Front loading the thinking

During my discussion with Martyn Reah for the teacher5aday podcast, I found myself circling back to a handful of key principles, particularly around how we approach supporting staff in schools through policy change. If we think about the process of change in the workplace, we often focus on what the change might do, as opposed to what the change will need in order to be successful. I think we also overlook how change implementation, when executed well, can be a force for good when looking at the culture and community of a school.

The mechanics of what the change is- policy construction, how much it would cost to fund with regards to physical resourcing but also staff time costing- these all require contemplation prior to making change, but we also need to consider how staff will be included within the change itself: from their involvement in pre- implementation feedback, to their participation with the transition of change and beyond.

When considering implementation of change in schools, we sometimes fail to plot out the thinking required prior even to mapping out of what the initiative might look like in a term, six months, a year’s time (my blog on this might provide a little insight here). Shifting existing processes, even the most effective initiative that will undoubtedly improve working conditions for staff or improve the quality of learning for students, will feel disjointed or could fall apart entirely without the fundamental thinking work that needs to take place first. The very best initiative will feel anything but, if we do not front load the planning of change, because so much of its success is dependent upon to what extent we have thought about the shift in culture or mindset that it will provoke.

The standard litmus

Before any of this planning can take place, we need to ask two questions of the initiative that we hope will benefit school development: will this improve student outcomes? What needs to be removed to communicate this as a priority? With the second of these questions, have we thought not just about the time that the initiative will need to feature as part of our day to day school life, but increase in time initially for the essentially planning work to be undertaken. For instance, we want to incorporate a tutor time reading programme across the school. Will it improve student outcomes? Yes, because we know that reading will improve the student experience, but also their ability to access the wider curriculum as a whole (one study, albeit a small scale, provides insightful data on this here). What needs to be revisited to communicate this as a priority? We need to ensure the reading programme has training aligned with it to ensure staff feel confident to read with their groups. We need to ensure we allocate time into tutor time for it to be possible. We need to front load the start of the programme with staff modelling and therefore championing the process. We need to make sure when selecting books of sufficient challenge, that we are striking a balance between this selection and ensuring staff know about these books.

Keen to fit initiative into the neat timeframe of academic years, this perception that all change in schools can be planned, undertaken and effectively evaluated at all levels and stages of the process within a nine month timeframe is a little blinkered. Whilst school improvement plans often work beyond the remit of a year-to-year standpoint, many settings fail to consider how a process could seek to develop a school in three, five, even seven years time. If we consider a student-focused initiative, what do we expect to see as success from a student that goes through the entire educational roadmap of our school? Have we spent time actualising what we hope that will look like? Once we articulate what successful change will look like in the longer term, can we then chunk this into components of how this might look? For instance, to return to our reading programme, we want to plot out a reading curriculum as such- why those books, now? How does it enable students to feel as though they are on a journey? Or perhaps, if we look at a staff- specific example, we want to take a more focused approach to teaching vocabulary across subjects. Successful implementation will be that staff all feel empowered and confident to undertake this with the year groups they teach. How do we break that down to components of success, in a gradual, incremental way that enables us to review the process as it starts to take shape? The EEF implementation framework outlines the importance of establishing the ‘active ingredients,’ of change, but I would argue that it is worth taking the time to consider how that change will be actualised one and around the school at various different stages. For example:

– teachers attend a training session around tiered vocabulary and etymology of words

– teachers trial this with one class and share impact at faculty meetings to assert a common language for how this can be used for their particular subject

– teachers attend a training session around using concrete examples and activating prior knowledge when teaching vocabulary. This session includes a feedback interval which enables discussion of what has been working for teaching vocabulary in their subject, and closes with how the current training session enhances that process

– teachers trial using examples and share best practice during faculty time. Middle leaders share thoughts and findings with line managers so that the process can be refined or, so teachers who have found success with teaching etymology or who have found crossover between their subject and other subject vocabulary can then share their approach.

– teachers who have found success in subjects are given time in faculty meetings to share what they have done, but also to help overcome objections or obstacles that other teachers have encountered. These teachers collate information to create a crib sheet which can then be contextualised with a training session, incorporating findings and concrete examples for the previous year.

Establishing this long- term destination in advance as a collective process enables us to look beyond immediate impact that may be more performative: if staff are directed to include it within their own professional development agenda, then there is a high likelihood that evaluation of such implementation will be highly flawed. Consequently, a significant time spent as a collaborative action, defining success and mapping back how long it may take to reasonably reach that process is key. It also enables a ‘tight-loose’ approach to evaluating the journey of that process- are we where we expected to be at this point of implementation? Why/ why not? Where does the original roadmap need to be amended using the original principles? This ensures that as school communities, we are responsive in our adjustments, instead of merely ploughing ahead with a plan, because it is the plan!

