The Curse of the Non-Negotiable

Gmork and his infinite wisdom
“Because people have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams. So the Nothing grows stronger.”

Aside from the lyrical tones of Limahl singing the title track of the 1984 film ‘the Neverending Story‘, one of the memorable parts of the film is the villain: Gmork. This evil wolf fiend is allied to the mysterious ‘Nothing’ that is sweeping the land and threatening to destroy all of idyllic Fantasia.

Watching it recently, I was struck by something Gmork says as he reveals his evil intentions (as all decent villains do) towards the end of the movie.

Because people who have no hopes are easy to control; and whoever has the control… has the power!

 – Gmork, The NeverEnding Story, 1984

Non-negotiables are the Gmork of the education world.

They start off with all the best intentions…

Let’s have a whole school policy for homework. We’ll include some non-negotiables that everyone ‘must’ do. That way we’ll have a bottom line for the minimum amount of work each teacher will have to mark.

Hang on.

We need some non-negotiables for how we introduce lessons, otherwise children will be confused by different teachers.

We definitely need one for marking. Let’s all mark in green. We must write two positive comments and one improvement comment.

What about how we communicate with parents? Teachers must definitely update their class’ webpage every week.

And so it goes on.

There are many problems with this approach, not least the effort needed to monitor and manage all the non-negotiables that have been assigned to staff. But I think the biggest problem is that they dehumanise teachers. They reduces educators to a set of parameters and commands defined by senior management, when each teacher can bring so much more to their classroom.

Of course the corollary to Gmork’s assertion is that when you lose control, you lose hope. And surely a hope for the future is one of the main reasons to work in education.

Non-negotiables are one of the causes behind education becoming ‘frantic‘ – the theme for my current run of blog posts. Of course there’s a reason for school leadership teams to overdo their non-negotiables. But that’s another story, to be told another time.

How to be good SMT

I’m no expert at leadership, and so I read @oldandrewuk’s post, How to be a Bad SMT, with a wry smile and a deep sense of sadness. Firstly – it caricature’s the very worst extremes of leadership in our schools; secondly many teachers experience much of what the blogger says on a daily basis.

My counter-list isn’t as comprehensive as the post which inspired this one. That’s more down to my lack of experience in leadership than the ease we Brits we find in being critical.

How to improve teaching and learning

  1. Judge teaching based on the teacher standards, not on Ofsted criteria – this implies an emphasis on the long-term: on lessons sequences over one-off lessons; on consistency over flashiness; on substance over style.

  2. Release staff to teach to their strengths rather than to conform to one single style – the strength of our education system is in the individuality and autonomy of teachers.

  3. Never use the word ‘delivery’. While the postal service is incredibly valued, teachers aren’t posties. Don’t dumb down teaching with the word ‘delivery’.

  4. Take the Teacher Standards statement “demonstrate a critical understanding of developments in the subject and curriculum areas, and promote the value of scholarship” seriously – this means allowing teachers to research good and outstanding teaching for themselves, rather than reducing it to a checklist.

  5. Allow teachers to take part in non-judgemental peer review. This may involve self-sacrifice as you may have to cover lessons yourself to allow teachers to collaborate with each other.

  6. Don’t call yourself SMT: call yourself SLT. It might seem to be mere semantics, but if you call yourself ‘management’ than you will only ever focus on doing things right; whereas if you call yourself leadership you focus on doing the right things. Even better, leadership teams may even learn to do the right things right.

How to improve behaviour

  1. Make sure transitions are your top priority. Be high profile at any point that children are moving into classrooms, or from one classroom to another.

  2. Allow teachers to contribute to the shared behaviour policy. Be aware that adjustments may need to be made depending on the age of the children – sanctions for 3 year olds may not always apply to 16 year olds.

  3. Take your responsibilities set in the behaviour policy seriously – don’t shy away from speaking to parents or reinforcing sanctions that teachers have enacted.

  4. Be prepared to shout occasionally. It’s not ideal, but if you don’t, your teachers will have to, and that’s worse.

  5. Respect the teachers who want to sort out the behaviour within their own classrooms, but offer support even if they don’t want to.

  6. Exclude when all other sanctions have run out – a clear, consistent message helps teachers, children and parents alike.

How to improve morale

  1. Be consistent in relationships, especially with middle leaders, who are still learning a new set of skills and will make a whole load of mistakes.

  2. Be self sacrificial – do an extra cover for  in your department at least once a half-term.

  3. Take the lion’s share of assemblies and playground duties.

  4. Listen to staff. When they suggest that a new initiative might be too much, consider what they say and remember that the main thing is your teachers’ teaching. If the initiative won’t help, don’t introduce it. Even better release staff to design and introduce the initiatives that they want to happen.

