This much I know about…our family’s Lost Lowry

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about our family’s Lost Lowry.

What follows is based upon a family tale which has floated around my wife’s family’s consciousness for decades. At the end of last year, I asked my mother-in-law Pauline to tell us the story again, when we were all sitting round the dinner table. She was essentially speaking directly to Louise, my wife. I captured Pauline’s words on my dictaphone and shaped this short story. The quotation from The Antiques Roadshow was the serendipitous spur which finally prompted me to pin down this family tale for good.

 

The Lost Lowry

“It’s now become a kind of status symbol to own a Lowry. That means everybody wants one.”
Rupert Mass, Antiques Roadshow, 29 September 2019

When your grandad came out of the navy he started a taxi business. He couldn’t work as he had a complaint. He was torpedoed in the war. He set up this taxi service. There was one taxi in every village. He made a lot of money out of that. He had one car and then two. He was a good entrepreneur, your grandad. He had lots of people who he taxied around. The Blackwell’s. There was Mr Shami, an Iraqi. I think he were a mill owner.

Anyway, he used to run these people around. Including Lowry, you know, the painter. Matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs. I love his paintings, me. I think they’re lovely. They’re busy. The house was very dismal. He had a trilby and a long raincoat. He were tall. He died just up the road in Wood’s Hospital, at the top of the park, near where you were born.

So, Mr Lowry had your grandad as a chauffeur and he used to take him places. I never took that much interest. I used to see him shopping as a young girl. We knew he were an artist. He used to carry a shopping bag around with him. It was in the early fifties, maybe late forties. We lived at Broadbottom then. Your grandad used to pick him up. He used to do long trips with him. Up to Sunderland, I think, you know, the north east. Long trips. In those days there weren’t many cars. He drove for him for years.

He lived in a house called…what was it? “The Elms” I think it was, up in Mottram. Oh, your grandad got on well with Mr Lowry. He took him around regular. He must have been on one trip with him once and after he dropped him off – he used to have a cup of tea with him, especially if it were a long trip – he says, as your grandad were going out of the door, “Harry, do you want this?” He had one of his paintings in his hand.

And your grandad said, “You can keep it, as far as I’m concerned Mr Lowry. I’ve never liked your stuff. Not being rude or owt.”

And that were it. He never offered him one again.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

This much I know about…how Larkin was right, “days are where we live”

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about how Larkin was right, “days are where we live”.

It’s Margate, 22 April 1957. My dad sat on the seafront, beaming at the camera. On his right is his sister-in-law, my Auntie Beat, and on his left, his wife, my mother. Dad, trim and smart, would have been 29 years old; mother, with her Picture Post polka dot skirt, just twenty-one.

Behind them is everything they need on an Easter Bank Holiday Monday: a couple of lunchtime ales followed by a spot of shopping at British Home Stores and, after a walk on the beach, to J. Lyons & Co. Ltd., with its famous roof terrace café, for a cup of tea and a slice of cake.

They look the epitome of happiness. And why not? It’s a day off work. The sun is shining. The summer is ready to unfurl before them. And what’s more, mother is six months pregnant with their first child, my sister Beverley.

Dad’s brother Tom would have been behind the camera, making them laugh. “Say CHEESE!” No need to extricate from the long day the grain of pleasure for these four; they’re having genuine fun. The image’s sepia tones are imbued with a sense of indefatigable optimism. All of life is ahead of them.

Dad died nearly 35 years ago. I’m not sure when, exactly, Uncle Tom and Auntie Beat passed away. My sister Bev was taken by cancer back in 2017. BHS and Lyons are long gone. And today I visited mother in her Sussex nursing home. Despite her Alzheimer’s, she recognised me. She knows my other sister and my two brothers, but no one else.

