Triage for the casualties of change

Clean, decisive action will lessen the pain of restructuring

Paul Phillips

As every teacher knows, change is at the heart of education. Politics, people, subjects, curriculum and our students, in so many ways, all change. And each brings challenges, both good and bad.

With many of these shifts inevitably comes a requirement to restructure a school. Although the end results should be positive, the process is often traumatic for those involved and the danger is that it brings more harm than good. Hence, as a school leader, you need to manage a restructure extremely carefully.

Sometimes change is brought about by reduced budgets; often it is because of the poor performance of certain parts of the organisation; but mostly, it is because our focus is shifted by government initiatives. Sadly, there will be casualties whatever approach you take. If you are a manager of substance, you will be affected by this and you need a particular mindset to approach the change process.

I have worked in both private industry and education and, in the former, I found that the restructuring process would be almost instantaneous. In education, it is, correctly, subject to significant consultation.

Careful diagnosis

I do not advise the quick-fix restructure, particularly for the new principal or headteacher. It is better to get to know - or for more experienced heads, reacquaint yourself with - your institution over eight to 12 weeks of concentrated analysis.

You may find that some of the staff you meet have never received guidance regarding what is required of them; others will always blame the learners for their shortcomings; and sad as it might seem, there will also be those who should never have set foot inside a classroom. But do not draw your conclusions too quickly and do not make the mistake of stereotyping people.

Look at the ethos you want your organisation to follow, the products you will deliver and the skills needed. Start from the premise that you are aiming to lose as few staff as possible.

I hold the philosophy that turning around the fortunes of a school or college demands staff changes, but it is how you go about it that is crucial. Sometimes a failing institution will not recognise it is failing and that applies to everyone in it - right up to and including the governing body. Make your decisions with all information to hand.

Next, issue your proposed restructure plan and go out to consultation. Prepare for responses to be extensive. You will receive replies ranging from the logical to the unreasonable. Do not ignore them; put them in context and be ready to change some of your underlying philosophies. If you do not, I guarantee you that you will very soon require further restructuring.

Then, issue the new structure. This will probably entail the creation of new roles and will inevitably mean some staff having to leave. You could request voluntary redundancies, but be careful: paradoxically, sometimes your best staff apply for voluntary redundancy because they are the most worried.

Ensure those members of staff who best meet the new roles get the jobs, then ask yourself the following questions about the teachers who are at risk of leaving:

Are you losing poor teachers? If so, you are doing the institution and learners a favour.

Are you losing good teachers who cannot cope with the change process? If so, get on with it for everyone's sake - nobody wins in this case.

Are you losing good teachers you would like to keep? Then feel guilty, because you should be thinking creatively about ways to retain those key staff.

It is rare that I do not feel guilt during a restructure because when government cuts are significant there are often casualties I cannot save. With good teachers and managers who love what they do, you can only do your best for them by assisting them to find positions in other institutions if you can.

The process of losing staff is legalistic, because it must protect individuals and give them every chance of gaining a place in a changed institution. The affected staff must also know their rights and be supported through what is a devastating process. I have been on both sides of the fence and, sadly, a clinical assessment of the situation is what is needed - one that is completed quickly but responsibly. Those staff who have "moved on" and have the ability, tenacity and behaviour that good institutions require will soon find another position.

One final note on the whole process: as a school leader, you may get the backing of your management and governors but just check they are with you when it all starts to unwind. I call it "Bunnies on the lawn". "Shoot the bunnies," say the governors. So you follow orders, then you look around...and who is still there? Sometimes it is a lonely life being a manager.

Dr Paul Phillips is principal and chief executive of Weston College, North Somerset

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Paul Phillips

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