What I am learning about maintaining ethos

I have read a lot of blogs towards the end of the year from some fabulous well-respected leaders and colleagues about reasons to keep cheerful and positive.  I have also read some blogs from teachers which horrified me about how badly their schools were led and managed. I spent a good part of December at DYCA trying to figure out why our staff are so very positive and why our ethos remains so strong, given that this is clearly not the prevailing condition.

I am a very realistic woman and I know that things “out there” are pretty depressing. After all, for those of us working in the most challenging schools and academies, our students’ family situations are worsening, the budget situation is gloomy, it is extremely difficult to recruit teachers in core subjects, the media relentlessly report on negative statements from HMCI and SoS about teachers (while under reporting anything positive), all school employee living standards are eroding, OFSTED is losing (maybe lost?) the confidence of the profession and heads are increasingly subject to “football manager syndrome”, with some well-respected leaders losing their jobs unfairly and stupidly.

And yet what I see everyday at DYCA are teams of staff driving up their own performance, supporting each other in loving and challenging ways with great humour, senior staff exuding enthusiasm and joy in their leadership roles and with high levels of credibility, rising standards and lots of fun.  (By the way, I have spent most of my time as CEO of LEAF recently and so take no personal credit for this!).  DYCA operates in the most challenging of circumstances and so this requires some reflection.  Having had a few days off work now which didn’t require cooking for huge numbers, I’ve done a bit of that and can offer the following:

Leadership of love

I know I’m probably getting a reputation for “always banging on about love”, but it is the X Factor.

There are some golden rules in leadership: never ask someone to do something you wouldn’t do yourself; model behaviours you wish to see in others in ALL interactions; embrace collective responsibility; be prepared to admit mistakes; deal with the urgent urgently, and give time to the important; never pass the buck and deal with the most difficult people yourself; be generous with your time; don’t make excuses and tell the truth.

I am privileged to be surrounded by senior leaders and managers who have swallowed this rule book, but they also offer something more – they demonstrate a love and joy in their jobs, and a love and joy in working together, for the benefit of our community. They never flinch from telling the truth to anyone – staff, each other, parents – but they do so in humility and love, always with the offer of help and support to be be better.  I was once told “just because you can do difficult things, doesn’t mean to say you have to enjoy it, and if you did enjoy it, then you’re in the wrong job.”  Leaders who haven’t understood this either cannot tell the truth or become isolated and ineffective in supporting others when they do so.

I am very proud of the senior leaders and managers I work with, but more importantly than having my confidence, they have the respect and confidence of those they serve.  We were so very sad to say goodbye to one of our number who moved on recently and she reports that the aspect she misses most is “servant leadership”.  The thing about servant leadership is that it creates a virtuous circle which stops leaders themselves becoming lonely and isolated.

Confidence and Courage

If an academy or school knows its community well, understands its mission, has robust self-evaluation procedures and effective governance, then it should have the self confidence to “keep calm and carry on”.  I say this in humility – I have no understanding of why any head runs their school in a constant state of “preparation for OFSTED”.  I understand the pressure: indeed I am under more pressure than anyone and always have been, but focussing on OFSTED will prevent greatness, and our calling is to be great, which is not the same as being labelled “outstanding” by measures with which we do not always agree.

Floor targets, OFSTED grades, progress measures are not nonsense: indeed they are very helpful in moving our academies and schools forward in many ways, but they are not the total of what education is about.  My personal view is that as a system leader I have a duty to try and make these things as helpful as possible in assisting heads move their schools into greatness, but, as a Principal, when they are unhelpful, it is my duty to ignore them and to give all in my institution the courage to ignore them.

I firmly believe that when the staff in an academy or school see all the initiatives in their institution  geared towards external accountability measures, they are right to lose confidence in their leaders because the leaders have clearly lost confidence in themselves.

At DYCA we have a sub-committee on SLT made up entirely of SLEs; it is their role, not to look at preparation for OFSTED or published accountability measures, but to develop the teaching and learning service so that it meets our internal targets.  Sometimes these overlap with the external measures and sometimes they don’t; on a rare occasion they conflict, and in this eventuality it is always the needs of our students and our community that take precedence.  Staff buy into that because it comes from a leadership which is confident and secure.

High levels of challenge / High levels of support

There isn’t much to say about this other than you have to do both.  Interestingly, when I have read the blogs of teachers who are are unhappy with the school leadership they work with, it seems not so much that these things are unbalanced, but rather that they are just inappropriate or absent!

I remember 12 years ago, when first a head in a very difficult situation, realising the staff I was leading had never had either before: what was dressed as support was nothing of the kind – it was lack of challenge, and this had damaged everyone.  I have come to believe that it is impossible to have high levels of support without high levels of challenge.  I was told by HMI Tom Grieveson back in 2008 that it was because these two were in balance that morale was high at DYCA.  At that stage high morale at DYCA was a miracle, so this was useful feedback which has become part of the leadership mantra.

Culture and Climate

I can’t remember who taught me this definition: culture is how we do things here, but climate is how  it feels to work here.  We keep a careful eye on this, because routines and policies and procedures are all entirely subject to the quality of relationships!

If we want to get the best from all our staff, then they need to enjoy working here: they need to feel valued, rewarded, that coming to work is something they would miss and that they get personal growth and fulfilment from it.  This is as true for the facilities team as it is for the SLT.