I showed her a photograph of my wife Louise and our two sons. There was not a glint of recognition in her eyes. She asked about dad. I told her that he had died of cancer a long time ago. She looked rueful and declared, “I loved him”. Ten minutes later, after I had explained dad’s fate for the second time, she said, in a rare moment of lucidity, “Well, they all die John”.

On the way down south we dropped our eldest, Joe, back home in North London. Instead of carrying on straight away, we made the effort to take the tube to the Barbican and visit the Museum of London. I wanted to see The Clash’s London Calling 40th anniversary exhibition. It was, predictably, a thrilling experience.

Afterwards, as we walked through the streets towards the Old Spitalfields Market, Louise remarked that “Days”, by Phillip Larkin, had become her favourite poem. “It’s it, isn’t it? Like this, this is it, days, like this one”, she said. “This is our life. Not yesterday, not in the future, but now. This is where our life happens. On day’s like this.”

And, of course, she is right. Days are where we live. Days like the Easter Bank Holiday Monday that Ann & Harry and Tom & Beat spent laughing in Margate, all those years ago.

Posted in Other stuff | 1 Comment

This much I know about…why Tom Bennett is right – teaching IS a wonderful job!

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about why Tom Bennett is right – teaching IS a wonderful job!

I am teaching a Year 11 Business Studies GCSE class comprising 11 boys. I began teaching them in Year 10, when their behaviour was ruinous. I took them out of the original class so that the teacher and the 12 remaining students could get on with teaching and learning. I marched them to my office, sat them round my table and explained that, for the next 14 months, I would be teaching them, right though to their final examinations.

Two things happened in that class last week that gladdened my heart. On Monday we were practising MCQs, including this one:

Now, I had not taught them anything like this. I have no idea what a “Pure play retailer” might possibly be. When we went through the answers, Luke had chosen the correct answer, B. I asked him why and this was his reply:

‘Well, Mr Partmiter in RE was talking the other day about God being omnipotent, and he had explained to us that “omni” is a prefix meaning “all”, so I thought that must be the answer because customers can buy stuff in all different ways. Good old Mr Parmiter!’

Inspired by Alex Quigley, we have focused for the last three years on equipping students with the tools to deconstruct words to investigate their meaning when they don’t know what they mean. Always good when a plan comes together…

And on Thursday afternoon, before we finished the year with a Betty’s tea shop Cheeky Little Rascal each, I told the boys we had got some work to do and I had to get their brains thinking. Oliver replied, quick as a flash, “It wouldn’t be a Business lesson, Sir, if we weren’t thinking.” I have been working of late to ensure every single student has learnt what I have taught, inspired by Tom Sherrington’s seminal post on the #1 problem in teaching. Just changing the wording of my questioning has helped hugely. I have these boys thinking hard; instead of asking “Have you learnt that?” I ask “What have you learnt from that?” I get them thinking all the time. Oliver’s comment is the result of relentless interrogation, until I feel sure that all 11 boys have what I have taught securely in their brains!

I taught an all-boy group like this several years ago for English GCSE. One lad stood out, called Tom. A few weeks ago, Ros McMullen texted me. She lives just up the road. I was reminded of our ensuing exchange of texts this morning when I read Tom Bennett’s inspiring post, “It’s still a wonderful job – because teaching saved me”. I don’t usually post this kind of stuff, but Ros’ texts meant a lot to me, because my student Tom meant a lot to me. And Tom Bennett is spot on – it is a wonderful job, for sure!

Posted in General educational issues, Other stuff, Teaching and Learning | Leave a comment

This much I know about…London Calling’s 40th birthday!

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about London Calling’s 40th birthday!

Forty years ago today The Clash released London Calling. It was a seminal moment in rock and roll history and a life-changing experience for my 15-year old self.

Less than a month after the release date I was queuing outside the Brighton Top Rank to see the band play on their 16 Tons Tour. They were promoting the new album. As my mates and I shuffled from foot to foot to keep the January chill at bay, critical opinion was divided about London Calling’s eclectic musical mix. No one understood Jimmy Jazz. Train in Vain was pure disco. There was so much reggae! The title track was great, for sure, but Lover’s Rock? Really? Before the gig, the proverbial jury was still out.

