The targets are strong with this one



I was so pleased with this year’s appraisal process. I kept it simple. I stripped it back. More importantly – I thought – the teachers had ownership over their targets.* You may not believe me but most teachers seemed to leave the meeting with a spring in their step. They were, dare I say, excited that we’d identified something for them to focus on throughout the year. We didn’t worry too much about past lesson observations or previous years’ foci. Instead, we had an honest conversation about their year so far. This may sound odd but I like to expect my teachers to struggle. No matter how good they are, or successful they have been in the past, I find it’s healthier to presume that this could be the year it all goes wrong! I appreciate that on the surface that sounds quite negative but I assure you it’s not. I think it’s quite positive. It certainly takes the pressure of feeling that past successes must be improved upon without fail or else it’s capability time. This way you’re allowed to be human. You can be faced with whatever challenge is in your classroom safe in the knowledge that you can come to me and I won’t say ‘A teacher of your calibre shouldn’t find that a challenge. Oh my, I thought you were good!’ So, in they came with comments like:

  • Man, I thought I was good with behaviour but this class, WOW! I’m going to need some help with this, Boss.
  • I’ve got three new arrivals, Chief. I can’t understand them. They can’t understand me. Help me out please.
  • Crikey these lot are clever! I’ll need some advice about how to stretch them, Big Guy.
  • Hey Ice, what’s PDA? Our SENCO says I’ve got four kids with it. Help me out.

It was great. Honest conversations about areas of professional development they needed help with. That’s what appraisals are for. Not regurgitating tired Ofsted criteria or vanilla statements from the school development plan. This year, we were keeping it real. Teachers felt good because they could talk about a difficulty without being judged for it. I felt good because all these targets would improve what we were putting in place for the children.

I was psyched. I was pumped. I was totally ready for my own appraisal.

My Chair of Governors asked me to consider what targets I would want and email them across before the meeting. I dutifully reflected on the SDP and came up with four or five robust targets that would surely improve the school. They were linked to achievement, teaching, learning, behaviour, leadership and my personal development.

I attended my appraisal with a panel of governors and was shown four targets that pretty much had nothing to do with what I had prepared. Only one of them contained the briefest of nods towards what I thought should be my focus. I was a little stunned and a little more than disappointed.

One of the governors asked how I felt. I was respectful, but it was pretty clear to everyone in the room that I wasn’t exactly sold on the four targets I was clearly going to be given.

We discussed them. The cases put forward were:

ME: These don’t have anything to do with the areas of the school that I am actually accountable for.

THEM: We totally trust you to lead successfully on teaching and behaviour so why not push you out of your comfort zone.

ME: School improvement isn’t comfortable!

THEM: School improvement is what you will always do. These targets reflect the unique challenging circumstances the school, nay all schools, are facing.

ME: Oh very bloody clever!

I won’t go into detail about what the targets were but, to be fair to the governors, they had a point. Their target suggestions may have less to do with my job description than previous years but they do represent the reality of running a school in 2016-17. It is not going to be easy and, on reflection, it is only right that my targets be focussed on the nitty-gritty of the school I am leading. Without us knowing it, the governors and I had approached the appraisal process in almost identical ways. We had both asked our appraisees to consider the year ahead, focusing on the potential failures before making that the subject of the future. And the fact that the teachers seemed more excited about their targets than I did about mine maybe says more about the state of education rather than the appraisal focus.

Reflecting back, I now consider the teachers, walking out of their appraisals with a spring in their step, to be like children walking out of the cinema after watching ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’. Whereas I felt more like a depressed child crying all the way home after watching Luke get his hand chopped off in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. It may be stark. It may appear bleak.  But it is exactly what it needs to be. I am slowly concluding that my appraisal targets for this year may be the best I’ve ever had.

Now all I need to do is make sure that, in a year’s time, my appraisal review completes the trilogy and the governors will celebrate ‘The Return of the Jedi’.


*Well, not the achievement targets; I still set those. ‘SLT scum!’ I hear some of you scream. Yeah, I know, I know. It’s old-fashioned, but it’s my school and I’m setting achievement targets.

Poor leadership? It could be you!


Leadership is beset with barriers. Sadly, the biggest barrier is often the leaders. Schools can provide the perfect environment for ineffective leaders to develop, and, for my money, there are three main causes: fear, hope and time.

I call these the Holy Trinity of poor leadership choices. Wherever there is poor leadership, at least one of these factors will be part of the problem. The fear that you will be judged to be ineffective by your colleagues, your governors, or Ofsted can derail even the most experienced leader. Who can blame them? We are trying to run schools in a world where the bar is being raised in such extreme and unknown ways that it seems, at times, impossible to rely on your experience and professionalism to guide the way. We’re living in the brave new world where previous knowns are now no longer existent. It seems so improbable that you do in fact have the answers, so, you better start doing things differently and, more importantly, you better be seen as the one instigating it all.

