Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go

The practice of setting SMART targets in the world of education has become the norm. As ever we see ourselves as being more “professional” by adopting the practice of the technical bureaucrat and lack the confidence to find approaches which more suit our context.

A SMART target is one that satisfies the five criteria associated with the acronym.

“S” represents specific; “M” measurable; “A” attainable; “R” Relevant; and “T” time limited. Local authorities, schools, and teachers are encouraged to adopt this approach – or something like it – when planning their work. Such an approach gives the impression that change and improvement can be controlled and bent to our will – as long as we adopt the technocratic method.

In the space available to me here I’d like to focus on just one of the elements of the SMART methodology and consider whether or not it assists us in our desire to seek improvement.

The notion of “A”, an Attainable target, seems reasonable at first glance. Imagine the outcome for someone who sets him or herself a goal to achieve self-propelled flight. Yet surely there’s a difference between an impossible goal and an inspiring goal? All this came back to me recently when I was listening to someone describe their classroom practice and their use of SMART targets with students. Once again it seems reasonable and logical to adopt this approach with young people. To set an unachievable goal surely means that they will become dispirited and eventually disengaged from the learning process.  Better then to chunk aspirations or goals into small achievable steps on a journey towards eventual success.

Such logic is based upon the premise that failure is to be avoided at all costs. There’s something deep within our psyche that makes us believe that to set a goal and to fail to achieve that goal is bad and deeply damaging. Such thinking permeates not only the classroom but also the Scottish educational establishment, where SMART target setting – in a variety of different forms dominates our practice. This is most evident in local authorities through the comprehensive adoption of project management strategies such as PRINCE, where the acronym translates to Project management IN Controlled Environments. If there’s anything less like a “controlled environment” than education I’d like to see it!

Nevertheless, we appear to have succumbed to the lure of giving into the appearance of being professional through adopting practice from other fields – as opposed to seeking out solutions and ways of behaving that meet our own contexts. Perhaps it has been ever thus?

Arguably then, education has adopted technocratic methodologies and we have, as is our unfortunate habit, slavishly translated and transferred them into areas of work for which they are not only unsuitable – but self-limiting in terms of the effect they have upon our practice and our achievements.

So to return to the notion of setting Attainable SMART targets in the classroom and the school. My problem with this idea is that an attainable target must, by definition, lack aspiration. For if a system is ‘hard wired ” to avoid failure – because failure is “bad” for people – then it must mean that we are always reaching for something which is within our grasp, as opposed to reaching for something just beyond it.

Such a model certainly creates “safe” environments for learning but these are deeply uninspiring places and lacking in any form of innovation and appropriate risk taking.  The best teachers and the best school leaders are not hindered by a fear of failure.  They are prepared to dream (something which doesn’t feature in a SMART target, or a PRoject In A Controlled Environment). They set outrageous expectations for themselves and the people around them. But above all they permit young people to believe that the comfortable boundaries, which they may have placed around themselves, can be escaped.

For me it’s this comfort with failure that marks out the outstanding practitioner. They know that a safe journey might be to set out the way in a logical sequence and achieve them in a nice comfortable steps A, B, C, D, E, etc. – but they prefer to stretch themselves and those around them to consider the final destination. By setting such aspirational goals they know that the final achievement will be far in excess of a goal that is restricted by our personal comfort zones.

From a personal perspective I had a long-term goal from the age of 10 to play rugby for Scotland.  It consumed me and provided a focus for me for the next 13 years.  I spent every moment, training, practicing and thinking about my goal.  As it turned out, although I got close to fulfilling my dream, it never came to pass. So was that time wasted because I failed to achieve my target? Would I have achieved what I did in my rugby career if I hadn’t set myself that logically unachievable goal? I’m convinced that I have benefitted in so many ways from setting an aspirational goal which was possibly beyond my reach but which taught me so many things in terms of how to apply myself, make the most of whatever abilities I had, and ultimately enabled me to transfer that energy and focus to other aspects of my life.

I’ll leave the last word with one of my favourite writers, T.S. Elliot, who had this to say about attainable target setting (if he’d known that’s what it was to be called):

“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.”

Headteacher Pay: England Vs Scotland

Given today’s Scotland Vs England world cup rugby fixture (we’ll not refer to the result) I thought it might be of interest to try to compare headteacher pay between the two countries.

