Reflections on leading change by Sarah Jones

29 September 2021 |

This blog is offered as a personal reflection by Sarah Jones, Executive Director of Schools at Dartmoor Multi Academy Trust. The blog does not reflect the views of the MAT as a whole or of the Trustees. D-notes blogs are offered as a stimulus for reflection and as a provocation for discussion.

Leading change is a fundamental undertaking for school leaders. No leader is ever short of guiding influence in this area: there are a plethora of research papers, pragmatic ‘how to’ books, and some quite expensive CPD on offer, including a ubiquitous unit in every leadership programme. Despite this, and in my experience, leading and managing change is one of the areas that leaders seem least prepared for and often stumble over, albeit nonchalantly in most cases.

David Hargreaves gives some insight into this conundrum. He suggests, in response to a paper written by Sue Williamson, that providing guidance on implementation for managing change in schools is a much more difficult task than people anticipate. This is in part because there is a lack of research evidence on this, and in part because implementation is often a very idiosyncratic process that reflects the unique context and the personalities, preferences and priorities of the leaders involved.

This chimes with my experience. The frames and guidance given, whilst well researched and evaluated, are over relied upon. The issue is that the frame is not really there. So, following the steps suggested by John Kotter religiously, or using Tim Brighouse’s guidance for effective leadership will frustrate the change process rather than support it.

I have learned over the years that we must be prepared to consider the uniqueness of change and consider theories to be the canvas upon which innovation is painted. For change to be effective we must accept that wrong-turnings and mistakes will be inevitable and need to be admitted as they guide the on-going change process. To enable this, there are three principles that should be considered when implementing the theoretical change framework of choice.

Firstly, the ‘why’ of the change must be defined and communicated frequently. We should aim to keep the ambition front and centre, scoped in success criteria, not tasks. Those that are implementing the change should feel confident that they can find their own way to make the change happen. This gives two advantages – time to reflect on the process, and opportunities to provide feedback.

Secondly, in leading change we should remember that change is predicated upon people, not the process. To enable ‘flow’ people need to be swimming, not sinking or surfing. So taking time to intentionally consider your leadership style is critically important in driving change forward. It will be different with different people: some need coaching, some need direction and some need to be allowed to lead on your behalf. This does not mean that you are behaving inconsistently, rather it is all about recognising that resistance or anxiety is inextricably linked to each person’s psychological contract with their role. It is so important to pay attention to this, and to informally undertake a commitment mapping process. Consulting widely before, during and after the change process will help.

Finally, when leading change we should try to align the new ideas with what has gone before. Everyone’s previous work is, therefore, recognised and valued. Change should be about strengthening good work as well as adjusting wrong work. In other words, we need to show that we are trying to build forward rather than changing direction. The former liberates thinking, while the latter can cause the frustrations associated with ‘yet another new idea’. Examining your motivation for implementing change and comparing this to your values is a good starting point.

Whilst change is inevitable, school leaders are still gatekeepers. We are changed with improving our schools . But not at any cost. Our work cannot become a joyless gradgrind where we atrophy into an initiative driven machine. That trap merely recreates Gove’s dream of educational regression whereby we are simply drilled, tested, ranked and punished against someone else’s vision for our schools. We are better than that. In all things we should recognise our actions should aim to liberate others, not to constrain them. But that is a topic for another D-note.