A little bit of fear is fine; it can keep you sharp. However, too much fear blunts your ability to lead effectively. You can become fixated on the minutiae of what’s going on in your school rather than what impact it’s all having. You begin to be motivated by the hope that whatever you’ve implemented is going to be the answer. The fear that it might not be the answer debilitates your ability to evaluate it effectively. The fear that you may be held accountable to the failure of the initiative distorts your perception of success.

Consider the possible answers to this question:

What impact have you had on raising children’s achievement through effective feedback?

  1. A) I introduced a set of symbols that are used consistently across the school.
  2. B) I regularly monitor the books to check that the school systems are in place.
  3. C) Children are now expected to respond to feedback.

None of these answers address the actual point in the question and they reek of desperation. The desperation of a leader who wants to prove that they changed something. They have convinced themselves that this is important and, I’ll wager, they wrote a development plan that stated a success criterion would be that the system was different at the end of the year, rather than being able to report that the children are achieving better and that the teachers can implement the changes without having to work until midnight.

There is often a key character trait that these ineffective leaders display: arrogance. They tend to swan around convincing people that they’re Teflon coated super-educators. The only reason their plans could fail, they’ll say to themselves in the mirror, is because their school is full of deadbeat teachers who are unable to carry out their demands. Arrogant leaders have these neat and tidy action plans – that provides them with a much needed false sense of security that they are brilliant – but they are normally unrealistic due to being ‘actions’ driven as opposed to developmental. These leaders desperately want to be seen as the key drivers of change. But scratch away their fragile ego and you’ll see that they are being driven by fear which is skewing their perception of how they can be effective. Fear and false hope fuel their arrogance and prevent them from investigating the impact of implementation and learning lessons from failures, of which, if you are in a school inhabited by humans, there are likely to be many of during the year. What you are left with, is surface level leadership which exists only on the pages of their poorly designed plans.

Then there is the issue of time. I blame ‘smart targets’. This smug ideology that everything has to be broken down into neat little boxes which should all be ticked off by the end of the year. Whoever came up with that phrase either didn’t work in a school or was, quite frankly, a rubbish leader themselves. I’m not saying that having massive unwieldly goals is a responsible thing to do. What I am saying though, is that leaders who shy away from long term (and I mean two-three year) objectives are often those leaders who work in schools where common phrases heard in the staff room are ‘Are we still doing that thing from that inset last year?’ or ‘Oh, we used to do that five years ago.’ Every plan needs a set of checkpoints, and there may be some initiatives that have a definitive entry/exit criteria or indeed a limited shelf-life, but most things keep on going and going and going and going.

Effective leaders need to constantly re-engage with teachers to check how things are going. A teacher’s capacity to teach well can change year on year depending on a variety of contexts. Leaders shouldn’t judge teachers on this, they should expect it! They shouldn’t be surprised when a teacher, or child, is struggling; they should simply find out why and help. This is hard to do if you’re crippled by the fear that by end of the year you will be judged a terrible leader because you didn’t make sure everyone was marking in green.

It’s hard to maintain perspective when you’re in the moment. It’s so tempting to write a beautiful action plan ready for September. It’s so easy to monitor semantics rather than impact. It’s safer to attribute blame rather than face the barriers and help even when it means deviating from your plan. It’s forgivable to be scared and hopeful and worry about the time it’s taking to improve things. But it’s poor leadership to let that govern your instincts and take over your professional judgement.

In short, don’t let the biggest barrier be you.


#ILConf2014 The good, the bad and the beautiful


The Beautiful

Returning from the Inspiring Leadership Conference (#ILConf2014 to you) I realised that I really like Birmingham. This is a nice thing to feel, especially considering how the city’s education has been represented in the media recently. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting a city full of Trojan horses, indoctrinated children and extremist nutjobs skulking in the shadows trying to convert me when all I was trying to do was to find the damn car park; but I also wasn’t expecting to (whisper it or Bristol will get jealous) love the place.

The contrasting architecture of the equally gorgeous museum and library; the canal, with its gently flowing water, ducks and barges, allowing you to forget you’re in a massive city; plus, the sun was shining (I appreciate this isn’t actually down to Birmingham, but it helps). And then there are the people. The best way I can describe them, apart from being kind, friendly, helpful and nice, is, well the word I would use is: light. Walking around the city it felt light and breezy. There was a positive attitude that permeated the atmosphere of the city centre and made being there feel intimate: quite a feat for a major city.

