Keep communication under control

28th November 2003 at 00:00
Answers your leadership questions

I am a newly appointed head of a secondary school and I am finding communication a real problem. This is especially true of getting messages across to all of my staff so that they respond appropriately. Any advice?

In general, the larger the school the more difficult communication is, but it also depends on the systems used, the ability of folk to use these and the propensity of all to take the need for good communications seriously.

Think carefully about communication as a two-way process and have clear and coherent systems in place.

Schools often rely heavily on paper communication in the form of regular bulletins, notes to each other and agenda and minutes from meetings. It is good to standardise these both in terms of format and to colour code them.

Keeping them brief with bulleted action points and clear responsibility and time frames is good practice. Expectations about speed of publication following meetings are also important. Clearly this issue relates to the workforce re-modelling agenda and, as heads, we are now expected to provide administrative support for these roles.

Memos from heads are an interesting issue. It is possible to overwhelm people with these so we need to be judicious in our use of them. It is good when they contain praise. We all need to feel valued.

Another increasingly popular form of communication is e-mail using a secure intranet. This has many advantages in a large school - efficiency, speed, ease in communicating to a lot of people, the ability for communication to be two-way, and cost. But confidential messages can end up in the wrong place (by pressing the wrong key). It can lead to overload on staff both in terms of the number of messages received (meaning key ones may be missed), and increased pressure as we seek to respond to all of them quickly. It may not be any cheaper if we print them off. Electronic communication will increase but we need to come up with clear protocols that all staff understand and adhere to from the start.

Often the most effective form of communication is the spoken word through meetings and conversations. This is time-consuming, tiring and difficult in busy schools, but must not be neglected. Full staff meetings, for example, should be the best way to get clear, consistent messages across. We have all experienced these becoming a one-way process of us giving, but the receiving can be made possible through small group discussions and feedback as part of the meeting.

Issues that need discussion should be moved through the meeting structures in a planned way, for example, curriculum committee to department meetings and back. If this is clear, everyone can see how they can influence decisions where appropriate. We also have to choreograph our own use of time in school but without ignoring the need to include flexibility and spontaneity. Heads almost have to write and follow a daily script in terms of with whom they communicate, at what time, about what and for what purpose.

We need to be able to both listen and take on board the many good ideas our staff have. This may involve changing our tacks (and sometimes apologising), as well as explaining to colleagues why we are not running with their idea.

The word "abandonment" is becoming more widely used in educational circles and it means accepting we cannot respond to everything and prioritising things that are important. Heads must protect their staff from the barrage of information coming into schools. Some stuff, after careful thought, does need to be filed in the bin. If we put it out, staff may give it an importance it may not deserve.

Communication is a fluid process as we try to weave together the thinking and engagement of all staff so that our schools do not become highly polarised. Clear structures that knit the written, electronic and spoken word together in a discernible and pleasing pattern are what we must aim for. But we also must be aware that we are all fallible human beings.

Robin Precey has been in education for 31 years, the past 12 as head of Seaford Head community college in East Sussex. He is also a consultant on the National College for School Leadership's New Visions programme. Do you have a school leadership or management question? Email

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