The English pay scales are set out in  Pay and Conditions for Teachers in England Wales and I’ll use this document as the basis for what follows.

In this example I will  use a secondary school of 900 students, split equally into six year groups of 150 students..

The English system is based upon the concept of pupil units.

For example a student in Key Stage 3 – equivalent to S1 – S2 (12-14 yrs) – is worth 9 units; a student in Key Stage 4  (14-16 yrs)  is worth 11 units; and a student in Key Stage 5 (16-18 yrs) is worth 13 units.

Using the 150 students in each year group this translates into 9,900 units.

The units are then compared to a school group table – for the sake of this exercise I’m only going to refer to the scales for schools outwith the London area.

The scales are:

Group                             Pay range

1  –  up to 1000            £42,379 – £56,950

2  – up to 2,200            £44,525  – £61,288

3 – up to 3,500             £48,024 – £65,953

4  – up to 5,000            £51,614 – £70,991

5  – up to 7,500            £56,950 – £78,298

6   – up to 11,000         £61,288  – £86,365

7  – up to 17,000          £65,963 – £95,213

8  – beyond 17,000       £75,725 – £105,097

In our example, the headteacher of a school of 900 students would be paid – at the top end – and most of them seem to be at that level £86,365, whereas in Scotland the pay is a maximum £66,000 for an identical school.

The final level of a headteachers’ pay is determined by the Governing Body (i.e. parents) within the scales set out above – although there is some leeway for awarding additional discretionary payments.

There are addditional scales of pay for headteachers of “special schools” but for the sake of simplicity I’ve ignored them in this comparision.


There does not seem to be a significant difference between the level of pay for basic grade teachers in England and Scotland but there are very significant differences in the pay of headteachers – particularly at secondary level. English headteachers would appear to be  paid between 20 – 30% more than their Scottish counterparts.

The key differences in terms of expectation is that the English school governing body can set performance targets that they expect the headteacher to achieve, and the fact that English Headteachers have a greater range of devolved responsibilities than their Scottish counterparts.

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.

Campaign against budget cuts in Scottish education

Net Local Authority Revenue Expenditure by Service (%)

The Educational Institute of Scotland is running a campaign against any budget cuts in Scottish Education.

A march was held in Glasgow today at which thousands of teachers, parents and lecturers joined to protest against any education budget reductions under the banner “why must our children pay?”

As a teacher and passionate advocate for education I understand and support the sentiment and motivation behind the campaign but I can’t quite see how it’s going to be possible to ring fence any single service within the Scottish public service environment – for all that it might make my job a lot easier.

No less a person than Sir John Elvidge ,  Scotland’s senior civil servant, speaking at an event on the 29th January, warned that public service spending in Scotland is likely to be reduced by 10 per cent in real terms in three years time and 20 per cent in seven years compared to current levels. He went on to say:

“I think one of the hardest questions that faces us all as managers is how will the trend of real terms reductions last. 

 I think, without getting into political territory, it’s difficult to identify the point of certainty at which one says: ‘Ah, yes, it will      definitely have turned round by then.’ And all I’d say is, that if one looks beyond four years, at that rate of annual real terms reduction and taking into account compounding, it doesn’t take very long to get to 20 per cent instead of 10 per cent.”

Taking Elvidge’s figure of 10% (which will be closer to 12% with the compounding effect) I thought it might be useful to explore the impact on public services in Scotland.

The most recent figures we have available for Scottish education expenditure relate to the financial year 2007-2008.  In that year the revenue expenditure was £4.7 billion.  Using this figure , although it’s likely to be much closer to £5 billion in the current year, a 10% reduction would equate to £470 million.  The logic must be that if this sum is not to be picked up by education then it must be passed onto some other Scottish public service.  So who would be best placed to pay this bill?

The Scottish Health service had expenditure of £8.9 billion in 2006/2007.  Their share of the 10% savings would be £890 million – so perhaps they have their fair share of the challenge and the focus should lie elsewhere?

So how about the cost of running the Scottish Government?  The 2010/2011 draft budget for running the core administration of the government is £258.3 million – which is dwarfed by the £470 million three-year saving which would be required of education.