The Bad

Before I start I should put this into perspective. We’re talking about a major conference with many, many speakers who were brilliant. For every speaker to be successful would be unrealistic and you could call me mean spirited for highlighting the odd one that didn’t quite hit the mark. But what I want to highlight here is a particular type of bad speaker. I’ve seen terrible speakers before and forgiven them instantly because of why they were bad: often at these events talented and successful individuals are invited to appear, but because they’re not used to public speaking they don’t deliver polished presentations peppered with gags. But you don’t mind because you can see they’re nervous and, more importantly, they have something significant to say. The message out-ways the delivery. No, these are not the people to whom I am now referring.

I am referring to the ‘professional speaker’. These are people who have tended to have worked in education for a bit and, I don’t know, maybe they found it too hard, got out, wrote a book and now go on tour. They’re clever, don’t get me wrong; they know how to get re-booked, and their performance is consistent with that of a cruise ship comedian. Experiencing them is like eating a fortune cookie: quite sweet, with a message inside that makes you think for a second, but then you realise that not only are you still hungry but that the message was blander than the cookie. Luckily there are some clues that you can look out for to spot these phonies and ensure you don’t waste your time with them again.

  1. Third person referencing. If someone repeatedly says their own name (especially when acting out a conversation they’ve had with a famous person) then it is more than likely this person is a pillock.
  2. Name dropping. If they continually keep mentioning the famous people they’ve met since leaving education, and if there is no apparent reason for the meeting except for the fact it might help sell the book or dupe you into thinking that they must be wise in order to have met said famous person, then be rest assured that this bit of the talk is drivel.
  3. Stand-up. If the ratio of material is more weighted towards jokes than insightful message, and if the jokes are lame observational comedy about education (‘you know the feeling when you realise you’ve used the wrong mug in the staffroom…’), then you can happily discredit whatever it is they’re trying to tell/sell you.
  4. Number of publications. If they’ve only written one book with a single premise and from that premise they set up a company and now travel around the country talking about this premise, and if during that time they haven’t done anything else that contributes to or evolves the premise in any tangible way, then that voice in your head telling you that this guy’s a bit of a sham needs to be listened to.
  5. Generalisation. If during the talk they make grandiose claims and big statements that everyone agrees with (education should be more than tests….all children deserve to achieve…tomorrow’s prime minister is in our classroom today…walk the walk don’t just talk the talk…breathing is quite good for you) then you can quickly deduce that this person is not challenging your thinking and has nothing of merit to add to the ongoing debate on improving education.

Now I’m not going to name and shame but all I will say is that there was a particular person who displayed much of the above; they were the penultimate speaker of the entire conference and they have written books which, based on what we learnt from their talk, I urge you not to buy.

The Good

The fact that I only have one person in mind when thinking about all that was bad about the three day conference should be a clear indication about how good the whole thing was. What amazes me about conferences such as these is that despite each speaker being completely different there is always a single thread that binds all their thoughts and teaching together. This year the link was learning from research, and using research on a local, national and international level to meet the needs of your pupils and communities. Now, whether this link comes about from similarities in governmental approaches to education on a global scale, or the conference organisers having a clear picture of what all these people are thinking and doing at this particular moment in time, or that maybe all the speakers Whatsapp each other the night before – whatever. It works and I love it.

I am not going to summarise what every speaker said but I will say why they were good.

It’s simple really: they are good. I mean they’re really good at what they do and they have achieved things, often on an international scale, that are way beyond us folks sitting in the stalls. Not only have they achieved but they understand why they have done so. They have vision. But that is almost the smallest part of their success. I mean, we all have vision, we all know what ‘it’ should be like, even the bad speaker. But that is why they are bad speakers: they only talk about the vision and they get applauded because we’re all sitting there thinking ‘yes, that is what it should be like, I think that too. Brilliant!’

The good speakers got where they are today because they realised that vision is not enough. From the vision comes the plan, from the plan comes action, from action comes evaluation, and from evaluation comes an increase in drive: do better and do more. And they keep on going. They’re still at it and they’ll never stop. That is why they inspire us and make us think beyond our vision. And they show us, through their examples and their contexts, that we can at least keep on trying to do better.

The diversity of speakers, many not from education, all had something tangible we could relate to and learn from. I would be very surprised if any single person who attended doesn’t approach their work differently from Monday onwards as a result of what we heard over the three days. Whether it will be a big thing like taking the school development plan in a new direction or a change in personal mindset or a tiny thing like an assembly idea (I intend to do all three), we will all move forward.

That is why #ILConf2014 was a success. We got to learn from the best.

FYI: I am available to give an inspiring and hilarious talk at the 2015 conference so @steve_munby and @InspLdrshipConf, give me call.