demanding area of responsibility.  I see it as my job to try to make these links, and events like today need to be repeated more often. Perhaps there’s a lesson here for all leaders in the East Lothian education service?

Lynda Brady – as she often does! – made another good point when she suggested that there was also a need for opportunities for comments and opinions to flow in the other direction – we will try!

639 Posts and 1,151 comments


I was just about to write my evening’s post when I saw on the dashboard that I’d written 639 posts and had 1,151 comments on this log since it started in August 2006.

I just wanted to thank all those who have left comments over this  period and to say that they have had a significant impact upon how I approach my work.   

That Was The Week That Was


No posts for over a week but life has been something of a blur.

I’m probably earning my corn at the moment with some major challenges facing us in relation to efficiency savings having to be made in the education budget.  Every meeting and piece of correspondence seems to be connected to this issue and I’ve got 100 letters on my desk from concerned parents of a primary school.  One of the things which helps me to remain focused on the needs of children are my visits to schools and I was glad I made time to get out to Prestonpans Primary School.

I’m  very lucky to be working with such professional people, in the form of staff in the centre and headteachers out in the schools. One of the things we have benefited from in the last 18 months has been our attempt to move to a totally transparent system in relation to budgets.  People now understand how much we have in our budget, where it goes and how it’s all connected.  In systems which are less transparent it’s possible for people to think that there are secret pots held within the centre which can be used at my discretion.  Through our Finance Advisory and Scrutiny Group we have established the fact that the budget is a single pot, or as I sometimes say “the pot is the pot” i.e. if someone in the system is to get more money then someone else has to get less – the pot does not expand.

In addition to budget issues I was out at three evening meetings with parents in the last week.  Tuesday was our first cluster meeting with Parents’ Council Reps from the Tranent area – the other areas will be covered in the next five weeks.  These meetings prove exceptionally useful and although a lot of the time was spent on budget matters we did get the chance to explore the idea of parents as customers – hopefully this is a theme which we can explore in the other meetings.

On Wednesday I was at a public meeting in Dunbar to share information about the new primary school provision.  The meeting was very positive and I think the parents and the community appreciated seeing some of the details we have been working on.  Having worked very hard to develop our communication strategy in relation to this matter it was good to see it starting to bear fruit.

On Thursday I went to speak to the Haddington Infant School Parents’ Council to brief them on the long leet interviews for the vacant headteacher post. We now involve a parent on the long leet panel as part of our response to the Parental Involvement Act and I think it’s made a really positive difference. We have chosen three excellent candidates to progress through to the short leet process.

Lastly, I have decided to apply for the Acting Director of Education and Children’s Services post. I was delighted for Alan Blackie, my boss, colleague and mentor when he was recently appointed as Chief Executive of East Lothian Council, although he will be a great loss to all of us involved in education and children’s services he will really make an impact on all services in East Lothian..  The job will be for two months in the first instance, as the administration want consider the possibility of new structures.  If I was fortunate enough to be appointed it would give me a chance to see if I enjoyed that broader role and also allow the administration to see if I could actually do the job.  Given that I acted up in my present post for the first year I’m not uncomfortable with that possibility.

TESS Article 6 – The Cheesecounter Effect


One of the things that schools sometimes fail to appreciate is just how intimidating they can be, especially secondary schools. We all have our memories of school, and for those of us in the teaching profession they are, for the most part,   likely to be positive recollections. Yet when you speak to some parents you begin to realise that the fortress mentality, which many schools strive to overcome, remains such a massive obstacle.

So when I became a headteacher in my own right I was determined to continue the approach that I’d encountered at my previous school. In my first few weeks I visited many homes to talk to parents and children in their own environment – as opposed to the headteacher’s lair. Such visits were almost always worthwhile and resulted in me being able to build some exceptionally strong relationships with parents who might otherwise never have crossed the threshold of the school

Which leads me to a true story. Most of my initial home visits were related to attendance issues and there were a number of pupils who got a shock when their new headteacher arrived at the door to ask why they weren’t at school. I rarely had to come back to the house once I’d had a ‘blether’ with their parents. Anyway – a parent approached me at an information evening and explained how she was having real difficulties in getting her 16-year-old son to school, as she often left home before he had to get out of his bed. We agreed that the next time he wasn’t at school that I could make a home visit. As it happened the very next day he was absent – I asked the office staff for the address and directions and set off with a colleague (always go accompanied). I went up to the door and rang the bell ……..no answer, knocked on the door……………no answer, knocked harder………….no answer, listened at the letter box and heard loud music (he must still be in bed!!!), shouted through the letter box……….the music got louder!!, tried the front door………..it opened, walked in the house……………shouting for him to come out!!………………….no answer – imagine my surprise when at last a terrified woman with a baby in her arms came out of a bedroom to explain that no one of that name lived in the house – I’d got the right house number but the wrong street. Huge apologies, a letter and bunch of flowers helped to diffuse the matter – but from that day on I’ve always double-checked the address!