Once in the venue, it was a matter of downing as much Pernod & black as you could afford and then getting to the front of the stage. There were no safety gaps filled with bouncers. If you were brave you’d get a front row spot early and then just hold on. The crush was dangerous and exhilarating. The night The Clash played I ended up swaying around in the mosh-pit, just a few feet from the front.

There was nothing quite like being in the mosh-pit as The Clash began their set. The support had been finished for some time as chants of Clash…Clash…Clash…Clash bounced around the Top Rank’s sweaty walls. And just when you thought they would never appear, the lights fell. In the blackness torches scattered. The lyrics of Tennesse Ernie Ford’s 16 Tons floated out of the PA system and as they faded a voice announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to welcome back to Brighton…THE CLASH!” And a nanosecond later, pandemonium.

They began with Clash City Rockers. Mick Jones’ opening chords growled out across the Top Rank and the surge of energy was raw, elemental and purifying. A lad next to me grabbed my shirt and hauled himself up to crowd surf into the swirling mosh. I gasped for breath. Before I knew it we were straight into Brand New Cadillac followed by Safe European Home. One track, then another, then another. London Calling, Bang! Stay Free, Bang! White Man in Hammersmith Palais, Bang!

It was absolute chaos. I found myself laughing at the perilous thrill of it all. I loved it. And the thing was with The Clash, they loved it too. It was a night of heady celebration. They knew their new album was bloody great. As Andy Kershaw said, who heard them a couple of weeks later in Leeds, “they were at the absolute peak of their powers, the fully finished article…the last word in rock and roll bands”.

In those days the last bus home left at 11.05 pm from Churchill Square. Miss the 729 to Tunbridge Wells and you were stuck in Brighton all night, 20 miles from home. We never saw a full set. We left as Simonon thumped out the Police & Thieves base line, Strummer snarled Junior Murvin’s lyrics, Jones struck the jarring reggae chords and Topper orchestrated the whole thing with drum-machine precision.

It was 11.00 pm on 8 January 1980. Margaret Thatcher was in power and unemployment was on the rise. Unbeknownst to us, The Falkland’s War and the Miners’ Strike lay ahead, soon to ambush our remaining teenage years. But that night, walking up West Street, sweat-ridden and frozen, we didn’t care. We had seen The Clash. And London Calling would become the sound track of our lives. We were changed forever.

This 16 Tons Tour recording is from March 1980 in New Jersey, USA. The band’s supreme confidence is epitomised by Stay Free at 41:10. They own the whole auditorium.

P.S. My son shares his birthday with London Calling. He is 23 today. He is called Joe. Obviously.

Posted in Other stuff | Leave a comment

This much I know about…three funding facts which illustrate why school budgets are a General Election issue for all parties

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about three funding facts which illustrate why school budgets are a General Election issue for all parties.

  1. In 2007 we had 1,526 students at Huntington School and a curriculum taught by 97 full-time equivalent teachers; in 2019 we have 1,539 students and a curriculum taught by 86 full-time equivalent teachers.
  2. In 2010 we had an annual capital budget of £160,000; in 2011 that was cut to £28,000 p.a. and it is £29,000 p.a. this year.
  3. According to the Bank of England Inflation Calculator, if our total budget had merely kept up with inflation since 2010, we would have nearly £1,000,000 more in our annual budget in 2019.
Posted in General educational issues, School Leadership | Leave a comment

This much I know about the challenges for early career headteachers: coping with the loneliness

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about the challenges for early career headteachers: coping with the loneliness.

I am in my seventeenth year as a state school secondary head teacher. Recently I was interviewed by an organisation exploring the biggest challenges for early career head teachers. I began the interview with the knotty question, “What do you mean by head teacher?” We settled on the traditional definition of the head teacher who runs the school with a significant level of autonomy, both challenged and supported by a traditional governing body in a critical friend role.

