Obliquity – valuing an indirect approach to educational improvement

Sir Harry Burns, Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, argues that the promotion of health has for too long been based upon a deficit model. That is, we tend to focus on identifying the problems and causes of ill health. In turn this leads to the identification of outcomes all directed towards a particular deficit, e.g. reduce the number of people who smoke; reduce alcohol intake; or increase exercise levels.  The system is comfortable with these discrete outcomes and develops strategies and activities aimed at achieving these outcomes.

Yet the evidence clearly shows that such a deficit led model has not led to any substantial impact upon those most vulnerable to ill health, i.e. the poorest in our society.  Sir Harry recommends that in order to promote good health we need to focus on what creates health (salutogenesis) rather than the traditional view of preventing illness.

In order to achieve that goal people need to be able to understand their lives, manage this day to day, and see themselves and life as worthwhile. People who feel they have little control over life experience more stress. This chronic stress mechanism in the body risks seriously damaging health and quality of life.

In turn this has led the Chief Medical Officer to propose that we fundamentally shift public health policy towards seeing the assets within people as individuals and in groups within communities, and that we support people to work together and take control of their own lives.

Such a conclusion challenges those of us in public service who have been conditioned over the years to focus upon a simplistic notion between cause and effect, e.g. reduce smoking levels by implementing a smoking reduction strategy; or (in our world of education) improve literacy levels by introducing a new reading scheme. This approach appeals to our managerialist tendencies and enables us to set targets, allocate budgets and evaluate success, thereby fulfilling our obligation within the professional management hierarchy.

Yet Sir Harry Burns is not alone in challenging this managerialist approach, with its simplistic assumptions regarding cause and effect, and suggesting that a more holistic and seemingly incidental approach can allow us to achieve our goals more effectively.

The concept of ‘obliquity’ (the state or condition of being oblique) was first proposed by another famous Scottish medical figure in the form of the Nobel Prize winner Sir James Black, which he defined as follows:

“In business as in science, it seems that you are often most successful in achieving something when you are trying to do something else. I think of it as the principle of ‘obliquity’.”

Obliquity has been further developed by Scottish economist John Kay, who argues that often the best way of achieving our goals, especially those which are particularly complex, is to do so indirectly.

“Strange as it may seem, overcoming geographic obstacles, winning decisive battles or meeting global business targets are the type of goals often best achieved when pursued indirectly. This is the idea of Obliquity. Oblique approaches are most effective in difficult terrain, or where outcomes depend on interactions with other people.” John Kay 2004

The paradox presented by Kay is that if you want to go in one direction that the best route might often be to go in another. The irony of Kay’s work is that the managerialist aspirations of those of us involved in public service delivery leads us to mirror what we think to be the effectiveness of the rationalist commercial approach. We set outcomes, we attempt to control parameters, we measure and evaluate, but above all we get locked into doing things the way we have done them in the past and expect different outcomes just because we have planned them better. It was Einstein wasn’t it who was attributed to have described this as insanity i.e. “….doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”

Yet what we tend to miss is that the world which we inhabit is complex and imperfectly understood. Any analysis of our plans would support such a conclusion given the extent of our certainty that we can succeed where others have failed.

So what has all this got to do with our own complex business of education? Well from a personal perspective the concept of ‘obliquity’ strikes a chord in my intuitive understanding of how the world works.

For education is an iterative process which benefits from an open minded and adaptive approach which values problem solving and creativity.  As soon as we begin to believe that we can make a predictable connection between an action and outcome then we are almost destined to fail. “Results are what we expect, consequences are what we get”  Robert McNamara

Consider the traditional approach to improving the educational outcomes for the lowest attaining 20% of students in our schools – an intractable problem for Scottish education. Typically we would identify the students, plan a range of actions targeted at their deficits, and sit back expecting positive results – and then be surprised when no substantive change takes place.

An oblique approach to the problem would not tackle this directly but would amongst other things address the culture of the school, teachers’ values, and the value placed on education in our most disadvantaged communities.

Yet such an approach would take courageous leadership from a school leader, particularly in a professional environment that places undue value on sophisticated plans and confident ‘direct’ action.

