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Welcome your critical friends

Pat McDermott answers your leadership questions

Two colleague heads and I have been discussing how we are going to prepare for the "single conversation" and the visit of a school-improvement partner next year. One of the strategies that we are keen to try out is the idea of acting as a "critical friend" to each other. We were wondering about conducting a series of "inter-visitations" to our schools to get this going. I am not sure about this. What advice can you give me?

What are you not sure about? If such visits are to be successful they must be grounded in and built on trust. It sounds as if you have a high degree of trust among yourselves already. You would not be contemplating such a strategy if this was not the case. You obviously can talk frankly about school improvement and sound as if you are prepared to work collaboratively. All this presupposes trust and mutual respect.

Inter-visitations will sit well within such relationships. Indeed, mutual trust is the bedrock for this strategy to work successfully.

Operating in trios can be an invaluable source of support and information for a headteacher. This can be a useful strategy to assist you with your own school self-evaluation. I think it will help, though, if all three of you can agree on clear purposes and protocols. This will help to reassure you that the process will be conducted in a professional way and be beneficial for you and your school.

If you are hosting the first visit, then you should set the agenda. If you choose an issue that you are interested in and get your colleagues to look at it for you then this will help you to feel that you remain in control of the exercise.

Choose something that you are working on now or something that has been introduced fairly recently where you want some objective feedback regarding its effectiveness.

Other things you can do to make you feel more at ease with the inter-visitation are: lead the discussion on how the visit should be conducted; arrange when they will arrive; agree who they will meet; come to an understanding about how they will feed back to you; and decide what you are going to tell the staff and pupils about their visit.

The fundamental question for you to consider after the inter-visitation will be: how am I now going to use the comments from my colleague heads with my own staff?

Prepare to be challenged by their findings and reflect on the outcomes carefully, but make sure that you hear the positives too. Many heads tend to be deaf to these and focus entirely on any negatives that emerge.

Your colleagues need to be clear about their role, as you do too. They need to understand the issue that you want them to investigate. They will need to listen attentively to what they are told and try to engage in meaningful dialogues with people so that they can elicit useful insights and feed these back to you.

Hopefully they will possess the necessary skills to: enable them to illuminate the issues; keep to the agreed focus; remain honest and sensitive; and provide observations based on evidence for you.

You will enjoy the experience of sitting down with two colleagues, explaining to them what you want their feedback on and why it is important to you, and listening to their findings.

Such conversations and feedback are all too rare but very precious.

Receiving confirmation about an issue from two other colleagues does wonders for the confidence, and the potential for all three of you to learn is great. Don't forget that you will get the opportunity to visit their schools too and you will learn, first hand, how difficult this privilege is to conduct.

You are bound to feel a little nervous about inter-visitations, particularly when you are hosting a visit, but the benefits for you and your school will outweigh these anxious moments. Such an experience will certainly assist you and your colleagues in preparing for what is to come.

Patrick McDermott is head of St Joseph's Catholic college, an 11-18 girls'

school, in Bradford. This is his third headship, and he has been a head for 12 years and a teacher for 27. He is a facilitator for the National College for School Leadership and mentored Catholic heads for 10 years. Do you have a leadership question? Email

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