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THE ROLE OF SCHOOL LEADERS IN MAKING CHANGE STICK



Post summary

  • The ‘Making Change Stick’ programme is designed to overcome the many problems associated with top-down change.

  • However, it is not ‘anti-leadership’. Quite the opposite - school leaders play a number of important roles in the 'Making Change Stick' process.

  • These include:

    • Understanding the ‘Making Change Stick’ process:

      • Time

      • Timing

      • Resourcing

      • Devolving responsibility to the Vertical Slice team

    • As well as:

      • Setting the course

      • Selling the vision

      • Establishing a culture of trust

      • Overseeing communications planning

      • Coordinating monitoring and evaluation

      • Recognising failure for what it is: feedback in wolf’s clothing

  • Some school leaders have suggested that the Making Change Stick programme is an ethical, relational approach to school leadership, which harnesses the power of collective efficacy from throughout the school community



Let's get into it


The ‘Making Change Stick’ programme is designed to overcome many of the problems association with top-down change.


However, it is not ‘anti-leadership’. Quite the opposite - school leaders play a number of important roles in this process.


Understanding the 'Making Change Stick' process


Firstly, school leaders need to have a clear understanding of what’s involved in the 'Making Change Stick' process. There are four main things to consider here:


1. Time


It usually takes around 24 hours to work through the toolkit and write the implementation plan. Usually, this takes the form of 8x 3h session, or 12x 2h, spread across a period of one or two terms.


This is a significant time investment. However, once people have been trained in the approach, the time commitment drops off significantly – and newcomers can get up to speed quickly using the online course (it’s also important to have an onboarding procedure - we’ll return to this shortly).


Leaders also need to be mindful about how much time is required to execute the implementation plan once it has been written. Naturally, this depends on the initiative you’re working on.


Finally, leaders need to be aware at the outset that this is a long-term commitment. Depending on the school improvement initiative you’re working on, you should be thinking in terms of a 3 to 5-year implementation period in order to bring about embedded, sustained improvements.


This isn’t to say we don’t start seeing results straight away - we often do - but this is how long it takes for this new way of doing things to become part of “the way we do things around here”.


2. Timing


You can do this training at any time in the school year and find it useful. However, as a rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to start the training at least one full term before the end of the academic year, and ideally two full terms. This will give the Vertical Slice Team ample time to complete the training, to write the implementation plan and to make the required preparations for the next school year.


It’s also important to be mindful of ‘pinch points’ throughout the year. Running the ‘Making Change Stick’ programme is a significant time commitment. It's important not to overload the Vertical Slice Team, by making sure that any planned sessions don't take place in the same week as things like parents evenings, report-writing and assessment weeks.


3. Resourcing


As you monitor and evaluate your school improvement initiative over time, there will be many points at which you will need to make decisions with resourcing implications. We’ll return to this in a future post on ‘pivot or persevere meetings’.


So, in addition to the time involved in completing the training and writing the implementation plan, there may be additional costs to consider with regard to training colleagues, coaching them, covering lessons and so on. Resourcing such things is a vitally important part of the implementation process, and getting this right should remain a priority throughout the implementation period.


4. Devolving decision-making to the VST


Finally, as we have seen in two previous posts (here and here), it’s really important for school leaders to understand that the Making Change Stick programme requires school leaders to devolve decision-making to a Vertical Slice Team. This is perhaps the most important feature of this approach to change management.


School leaders will be on the Vertical Slice Team. But their voice should be equally weighted with the other members of the team, and they shouldn’t try to exercise veto rights based on their position as a senior member of staff. If you do this, you fall straight back into the problems with top-down change we examined in a previous post.


If you aren’t comfortable with this way of doing things, the ‘Making Change Stick’ programme is not for you at this point in time.



Other important stuff for leaders to do


As well as understanding what’s involved in the ISS process, school leaders play a number of other key roles. Here are a few.


Set the course


Although the Vertical Slice Team will take part in the decision-making process around ‘choosing your focus’, it is likely that the senior leadership team will make the initial decision as to which avenue of school improvement you would like to explore through this approach - or which outcomes you would most like to improve, for example. 'Choosing your focus’ will be topic of next week’s post.


Sell the vision


There are two aspects to this.


Firstly, it’s important to sell the vision for the chosen area of focus. This will gather pace as the ‘communications plan’ kicks into action (another topic for a future post).


Secondly, it’s important to sell the ‘Making Change Stick’ process to colleagues. Although the change process is coordinated by a Vertical Slice Team, the entire school community needs to know that the VST has the full support of the Senior Team. This will need to be communicated clearly and repeatedly, to different groups of people and through different channels.


Establish a culture of trust


There are several levels to this.


  • Trust in the Vertical Slice Team.

  • Trust in the ‘Making Change Stick’ process.

