The secret of my SDP success (part 1)

I wrote this the other day, safe in the assumption that nobody would want to actually read about the joys of school development planning (SDP). Well, you could have knocked me down with a feather when literally ones of people wrote to me saying that they really were interested, and, please could I share my strategic wisdom with them.  Now, I don’t know about you but I like to use the Ofsted criteria for statistical significance, so, when a third person showed interest it was clear that I had to consider a proportional and appropriate response. Hence why this Saturday, as well as attending the school Christmas Fair (where I spent most of the time trying to avoid getting my face painted), I found myself writing this seminal treatise on strategic school development planning.

It was a couple of years ago when I had my SDP epiphany. I was at the Birmingham Inspiring Leadership conference and Alastair Campbell was on stage. He was a late booking because someone more educatey had pulled out. Nevertheless, he was delighted to be here as he had just written a new book called ‘Winners’ and he happened to have a spare hundred copies in his van that he said he’d happily flog us at the end of the show. He also said he’d share a few funny stories about John Prescott as long as we promised not to record them and upload them to YouTube because, in Campbell’s words, Big JP still has a temper and a mean right hook. As it seemed pretty clear we were all going to be winners by the end of this hour we agreed to let him talk. I won’t go into too much detail about his talk because you’d be better off buying his book and reading it yourself.  But there was one detail that really stood out.

The difference between ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’.

Lots of people, claimed Campbell, do not know the difference between a strategy and a tactic. Those that do, succeed. Those that don’t, often wonder why things aren’t succeeding as well as they thought they would during the planning stage. This was perfect timing for me as I was just about to start writing my new school development plan. After the conference, as I strolled to the Birmingham library to begin writing the SDP before my train arrived, I wondered if I knew the difference.

First though, I had to write my aim. Alastair Campbell said that your objective, or overall aim, should be bold and simple. That suited me just fine. After seven minutes I came up with one of the key aims of my new plan: ‘All teaching is brilliant’. Nobody, I thought, could argue with that. Why wouldn’t you want all teaching to be brilliant? Surely that is an idea that would unite everyone.

Now I had to come up with my strategy.

I began writing a list. Trouble is, I realised that I was just listing tactics:

  • Lesson Observations
  • Work Monitoring
  • Collaborative teaching projects

I tried putting these into long sentences in the hope that they would become more strategic.

  • Termly lesson observations to identify strengths within the teaching profile and areas of teaching that require improvement.

I imagined handing this over to Campbell for approval. I closed my eyes and could see him rolling up my SDP and beating me with it whilst calling me a small-minded unstrategic idiot. Why couldn’t I do it? Why couldn’t I understand what my overarching strategy was going to be?

And then it hit me.

What was my belief that underpinned all my tactics? Why did I think that these tactics would move the school forward so that all teaching would be brilliant? When I thought about how I would introduce all these tactics to my senior leaders, my governors and my teachers I suddenly knew what my strategy was:

Total commitment to all staff’s professional development.

The strategy was a mind-set. It was a lens that brought into focus the true purpose of all the tactics. No longer would this list of tactics be working on a deficit model of school improvement: making sure bare minimum requirements were reached or identifying where teaching needed to improve. The emphasis would not be on the teachers to try and get through these tactical actions unscathed. It would now be up to the senior leaders to make these tactics worthwhile. This is something they could only do if they were genuinely committed to helping everyone become even better.

When I discussed this with the SLT, I made it clear that only by keeping the strategy in the forefront of their minds would these tactics work. If all they were doing was carrying them out to make a judgement on teachers we would fail. If all they focussed on were the systems of teaching we would never achieve brilliant teaching across the whole school. Only if they were committed to finding ways of improving every teacher’s effectiveness would every teacher reach their potential.

When I launched this to the staff, I made it clear that in twelve months they would be better teachers. I didn’t know the specifics as to how. There was no blueprint. It wasn’t going to be because they used a marking policy or mapped out their differentiation in a way that the SENCO preferred. No, they were going to get better because the senior leaders would be working with them, side by side. Together they would explore the quality of their teaching, in the context of their current class, to identify something that might work even better. No teacher would get left behind. No teacher was too good to get better. No teacher would be unsupported. No leader would be unapproachable because we were all committed to them.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone then stood on their tables and called me ‘My Captain’ but there was a genuine sense of excitement as we started that year. Teachers understood the aim, trusted the strategy and no longer feared the tactics.