Nevertheless, it’s possible that benefit came from even an error such as this as it was the talk of the town for a couple of weeks “A’m no wantin’ that man at oor door, so get yirsel tae skil”. The home visits for attendance issues certainly worked but what proved even more worthwhile were readmission meetings after exclusions, or meetings to explore other problems which children might be having at school. To sit down, accept hospitality (” no just a cuppa thanks”) and speak as equals about the child is such a useful strategy. I can’t tell you the number of times that my perception of a child has changed by seeing them in their home environment.

I’m not suggesting for one second that headteachers should spend all their days visiting homes but don’t think it’s possible to underestimate the impact it makes when the most senior person in the school is prepared to step outside the expected. The example that such visits set empowers so many others to do the same and can dramatically change the perception of parents towards the school – even those whose experiences as children had been so negative.

I sometimes call this phenomenon the “cheesecounter effect”. It goes something like this – two people are at the supermarket cheesecounter and look into each other’s trolleys and see a range of products for children – inevitably they begin to talk about their experiences of the school. The conversation can go one of two ways – an upward spiral, with the sharing of positive experiences – or a negative spiral. One can’t ignore that so many of parental perceptions are shaped by what they hear from others. It can be through relatively small, infrequent and seemingly inconsequential activities, such as headteacher home visits, which combine to influence the perception of parents towards a school.

Reverse Observation


Some time ago I made an offer to any teacher in East Lothian to observe my practice for a whole day.  The offer was intended to demonstrate my willingness to reciprocate the welcome I’ve had in East Lothian classrooms over the last term observing the teaching process.  I received the following account last week from the observer who has given permission for me to post it here.

I like opportunities.  Opportunities are good.  When I was offered the chance to spend a day shadowing Don Ledingham, Director of Education, I leaped at it.  Don visits schools during most weeks to watch teachers teach; now I was going to watch a director direct.

I met with Don in advance to find out what we each hoped to gain from the exercise.  This meant we could choose a day which not only fitted in with our diaries, but also would provide a structure to fulfil our joint criteria.  I was keen to find out how Don organised his time: how did he manage to cope with emails, reports, phone calls and, at the same time, keep his finger on the pulse and find time for strategic thinking?  I was also interested to see how he ensured he had an integrated understanding and overview of the range of individual nursery, primary and secondary schools in his care, all with their own take on council and national policies.

Consistency is very important to Don: this applies to everything from treating all people with the same respect (as illustrated by the unconditional positive regard which forms part of our teaching and learning policy) to ensuring consistent approach to matters of policy.  He wanted me to check that he was achieving this aim.

Our day began with answering emails, moved on to a head teachers’ executive meeting, took in a visit to a reading festival, followed by a meeting with an EIS rep, a meeting of the QIOs, and a final appointment with some staff from Musselburgh Grammar.  When I went home Don was still beavering away.  Some of the meetings lasted for two hours; others were much shorter.  Don’s diary allowed him short blocks of time in-between for dealing with emails, phone calls etc.  But these weren’t long chunks of time.  So how does he fit it all in?

Efficiency is everything.  Firstly his office is virtually paperless: no filing cabinets, no piles of reports, no mess; admin heaven, basically.  Don stores files electronically where possible and paper is taken away when it’s finished with.  Don’s PA, Mary Horsburgh, manages Don’s diary, types letters and deals with some emails, leaving Don to focus on his job and not be waylaid by admin. My questions about time management were answered.  But when does Don find time to think strategically?  Partly this is achieved at the end of the day when he adds to his learning log, but also, I found, by sometimes standing back at meetings and devoting his time to listening and reflecting.  A silent leader can be a very active one.

I am glad to report that I observed Don being consistent throughout.  However my understanding of his role changed.  I spent a long time trying to think of a suitable metaphor for the way in which Don performs his role.  Driver and engine?  No, that’s too mechanical; the engine simply does as it’s told.  General and army?  No, it too describes a one-way leadership style.  Then I hit on the idea of catalyst which does rather nicely.  A chemical catalyst causes change in other substances.  Don seeks to change thinking, perceptions and attitudes.  The process itself is often not very dramatic but the results can be.  The other feature of the catalyst metaphor which works well, is that the catalyst (unlike the driver and engine) is put in the test-tube along with the other chemicals – they’re all in it together.  Don is certainly more of a lateral leader than a vertical one as shown by his willingness to open his door to me.