At DYCA you see a lot of hugs, laughter, conversations between staff all over the place, acceptance of emotion, no division between “teaching and non-teaching” staff, staff and students entertaining each other and growing together in music, drama, sport, etc.etc.  These are all about climate.

Fun is an important dimension of all that we do and it also helps us develop understanding and tolerance of individual idiosyncrasies.  Middle leaders know that when reporting projected GCSE and IB grades it is best done in terms of betting odds than any fancy educational tool!  New staff know that they will be expected to dance with a Principal or Vice Principal at the Ceilidh and everyone knows “you don’t count the week / day we’re in” when counting down to a holiday.  Again these are all about climate.

 It is bigger than us

All of the above actually comes from “great moral purpose”.  We have a head start on this in two ways.  Firstly, you don’t come to work in areas like this (and get past interview with me!) unless you have it, and secondly we are a faith academy.  Faith academies and schools have a bit of a head start on great moral purpose.  We are explicitly multi-faith and have no faith requirement for admission or appointment, but we are explicit about where our moral purpose comes from: everyone is unique and loved by God and we are called to ensure that all can achieve their full potential for the greater glory of God through our service.

In practice this looks strange to those used to traditional faith schools.  For instance the Christian prayers on Tuesdays and Muslim prayer on Fridays often are attended by the same students!  All major religious feasts are celebrated: 1,000 students listen in respectful silence while Muslim students sing prayers in Arabic at Eid and also appreciate the Easter celebration.  This gives us a head start in creating a culture in which staff and students alike can feel accepted; where sexism, racism and homophobia are unacceptable, and where standing for a minutes silence is a relatively commonplace event.

This final point sums up all the  others really – we are not about an OFSTED grade or a league table place, we are not about personal credibility or ambition; we are about service, and this comes from our great moral purpose.  Thankfully, thus far, this has enabled us to keep positive and successful despite the currents and external pressures.

I hope these reflections resonate with some of you.

Happy new year!


About rosmcm1962

30 years in teaching. Experienced Headteacher, Principal, Executive Principal, CEO of Academy Trust and NLE. Now working independently in the sector.
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17 Responses to What I am learning about maintaining ethos

  1. Jane Chambers says:

    As a head, I’ve had my most difficult term ever. Worse than my first term in a difficult school where I was punched in the face twice and had to make numerous exclusions to bring order to chaos. Worse than the first time English and Maths Lv4s were recorded together and we got 43% (we’re now at 88%). In all those challenging times it was the ethos, culture and climate I was determined to build and our determination to do whats BEST for our kids, not jump through ofsteds hoops that got us through. But through this terrible term, and despite amazing support from my middle/senior leaders, I knew I’d lost my way when I found myself shouting at a member of staff on the penultimate day of term.
    This brilliant blog had helped me find it again. Thanks and here’s to a happier (back on track) New Year, that will start with an apology to the staff member about how I spoke to them.

    • rosmcm1962 says:

      I know your school well. I was head at PEMBEC from 2000-2004 (during the time it became PEMBEC). I understand your community and challenges. Your comment has helped me too. Keep the faith!

  2. Pingback: Challenge and support matters; a Head’s view. With thanks to Ros McCullen | governingmatters

  3. Thanks for a brilliant post. So much of what you say is true of governance too. Ethos, moral purpose, good leadership and good and appropriate support and challenge is what good governance is all about. Your post illustrates that, though some may not think and believe this, but heads, SLT and governors are all on the same side.

  4. This is wonderful Ros. I remember Climate and Culture -is that from Charles Handy? Anyway, it’s a great concept; you’ve captured it superbly here. And ‘servant leadership’ is something I will borrow and work on. Look forward to seeing you soon. Tom x

  5. Glynpotts says:

    Thank you for this blog. It grounds any notion of ‘failure’ against a backdrop of reality and gives renewed determination to crack on. Very much appreciated.


  6. steve says:

    A great read Ros – thanks for sharing.

    I know around our SLT table we were tasked with finding a ‘strap-line’ to help tie together the various elements of our school improvement plan. We quickly agreed it was about doing everything the best we could possibly do it within the confines of various limitations but ended up going for “Outstanding at everything we do”.

    I argued for avoiding the word “Outstanding” due to the OFSTED ‘ownership’ of the word nowadays – perhaps great, or excellence would have been better. I wasn’t persuasive enough and we went with Outstanding which, sadly, has been interpreted by a significant minority of staff as being a big push for an outstanding rating (by fair means or foul) when OFSTED next arrive rather than the focus being on the impact of the desired improvements for the students.

    Happy New Year.

  7. Reblogged this on physicsnerdita's Blog and commented:
    climate and culture – food for thought

  8. So good to see the positives of the profession coming to the fore. I have found it so sad that so many schools seem to be full of unhappy people. Cannot be good for the children who after all are what it is all about!

  9. Me again! I would love to follow your blog. Any chance of a follow via email rather than a reader? I forget to look!

  10. smastle says:

    Reblogged this on smastleblog and commented:
    This is a wonderful blog with lots of food for thought about leadership. I especially love the superbly worded golden rules of leadership but underpinned with the demonstration of a love and joy in our jobs and in working together! I can quite safely say that this is something I have yearned for from colleagues!!

  11. Pingback: AQA Policy Blog | School accountability should focus on outcomes not processes

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