Developing the vision and values of a school is an essential task for any headteacher, but it is also one fraught with difficulties. Among the toughest challenges is how to get staff heavily involved to the extent that they take ownership of the vision and values and therefore buy into and uphold them.
Some leaders start by presenting their own vision and hoping that everyone agrees, but you may struggle for that to be seen as inclusive. And a half-hour carousel session during a Friday afternoon staff meeting may well be viewed as a token gesture.
Admittedly, getting up to 100 or more disparate souls to agree on what it means to be a part of a school takes thought and effort in the planning. There are no shortcuts: it needs to be a process that is inclusive of all staff – newcomers and old-timers, support assistants and teachers, office staff and caretakers.
A bridge from the past
I found a solution in Candi B McKay’s book You Don’t Have to be Bad to Get Better and her use of the “historygram” to “build a bridge from the past to the future”.
Essentially, you allow time for staff to reflect on the past and to integrate how the collective values of the whole school have been built up. This is a powerful way of preparing them to redefine their vision for a better future.
We set aside a September inset day as the best time to look at our school values. The crucial bit (after bacon rolls) was to engage teachers by acknowledging and honouring, as McKay puts it, “the contributions and experiences of the past”. This was done through a simple and effective exercise in which we examined our shared experiences by looking inwards within the school and looking outwards to the local community, wider society and national and international initiatives.
Staff were divided into groups according to how long they had been in the school. To save time this can be done beforehand or – for increased enjoyment, argument and hilarity – by getting everybody to line up in the order in which they joined the school.
Groups can then be formed according to eras or a certain span of years – being a medium-sized school, we ended up with six groups of up to 10 staff stretching back over almost 30 years. The groups sat at tables with big sheets of paper and lots of coloured pens and were set the task of historical reminiscing.
What themes you use in your discussions will depend on what you want to achieve, but we stayed reasonably close to McKay’s guidelines and the groups considered:
major educational initiatives during their time in school;
events that were taking place in the local community;
events happening in the wider world;
values that were developed that are still relevant and should be taken forward.
As was to be expected, there was raucousness, introspection, argument and agreement in equal measure. Knowing when to draw it all to a close was a tricky business.
The old-timers could have gone on forever while the newbies had less to say but were interested in their own experiences since starting at the school.
After a good 45 minutes to an hour, everyone was starting to dry up, so we moved on to the reporting back stage. We did this by nominating a storyteller from each group, but it could just as easily be done through groups constructing storyboards to illustrate their own particular time period.
As I am a relative newcomer to the school, I found the feedback to be illuminating, to say the least. Long-gone staff and memorable pupils were brought back to life, tales were told of the gender-specific (and smoking) staffrooms. The longest-serving member of staff recalled being the only teacher under 50 back in the 1980s.
Forgotten initiatives and events, the endless portakabins, community schools, standard grades and the Higher Still reforms, Schools of Ambition, Banda machines, Betamax videos and the carefree days before risk assessment were remembered – occasionally fondly – and analysed for effectiveness alongside the now-embedded system of GIRFEC (getting it right for every child), smartboards, cooperative learning, Curriculum for Excellence and Discipline for Learning systems.
Shared experiences in the wider community and the outside world included the community resilience programmes, some improved flood defences, RockNess, freedom for Nelson Mandela, the death of Princess Diana and the priceless moment when “Andy Murray won something, smiled and became British”.
But, most of all, what transpired was that many of the values and beliefs that were a core part of the school 30 years ago remained the same in the present day – things such as friendliness, respect, openness, hard work, inclusion, ambition and keeping the child at the centre of all we do.
The unanimous agreement that these are the bedrock on which the school is based and continue to be the non-negotiables that we want to take forward has proved pivotal in defining the culture of the school as we are now and where we are headed in the future.
John Rutter is headteacher of Inverness High School
Go back to your future