  • Trust in your colleagues to do the right thing.

  • Trust in pupils, parents/carers and the wider school community.

  • Trust in the change initiative.


Trust is not given for free, and sometimes it can feel like a leap of faith. But if you trust in the process - and if you place your trust in the people involved - you will receive the trust of the school community in return. And this will significantly enhance the likelihood that you will bring about lasting improvements.


Oversee communications planning


It’s really important that school leaders take a lead on overseeing communications planning - while making sure that leaders’ voices are not the only ones heard. Instead, you should aim to conduct a chorus of voice, communicating different messages to different audiences through different channels throughout the implementation period.


One of the reasons so many school improvement initiatives fizzle out is that people simply stop talking about it. It fades from their mental dashboards and is endlessly replaced by the ‘next big thing’.


Having a comprehensive communications plan which combines ‘transmission’ messaging with engineering ways for ‘people to talk to people’ is the way to combat this, and school leaders are absolutely key to this aspect of the implementation process. If you’re going to bring people with you, it’s really important to narrate the change journey - the highs as well as the lows.


This will be the focus of a future post.


Coordinate monitoring and evaluation


Once the implementation plan has been written and we move into the ‘making it happen’ phase, monitoring and evaluation really becomes the beating heart of the process. This is a hugely important topic which will be the focus of several future posts, and it will depend on your ability to coordinate the collection of high quality data from throughout the community. School leaders are essential in making this happen.


Recognise failure for what it is: feedback in wolf’s clothing


Often, when we implement a new school improvement initiative, it can take a while to hit our stride. Sometimes, things get worse before they get better - the so-called ‘implementation dip’.


There are two key concerns here. You don’t want to fall prey to ‘weathervane leadership’, changing your course as soon as you hit a bump in the road. That said, you don’t want to fall victim to the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ either, continuing with a course of action long after it has proven to be ineffective, in the hope that “it’ll come good in the end”.


Your ability to bring about lasting, positive change depends on how well you manage to walk this tightrope. A key role of school leaders therefore is to hold your nerve - to take risks and to give new ideas and practices the time and space they need to grow legs - while being aware of the need to ‘pivot’ when the evidence tells you to do so.

We often tell students that they need to learn from their mistakes. As teachers and school leaders, we need to afford ourselves the same luxury.


An ethical, relational approach to school leadership


The ‘Making Change Stick’ programme was initially created as a programme that would help schools implement a particular policy in an effective way.


However, as I’ve shared this programme with hundreds of schools, all over the world,I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover that many people see this programme as representing a new approach to school leadership.


In particular, some school leaders who have taken part in this programme have described it as a framework for ethical, relational school leadership.


To illustrate, there are testimonial quotes in the playbook by two school leaders - Kate Barry and Elaine Long - who took part in the initial pilot study of the ‘Making Change Stick’ programme four years ago.


Here's Elaine Long, who was Assistant Head for Teaching and Learning at the time of the pilot study:

“What I love about implementation science is that it really champions ethical leadership. Not only is it highly effective – it’s the best way to lead change because we know that you lead through people – but it’s also very ethical and it’s very empowering. If we look at John Hattie’s analysis of school, he cites collective efficacy as the number one influence. Implementation science helps you achieve that because you get a body of people around you who really believe that they can make a difference and they’re involved in the change. So it does all of those things at once. It encourages us as leaders to be anti-fragile and to improve ourselves and to be humble, and I think those are the core aspects of leadership. And I think it also improves relational trust. Because if you’re a leader in a school and you’re out of touch with what people are thinking you’re going to lose trust automatically. So for me it’s really rich and I’ve been so grateful for my involvement in it because it’s done so much for the policy and for me personally.”

And here's Kate Barrry, who was Assistant Head for Leadership at the time of the pilot study:


“It’s something that really resonated with my style of leadership. I think it is a process that makes staff feel heard and feel valued and feel empowered. We know that the change in school is going to be the behaviour of people, so it has to be done with people and not something that’s done to them. I also think it utilises all that knowledge and expertise that’s in your institution. It’s not relying on a small number of people sat around a board table. And we know that change in schools is going to be so context-specific. And you’ve got all these stakeholders who know your school so well and I think implementation science ensures that you use that experience and knowledge that you have to make it successful.”

We can see in these two quotes how the Making Change Stick programme was not only successful in terms of implementing a policy. It also helped these two senior leaders develop their practice more widely.


If you’re interested to hear more about Kate and Elaine’s thoughts on the programme, there’s a 40-minute video here (and below) in which I interview them about their experience of the Making Change Stick pilot study.


Kate and Elaine also discuss the pilot study at length in an episode of the Rethinking Education podcast, available here.


Next week, we’ll look at how to choose which avenue of school improvement to focus on through the ‘Making Change Stick’ programme.



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