And it worked. Not that it’s the only measure of success but I got the Ofsted to prove it. More importantly I developed a team of teachers who enjoy being professionally looked after. They expect me, and the senior leaders, to help them get better. We all start the year knowing that by the end of the year we’ll be even better teachers. This year, we’ve taken it further. We have new tactics. But the strategy hasn’t changed.

So there it is. The key to successful school development planning in three simple words:

  • Aim
  • Strategy
  • Tactics

Thanks Alastair. #winners


And he said ‘let there be light’ and there was…well it wasn’t as dark, let’s just leave it at that.

Beginning my third year as a Head I think we would all agree I am now considered something of an oracle of leadership. That must be why I have found myself co-co-ordinating an induction programme for new Heads in Bristol. There is not a lot I don’t know about being a head and all the fresh-faced newbies attending the five day course will find that out pretty quickly – I probably won’t show my powers too early for fear of intimidating them but, they’ll know…I mean one look at me and they’ll just know.

Or so I thought when @manwithadog asked if I would like to help him lead the induction programme – it was him that the LA actually asked for. In reality I think he only asked me to tag along for my PowerPoint and Prezi skills and to have someone to organise the photocopying. The fact that the local authority said ‘Who?’ when he put my name forward is neither here nor there and should be put out of the reader’s mind for the rest of this post.

So, yes, I was very pleased and excited to be helping the heads of tomorrow (well the heads of today really, but you get my point).

Then I made the mistake of visiting @PrimaryHead1 at the weekend, who has recently left the city to go and work in the country, under the delusion that the more cows at the end of your garden, the less stress you feel at the end of the day. After I had sampled the very best of country living (this consisted of walking past a chicken farm, attempting to row a boat, suggestively feeling up a bulrush and trying to get a cow to lick my hand) we started to talk about his new school.

It was about this time that I began to feel the old familiar pangs of insecurity and, whatever the word is that describes the feeling that you’re drowning in a pool of inadequacy whilst being arrested for fraud. As @PrimaryHead1 began to talk about his new school it dawned on me just how terrifying taking over a school is. I don’t care what kind of school it is, becoming the Head of it, is a challenge in the way that Everest is a steep hill. When you actually learn the reality of your own school however, that steep hill becomes an even more gargantuan climb. Think I’m over egging the pudding? Well, consider if you will, the last time you met a Head Teacher who said at the end of their first term ‘This is going to be easier than I thought actually’ and you can be rest assured that the egg in my proverbial pudding is over your face and not mine.

No, becoming a Head of a new school is terrifying. A school that is out of your comfort zone: even more so; and although that could mean a special school, a massive school, a small school, an urban school, a country school, an academy, a free school (I could go on) it could also, quite rightfully, mean any school where suddenly you are the accountable one.

So this was just great, I was now feeling that I would be the worst person to induct a bunch of new Heads, but I dutifully created a PowerPoint, did some photocopying, chose a tie that suggested ‘confident control’ and prepared to look wise.

As the first induction day continued and the new Heads appreciated both the transition effects I had selected for the slideshow and the fact that I had colour photocopied everything, we began to ask them to reflect on their year so far. Just like @PrimaryHead1, each of their situations sounded uniquely terrifying to me. But as we continued round the group I noticed some common themes, dilemmas and questions:

  1. What you were told about the school on interview day and what you found out about the school by the end of day one tended to differ significantly.
  2. How do you get the school community to see things differently and accept that change is coming whilst being sensitive to the fact that they’ve been working very hard to make this what it is today?
  3. Who do you ring when you have to do something ‘Headteachery’ and you haven’t a clue how?

After listening to their own tales of how they jumped out of the frying pan and ended up in the fire I began to relax – not because I’m a sadist but because I realised that I may yet be of some help. You see I know what it’s like to realise that the job you took on is too big for you and that if you’d known you wouldn’t have accepted, heck, if the interview panel had known they wouldn’t have asked you in the first place. I know what it’s like to be a lone voice within a community desperately trying to get them to come with you in the hope that they don’t all rise up beat you senseless with a copy of your own SEF. And I also know what it’s like to not know many, many things and be too fearful of ringing another Head for help in case I’m rightfully judged to be an idiot. I know all this…and I’m still a Head!

