Leadership - Avoiding a hostile takeover

22nd November 2013 at 00:00
Our practical tips will help you to manage the challenges and stresses of a school merger

Embarking on a school merger is a daunting prospect. But if you find yourself in this situation, as I did a year ago, be reassured that although it is a difficult undertaking, it is also a hugely rewarding one.

A merger is a challenge to all involved. It requires staff, students and parents to potentially change their mindset, perhaps abandoning long-held beliefs and embracing new ones. Understanding the natural cycle of human response to change is important and it quickly becomes evident that a successful merger is as much about communication as it is about academia.

If I could give just one piece of advice it would be this: don't let strategic, structural or academic considerations distract you from the people. Research shows that more than half of mergers fail to achieve their objectives because the human dimension is ignored. Here are some more top tips for making a merger work.

1. Engage people immediately

Remember that you, as school leader, have had time to get used to the merger decision, but that for staff, students and parents it will come as a shock. Take time to have individual meetings with them. Send cards, answer emails, ring people who are anxious or angry. Put question boxes in school reception areas and respond regularly to comments. Finally, stage open meetings where parents, students, staff and alumni can air their views.

2. Address the FAQs

Produce a sheet for each school giving the answers to questions that were raised in all the meetings you have already had. Circulate it to all parents as not everyone comes to meetings.

3. Keep messages consistent

Everyone should be clear about the vision for the new school and how its constituent institutions will operate in the meantime. Issue information simultaneously so that neither school hears something before the other. This is an emotional time for everyone and it is important to speak with one calm, clear voice. Establish a merger newsletter and send it out frequently to all stakeholders. Include plenty of positive messages and images. It is also important that you treat staff from both schools the same, make sure that plans for redeployment are fair - and legal - and keep everyone fully informed at all stages.

4. Organise on-site visits

Reassure parents by inviting them to visit the new school site. We dispelled fears that the new school would be "too academic" by choosing sixth-form tour guides who exemplified the breadth of education on offer.

5. Set up parent groups

Establish parent groups. Give them specific roles and be clear about the parameters of their involvement. Make sure reps can communicate with other parents en masse only via the school - this way you will find out about emerging issues and be able to step in before they escalate. Our parent groups have been involved with branding, master planning and uniform.

6. Ensure and communicate continuity

Reassure parents that it will be "business as usual" for their children during the merger process. This is particularly important for key year groups approaching public examinations. Don't let the merger take over normal school life.

7. Run student events

Organise joint events for students from both schools. We have had a charity fun run and a dog walk. Take lots of photographs and use them in your communications. It is also important to reassure former students. We have kept both schools' alumnae associations running at the same time as launching a new one.

8. Market the merged school

Even while you are in the midst of making merger decisions, don't forget the outside world. Initiate a marketing campaign to reassure the public and attract new students.

9. Keep on top of high-risk planning

Identify when your schools will be most vulnerable and at risk of negative gossip or media attention and prepare statements for every eventuality in advance. You may need to respond at a moment's notice, and the more you prevaricate, the more your delay can be construed as panic.

10. See uniform and branding as an opportunity

Embrace the symbolic importance of uniform and branding. Consult at an early stage, even if all you have are outline ideas. This process - and what your uniform looks like - can either provoke argument or inspire enthusiasm. It's up to you.

Managing a merger is not for the faint-hearted but it continues to be one of the most exhilarating experiences of my professional life. Hopefully these tips will help to make any merger a similar experience for you.

Hilary French is president of the Girls' Schools Association and headteacher of Central Newcastle High School, which is in the process of merging with the Newcastle upon Tyne Church High School to become Newcastle High School for Girls.

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