Of course Scottish education (apart from further and higher education) is funded though Local Authorities – there must be significant opportunities for the burden to lie with other Local Authority Services? 

Education’s average share of the total revenue expenditure for Local Authorities in 2007-2008 was 42.6% . The table shown above describes how education and and social work – which includes child protection and community care – takes that proportion up to 65%. Then add police, fire and emergency planning and you’re up to nearly 80%.  Throw in roads and transport, economic development and environmental services and the total is well beyond 90%.

The reality is that Local Authorities cannot meet a 10% saving from its net revenue expenditure of £11.1 billion, i.e. £1.11 billion, from the remainder of those services which might not be deemed as sacrosanct as some of those listed previously.

Perhaps John Elvidge gets close to the truth when he suggested:

“This is going to be an enormous challenge for any system – and it tells us that the right thing for all public sector managers to be doing at the moment is to err on the side of pessimism in their forecasts, and radicalism in their thinking.” (my emboldened type)

For me it’s this latter trait which will require all involved in education to adopt if we are to safely navigate these difficult waters over the next few years.

I’ll leave the last words with John Elvidge:

“I think the shape of delivery of at least some public services is going to look completely different. I wish I knew which ones they were and which ones will look different, but it’s obvious that we can’t simply continue to run the models that we run for delivery of various public services,”

Reducing Bureaucracy in Education

It was  Cyril Northcote who came up with the adage known as Parkinson’s Law which appeared as the first sentence of a humorous essay published in The Economist in 1955:

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal in recent meetings with teachers (and managers) who complain that their time is taken up with trivial and meaningless bureaucratic tasks.  So perhaps it’s time to step back from our practice and reflect – with some rigour – upon the way in which we conduct our business? Many of the tasks and jobs that we all have to complete have been layered – one on top of another – as one initiative goes and another one comes in – yet the associated practices which came into practice with each initiative remain. 

At a time when we are looking for efficiencies in every walk of life we need to challenge anything we do which does not add value to the central purpose of our job – in our case to improve the outcomes for children and young people. 

Why have we created bureaucratic processes which overload our system? I reckon the first reason is that we often “over engineer” our systems.  Over engineering is when we construct something way beyond the tolerances required to fulfil the object’s task, e.g. we build a bridge which can carry a weight ten times heavier than anything that it will ever be required to carry.  The associated costs in additional materials and  construction time are not required and can be regarded as waste.  And so it often is in educational bureaucracies that we develop solutions to problems/issues which go way beyond what is actually required to solve the actual problem. Perhaps because we don’t trust each other?

The second characteristic of our system is that  we often create a solution to meet a time specific problem, e.g. we establish a meeting of people to address a particular problem – we solve the problem that generated the cause for the meeting but the meetings continue because we don’t have the confidence to stop doing it.

So what might we do to reduce bureaucracy at all levels in education – from Government down to the individual classroom, and every level in between?

The first thing to do is to reflect upon our practice – not because we want to stop doing everything but because we want to spend our time doing those things which make a positive difference to children’s lives. Part of that process must be to reflect upon the cost benefit.  I’m not encouraging here a “know the cost of everything and value of nothing” approach, but simply to work out what something costs in terms of time, money (often directly related to time) and the associated value. For example, a weekly 30 minute meeting of principal teachers in an average secondary school along with members from the senior management team equates to £18,000- £20,000 a year. Such a meeting may have been instituted for very valid reasons a few years ago but has continued long beyond its actual purpose and value.  Similar exercises can be carried out for every bureaucratic process and  procedure.  However, before we disappear into a further bureaucratic vortex it’s best to start small and select those areas where we reckon we can make quick wins – and at the same time release people to undertake more valuable activities directly related to improving the educational process.

So, having identified some processes of dubious value what next? There would seem to be two alternatives 1. STOP doing it (does the sky fall in?); 2. REDESIGN the process, i.e. do it “just well enough” (rather than over engineer) or come up with an alternative solution to the problem but which streamlines and simplifies the process.