  5. Don’t go straight to your office each morning, but spend some time in your colleague’s classrooms first. Follow up at the end of the day if teachers are having a tough time.

  6. Smile.

  7. Apologise when you’ve made a mistake, or even if you’ve been a bit grumpy.

Now I’m not saying I’m God’s gift to leadership. I can honestly say that I have made at least three of the mistakes that are on oldandrewuk’s list in the last six weeks. But neither is the list above pie in the sky – I have done every one of them in the last 6 week’s also.

Moral Purpose

What is the new fad in school leadership? What is the phrase that will be top dollar in jargon bingo? Will it be ‘whole school A4L’ or ‘Personalised learning‘? Will school leaders be asking their staff to ‘think outside of the box’ or engage in ‘blue sky thinking’?

Nope. None of the above. The phrase that I can guarantee you hearing from your school leaders over the next few months is ‘moral purpose‘.

I remember many years ago being in a school where we had significant staff training about assemblies. One of the phrases that came up over and over again was ‘awe and wonder’. It seemed that somebody from up on high, maybe even the government, had decided that schools were the best place for children to experience awe and wonder. Therefore a mandate had been issued to headteachers who were to engender this experience within their schools. Assemblies were the target. A week or so after our training, I remember the headteacher starting an assembly by lighting a candle. He had never done this before. He then told the children that they were experiencing awe and wonder. I could immediately see his logic. If the children knew they were experiencing awe and wonder they could tell the imminent Ofsted inspectors all about it. Hmmm.

Now it seems that moral purpose is the thing we will all be working towards. It seems that many people in education are concerned that school leaders have being sucked into something called game theory. A bit like those badminton players at the Olympics who played within the rules, yet against the spirit of the game, to achieve what they thought would be the best outcome… So school leaders, it is thought, may be ‘playing the game’ of education.

It’s as though getting your school higher up the league table is more important than the outcomes for individual children. It’s almost as if achieving the top grade in Ofsted is more important than children being able to independently achieve the top grade possible for each of them in each subject they study. Of course many people would argue that these things are synonymous. A high league table position means that all children achieve their full potential. Or does it show that the leaders within those schools are merely good at ‘playing the game’? Some people have even suggested that there may be cheating going on.

The new teacher standards demand more. Honesty and integrity are explicitly referred to. High standards of behaviour both in and outside of school are implied in the preamble. For teachers to achieve this, leaders need a sense of ‘moral purpose’.

Now I’ve got a whole load of mixed feelings about the word ‘purpose’ and even more about the word ‘moral’. There are lot of assumptions blithely made about shared morals that I’m not entirely sure are true. I’ll need a few more posts and conversations with folk to crystallise my own thoughts on the subject.

However I am sure that it will become an important phrase, having heard the likes of Mick Waters, Tim Brighouse, John West-Burnham and Steve Munby all mention ‘Moral Purpose’ in separate addresses in recent weeks. Perhaps all those ‘keynoters’ are using the phrase because Michael Gove used it back in April.

Does anyone have any school leaders who are quick off the mark and have already begun a new mantra of ‘moral leadership’? Does anyone think it’s important? What morals should we subsribe to anyway?

“Leadership is like Clint Eastwood in Easy Rider”

This was a quote that got my attention today at a briefing about the new Ofsted framework. The presenter, who was quoting someone else, went on to show Eastwood dressed as a cowboy looking all stern and pointing six-shooters. “Leadership is like all guns blazing…”


That’s not exactly my image of leadership, but more importantly it’s not my memory of Easy Riser, in which I distinctly remember Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper riding around on motorbikes trying to come to terms with hallucinogens, 60s America and rednecks who didn’t like men with long hair.


There was a third character in the film, and for a moment I wondered if that was Clint Eastwood, but a quick Google search reminded me that was Jack Nicholson.


There was no Clint Eastwood in Easy Rider.


I hope that’s not what the quoter meant – “Leadership is being absent, or mistaken for someone else.”


Or maybe something more complicated was intended – some kind of character juxtaposition. I have to admit I can never get away from Clint’s “Dirty Harry” character. So joining Fonda and Hopper (and for a short while Nicholson) on their ultimately doomed journey rides Eastwood, magnums in hand, demanding “Do you think you’re lucky, punk?” of every hostile situation they face. Try as I might it’s still not a helpful image of leadership…


Maybe the film that had been intended was actually ‘Pale Rider’, in which Clint Eastwood plays a ‘mysterious preacher’ who saves a town. Again, mystery and preaching aren’t the first things that I would associate with good leadership.


So I came to a conclusion that it was just a mistake, too obscure to get at what was being meant.


