Head to Head

Meerkats and School Management

What on earth does a book about meerkats have to do with schools or school management?  That seems like a fair question!  When I tell you the title is “That’s not how we do it here!”, you might see why I picked it up during a time where our governance structures are being challenged.

If, like me, you have been struggling to get a full grip on the Government’s vision for the future governance of Scottish Education and how the different parts will work together – Government, Collaboratives, Local Authorities and schools – then a new book by John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber might help a little.

In this rather unusual management/leadership theory book they have decided to express their thinking about leadership and management through fable about meerkat clans facing new challenges.  In a very short text they explore the separation and links between leadership, management, operation and innovation.

If you can bear an adult fable (they recognise it is not for everyone “Unless you simply dislike fables for adults – in which case let us say we are extremely impressed that you had the discipline to make it past page 10…”) then working through this text might give you some comfort about how our new governance landscape could progress retaining the best of our current system and building on that with freedoms which allow not only experimentation but system-wide learning.

The hero of our tale is Nadia.  She is part of a large and successful, if stifling, meerkat community.  The community has developed ways of working which are rigid and must be adhered to without question.  In a time of relative plenty, these systems have served the community well.  However, when the rainfall fails to come, hunger and new predators arrive and the community starts to have problems.  It tries to do the same things – which have served it well for a long time – better or more.  Everyone works harder but the old systems don’t fit the new reality.

Nadia tries to suggest different ways of working and when she is met with a brick wall she sets off in search of other communities to find out if others are handling these changes better.  After a couple of false starts she eventually comes upon a small group who are not only surviving but thriving.  They operate almost like a commune – they are free to innovate and to work in voluntary groups on tasks they think will benefit the community.  This works well to start with and attract many new Meerkats but as the tribe grows it is clear that only working on things that suit individuals is not enough to ensure a thriving community for long – freeloaders appeared and routine, necessary, tasks went undone.

Nadia has a revelation, if she could somehow combine the structures and systems of her home community with the scope to innovate and improve in the new community then that would unlock the huge positives of each approach and protect against the disadvantages of each.  Essentially, she came up with traditional structure (ensuring that ‘what works’ gets done) but accompanied it with innovation hubs in which workers were free to try new ways of working that challenged norms rather than accept that what currently is seen as the way we do things is the perfect, unchallengeable, approach.
How does this relate to the proposed new governance arrangements and freedoms for schools?

It relates on two levels – the system level and the school level.

System level:

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.  There are many practices and systems which form part of the way we do things (in terms of working within the LEA) that are not only sound but are necessary for effective working.  Just because schools are to be afforded more freedoms in our new landscape doesn’t mean that schools should ignore all that has gone by and start afresh in all areas.  The freedoms afforded to schools should be seen as an opportunity to examine current systems and to Ditch, Defend or Dissect.  This means we look at all we do, consider how they contribute to the learner journey and decide what we will Ditch (no longer do), Defend (keep at the core of how we work) or Dissect (examine more closely to decide whether to ditch, defend or whether there is a more effective or efficient way to undertake the task).  What the HT Charter promises to do is to afford school leaders a louder voice in this examination of ‘The way we do things round here’ than has been the case in most areas in the past.  

Regional Collaboratives – if working as envisaged – should be the innovation centres which simultaneously enable and share innovation and effective new ways of working.  They should not be directive either in drawing people together to innovate or in pushing the latest ‘best practice’. instead they should always allow schools and local authorities to consider examples of apparent good practice in their local context.

School level:

Some contributors and other unions have highlighted concerns about new powers potentially going to Head’s heads (if you will).  The principles set out in this book, and above when looking at the system level, apply just as much at the school level.  Simply because the plan is for a HT charter doesn’t mean that HTs should stop working in a collaborative way with the school team.  There will still need to be structures and agreed ways of doing things but HTs will need to continue to ensure schools have a culture with not only permits but encourages those norms to be challenged and potentially superseded by ‘new norms’. As always, this means genuine engagement with staff, pupils and parents in pursuit of ‘better’.