A sense of ceremony

I attended a beautiful Mass at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Primary School this morning. The event was held to celebrate the closure of the school building before it is demolished to make way for the new school which will be built over the next 15 months.

I’m neither Catholic nor religious but I was very taken by the ceremony and sense of community which was engendered this morning.

It made me think that we don’t pay enough attention to ceremony in our modern lives – I certainly haven’t read anything about the role of ceremony in any recent management books I’ve come across. Nor is there a performance indicator which measures the effective use of ceremony. Nevertheless, I think there is something about us as a species which likes the comfort and rhythm of a well conducted ceremonial occasion. It certainly acts to bind people together in an act of common purpose – a feature of life which is all too conspicuous by its absence.

Aspiring to be “good” – would this provide space for improvement?

Amongst a number of  other duties the Standards in Scottish Schools Act 2000 sets out two key responsibilities for Scottish Local Authorities in respect to school education, namely Raising Standards and Reviewing School Performance.

Yet I was wondering if it’s time to reconsider these duties in light of the impact – or otherwise – that Local Authorities have had upon schools in their charge? As a headteacher, and in my ten years a member of school senior management teams in a variety of schools,  I would have to question what impact Local Authorities had upon raising standards in the school and whether or not the School Review process made a positive contribution to the raising of said standards. I want to make it clear that I am not denigrating in any way the efforts and support given to schools by Local Authority colleagues but that the very assumption that an external force can drive improvement within a school is perhaps founded upon a false premise.

For the reality is often that the standards in a school are directly related to the quality of leadership and commitment from staff in that same school. However, by giving responsibility for raising standards to the Local Authority it creates an expectation – from all – that the authority can make an impact from an external position.  This is turn gives rise to what I’ve previously described as the “Dae Sumthin”  mentality where Local Authority managers are under pressure to be seen to be taking action – even if this action doesn’t necessarily result in any observable consequence.  The important thing is that action is taken. 

In a similar fashion Authorities have gone to considerable trouble to create a range of means of “Reviewing School Performance”  . These mechanisms have taken many different forms all with the intention that we can “know our schools”.

What I want to question is the assumption that there is a direct causal relationship between how well we know our schools and how well we can raise standards? ( in the case the “we” are those outwith the school).

It would be my contention that the responsibility – and much more importantly the capacity – to raise standards lies with those who work in a school.  That was always my belief as a headteacher, a principal teacher, or even as a teacher and I’ve seen nothing in the last five years as an educational administrator to change that opinion. I’m not saying here that all of our efforts in Local Authorities are wasted but that there is an unintended consequence of our adherence to the notion that the more we do from “outside” the school the better things will be “within” the school.

So if the responsibility for raising standards should lie with the school does that mean that the Authority can abdicate from it’s responsibilities for school education?  I would argue that the quality of school education should still lie with the Local Authority – yet the responsibility to raise standards should lie with the school.  Now if this seems like “having one’s cake and eating it” I can understand how such an assertion might appear peculiar.  Yet what I have in mind is much more of a commissioning approach, whereby the Authority commissions the school to deliver education on its behalf.  Just as Children’s Services currently commissions a charity to deliver an aspect of its service, the overall responsibility still lies with the  commissioning body. It is the role of the commissioner to ensure that those who are commissioned are delivering the service to the agreed standards – it is not the commissioner’s responsibility to raise standards, simply to ensure that the standards set out in the agreement is achieved.

This actually chimes with something which Pasi Sahlberg said recently at a  conference when describing the success that is Finnish Education. For Pasi said that in Finland to be “good”  is “good enough”.  They do not aspire to excellence as a system but focus on ensuring that everyone is at least “good enough”.  I know this seems to lack the aspiration of our Journey to Excellence – but I actually think that this provides exactly  the kind of space in which teachers and schools can flourish. 

So in such an environment what should happen to the Authority’s responsibility to “Review School Performance”? Perhaps the clue lies with the last couple of sentences in that particular section of the Act when it describes how where the Authority concludes that following a review that where:

” the school is not performing satisfactorily they shall take such steps as appear to them to be requisite to remedy the matter.”