The first of these solutions, i.e. to stop doing something – cannot be left to personal preference, unless it is a bureaucratic process which you have instituted as part of your personal behaviour.   However, a key stage in such reflection is to try to understand why we do things in a particular way, i.e. what is the purpose of the process? (I would also suggest that a bit of research into the history of when and why it was originally introduced can be exceptionally helpful here). Having identified the process consider the risk of stopping doing it, e.g. would stopping doing it put children’s health and safety at risk?   I know that to some this sounds like a recipe for anarchy but the key here is a collective analysis and shared decision making process.

So if stopping is not alternative perhaps the process itself could be redesigned? As above, the starting point should be the purpose of the process.  So often a process have been introduced within a particular time and culture which is no longer relevant.  That may certainly be the case with some of our processes which have been introduced at time when economic considerations did not feature in the decision making process. Once again the key to redesigning processes is to see it a collective process.  Remember one hour saved each week by every teacher in a school of fifty teachers over the course of a year is equivalent to £75,000-£80,000 – or two teachers. Now that would make a difference!  Good luck.

Community Ownership of Schools


I’ve been approached by quite a few people over the last couple of weeks about our ideas relating to Community Ownership of Schools.

I thought it might help to gather together in one place a number of related posts which provide an insight into the evolution of this idea and the underpinning rationale.

The first point to emphasise is that we are encouraged by our elected members to “think out of the box” in relation to policy development in East Lothian.  The following links track the development of an idea which is not yet fully formed nor planned to Nth degree.  In that respect I have been adopting the role of the leader as a sculptor:

“The alternative to the technically focused leader’s vision is to see vision as an outcome which is not ‘set’ from the beginning. Instead the sculptor has an idea; a notion; a picture in mind – e.g. to create a sculpture of a human form – but as the sculptor commences work the final outcome may be very different from what they had in mind at the beginning but is all the more successful for that variation.

What the sculptor is doing is to constantly check on the quality of the developing work. By checking it against a desire to produce the “best” work possible the sculptor shifts the vision rather than carrying on working towards something that will not be as high a quality as what will be created through a more flexible approach towards the final outcome.”

Please note that the first of these posts dates to August 2006, i.e. long before our current financial status.

Headteachers/Principals: Go on – take a day off

HOLIDAY TIME !! by MyLifeStory.

Earlier this week I met with one of our most experienced and exceptional headteachers who is due to retire at the end of the session.

In a bespoke winding down arrangement we have agreed that she can take ten days unpaid leave during the year.  She has spread these days over the course of the year to provide a number of extended weekends.

The impact on her health and well-being has been incredible and she feels so much more able to undertake her job – to the benefit of herself and the school.

In line with my recent reflection on the mental health and well-being of teachers I wondered if this might be something we could consider in a different kind of arrangement with other headteachers?

Three years ago I moved from being a headteacher to being an educational administrator at East Lothian Council. My holiday entitlement changed from 65 days a year, to 27 days plus public holidays. Yet despite the apparent loss in days the biggest difference has been that I can now take days off when I want – even during term time.  As rule I try to avoid extended periods of absence during term time but I do try to take a number of single days throughout the year to create long weekends.  The result of this is that I can avoid the kind of accumulation of fatigue that used to occur when I was a headteacher.

We currently have a problem recruiting headteachers – people look at the stress involved, the relatively low pay differential between a depute headteacher and headteacher and decide that the negatives outweigh the positives. So with that in mind I’d like to make a suggestion:

What if headteachers could trade in some of the current holiday entitlement for a number of single day holidays which which can be taken during term time?  As a starting point in that negotiation I would suggest that the exchange rate would be two days for one day. So if a headteacher wanted to have five days leave throughout the year during term time they would have to forfeit ten days of their current holiday entitlement.  To be honest I would have gone for something like this as I probably spent that number of days in school during holiday periods trying to catch up and prepare.  From an employer’s perspective we could arrange for a proportion of these forfeited days to be taken at an agreed time and in so doing enable collegiate tasks to be undertaken – e.g. cluster working , particularly if other colleagues were working at the same time.

The issues which would have to be resolved  would be:

Would schools fall to bits without the headteacher being there for a day? – No – certainly not in well managed schools

What would parents think? – I believe they would understand and see it as positive step as long as it was properly explained.

What would staff think?  -There would probably be many teachers who would be upset by such an arrangement but perhaps we need to start to see there being some perks for taking on such a job.

So what would I be saying to headteachers?