I identified eight major challenges for early career head teachers:

  1. Forging your relationship with the chair of governors (CoG);
  2. Managing the fact that the buck stops with you;
  3. Understanding the finances;
  4. Establishing your core purpose;
  5. Being patient;
  6. Establishing a position on teaching & learning;
  7. Understanding change management;
  8. Coping with the loneliness.

In this current series of short blog posts, I am addressing each of these challenges and providing some tips which might help early career head teachers to meet them. This final post explores, coping with the loneliness.

 

Coping with the loneliness

I had been exercised, early in my first headship, by a lad from the town who was known to dabble in drugs. He would loiter at the stile at the end of the school day, mixing with some of our most vulnerable students. One darkening November afternoon in my first term, I confronted him boldly, accusing him of being a drug dealer and directing him, in no uncertain terms, to stay away from my students. He stood his ground. He wasn’t, by a matter of inches, on school property. And he had an audience of some of my most challenging charges.

As I walked away, back down the path into school, the sense of loneliness was palpable. He stood there, victorious. I could hear the laughter and the jeers. Things got worse when his parents complained to the governing body. I literally sunk to the floor in my office when that news came through, in complete despair. I had mucked up. A week later I faced his mum and dad in my office where I had to apologise to them for making unsubstantiated accusations about their son. I felt humiliated.

Kevin, our older, hugely experienced, burly assistant head teacher, reassured me. He frequented the local pubs. He knew the town. He was sure nothing would really come of it. In a week’s time it would be old news. And, of course, he was right.

Later that first year I made a terrifically difficult decision about an internal appointment. Two strong candidates for a senior post and I decided to appoint neither. That was tough. For what seemed an eternity, every time I walked into the staff room colleagues stopped talking. I thought about that issue day and night and all weekend. I went fishing with my mate Nick and it was all I could contemplate. Even when I caught a pike, I was wondering about how to sort the mess out at school. Nick knew something was wrong. He chatted it through with me. He was wise about it all. Of course, it would resolve itself. I just had to be patient. Like Kevin before him, he was spot on.

The loneliest moment of my career came in 2010, when our results dipped badly. On that damp August results Wednesday, I sat in my car as the rain pummelled down on the roof and wept and wept; I felt like the loneliest man on the entire planet. I finally rang my wife Louise who said to me, John, come home. We all love you. You can pack it in. It’s really not worth it. Her words were the balm I needed just at that moment. I was very close to quitting. Thanks to Louise, I didn’t.

The loneliness of the job comes, in the end, from a mixture of forces: the fact that the buck stops with you; having to have difficult conversations with other adults; the confidentiality of so much of what you have to deal with; the range and number of different people and organisations to whom you are accountable; the sheer vulnerability of the position and how you are more sackable than any other person in your school.

So, if you are new to headship and you are sitting in front of a screen this Sunday morning feeling distant from your family and worried about next week – if  you are feeling just  plain lonely – here are my top five tips for early career head teachers for coping with the loneliness:

1. Find someone you can talk to. The thread through my loneliness examples above is clear. All head teachers need someone they trust with whom they can share their insecurities. In January 2016 the BBC screened a programme entitled The Age of Loneliness. In a poignant documentary, which is affecting yet never mawkish, Sue Bourne interviews a range of people who talk about living in relative solitude. Loneliness, according to Bourne, is ‘the silent epidemic’. Bourne’s fundamental conclusion is that, ‘People of all ages missed someone to do nothing with. To chat idly. To sit next to.’ And that’s it, isn’t it? We all need, to a greater or lesser extent, someone with whom to share our lives. And why should head teachers be any different? If there is no-one at home to talk to, a good employer will provide you with an experienced leadership coach. Bottling up stuff will only increase the sense of loneliness.