It’s here that I would want to refer to the model of practice which is emerging from many directions, namely Risk Assessment.  What I’m wondering is whether or not a Risk Assessment approach might provide schools with much more space to innovate and develop local solutions to raising standards?  Would it be possible for an Authority to assess the “Risk” relating to the quality of education provided by a school.  Rather than stating that a school’s performance is somewhere on the six point scale we instead provide a simple statement to parents and others that the risk that the school is not providing a “good” education is low, medium or high.  Schools would aspire to be in the “low” risk category.   I would reckon that only around 5% of schools would fall into the high risk category and that the Authorities’ resources could be targetted on those same schools – with others being given ever more freedom to innovate and create local solotions without external interference.

“You never leave the Villa”


“You never leave the villa” – so said Andy Thorpe, manager of the Lothian Villa, a residential home for challenging and vulnerable teenagers in East Lothian. I was privileged to visit the “Villa” a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been meaning to write up my experiences since that time.

What Andy means by “You never leave the Villa” is that it becomes part of you and you become part of it.  This chimed for me with the ideas which I came across during my visit to the U.S last year when Norman Kunc talked about belonging . For fostering a sense of belonging in these children is at the very heart of what they do at the Villa – this is demonstrated by the fact that adults, who were in the school years ago, still return to their “home” to speak to staff and keep in touch.

A lot of the work being done in the Villa is based upon the work of Sally Wassell and attachment theory – I’m doing more reading in this area at the moment so won’t go into any detail save to say that I think it forms a rich resource for all of us involved in the care and education of children and young people.

The Villa – in Andy’s words – provides “emotional nutrition” for kids who have often been emotionally malnourished throughout their lives. “They deserve the best” and the Villa sets out to provide it.  I spoke to some of the kids and was blown away by how positive they were about the place and the way that they are treated. Yet don’t get the idea that this is a soft regime – quite the opposite in fact – “We care enough about you not to let you be out of control” is a characteristic which permeates the collective approach. They “love” the kids and “tough love” seems to be something to which the young people readily repond.

I had an interesting chat with Andy about how they deal with extreme behaviour – which can at times be violent.  He explained how they often have different consequences for the same behaviour – this intrigued me as schools so often get trapped by having to be “fair” when dealing with misbehaviour by always matching a certain consequence with a certain from of behaviour – i.e. if a pupil swears at a teacher they must be excluded. Andy explained that their consistency comes through judging the reasons behind the behaviour and that consequence will be consistent for the person. 

It was a humbling experience visiting the Villa and seeing a group of people who are so fully committed to an approach.  Andy is a remarkable leader and has developed a culture where everyone valued and seen as a part of the family – staff and children. So often “Children’s Homes” are associated to negative connotations but I found it an enriching environment which is changing lives for the better.

I recommend a visit!!

SQA (self questioning anxiety)

Unless you’ve been there I don’t think it’s possible to imagine the anxiety which teachers, principal teachers and head teachers experience at the time Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA) results are published.

I’ve been in there in all three roles and now in my wider role as Head of Education.

Over my 27 years in the business I’ve experienced a wide variety of highs and lows – but it’s impossible to describe the desolation of a year when children have significantly under-performed in comparison to what you expected.

Perhaps contrary to public opinion teachers always blame themselves when this happens and the low is even more pronounced when you feel you have been working flat out through the previous year.  Then there are the other years when attainment completely outstrips your expectations and for a short time everything is rosy – this feeling lasts about a week until the new cohort starts their course.

I’m busy analysing our East Lothian SQA data at the moment and was waiting for the national results to be published today in order to get a handle on how well we had performed in comparison with national figures and our comparator authorities.

The good news is that it looks like our Standard Grade and Higher attainment has improved in comparison to both national and comparator figures. However, it’s possible to take too much gratification from how you compare against others and lose sight of the overall attainment of individual pupils in East Lothian – which, in relation to attainment, must be our point of focus.

