The key to good leadership? Control your inner chimp

22nd May 2015 at 01:00
Radical programme helps Isle of Wight's struggling schools

Snooker player Ronnie O'Sullivan, controversial footballer Luis Surez and even the Team GB Olympic cycling squad - all have worked with Steve Peters to build resilience and a winning mentality. But now the former forensic psychiatrist's renowned Chimp Management organisation is helping to transform the fortunes of a different team: school leaders on the Isle of Wight.

For many, the island is associated with sea, sand and the Cowes Week regatta, but in recent years it has developed an altogether less welcome reputation for the low standards in its schools. Last year, Ofsted's annual report revealed that just 17 per cent of secondary students on the island attended a good or outstanding school - a significantly lower proportion than in any other part of England.

Slowly but surely, however, the situation is improving. Since September, three of the island's secondaries have been moved out of special measures by Ofsted. And school leaders have insisted that at least part of the improvement can be attributed to being taught how to manage their inner "chimp".

Primates under pressure

In Mr Peters' philosophy, the chimp represents the instinctive, emotional part of the brain that does not always react in a logical manner when under stress. A bespoke programme has been created for the island by former teacher Kate Goodger, head of Chimp Management's education practice.

"In British cycling, Steve worked with the team in creating a culture for athletes to really thrive in," she told TES. "We'd assumed that we didn't need to do that in education; we assumed that headteachers had all the appropriate skills and knew what they were doing.

"What we very quickly realised was that school leaders weren't in a great place, and teaching staff were probably in an even worse place, because of the pressures on them.

"It's not a lack of commitment from headteachers, but more to do with the changing skill set that is demanded," Dr Goodger added. "They're doing things now that they didn't originally sign up to as a teacher - things like people management, stakeholder management and strategic thinking."

Accordingly, the programme aims to ensure that schools are run on logical, "human" decision-making, rather than being at the mercy of the chimps.

Chimp Management holds courses in dozens of schools around the country. Earlier this year, Mr Peters addressed the Association of School and College Leaders' annual conference. Not surprisingly, one of the main pressure points for headteachers was Ofsted inspections.

"As soon as the phone call from Ofsted comes, the chimps are on the rampage," Dr Goodger said. "One of the teachers on the Isle of Wight had a very challenging Ofsted inspection and hadn't been prepared for it, so consequently they worked purely emotionally the whole time."

The key to successful school management, according to Dr Goodger, is ensuring that staff keep their inner chimps in check.

"You want people to have perspective and be systematic in their approach, whereas what we find a lot is that the chimps are on the rampage and assumptions are made; it's basically a case of beating people and seeing how hard they're going to work," she said.

"Or you get some headteachers who are completely indecisive. For their teams, that's quite destabilising, so what we're trying to do is teach people how they can get a better quality of life."

Lynda Evans, headteacher of Hunnyhill Primary School in Newport, the Isle of Wight's capital, has taken part in the programme and believes it has brought benefits for schools across the island.

"It's about the mentality of leadership and how you can manage your staff, parents and yourself," she said. "It's about your own leadership skills. It's really exciting."

Steve Cottrell, Hampshire County Council's school improvement manager for the island, said that the strategies used with elite athletes could be applied to schools.

Headteachers were also being encouraged to pass on the tips they learned to other members of staff, he added. "They're getting topped up in the tank to keep the motor going. We want to keep feeding them with new ideas and thinking to keep that [improvement] going."

`It's really exciting'

Hunnyhill Primary School in Newport, the Isle of Wight's capital, has hosted Chimp Management training courses for school leaders around the island.

"It has really grown," says headteacher Lynda Evans. "We're filled to the rafters now.

"It's about the mentality of leadership and how you can manage your staff, parents and yourself, while developing your own leadership skills.

"It's really exciting. We have whole-day sessions which are interactive.

"The programme is based on your inner chimp, and how you can control it and nurture it. It's a stimulating level of challenge."

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