2. Choose to be a stoic and control how you react to things. Shakespeare’s “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”, is rooted in Stoic philosophy. Accept that you can control how you react to life’s vagaries. You can choose how you think, and knowing this has helped keep me sane. It is worth reflecting upon the fact that here, now, as you read this and take a moment to look back on your life, all the things that have traumatised you, all the disasters which have befallen you, you have survived. Nothing has been as bad as it might have been. Nothing is ever that bad. As Karen Pierce, the UK’s Ambassador to the UN, pointed out in a recent interview, “It will be alright in the end and if it isn’t alright, you haven’t reached the end yet”. We can surely choose how we react to life’s vagaries. All events are neutral; how we interpret them determines whether they are good or bad and how we allow them to affect us. Imagine this…impossible as it might seem, everything that happens to you could be good if you chose to think that way.

3. Learn to compartmentalise. I have always argued that the work-life balance is a false dichotomy. I enjoy my job, I am proud to be a head teacher, my work is a central part of my life. For a long time I have preferred the work-home balance, which, combined, constitute my life. But now, much nearer the end of my career than the beginning, I am not sure that I wholly subscribe to my nuanced definition. I heard Cat Scutt speak at researchED Durham yesterday and some research she pointed to, made me think. A paper by Klusmann et al, on teacher wellbeing found that some of the most effective teachers maintained a ‘healthy detachment’ about their job and ‘conserved their personal resources’. What Cat said resonated with me and reminded me of Philip Gould. In his final interview before he died at the age of 61, Gould, Tony Blair’s close adviser, said this to Andrew Marr and I have had it pinned on my office wall ever since: ‘What would have been better for me would have been to have said, “I’ll do what I can do, which I do quite well” and then just push it back a little bit’. Gould’s insight came too late for him, but it isn’t too late for me or any early career head teacher. It. Is. Only. A. Job.

4. Expand your own mental health jam-jar (you need to read this post to understand this completely). I have a list of things I do which grow my capacity to cope with whatever life throws at me:

5. My most important tip for coping with the loneliness is an eternal truth. As Francis Bacon knew so well, the best antidote to loneliness is love. It is the only thing that really matters.

“But little do men perceive what solitude is, and how far it extendeth. For a crowd is not company; and faces are but a gallery of pictures; and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.”

Francis Bacon

 

 

Posted in School Leadership | 5 Comments

This much I know about the challenges for early career headteachers: understanding change management

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about the challenges for early career headteachers: understanding change management.

I am in my seventeenth year as a state school secondary head teacher. Recently I was interviewed by an organisation exploring the biggest challenges for early career head teachers. I began the interview with the knotty question, “What do you mean by head teacher?” We settled on the traditional definition of the head teacher who runs the school with a significant level of autonomy, both challenged and supported by a traditional governing body in a critical friend role.

I identified eight major challenges for early career head teachers:

  1. Forging your relationship with the chair of governors (CoG);
  2. Managing the fact that the buck stops with you;
  3. Understanding the finances;
  4. Establishing your core purpose;
  5. Being patient;
  6. Establishing a position on teaching & learning;
  7. Understanding change management;
  8. Coping with the loneliness.

In this current series of short blog posts, I am addressing each of these challenges and providing some tips which might help early career head teachers to meet them. This post explores, understanding change management.

 

Understanding change management

I had little idea about how to conduct change when I began my first headship. I made a cataclysm of errors (my choice of collective noun) in the first few years of leading a school. Some of my mistakes related to change management have already been catalogued in previous posts. Certainly, the misguided sense that more is more was at the heart of my naive approach to enacting change.

The thing is, less is more, always. School Leaders invariably feel safe when we have lots of plans to demonstrate the efforts we are making to improve our schools. In the past I have been horribly guilty of thinking more is more!