But then maybe leadership is all of the above – it’s an amazing journey with extreme highs and terrible lows where you do meet some people who are actually out to get you. Sometimes you have to go in all guns blazing, and sometimes you have to be almost absent to allow others to develop their own leadership skills. You have to be able to preach – to share your vision – and to show the strength to be able to defend your team. And maybe a sense of mystery helps too.


It’s amazing where an Ofsted briefing can take you…

What went wrong with Birmingham after Tim Brighouse left?

I’ve been teaching in Birmingham for 12 years. When I started teaching, Birmingham was such a popular authority (and I was such an average NQT) that I couldn’t get a job there – I had to move to Hertfordshire for a year instead.


Back in Birmingham a year later, it was a magical place to be working. Tim Brighouse was (and still is) a true visionary leader. He cast a vision where every child could succeed and where teachers knew they could play a meaningful part of that success.


I met him toward the end of their tenure in 2001 – he had this habit of just turning up at your school, saying something perceptive and positive and leave with the whole staff feeling really good about themselves. When I met him he was taking a year to visit every school in the authority – a reasonable task you might think for the leader of all the schools in that authority, but when you consider that there are more than 400 schools in Birmingham, it’s a task that would mean visiting at least 2 schools every day.


In addition to Professor Tim, Mick Waters, recently head of the QCDA, was head of the advisory service in Birmingham (BASS). I remember the advisors that he inspired talking so passionately about their subjects that it rubbed off on everyone else. Today those same advisors, many of whom are taking redundancy of ‘going independent’, still talk about the halcyon days under Mick and Tim.


Now Birmingham Local Authrity is wracked for cash. Mick Waters BASS once had more than 300 people to serve it’s 420 schools, soon it will have less than 50. Where in other areas of the country some job cuts can be covered by not renewing secondments, in Birmingham the sheer size of the service meant that secondments were phased out over 10 years ago. In addition, the social services department, now the province of the dirctor of children’s services (the equivalent position held by Tim, but an area that he didn’t have to deal with) has failed two inspections.


I can hear the words of the Emperor in ‘The Gladiator’ played by the late Richard Harris, saying “there once was a dream that was Brimingham…” it is this idea that a large city with many different languages spoken and many differet cultures represented can somehow pull together and work towards a better future. That idea existed under Tim and Mick.


So what did go wrong?


I suppose you could blame it on a whole load of external factors: the economy, social media, 9-11; or even internal factors such as appointing too many advisors or admin staff.


However, I think it goes down to succession planning. Tim and Mick are both brilliant leaders, but the people who came after them weren’t quite as good somehow. Not quite as good at passing on a vision. I don’t know them personally, but I think one perogative of leadership is to be a leader of leaders – to be raising up the kind if people who can not only do what you can do, but can do better than you can do. Many leaders need a good manager or two to follow them round and make sure their vision is carried out – if those managers are never given the opportunity to develop their own vision then they won’t be able even to follow in their leader’s footsteps, let alone surpass them.


That’s all a load of pub-theory of course. I have no real knowledge of the internal workings of Birmingham LA over the past ten years. The real impact for me is to make sure that I can lead people well, whilst giving some the opportunities and skills to go beyond what I can ever do. That goes for my own children, students and staff alike.

Notes from Growing Leaders Session 2

Session 2, Growing Leaders was entitled 'Establishing Identity'

The first section was a 'Swedish Bible Study' on John 15: 1-17. 

Candle (New things learnt from the passage):
  • You will bear fruit
  • Ask whatever
  • Friends with God
  • He gives choice
  • Branches go into the fire
  • Obey
Up arrow (any things about the nature of God):
  • Rely on God's strength
  • God does pruning
  • He's a friend before being a Master
  • He wants joy for us
  • He chooses us
  • There's an intimate, organic connection with Him
  • He's generous
Down arrow (any things learnt about people):

  • If separated can't have fully fruitful life.
  • Love each other
  • We're already clean
  • Don't have to seek worthiness
  • People can know God's business.
Question Mark (any questions the passage has raised):
  • if we don't obey commands do we remain in his love? (In context of God gave 2 commands – Love God and Love others)
  • "God will give you whatever you ask for"… ?
  • How do we wait on God?
  • How do we wrestle with God?

There was then a section on the cycles: Cycle of Grief and the Cycle of Grace.

Some of the feedback included:
  • People pleasing vs Spending Time with God
  • Jesus example – the balance to find solitude.
  • How do we achieve people? As achievements? As targets that can be hit (or missed)?
  • Recognise demands on us
  • Reminder of God's grace.
  • Don't judge achievements by how much you do.