Another consideration is the timing of the stages of change themselves: initiatives can fall down when the time hasn’t been made available or used as an implicit tool to communicate the priority. There is also the matter of contemplating whether the timing is apt and in line with other agendas, deadlines or key aspects of the school plan or calendar. When would such a change be most effectively received? What other pressures are going to accumulate at the same time to potentially create a pinch point? How might we look to communicate such changes? For example, are we looking to roll out a large-scale change and the communication is on the same week as a moderation schedule, or mock exams, or even the end of term? If so, the emphasis of propriety May get lost through what is perceived as a myriad of agenda. Through careful construction of the calendar, discussions with senior leadership or middle leadership around sharing individual agendas, we can plan for when works best for our context to ensure staff have the time and capacity to receive the communication in a timely manner.

Once we have researched the change we plan to make, plotted out possible solutions and mapped out a plan of incremental steps that place emphasis upon use of time, what success may look like at each stage, and what we might need with regards to resourcing, we can then look to how this will impact people within the staff body. This impact scrutiny should seek to establish through dialogue inquiry, these two key considerations:

– who will be directly involved within this change in order to ensure it is successful?

– who will be impacted as a result of this change, at which point, and how?

We can then set about the task of hypothesising with those affected to implement an improved process and had to articulate to at least another member of staff the rationale behind that process. Discussions with staff should be undertaken as a series of layers: how have we gained staff voice at all levels to get a really accurate insight as to what this will look like at every level of the staff body? If we are looking to simplify a behaviour policy for example, how does the simplification appear to the 22 hour classroom teacher? Does the process give clarity in such a way that it will be used consistently and honestly- will staff feel empowered to use it? Where can administrative staff provide insight as to data input- report running and the manpower to enable this to happen in a timely manner? Where can unions look to support and provide opinion? Working as a collegiate at these early stages ensures that not only are staff part of the process of change, but pitfalls will be identified far quicker by those in roles who will experience impact of varying degree.

Whilst whole school surveys can be helpful for providing a large-scale snapshot of these ideas and opinions, seeking out staff who will have honest, mutually respectful conversations about how the original concept of implementation could be actualised is not only helpful for ensuring that areas of impact haven’t been overlooked, but that buy-in is sought, not through an artificial manner of tokenistic feedback, but through rich discussions that will drive both initiative and relationships in school forwards.

Finally, and perhaps most integral to the process, is how these stages of change are communicated to those affected, in all regards. HBR found within a study into redundancy communications, that managers spent a great deal of time curating emails, or repeats key aspects of the message to ensure their communication was lost in the noise of other agenda.

Schools are busy places, and people will naturally have questions- these are not a criticism of the implemented idea, but simply an interrogation of how it might be expected to look, and to help them get a handle on what is being asked, and so we have a duty of care to consider not only that initial communication, but how we are following it up. Just because you emailed it, doesn’t mean everyone has got it.

Instead, we might consider communication in regards to what, how and how many times, but also when- and this returns us to the front loading. Sometimes, we think if we are planning whole- school change, we should withhold it and release the news as some sort of large-scale social announcement, when actually, initiatives typically work best when we give drip feed the idea, toy with it, have those useful discussions, return to it at various levels of our organisations and then, a term or two before we envisage the change to take place, we communicate this in a way that is clear, can be returned to, and provides an outlet for questions.

For instance, if communicating a new appraisal process, you might look to carry out all your front-loaded investigatory work over the course of the year before, then share the new policy and process at Easter, some six months before the start of implementation. It may be that this takes the form of a delivered session (and in current times, online) which is three recorded and can be revisited. It may be that you not only establish a period of time to collate questions for staff following the session, but that you anticipate some of those questions and include an FAQ. It may be that you follow up the session with a short email that provides the headlines: three or four key points, again, welcoming questions.

Through front loading the thinking, we can not only hope to provide information in a way that seeks our honest feedback, encourages questions and provides a slow, incremental element to the process as a whole, but more powerfully than that, we use change as a vehicle for the development of professional relationships. the change that takes place might be slower than we first anticipated, but it enables us to take everyone along with us on the journey to improvement, not for ‘buy-in’ but because staff investment is key to sustainable, long term change.


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