However, I’m convinced that the positive and collaborative culture we are developing; the focus on consistently high quality learning and teaching; our application of ICT; the support systems we have for pupils with additional learning needs; the improving links between our schools and sectors; the wide range of extra-curricular opportunities on offer; the support we get from parents; our staff development programme; and the commitment from everyone who works in East Lothian education will enable us to make almost exponential progress over the next few years. What’s more I think we can have fun doing it!

“Aye Been” isn’t always “Aye Wrong”


I was recently asked to speak at the Braw Lads Gathering Big Breakfast. This meant getting up at 5.00am for a 6.am start. 350 people gathered in the Galashiels Volunteer Hall for an hour and half of song, speeches and general good fun.

I spoke about one of my favourite poems “The Borderland” which was first published 100 years ago this month.  The poem had been written by Roger Quinn who was known as the “Tramp Poet”.

After the event I had pint in the Salmon Inn with Jim Renwick, one of Scotland’s greatest ever rugby players.  Jim comes from Hawick so it was good to see him in Gala supporting a rival town’s festival.

Jim and I were talking about the merits of tradition and then of “Aye Been” – e.g “It’s aye been (always been)done that way so there’s no need to change now”  – which is often used a disparaging way of describing the Scottish Borders’ attitude to life.

I think one the biggest challenges facing educational leaders is to recognise the value of tradition whilst at the same time introducing worthwhile improvements.

Sometimes there is an implicit belief that just because something is new it must automatically be better – the wise leader sustains and builds traditions and weaves new ways of doing things into that cultural fabric.

That is not to say that we can never challenge tradition – there are times when the “aye been” has to change – it’s just that we must remember that this does not always have to the case.

Entrepreneurial Leadership in schools

I gave the welcome to our Depute Head Teachers this morning at their first annual conference.  The theme for the day was “Entrepreneurial Leadership”

I began by reinforcing the difference between entrepreneurial leadership in a “for-profit” environment” e.g. Alan Sugar, and entrepreneurship in an educational (not-for-profit) environment – i.e. social entrepreneurship.

I shared three definitions of Social Entrepreneurship:

“innovative solutions to immediate social problems and mobilises the ideas, capacities, resources and social arrangements required for sustainable social transformations” Alvord and Brown 2004 

“social entrepreneurs are not for profit executives who pay increasing attention to market forces without losing sight of their underlying missions” Bronstein 2004

“social entrepreneurs play the role of change agents in the social sector by :

  • adapting a mission to create and sustain social value;
  • recognising and relentlessly pursuing new opportunities that serve that mission;
  • engaging in a process of continuous innovation, adaption and learning;
  • acting boldly without being limited by resources currntly at hand.”   Dees 1998

Having set out this definition I reinforced the key role Depute Head Teachers have in improving education within East Lothian and that they have the capacity to operate as social entrepreneurs within their own schools and as a network.

I concluded by referring to Stephane Deneve and the notion of invitational leadership.

The challenge for us all is to create a context where people feel comfortable and able to accept that invitation.

“A Space to Grow?”


How would you like to work in a place which set itself out as “A Space to Grow”?

A place where you could:

Achieve your personal goals;

Provide an outstanding service;

Fulfil your sense of vocation.

A place where your employers:

cared for your personal welfare and well-being;

focussed upon the impact of their service to users;

were flexible and willing to take decisions based upon consideration of circumstances – as opposed to being locked down by policy;

trusts that their employees want to do their best;

encouraged innovative and entrepreneurial practice to meet the needs of service users.

Sound a good place to be?

Well that’s an insight into what we got up to today at our first Leadership Team meeting for East Lothian Council’s Chief Officers.

Alex McCrorie – our new Acting Chief Executive – clearly set out a new agenda of change and opportunity where we are determined to listen, respond and work with our users and colleagues to improve the quaility of service we provide.

Despite the challenge provided by recent circumstances and the on-going concern over single status I was – in common with my colleagues – excited by the prospect of creating a new and vibrant culture for East Lothian Council.

A culture which is shared across all services and which shapes the practice and behaviour of all leaders in our organisation.

A culture  where we learn from our short-term experiences and translate them into new forms of practice.

A culture in which people can take pride and satisfaction in supporting, benefitting from, and promoting.