My first School Development Plan as a head teacher was a beast, only portable by supermarket trolley. When I presented it to the Governing Body the meeting was on the first floor and my PA Rosie and I, with 20 copies of the thing to carry, had to take the lift. It had 38 development initiatives. I wasn’t interested in getting a few essential things right I wanted to get everything right straight away.

That Governing Body meeting where I presented my first plan (of course it was mine – I had to prove myself as a head teacher and there was no way anyone else was going to tell me what to do) lasted until 11.30 pm: not only did I circulate hard copies of my SDE (School Development Encyclopaedia) I had 127 Powerpoint slides (of largely text copied verbatim from the SDE itself) to help me tell Governors what we were going to do over the next year.

It was great. I loved it. I gained some odd satisfaction from the strain and pain of giving birth to the thing, the weekends spent typing the beast up whilst my wife and kids entertained themselves; an absent father in the next room. And I had no idea how I was going to measure whether what I had planned had worked.

Looking back now, it’s embarrassing to think of that first development plan. But the culture of fear breeds backside covering amongst early career head teachers. It’s really easy to implement extensive interventions in an attempt to raise headline results figures just so that you can point to how much you did to improve results when the results turn out to be disappointing in August. I know the results are rubbish, but we worked really hard – look at all the things we did…

And then there is the difficult challenge of realising just a single specific change. What I did not understand is just how difficult it is to enact what seemed to be even the simplest alteration to practice within a school. Teachers and schools are conservative places. Change is rarely greeted with enthusiasm. And if you have 112 teachers and 70 support staff in a school, like we do at Huntington, ensuring that a change to practice is implemented with 100% fidelity is a huge challenge.

So, if you are new to headship and are preparing to implement changes to the school you lead, here are my top five tips for early career head teachers for understanding the change process:

1. Know where you are on the Sigmoid curve. Whenever an organisation implements change there is a general pattern of development explained by Sigmoid Curve analysis, shown in this first diagram:

The key issue is when to introduce the next phase of change, explored in the second diagram:

You want to reach point Y on an upward, not downward, trajectory; but when can you tell that it’s time to jump off the first curve? Riding the first curve while cultivating the second is always the best option; clinging to the first and trying to prolong it is a pointless waste of energy. When all is well and you are at the top of your game, then it’s probably the time to plan your next curve.

I have recently asked our SLT where they think Huntington is on its Sigmoid curve. The numbers indicate how many of us think we are at those specific points on the curve.

2. Get a few essential things right. Sir Tim Brighouse’s The jigsaw of a successful school is sharp stuff and required reading for all early career headteachers; it embodies the principle of keeping things coherently simple. In his introduction makes the following observation about change and school improvement:

…whenever I’ve visited a school, which has recovered its sense of direction and pride after falling on hard times…I ask the (usually new) head teacher, “Well, what did you do?” The reply is always the same. Whatever the head teacher’s style, whether understated and calm, cool and determined or outrageously busy, the reply usually contains the phrase: “Well it’s not rocket science. We just concentrated on getting a few essential things right”. [1]

“…getting a few essential things right.” Just let that phrase sink in.

It depends where you are in the development cycle of a school, but wherever you find yourself on the development cycle, pare down your change priorities and do a small number of things really well. Easier to say than do, perhaps, but school improvement is not hard as long as you keep it simple and focused on what matters.

3. Learn about the change process. One book that helped which I read before I began was Leading in a Culture of Change by Michael Fullan. Another publication from the Canadian leadership guru, The Six Secrets of Change, I have found hugely useful. My leadership of change at two schools has taught me many things, most of which Fullan articulates in his book Leading in a Culture of Change.[2] His six secrets are not secrets any more – since he’s published them – and I’m not sure they ever were; I think they are common sense:

  1. The goal is not to innovate the most.
  2. It is not enough to have the best ideas.
  3. Appreciate the implementation dip.
  4. Redefine resistance.
  5. Reculturing is the name of the game.
  6. Never a checklist, always complexity.

