If you want something done, do it yourself

To bring about real change, individuals must abandon production line Fordism and stop blindly following policy, says Jon Coles

A good friend of mine (from whom I have learned much) recently introduced me to a fabulous organisation in the UK called Learning to Lead, which has developed a model for broadening and deepening student leadership in schools. One of the model's central ideas that struck a particular chord with me is "self-election".

In contrast with representative forms of student leadership such as school councils (which, done well, also have huge value), self-election is designed to create the conditions that enable any student who sees the need for a particular piece of work to form a project team, take action and get on and do it.

Perhaps it is only because I have never been elected by anyone, to do anything, that I find the concept of self-election powerful. But I think there are deeper reasons.

I admit that we cannot do without hierarchy altogether. Where there is much to be done, a direction to be decided, multiple competing views, a demand for different specialist skills, resources to be corralled and, especially, where there is a need for urgency, structured decision-making is imperative. Where there are large institutions, there is hierarchy.

But look beneath the skin of any really successful organisation that has sustained itself over a long period of time and you find something different. In these places, individuals have (and know that they have) great space for personal initiative. Anyone has scope to tackle problems and make improvements.

You may say this is less true of some organisations than others. But there has been profound change even in those areas of the economy where the production line of Fordism once ruled, thinking was dominated by the desire to standardise and control was seen as the route to efficiency. The Toyota Production System is just one famous example of how industrial companies win in the marketplace by creating conditions that allow everyone to contribute their own ideas, thinking and actions in a structured way.

Not only is life more satisfying when individuals have space to lead and the chance to contribute but results are better, too. It was one of the powerful things about the successful school improvement programme the London Challenge: we sought to create the conditions in which people could make things better through pursuing their passions. More generally, the mindset that says "we never step over a job" - if we see something that needs doing for the common good, we do it rather than wait for permission - is common to high-performing organisations.

We have become used to the idea that leadership is distributed widely in the best schools. We have become increasingly aware that in a truly effective organisation (including military ones, which are among the most hierarchical), leadership is necessary at every level. Learning to Lead and similar groups have been showing how to extend that concept to students as well as to staff.

But are we applying the same logic to our engagement with the education system as a whole?

Freedom and responsibility

During recent weeks I have witnessed several discussions about the extent of freedom that now exists in our English education system and in many others around the world, where charter schools and organisations that share their formula of greater autonomy are becoming common. Some argue that schools have more freedoms than ever before; others that constraint is ever greater.

I always decline to get involved in that discussion, because one thing I am sure about is that we have a great deal more space to get on with what needs to be done than we imagine. I was taken aback more than once when working in the UK government by the extent of "over-compliance" with announced policies. Sometimes a significant proportion of people were complying more with a simplistic headline than with the real intention of the policy; sometimes people felt obliged to fall into line with proposals that were explicitly optional; sometimes people felt under pressure to implement changes long before they were strictly required to.

Often they had clear reasons for that, of course - in many cases, fear of the consequences of not doing so. What needs to happen now is for teachers, school staff and principals to be confident to do what they think is right rather than what they think they are being told to do: to "self-elect" to tackle problems that exist, to form project teams with like-minded colleagues, and to act for the common good.

I have seen numerous successful examples of self-election at work: the group of colleagues who were fed up with aspects of the working environment and got together to improve it in the interests of all, for example, securing a small budget to keep going as they began to have an impact. Or there was the group of junior colleagues who felt that staff would benefit from hearing some stimulating external speakers and arranged a programme of talks, open to all.

On a larger scale, I have seen strong schools volunteer to "over-recruit" staff on behalf of colleagues in the same area who they knew to be struggling to recruit, and making an immediate impact by doing so. And there are others who have set up a school-to-school support programme and who want to extend it so that more colleagues and young people can benefit.

If every one of us decided to take a leaf from the Learning to Lead book, ignored the perceived constraints and got on with doing one thing that we could see needed to be done on behalf of everyone, we would make an immediate and significant impact.

So, self-elect today. Who knows where it may lead?

Jon Coles is the former director general of England's Department for Education and the chief executive of United Learning, the chain of academy schools formerly known as the United Learning Trust.

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