I’ve lived through all their fears – still do on a daily basis – and I’m still here.

I am the proof that you can do it.

I am the light.

I am the oracle.

I am a Head.

Game of Shadows



According to Dr Avis Glaze there are 21 trends for the 21st century that will have a profound impact on education and therefore the whole of society. During her talk at #ILConf2014 we were asked to pick our top trend. I chose number 16.

A spotlight will fall on how people gain authority and use it.

I chose this as it seemed to me to be a worrying example of locking a stable door after the horse has bolted, set up a meth lab, organised a red wedding and is now trying to become president of the United States.

For any cats without a Netflix subscription let me explain. The authority has already been gained, in shadowy darkness, and the spotlight, by shining on how it is being used, has been turned on too late.

You just have to cast your eyes over the ‘Trojan horse’ headlines concerning those handful of schools in Birmingham that have hogged the spotlight recently. These schools illustrate not the faults of Islam extremism but of the subversion of power within a particular type of school. As local authorities fracture, the cracks have been filled with unregulated systems of power.

Is it surprising that in these schools there are stories of governing bodies becoming distorted with an over-representation of a single-minded vision that has gradually suffocated and silenced the Head? Allowed to operate outside the local authority and with less checks than state maintained schools, for academies, there is no spotlight except for Ofsted.

And when the corruption and damage to a school-full of young people is finally exposed it should prompt the ultimate powers that be to re-think the system; instead however, their solution is to maintain the organisational status quo whilst trying to now catch everyone else unawares.

Sadly it doesn’t stop there. What about those academies where it is not the governors who are operating under the radar and on the sly, but the Heads themselves? Never mind the pathological lying crazies who syphon off the school budget to pay for parties, holidays, unaccountable pay-rises and an awful lot of shoes; what about the career nepotism? What about those organisations where the common interview is something that they have neither the time nor the inclination to bother with? I mean it is easier to invite someone for a cup of coffee and offer them a job whilst you’re dunking your hob-nobs, than go through the tedious process of shortlisting, putting in place a panel, coming up with tasks and actually putting a range of people through their paces in order to, you know, find the best person for the job, but hey…who’s watching?

I’m all for building up a team and spotting talent but I’m also a believer that the good will out. If I had someone in my mind who I wanted to get a job but found someone else better through interview then surely I still win. I get the best person, a nice clean conscience and the smug feeling that everyone else knows I make decisions for the school not for my convenience.

More importantly, if you do appoint through the nudge-nudge wink-wink system how are you building in accountability? How can you justify their authority and your integrity when the spotlight shines on your organisation and it casts no shadow? Your failings are always your own but at least when the gaining of authority has been proper, the processes you go through to sort out the problems are easier to put in place because we can rely on, oh what’s the word, ah, yes; we can rely on our professionalism.

Finally, and this seems like a far more trivial example of the 21st century gaining of authority than those mentioned already, what about twitter? Is it a sorry state of affairs that popular social media users gain authority, or if not authority, influence? I have experienced this first-hand (albeit on an exceedingly small scale) when I was asked to DfE to talk about the new national curriculum and life beyond levels. I was not asked because I am an outstanding Headteacher, or because I was an outstanding teacher or because I have contributed anything of significance to the world of education. I was asked because I tweet and have written one or two blogs about education that, if I’m lucky, contain the odd cheap gag. Is this really an appropriate acquisition of authority? Now don’t worry, I do not seriously consider myself to have any ‘authority’ with the DfE but the principle of government and policy makers allowing themselves to be influenced by social media commentators occasionally seems a bit worrying. I mean, can’t they think for themselves? Should they really go after popular opinion so lazily? Does a massively re-tweeted message necessarily contain a sensible idea?

Probably not.

But at least in the world of social media the spotlight is on. Those tweets and blogs are for everyone to read and opposition to any popular tweet is just as visible to anyone willing to be engaged. If, when the spotlight shines, the public do not like what they see, they will simply unfollow and the deranged ramblings will fade to black and cease to have any influence or authority.

The same cannot be said for those who have been allowed to have authority within a world of shadows.