So much of what Fullan says here I discovered the hard way, through first-hand experience; perhaps one has to live through professional strife before one can accept that Fullan-style wisdom is true.

4. Look to the commercial world. I have never desired to be a business man, but I do, however, learn from business practices. A few years ago I adopted what’s called Blue Ocean Strategy in order to have a structure for implementing change. We spend more time now thinking about how we implement change than what that change might be. Implementation is woven into our planning, not an afterthought. It works brilliantly and has helped us improve teaching and learning no end. The nub of our Blue Ocean Strategy implementation process is outlined in the slides available below and a Bill Bratton Tipping Point pdf.

5. Keep learning about implementing change. Most recently, Professor Jonathan Sharples authored an EEF guidance report on how to plan the implementation of your interventions entitled, Putting Evidence to Work – A School’s Guide to Implementation. It is essential reading for all school leaders, and I don’t say that lightly. It is a game-changer, as far as I am concerned. It introduced me to the concept of implementation activities; that is, activities which you detail in your planning which help ensure that the enacted change is as faithful as possibly to the change you planned. The idea is outlined here in a series of slides, where we identify the issue – in this case, a curriculum issue – then go to the desired outcome, then detail the change required, then identify the implementation activities in all their prosaic dullness, and then finally envisage the outcomes of the implementation activities. I promise you it works.

 

 

In January 2018 we used this approach to implement seven months of preparatory work on improving the progress of our most vulnerable learners. Eighteen months later, for the first time, our disadvantaged Year 11 students had a positive overall P8 score and their P8 score for Ebacc subjects was +0.22. Still not as good as we wanted, but in a school where 92% of our students are from a white British background, it is a respectable outcome.

And if I was allowed a sixth tip, before you implement, carry out a pre-mortem. I always anticipate what might go wrong. It’s safer that way, and I can only be pleasantly surprised when my pessimistic anticipations do not materialise.

At Huntington we have formalised such pessimistic thinking within the implementation of all important strategic developments we undertake. After we have completed our Blue Ocean Strategy analysis, and identified our implementation activities, we undertake a pre-mortem. Instead of working out what caused a development to fail after it has failed as we would in a post mortem, we assume it has already failed before we have begun and try to predict what would cause such failure. Once we have established what might cause our developments to run aground, we agree a list of actions to prevent such an eventuality.

Our pre-mortem idea derived from an article by psychologist Gary Klein.[3] He cites research by Mitchell, Russo and Pennington which found ‘that prospective hindsight – imagining that an event has already occurred – increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%’.[4] Klein devised his pre-mortem, the distinctive feature of which is the assumption by the team that the development has completely failed.

Psychologically, this assumption of total failure allows members of the team to speak more frankly than if they were merely thinking about why the development in question might not work. This sense of what has happened instead of what could happen helps the team visualise the assumed failure with greater clarity. The team gains a similar lucidity when hypothesising about why the failure happened.

We used the pre-mortem technique when implementing our new Pastoral structure. Our write up of our discussions began, ‘It’s July 2016 and the Pastoral Review has failed to deliver on any of its objectives’. We created a table on one side of A4 which had three headings:

Reason for failure How it could have been avoided Person responsible for prevention

Once established, the pre-mortem becomes a regular agenda item at the team’s implementation meetings.

[1] http://www.rm.com/timbrighouse/

[2] Michael Fullan, Leading in a Culture of Change (San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass, 2001).

[3] Gary Klein, “Performing a Project Premortem”, The Harvard Business Review, (HBR, September 2007), accessed 29 August 2016. Available at https://hbr.org/2007/09/performing-a-project-premortem

[4] D. J. Mitchell, J. Edward Russo, and N. Pennington, “Back to the future: Temporal perspective in the explanation of events”, in the Journal of Behavioural Decision Making, (Volume 2, Issue 1, January/March 1989), pp. 25–38

Posted in School Leadership | 1 Comment