From education to employment

Outstanding or just standing out!

I have just been reading Paul Philips’ recent article, here on FE News, Cultural Change – More and More! He talks about the pressure that FE establishments are under to cope with the endless changes driven by the policy roller coaster. Whilst reading it I was reminded of the burden of the poor old staff development managers around the country at this time, busy planning the final details of their summer development events. In the old days we would have called them INSET events. It could be anything ranging from a half day session to revise tutorial paperwork, Ofsted inspection or awarding body updates, to whole week menus covering a huge range of topics, including  sharing practice, assessment for learning, e-learning and improving learning and teaching. If the development managers are lucky, all of the planned activity will link very clearly to the strategic plan and be designed to support the change process.

Unfortunately, these activities come at the end of a long, quite possibly, stressful year and teaching teams will have been very busy  at the end of the term, marking and assessing work, bringing course records up to date, pulling together evaluation data and generally tidying up after a long slog.  It is difficult to get excited about staff development, so the development managers have to be creative, inviting big name speakers, designing engaging and interactive sharing practice sessions and hoping that booking systems are smooth and pain-free. However, the old saying ‘you can’t please all the people all the time’ is never more apt than in a training and development programme held at the end of the summer term.  As an external delivering a staff development session, I often wonder what participants are saying about the session when they are standing outside.

In the best cases, the development process is driven by the vision. I am very interested in the pursuit of ‘outstanding’ – although, if I hear that a college has a staff development session with the word ‘outstanding’ attached, it usually signals that an inspection is impending.  However, there are those few establishments that pursue outstanding status as a strategic aim.  For others, outstanding isn’t an explicit goal, it is merely subsumed under the umbrella of quality of provision. So what is the difference? Actually, in Olympic terms, ‘quality of provision’ just doesn’t have the inspirational ring to it that inspires medal-winning performance. Certainly you can give it a glossy spin, with eyecatching straplines and catchy buzzwords, but it has always struck me as an emotionless description of something that should resonate throughout the provision.

The word ‘outstanding’ does that for me. The difficulty arises when you try to define it and an organisation aiming for it needs to decide for itself what outstanding is.  It doesn’t have to bring in external people to tell it what outstanding is.  It asks itself “what kind of an institution do I want to be and what does the very best look like here?  How will I recognise outstanding when I see it?” and most importantly, “does everyone in the organisation agree with our definition – is it recognisable to everyone who works here?” The aim should be to generate a set of characteristics rather than checklists for lessons. A skilled facilitator can help in the process, using dynamic facilitation techniques. The process of arriving at the characteristics of outstanding performance should involve everyone including the most senior managers.

Once those characteristics have been agreed, the next set of questions revolve around identifying the skills, abilities and potential of the workforce, as the foundation on which to build outstanding performance.  Outstanding teaching can look different across the institution – an outstanding performing arts session would look nothing like an outstanding A-level law session, for example – but could have the same characteristics.  By involving every member of staff in the process, the core characteristics are more likely to be coherent and owned by all.

Of course, that is the easy part – engaging and winning the hearts and minds of the workforce is a much more difficult challenge. This is when it can become an endurance event for the staff development team.  Building Olympian ‘fitness’ in the workforce means giving staff the skills and mindsets that will enable them to be successful in the face of challenges, growing their confidence, commitment and creating a positive mental outlook. Highly effective people are more likely to maintain performance under pressure. The best Olympian competitors have, what sports psychologists might call, an excelling mindset. Another term for it is mental toughness – the capacity to cope with pressure. This would be a good starting point in a further education establishment aiming to be outstanding. What is most encouraging is that, contrary to popular belief, the required mindset is not an innate quality that you either have or you do not. It can be developed no matter what your starting point. Interestingly for education establishments, studies have shown positive links to emotional intelligence.

So, now I have a mental image of staff in a college somewhere, arriving for day one of their summer development programme dressed in their tracksuits, with a look of steely determination on their eager faces!

Bert Buckley is director of Icaras Consulting, which is dedicated to helping organisations, individuals and teams achieve outstanding performance by identifying and releasing hidden talent and latent capability


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