Go on – take a day off!!!




Building consideration for mental health and well-being into the planning process for education

stressed and worried by Bhernandez.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to a draft implementation strategy for A Curriculum for Excellence and have identified a key element in its success to be a strong focus on maintaining and supporting the mental health and well being of teachers and headteachers.

All too often people in positions such as mine can focus upon the technical elements of implementation and see it a problem to be solved through a logical project management approach.  I have to admit that on many occasions in my career as an educational leader that I have succumbed to temptation of the “grand plan” approach – which took no account of the how it impacted upon the mental health and well being of those who would have to implement the “plan”.

There can be no doubt that any curriculum innovation can bring with it significant concerns and pressures which can have a negative impact upon the health of those who work in schools.  If we add to this some of the financial pressures on public services which might come about as a consequence of the credit crisis then the potential for an explosive mix is made even more likely.

To that end I believe that a key factor to be borne in mind throughout the implementation process is how we – and I do mean we – maintain a focus upon the mental health and well being of our colleagues.

I’ve been very impressed by the Teacher Support Network and any service which offers help and support must be welcomed. But I would like to see us move that focus “upstream”, i.e. build some consideration about the impact upon mental health and well being into the planning phase – as opposed to treating the symptoms of the consequences of our plans – regardless of how unintended they might be. 

The Innerwick Experience: “A Space to Grow”


A couple of months ago I joined my colleagues on the Leadership Team of East Lothian Council on a weekend course entitled “The Innerwick Experience”. The Leadership Team is made up of: all Heads of Service, e.g. Head of Education, Head of ICT and Finance, etc; the four Directors – Finance; Planning; Community Services; and Education and Children’s Services (me); and Alan Blackie – the Chief Executive.

Back in October 2007 East Lothian Council received a negative Best Value Report:

Accounts Commission deputy chair Isabelle Low said: “East Lothian Council has so far made limited progress in establishing Best Value for its local population, which is of particular concern considering its advantages. And its lack of openness and lack of leadership have not served it well.

Since that time there have been huge changes in the Council, and the Leadership Team have been working on developing a more positive culture which is focused upon the needs of the population of East Lothian. I wrote about our first meeting back in July of last year when  we considered the kind of culture we would aspire to in East Lothian.

Building upon the work started by Alex McCrorie, our team, led by Alan Blackie have been gradually developing our capacity to work together – as opposed to the silos which were a characteristic of the past.  A key step in that journey was our “Challenge for Change”conference held in April that was exceptionally well received and which began to develop a sense of belonging to a worthwhile organisation that could make difference to people’s lives. I don’t think anyone would claim that we are anything but at the beginning of that road – especially with the impact of Single Status, and the associated feelings of being under-valued; the challenge of meeting efficiency savings; and the fact that our customers haven’t yet been able to see a difference.

Having only created the Leadership Team in July last year and with only one meeting a month the “team” dimension was fairly limted – and so it was that we decided earlier this year to organise an event which would allow us to build our capacity to operate as a real team where we knew, valued, trusted and supported each other – but most importantly improved the way in which we led our colleagues and delivered our services.

We made a conscious decision to devise and deliver the course from within our own resources – some similar management team building courses can cost up to £4000 per person. We used the Innerwick Field Study Centre (£10 per night per person) and aside from the contribution of two drama coaches the programme was delivered by East Lothian staff. 

I think all of us had some reservations prior to attending the event, but on reflection the programme was a great success and more than met the outcomes we had set ourselves. I won’t go into the actual detail of the programme but it put us in a variety of situations where we had to rely upon each other, care for each other, make use of each others’ strengths and -most importantly – work together. Throughout it all we kept coming back to how might we work more effectively in the future and change the way in which we currently did things. It was the creativity, courage and honesty which emerged that made it such an exceptionally powerful team experience. 

