Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal.

How to put out fires with… strategy 

What prevents college principals from achieving educational provision of the highest quality? This doesn’t have to be a question you idly wonder about like the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. You can actually ask, and I did.

A variety of answers came back but most centred around one idea: fire-fighting.

Respondents hadn’t given up on the ambition of achieving outstanding quality but more pressing concerns constantly got in the way. The important was continually defeated by the urgent.

What, then, are these ‘pressing concerns’? Two obvious examples are building programmes and funding problems. To which at the moment we can certainly add coronavirus. But without diminishing the significance of such matters we can be quite certain they do not necessarily doom the pursuit of high-quality educational provision: some colleges achieve excellence despite them.

What makes the difference is whether or not a college possesses a culture conducive to the attainment of real quality. And a much less clamorous and far more pernicious ‘pressing concern’ which some principals spoke of is the continual, sapping skirmishes and run-ins between a college management trying to make progress in quality improvement and sometimes just a few, influential staff resistant to this.

Principals in this predicament are caught in a vicious circle

A quality culture, if it could be achieved, would remove the mutually resentful day-to-day attrition. But the initiatives college management take toward achieving such a culture are precisely what cause further flare-ups and all the stress and emotional wear and tear they entail.

How do you break this cycle? The true answer is: in as many different ways as there are different cases; no two colleges are quite the same.

But in general, two things often give momentum to that vicious circle:

  1. making the case for change at the level of what rather than why and,
  2. secondly, hurrying consultation.

If you try to persuade someone a new initiative is a good idea because of what it involves and what it will achieve, human nature will very naturally respond by asking why? And the ensuing debate will move backwards towards first principles rather than forwards towards implementation.

Creating a quality culture

So the first rule of creating a quality culture is:

  1. Start with first principles, with the most fundamental question you can ask. Consult with everyone on a review of the college’s mission and whatever else make sure there is a commitment to excellence, however you word it. Once you’ve got that you have the answer to the why question. ‘Why should we support this quality initiative?’ ‘Because it delivers our mission. Now let’s move on.’
  2. The second rule is not to hurry the consultation about the mission - or anything else. In my early years as a college principal I was always inclined to. To be honest I looked on consultation as a necessary evil. We had to go through with it, but it felt like treading water.

Encourage discussion and get people thinking

Bit by bit its real value dawned on me. The process of consultation is the opportunity for college management to encourage discussion and get people thinking.

Two real benefits flow from this. One is that suggestions are made which can improve the proposal. Even more importantly, it allows time for minds to change and for the one or two minds distant from the consensus to adjust to the inevitable.

If you manage at the pace of people’s emotions, implementation is likelier to be all the easier and more successful for it. As a college leader you learn from the consultation how staff are thinking, what the hot spots are and where you can valuably make a key concession.

Concession? Certainly. If the mission you have set out is going to be achieved, it will require commitment from all staff to make a success of it. This means you need to work with staff, not on them. If you get 75% of the distance you were striving for, that’s fine because you’ve also moved the culture in the right direction.

In due course you can return to where you got to and find the mood is that bit more conducive. Again, you get 75% of the remaining 25% which, if my arithmetic is right, gets you about 95% of the way towards the original goal.

I’d settle for that. Wouldn’t you?

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal

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