Honesty and Leadership- Part 2


Following yesterday’s post I’ve been doing a little more reading about honesty and leadership.

Honesty is seen by many as a key factor in effective leadership 1,2, 3, 4

However, the recurring definition of honesty in most texts relates to trustworthiness of the leader.

I’m convinced that trustworthiness is a key factor in effective leadership but “truth” is a little bit more difficult to handle.

For truth – the whole truth – and nothing but the truth – can be exceptionally hurtful for those of us used to”white lies” – definition:

white lie n. A diplomatic or well-intentioned untruth.

I think we have become conditioned to telling “white lies” when dealing with personnel issues. We find ways to talk round an issue so that when we leave the room people are left wondering “Was I being told off – or complimented?”

Perhaps this is one of the key factors in effective leadership – the ability to tell the truth in such a way that people can still trust your judgement – even when the “truth” might be about you!

The danger here is that leaders might see this as a licence to criticise others under the cover of – “I must tell the truth”. What a leader such as Tim Brighouse has is the wisdom to judge when tell the truth and when to say nothing- the underlying purpose must always be driven by the interests of children.

Leadership Strategy?


It was just an innocent question but it triggered a fascinating and very productive discussion this morning.

The questioner had been Dee Torrance who had invited me to speak to the most recent cohort of SQH candidates at Peebles Hydro Hotel.  As well enjoyed a cup of coffee after the session she popped the question:

“So what is your leadership strategy?”

I don’t think anyone in East Lothian would have asked that question such has been the focus on leadership development. But as I attempted to answer her question it occurred to me that all I was talking about were the opportunities which we now offer to our leaders and prospective leaders.  What came out was a list: HT conferences; PT conferences; Depute conferences; leadership seminars; coaching; mentoring; core CPD; exchange programme; SQH, etc, etc.

Dee’s question popped into my mind this morning when I met with some colleagues 3 HTs – Patrica McCall, Dorothy Bartholomew and Freda Ross, Maureen Jobson (Quality Improvement Manager, Learning and Teaching), and Kirsty McRae (Staff Development C-ordinator). The purpose of our meeting was to consider the idea of core CPD for HTs and our HT conference programme for next year.

As we started the discussion we fell into the same trap that I had fallen into at Peebles -i.e.  listing activities.

By repeating Dee’s question we started to give some form and purpose to the potentially diverse list of activities.

What emerged was as follows:

East Lothian Education Leadership Strategy (draft)

Our Leadership strategy provides a context for the range of development opportunities we provide for leaders at all levels within the East Lothian education service.

Leadership development activities can fall into one of four inter-related categories:

    1. Management
    2. Learning and Teaching
    3. People and culture
    4. Nurture and well-being

Management – this category has a strong knowledge focus – where leaders are provided with the knowledge necessary to fulfil many of the other aspects of their job.

Examples would include – Finance procedures and systems; IT; Personnel policies and procedures; “Getting things Done”

By having a depth of knowledge and competence in these areas leaders develop confidence that their practice enables them to comply with regulation and demands of the job which often carry a significant stress burden.

There is a need for all HTs to regularly update their skills and knowledge in relation to these areas. It is our intention to offer a programme of seminars in the course of each academic year. HTs will be expected to attend two of these sessions in any one year.

Learning and Teaching – this category will include all development activities which relate to the improving the learning and teaching process.

People and culture – this category will underpin many of the leadership development activities within  the other categories although we may offer particular activities which directly relate to the leadership culture to which we aspire in the East Lothian education service.

Nurture and well-being- this category includes all those activities which enable us to nurture and promote the personal well-being of our leaders. Examples would include coaching, mentoring and health at work.

Leadership Training Delivery – As a rule of thumb we reckon that we should make best use of our existing leaders within East Lothian to ensure that we share good practice, capture wisdom, raise self-esteem by asking them to lead 80% of sessions. In order to prevent our service from becoming too insular approximately 20% of Leadership development sessions should be led by people external to East Lothian.

This is obviously work in progress but I reckon we can flesh this out over the next few weeks into  something which will give our Leadership programme some real bite.