The Search for Connected Autonomy by Veronica Lloyd-Richards

19 March 2021 |

This blog is offered as a personal reflection by Veronica Lloyd-Richards, Trust Champion 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.

Last week saw the return to school for many thousands of children across the country including the five thousand learners in the seventeen schools in our Dartmoor MAT. Whilst there is understandably some anxiety for colleagues about the return to classrooms, the overwhelming emotion felt by almost all educators is a sense of joy and relief to be freed from the distanced virtual world of remote learning and to reconnect with the young people who are the reason we do the work we do. To see them smile, to listen to their voices without the strange distorting effect of a laptop and to see them playing and talking with their friends has been a great feeling for everyone I know who works in schools. As a Trust Champion for the Dartmoor MAT, I am based in the sixth form building at Okehampton college and as I write this, I can hear the sound of a hotly-contested game of table tennis between two young people going on outside the window and the hum of serious discussion coming from the A-level classrooms on the corridor. Sounds that we used to take for granted but which now thankfully signal a return to some kind of normality.

Now that the children are back, there is much discussion about what they should be doing. Should we be making the school day longer? Should all the children be in for the summer holidays? Should they all be tutored? Should we be worrying most about ‘catch up’ or well-being or both? Plenty of questions but perhaps the most important thing for us to think about before we jump in with solutions is ‘who is best-placed to determine what is right for our children in the weeks and months ahead?’

In all of the challenges of the last twelve months and the emotional and practical difficulties that schools have had to think about, one thing has been very clear. Colleagues in schools have, time and time again made thoughtful, compassionate and intelligent choices about what is right for their children and communities. At times, that has arguably been in the absence of clear or timely guidance from the government. I’ve had conversations with many of our brilliant headteachers in the last few weeks about how they’ve supported their learners in this last lockdown and it has been amazing to hear how creative and thoughtful they have been in response to the needs of individual children and families.

Leaders and teachers have more than risen to the challenge and shown that they are, without doubt, best placed to make great decisions for their schools and communities. The many thousands of letters of admiration and praise sent to Ofsted by grateful parents (including some of our own) suggest that the families we serve also believe in schools to do the best thing for their children. My colleague Ed Finch has talked in a previous blog about the importance of independence of mind and professional judgement in our profession. This is something I’m very much thinking about in my role as I bring colleagues together to think about the approaches we take as a Trust to curriculum and pedagogy. Front of mind is the question of how we protect autonomy for teachers and leaders whilst also maximising the benefits of being part of a larger groups of schools.

There is wisdom and vast experience in the across our seventeen schools and being part of a Trust means that we all intuitively know that our chances of delivering on our mission to provide the highest possible quality of education for all local children is more likely to be succeed if we collaborate meaningfully, share expertise and support each other to be successful. Our work is not just for the benefit of our individual schools but for the Trust as a whole and even beyond our family of schools.

Key to my role as a Trust Champion is working across all of our schools to ensure that we are creating the conditions for our teachers to thrive as professionals. So what is necessary for this to happen? In their recent book The Teacher Gap, Prof Rebecca Allen and Dr Sam Sims suggest three things are critical for teachers to develop and grow. They need to feel:
1. Competence – to be able to demonstrate their abilities and continue to improve
2. Relatedness – to feel valued and respected by others
3. Autonomous – to be authors of their own actions

There’s no doubt that teacher autonomy is hugely important. A study published by the Teacher Development Trust in January 2020 concluded that “teacher autonomy is associated with higher job satisfaction and intention to stay in teaching.” It is clear that if we want to retain great colleagues and if we want them to feel fulfilment in their roles, then we need to ensure that our teachers have a strong sense of agency in their classrooms and in their professional growth.

It is also clear though that autonomy on its own is not sufficient. As teachers, if we are trusted to make decisions about what we are teaching and how we teach it, we also want to feel that we have sufficient knowledge and expertise to make those decisions the best they can be. Autonomy without the support and challenge of a professional community is not helpful either. We use our autonomy best when we know we are part of something bigger; a purpose which binds us together and brings meaning to our work.

These ideas of autonomy, connection and professional growth are key to the work we are embarking on as a Trust on curriculum and pedagogy. The work is being driven by groups of leaders and teachers who will join together regularly to set direction and codify ideas which will help colleagues across all our schools to do their best work. Each school will be represented and have a voice so that we can be sure that our collective work is deeply connected to the needs of each of our seventeen schools. We will be consciously building our own ‘competence’ and building a shared knowledge and understanding through reading and debate. In these groups, we will also build connections and strengthen the professional relationships across our schools so that colleagues, whether from our smallest or largest school, feel a greater sense of ‘relatedness’ with each other and the learners beyond their own schools.

I hope this way of working has the potential to be really powerful and to bring colleagues together to think about some of the most critical parts of our provision as a Trust. Key questions for us to consider are how we ensure our work reflects the rural context we work in as well as building on the best ideas already in the system
and how do we build the connectivity between our teachers and schools that will be so important for success. We’d love you to share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below to help us do our best work together.