As the last part of the last term swings into view, schools across the land know they should be pausing to take stock. Amid the end of term hubbub of summer fairs and sports days, school communities need to somehow lift their heads from the day job and scan the horizon. In those last few weeks, when we are so occupied with the gentle welcoming in of new children and the carefully planned, “don’t-worry-you’ve-got-this” ushering out of our oldest ones, finding the time to properly reflect can be a real challenge.
And the problems don’t stop there. How do you decide what to prioritise for improvement? And who gets to do the deciding? What I think needs doing and what you think needs doing will not necessarily be the same thing. Multiply that across your whole school community and you’ve got a commotion on your hands. Myriad competing priorities, all equally important and all clamouring for time and space in the improvement plan so they can be addressed properly.
For school leaders, navigating this pandemonium takes strategy as well as skill. Writing the school-improvement plan can feel a little like trying to solve the chicken, fox and grain riddle. With a river to cross and only a two-seater boat, how can you get each to safety without them eating each other as soon as you turn your back?
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Remember the fox will always eat the chicken
Your chosen priorities might not actually devour their neighbours, but you do need to consider carefully whether they sit well together. A predatory priority will always strip the time and energy from the bones of its smaller colleagues and leave them with no space to grow. Look at your priorities in the round. Added together, do they signpost an achievable route to making your school better? Or are they too big, too demanding or too conflicting to make good travel companions?
The chicken will eat the grain
Beware the mild-mannered priority that looks unassuming but is actually a time-sapping, argument-inducing, goodwill killer, which will polarise your team at a rate of knots. Knowing the political landscape before you agree school priorities is key; examine the issue from all angles to ensure the hidden agendas that may be lurking beneath the surface are fished out. Or at least know how deep the water is before you decide to jump in.
The grain will do nothing on its own
Filling your improvement plan with a plethora of safe bets might seem tempting, but remember this is only good for sustaining the status quo. Plodding along well-worn paths might help you avoid conflict, but it is also where innovation and creativity go to die. No one ever changed the world with a maintenance agenda. Taking chances and dreaming big is what makes us human. Hope is the common spark that unites us all. So alongside the necessary same-olds, be sure to make room for priorities that brim with the bright promise of something new.
Of course, in the end, the solution to the riddle is simple. The missing element here that will stop these jostling priorities from doing each other in has been beside us all along, hiding in plain sight – it’s you. As the school leader, you need to travel back and forth across that bumpy river, ferrying the school’s priorities to safety, nurturing each one in turn and setting the conditions so that it can flourish in its own right. You need to navigate the river again and again, mindful of each undertow and raging current that would love nothing more than to topple you and your little boat, priorities and all.
Stay the course, plan the route with care and you (and your priorities) will live to fight another day.
Susan Ward is depute headteacher at Kingsland Primary School in Peebles, in the Scottish Borders. She tweets @susanward30