The morning  finished with looking at Spiritual Discipline. Some of the difficulties or barriers to exercising spiritual disciplines include:

  • busy-ness
  • unpredictability of life
  • No accountability
  • No tangible results
  • hardwork
  • Laziness
  • Matching achievability against despondancy
  • Wanting to feel in control
  • Finding silence
  • Problem of distractions.
It will be interesting to see what participants have to say about exercising spiritual disciplines when we meet for the next session.

Growing Leaders Night Away

The Growing Leaders weekend began with the inevitable satnav search for Barnes Close Conference Centre. It's funny how a place so close to a motorway junction should be so difficult to find. Maybe it was just me, but driving through the circular tunnel under the motorway and up the muddy track didn't fill me with confidence that I was on the right track. But as it happened, I was.

After wine, nibbles and a pleasant meal (including a fantastic chocolate sponge), we sat down to start the course. A brief look at the aims was followed by the intriguing 'bring an object' event. The challenge of this is to present how a random object that you can find represents an aspect of your relationship with God. Many different objects appeared, ranging from a toothbrush, through a polo mint to 'Derek the Badger' – a small statue that a participant had found somewhere in the venue.

The 'formal part' of the evening closed with worship and a meditation on Psalm 8.

After breakfast the next day, session 1 started with worship. The participants began by sharing initial reflections on leadership on a grid. In the section on immediate thoughts of leadership the words chosen included:
  • Military
  • Nurturer
  • Set apart from a group
  • Someone who's balanced
  • Someone Authority
  • Someone with Vision
  • Someone who's dedicated

What makes someone a leader?
  • Authority
  • Risk taker
  • Humility
  • Vision
  • Enthusiasm
  • Empathy
  • Competence
  • Boundaried
  • Opportunities
  • Integrity

Here's another Wordle that sums up some desirable leadership qualities.

Leaders from the Bible came next. The list included: Moses, Deborah, Joseph, peter and Lydia. After some study we wrote down what we can learn from these leaders on a flip chart. Here's what people said we can learn from leaders in the Bible.
  • Listen to God and be faithful to God
  • Leadership can be hard
  • God can use our circumstances
  • Listen to God
  • Even when we make our mistakes, God still uses us.
  • God calls and then equips.
  • Take risks
  • Listen to God
  • Build on what went before.
  • Willingness to do do what she was asking of others.
  • Don't judge by appearances.
  • God will make good on his promises.
  • OK to test your calling
  • Listen to God
  • Be courageous – be prudent.
  • Willing to be lead.
  • "God will get you in the end".
  • Humble
  • He responded.
  • Be persuasive and urgent.
This is summed up in this Wordle.

In the bible study that followed, each group came up with marks of Jesus leadership and summed it up in one sentence:
  • Jesus always reflects the nature and character of God.
  • As a leader, Jesus took his directions from God; was ice cool when under pressure and had assembled the right team for the tasks ahead and is articulate enough to communicate strong messages in an accessible tone.
  • Jeus is challenging, confrontational, but compassionate.
  • A unique, humble, visionary and compassionate leader, given authority and direction by his Father to respond to needs decisively and empower others.
The attached pictures show the results of this bible study.

Management is like a bar of soap


Management is like a bar of soap


If you hold it at one end, it slips out the other.


If you adjust and hold it at the other end, it slips out of the first.


If you squeeze it too hard, you just destroy it.


If you scrub too vigorously, you use it up too quickly and it becomes expensive.


Yet if you hold it just right, it does a perfectly adequate job and nobody really talks about it.


Management is about skill before effort. It is about doing the job and ignoring the glory. And you may have to drop the soap a few times before you learn to get it right.

Doing the Right Things Right

There is a saying about leadership:


Administration is ‘Doing Things’
Management is ‘Doing Things Right’
Leadership is ‘Doing the Right Things’

I learnt it on a leadership course called ‘Leadership Pathways’ course a couple of years ago. The saying is meant to indicate how without good leadership, management and administration is pointless, because you can earnestly be doing things and even doing things right, but they may be the wrong things. So therefore we need good leaders who can do the right things.


However there is a hidden emotional agenda that new leaders can take away from the saying. It’s that somehow leaders are at the top of the pile – everything will fall into place with good leaders. I blogged about that in my recent post: the lie of the leadership pyramid. There is a possibility that leaders can devalue their managers and their administrators because they have been convinced that their role as leader is exponentially more important than the role of anyone else.


The fact is that some leaders can choose the right things, but do them wrong. And worse, some leaders can talk about the right things but not actually do them.


I want to work in a school where the administrators, managers and leaders are all valued and empowered to carry out their equally valuable roles. Where we have people who get things done, where there are others who can help and guide those people-who-are-‘doing’ to do things right and where through good leadership everyone is engaged in doing the right things.


I want to work in a school where we do the right things right.
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