It all came together when we were asked to try to create a collective metaphor to represent our vision for the kind of service we would like to provide for the people of East Lothian Council. We started off trying to create an arrow, showing a sense of purpose and direction but this was felt to be too focused upon us as opposed to our customers; then we tried a shape which involved supporting people and moving them from one place to another, but this was thought to be too much like a conveyor belt and created a dependency culture; then we struck upon the idea of a doorway, through which people could choose to enter and which led into a space where they were welcomed and supported – we also created high above our heads (and out of sight of users) a network of canes which linked us all together.  As we discussed the idea it reinforced the idea of a single doorway to services, a customer facing organisation, an organisation which was well connected (but where the connections are out of sight), and, lastly, an organisation which welcomed others to join it.  One of the observers commented that she really wanted to go through the doorway and enter the space. This led back to the discussion back in July of last year when one of the possible strap-lines had been “East Lothian: A Space to Grow”. Certainly it seemed to strike a chord with all of us present – a place which enabled people to grow and develop. The idea of giving people space is also a critical concept in creating a healthy public service, i.e. to choose and have a personalised service.

The difference between now and July ’07 is that we now have the bond, the capacity and the shared commitment to actually deliver such a vision.  As is normally the case I’d like to thank all those who worked so hard to put this event together but without any doubt the group which made it the success it was were my colleagues who showed such immense commitment towards each other and who, above all else, showed that they care about delivering a high quality public service to the people of East Lothian.

My last hope that we can consider ways in which we could allow others within the organisation to benefit from such a transformational experience.

TESS Article: Resisting the pressure to “dae sumthin”

Every educational leader, regardless of position, has to wrestle with the powerful temptation to intervene or to meddle in the business of those whom they manage. The logic is fairly simple – “I’m being paid to manage and to be accountable for the work of others – so it’s reasonable that I take action in order to ensure that the desired outcome is achieved.” Maybe it’s something to do with the Scottish work ethic that we feel there’s a need, in the inimitable words of Billy Connolly, to “dae sumthin”.

It’s perhaps one of the most addictive elements of management – “I can fix this” – as the manager learns to solve the problem through direct action. Unfortunately the hidden cost of such behaviour is that it helps to create a dependency culture as everyone comes to know that any problem belongs to the manager – and that the manager will “sort it”.

The ironic consequence of such a relationship is that it leads to dissatisfaction from both sides, i.e. the manager complains that people don’t accept the responsibility which goes with being a professional; and the managed complain that the manager is always interfering with solutions, policies and structures which run directly counter to their ability to do their job.

Yet to challenge such orthodoxy is much more difficult than one might imagine. The pressure to conform to the traditional role of the manager is almost overwhelming. Not to take action, is to be seen to be indecisive, lazy, cowardly, unimaginative or simply not being up to the job. In a similar vein the manager’s own boss has expectations about effective management behaviour and in many cases is expecting the manager to come up with a plan of action that is, most probably proactive, innovative and definitive. It’s this latter adjective which is the most telling in terms of the relationship between the manager and the managed. The definition of the word “definitive” in this sense is “final and unable to be questioned or altered”. In a sense this form of manager’s plan is the Holy Grail, that is something that can be passed on to others and is implemented without question.

Of course, things are never as simple as that for as we know others must carry out the manager’s plan and there exists “many a slip twixt lip and cup”, especially if the “managed” do not fully subscribe to the manager’s solution. It’s into this educational Middle-earth that the manager’s initiatives and centralised plans are launched only to be subverted, modified or ignored. And so it goes on with managers having to conform to their role by taking action, to which they are probably addicted anyway, and the managed expecting the action, criticising if no action is taken, but being free to criticise the action as they have played no part in it’s development.

So how might we help managers escape from the tyranny of the need to always “dae sumthin” in the face of a perceived problem? Perhaps a starting point might be for local authorities to shift from being action focused, i.e. we will implement, act, do; to becoming outcome focused and supporting and enabling the schools to work out the most appropriate action for themselves.  The reality is that what works well in one school is not necessarily the best solution in another school. Yet the pressure to work out the universal solution and to implement it across an entire council is difficult to resist – particularly for those of us who have been addicted to taking action throughout our careers. That’s not to say that local authorities should never seek to implement an action across all schools but at the very least there should be a loop where we ask ourselves if our preferred course of action empowers or disempowers our colleagues in schools.

Nevertheless, Scottish education does appear to be thirled to the idea of “daen things”.  It would be a brave person who wouldn’t back a highly technical, carefully managed and comprehensive plan to implement a course of action across every school in an authority, against a strategy which placed the decision about what type of action to take in the hands of the individual school.