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Opening up the lines

Introducing four pages on staff development, Neil Merrick reports on how staff at Cowes High on the Isle of Wight improved their communication systems after a critical OFSTED report.

Earlier this term Pam Rooke finally got around to re-organising her office. "Members of my department didn't know where to find things so I went around and labelled everything," says the head of English at Cowes High School on the Isle of Wight.

Mark Stephens, head of physical education and records of achievement, has meanwhile introduced computerised records so that teachers can enter students' results directly into the system. And Carolyn Arkley, who took over as head of maths in September, is far more confident about chairing departmental meetings. "I make sure staff have written agendas and background papers well in advance. While I'm taking a meeting, I summarise what's going on so that everybody agrees that they have got the same thing out of the meeting," she says.

The new outlook among middle managers at Cowes High follows a staff development programme which began last June. Five heads of department, with headteacher Chris Avery, have been working towards two units of the Management Charter Initiative (MCI). These aim to improve the way managers seek, evaluate and organise information and the way in which they exchange information to solve problems and make decisions.

Last year a report by OFSTED said the school needed to clarify the way in which staff were consulted and decisions were taken. "We needed to look at our communications systems," says Chris Avery. "It was something we had already identified in our development programme. It highlighted the need to develop middle management in the school."

Three heads of department are part of the school's senior management team, with Chris Avery and two deputy heads. But the school wanted all of its heads of department to move away from their traditional function and develop more of a managerial role. "We felt it would be useful to use the MCI to present staff with a set of targets," he says.

The school approached Qudos, a private management development and training consultancy which provides training for the Isle of Wight County Council as well as schools in Hampshire. Qudos business development manager, Pam Spreckley, says that although the MCI is not written in "education speak", it is relatively easy for teachers to study the standards and relate them to their work.

The first unit is subdivided into obtaining and evaluating information to aid decision-making, and recording and storing information. The second unit includes leading meetings and group discussions to solve problems and make decisions, contributing to discussions, and advising and informing others.

Pam Spreckley led two half-day sessions at the school during the summer term and a further session in September. As well as explaining the MCI standards to staff, she set them a series of tasks and asked them to look closely at what they were already doing in the school. "The standards encourage people to reflect on what they are doing now and use them as a checklist for improvement," she explains.

The MCI was launched in 1987 to improve management education and development in the public and private sectors. Chris Avery agrees that its standards are far easier for schools to follow than other quality standards and kitemarks which are mostly targeted at industry. "They are user-friendly," he says. "We have got busy people doing busy jobs who want to improve their own practice as well as standards in the school. They want something which will enable them to take on extra work which is part and parcel of the job."

Russell Dale, head of technology, says as a head of department he had become bombarded with paperwork. Better organisation means he devotes more time to teaching. But the greatest changes have been in the structure and organisation of meetings.

Pam Spreckley says meetings were well structured at Cowes High compared with some private companies - fine tuning was needed, nothing more.

And she says it is important staff understand the purpose of a meeting beforehand and are willing to participate. "People always blame bad meetings on the leader. But although the leader or chairperson is ultimately responsible for making sure the purpose is achieved, it's also the responsibility of other members."

The MCI programme cost just under Pounds 1,000, paid jointly by Cowes High and Isle of Wight Training and Enterprise Council.

Pam Rooke, who is also a member of the senior management team, says the programme helped her to focus better during SMT meetings and try to bring conversations back around to the issue being discussed. The MCI standards were particularly useful for newly-appointed heads of department.

Chris Avery says middle managers should delegate responsibility to staff within their departments. "They have responsibility for big curriculum areas, big budgets and large numbers of staff. They have got to develop their own staff but first of all we have got to develop them as middle managers. A school which has cracked its middle management has overcome most of its management problems."

Mark Stephens, who has been head of PE for three years, feels there has been a tendency for teachers to feel they are doing a job satisfactorily just because their department is successful. "Now I realise that by improving meetings I am encouraged to take other peoples' perspective," he explains. "I was certainly more autocratic before than I am now."

Staff development programmes such as the MCI should not be dismissed as another initiative which will increase a teacher's workload. "Teachers fear change. This is more about improving what you do or reflecting that you are already doing something well."

All of the staff agree that they have learned from following others' progress while studying the MCI standards and applying them to their departments. Pam Spreckley says communication among staff has certainly improved. Although this had been a key aim, it was not specifically outlined to the teachers beforehand.

To gain accreditation for the two MCI units and possibly work towards a National Vocational Qualification in management, the staff must compile a portfolio of evidence.

Like many students, they have found this the most difficult part of the programme. "It's a question of finding the time," says Russell Dale. "You have to get statements from witnesses," adds Mark Stephens. "I have been printing documents for people to sign."

But regardless of whether any of the teachers complete their portfolios (Qudos has extended the deadline until December), the teachers believe the development programme has had its desired effect. "At the end of the day this was never about gaining Brownie badges," says Chris Avery. "Everybody has gained from this scheme."

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