Now before you think I’ve been given a back-hander for writing this, there was one other feature of my day which deserves mention.  I became very aware that Don had none of the interruptions I have become used to: children knocking on his door because they’ve been ‘sent down’ by Mrs So-and-So, the janny asking if he can store the paper towels in the corner of the office and an angry parent demanding the immediate release of her offspring’s confiscated Gameboy.  Yes, the short times between Don’s meetings were very peaceful by comparison with school.  But perhaps there’s something to learn from that.  Members of school management are sometimes too ready to deal with the problems which occur each day.  Perhaps there’s a case for covering for each other to allow every person on the team some protected quality time each week.

I enjoyed my day shadowing and learnt a great deal which I am still thinking through.  And to relieve my head teacher’s fears, no I didn’t follow Don when he visited the toilet.


League Table approach and too much Testing remains Harmful to Education, says EIS


The Educational Institute for Scotland (EIS) – the  biggest teaching union in the Scotland have issued a number of press releases over the holiday period.

The last of these was entitled League Table approach and too much Testing remains Harmful to Education, say EIS

“The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) has called for a radical rethink on the over-use of testing in schools and the damaging construction of ‘league tables’ with the data collected. The EIS believes that too many local authorities continue to place too much emphasis on narrow testing and the collation of associated data which brings little or no benefit to schools, teachers and pupils.

Commenting, EIS General Secretary Ronnie Smith said,

“Despite the end of National Tests some five years ago, many authorities seem unable to cure their addiction to excessive testing in schools and continue to favour the flawed ‘league-table’ approach to measuring school success. This is in direct contradiction to current national educational priorities and has a negative impact on learning and teaching in schools. The use of such widespread testing places additional pressure on pupils and teachers to perform well in these tests – this has the inevitable result of narrowing the scope for teachers to use their professional judgement in what they teach, with considerable pressure to ‘teach to the test’ to avoid criticism of the school when league tables are constructed. This tick-box approach to measuring school success is of little value, and serves only to provide figures for education authority statisticians to crunch while simultaneously demoralising pupils and teachers.”

I found this an interesting perspective, particularly given the direction we are taking in respect to outcome agreements. Certainly from an East Lothian point of view we have never presented school assessment data in a league table format – and I can’t think of any other authority which adopts such a “league-table” approach.

I agree with Ronnie when he warns of the danger of solely focusing upon attainment as the only means of judging the success of a school but the new HGIOS3 makes it clear that pupil achievement is just as important.

However, I have to challenge his assertion that testing and the collation of associated data brings little or no benefit to schools, teachers and pupils. Firstly, schools need to have some way of judging their progress against an external benchmark.  Testing provides that benchmark.  I recently wrote about the “King o’ the midden” complex whereby it’s possible for a school, an authority, and even a country to delude itself about it’s progress, unless it collected data,  compared itself with its peers, and then interpreted how that that information can be used to shape its practice. For example, from the PIRLS data it is apparent that children’s reading in Scotland is not making the same rate of progress as in other countries.  Such knowledge initiates a question about how we currently teach reading and might have a direct impact upon schools, teachers and pupils.

A school can only objectively reflect upon how children are making progress throughout their school careers if they have access to  valid and reliable summative test data.  At an authority level such data helps to provide a means of judging a school’s performance in a particular area. For example, if a school’s attainment in maths is significantly below maths attainment in neighbouring schools, of a similar pupil composition, then it is legitimate to ask questions about the teaching of maths in that school.  Once again summative data leads directly back to the learning and teaching process.

I actually think the key point which Ronnie Smith is making is about how such data is used and the culture which underpins its collection, interpretation and use. My hope is that the culture we aspire to in East Lothian actually helps us to collect and use summative data where our ultimate focus is always upon the learning and teaching process, where formative assesment plays a crucial part.  The trick will be to ensure that such a balance is always achieved.

Last thought, Ronnie Smith refers to the needs of schools, teachers and pupils, but makes no mention of parents…..mmm?

Leadership Dilemma 4: Do outstanding teachers make outstanding headteachers?

Should one of the key criteria for becoming a headteacher or school principal be that the person must have been an “outstanding” teacher in their own right?

Now I suppose this will inevitably lead to the question and some argument about the constituent elements of an outstanding teacher and headteacher.

It might even help to turn the dilemma on its head and ask if it’s possible to be an outstanding headteacher/principal without having been an outstanding teacher.

Oops nearly forgot – Happy New Year to everyone and best  wishes for 2008.