Playing to the Gallery

Know your audience.

knowyouraudience2So you have decided to make a change in a school, or part of a school. There are usually four constituencies that you need to bring on board. The students for whom essentially the change is made, the staff who will enact it, the parents who will react to it and any authorities required to let you do it. There may be a few others in certain cases. Alumni may react to any change in the tradition of their school, and neighbours may react to building or traffic issues, but I will concentrate on the four I have listed. Indeed most of my examples will concentrate on the staff and the parents for reasons I shall explain.

What I find interesting, but is often ignored by most of the other constituencies, is that students take little convincing of a reasonable change. In none of the major initiatives described on this site has there been a problem with getting student enthusiasm. Indeed the opposite is true and they have largely been enthusiastic. Young people seem to thrive on new situations and opportunities. This is absolutely contrary to the qualities that others often attribute to them. I have often heard it said that children find the transfer from primary to secondary school challenging and upsetting, when what I see is largely excitement and a proud feeling of growing maturity. As a colleague of mine recently pointed out, continuum of education may not necessarily be beneficial and changes may be positive. One of the main reason it helps to get students on board with a change before it happens is to help convince the other more sceptical groups among the parents and staff.

Students are both the most honest critics and the most convincing advocates of what we do if we let them take this responsibility. One of the first things I did when moving to Island School was to add students to the School Council, our governing committee. We did this in my previous school too. The Council was composed entirely of adults who were parents, staff members and independent members. The addition of the students had the obvious effect of making an objective view available at any meeting. No longer could staff argue with parents about what students thought. The student representatives just told us and the rest of us had to shut up. The hidden benefit of having students involved is that their presence makes the adults behave better. The supposed grown-ups have to take the issues seriously and behave courteously because the young people always do.

I have only recently come to realise the full potential of student involvement in any steps the school takes. I am a bit late to the party on this. A few years ago a Vice Principal here created the role of Student Learning Advisors. We now have a large group who engage in all discussions about curriculum change, assessment methods, definitions of learning, wellbeing and all aspects of what we do on an equal basis with the staff. Their input is wonderful and thoughtful. They write our Annual Report, do our promotional videos, explain our curriculum to visitors and engage in anything adults engage in.

At the other end of the process are the authorities. I have been lucky, in my career, to spend most of it in independent international schools. This means that we have a high degree of freedom of action. The constraints imposed by government edicts, education boards and parent organisations have been either small or sympathetic and so we have been able to enact most of the changes we would want. This is a freedom that is hard to underestimate. It was brought home to me when I was hosting a visiting school head from a school in England. He said that, as an Academy School he had a significant degree of freedom of action in what they can implement. I then told him what we had done in terms of curriculum innovation and he was stunned. “My God! We would never be allowed to do a fraction of that.” He left me thinking seriously of looking for a job in international education.

So, that leaves the parents and the staff as the two groups that must be engaged, understanding and enthusiastic to make a change work. It is the repeated refrain of any principal to question whether the staff will be behind the change or whether the parents will accept it. How do we get them on side? There have been times when I have got both of these spectacularly wrong, as the examples will demonstrate. I think I have learned from these errors as well as the successes, and seem to make fewer mistakes, but that does not mean it is easy.