Good ideas can fail quite easily without careful leadership
In our last two posts, here and here, we have considered the systemic issues that can counter the effective implementation of research in schools. So how should schools go about ensuring successful implementation? Here are six key principles.
First, leaders need to cast a critical and careful eye. Any new initiative should have a clear rationale, which should serve the wider mission of the school and the goals required to achieve that mission. This means not only deciding on new changes, but what other activities might or should stop as a result. Implementation should be part of a strategy, and that involves trade-offs: less impactful or essential activities must give way to actions closer to the heart of the school’s mission.
Secondly, such selection decisions are required to manage workload; but they are also necessary to manage competing aspects of a complex environment. We need to ensure that we are not wasting energy on activities which are ultimately at odds with each other. For example, leaders might need to decide whether it is counterproductive for students to be withdrawn from a form time reading programme in order to take part in a paired reading programme; or whether additional reading lessons in Year 11 are warranted if they cut across GCSE revision classes.
Thirdly, all staff, including those not directly involved, need to understand both the why of the initiative, and the how. This means that leaders must be able to communicate clearly, concisely and with a moral purpose. We can’t expect staff to get on board with a plan because we told them to. There has to be a compelling moral reason, for example, it helps our students to do x, or it makes our resources go further so that we can reach y more pupils.
Fourth, logistics are always key to success. It is not possible to achieve anything in a complex organisation without managing logistics. This means not merely the deployment of staffing and resources, but the management of rooming, timelines, timetables, and lines of communication. The ability to make operational decisions needs to be delegated to staff responsible for delivery, but those staff also need to know that they are supported and overseen by actively interested leaders.
Fifth, the most subtle and perhaps most important principle is that leaders need to know the culture of their school; how to preserve its strengths and to challenge its weaknesses. Insensitive attempts to change culture can backfire and reduce morale; on the other hand, apparently small changes that echo aspects of school culture of which staff are proud can have very powerful effects. A simple rule of thumb is that language echoes culture. What are the stories that staff tell themselves? What beliefs do they hold? How do staff refer to students who are struggling with learning or behaviour? How safe do staff feel? It is helpful to try to map school culture, and to identify the ‘parts unknown’ before setting off on a new initiative. If, as Drucker is alleged to have said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, we need to be confident that culture and strategy are aligned.
Lastly, when leaders are confident that the preparation works has been done, the priority is to ensure that staff are able to deliver the new initiative with fidelity – that is, they are able to use the right procedures in the right circumstances, for the right amount of time. This applies to interventions but also to classroom practice – for example, introducing a new vocabulary item, building reading fluency, or assessing the reading behaviours of a struggling student. All of this requires thorough training, sufficient practice opportunities, and effective feedback from peers or coaches. When we have confidence that staff are delivering consistently and correctly, we are in a strong position to evaluate impact and iterate our implementation. As we have seen, where programmes or initiatives are run without fidelity, such evaluation is not possible.
However, let’s be clear: none of this focus on implementation in schools lets programme providers off the hook. If our offer to schools doesn’t include training and support to achieve fidelity of delivery by staff, and support for leaders to ensure effective implementation, we have provided a solution in name but not in practice. One of the criteria that schools leaders need to consider when choosing external providers, therefore, is the quality of their support for effective implementation.
In summary: it is certainly possible for school leaders to invest in a bad idea, but the greater danger is that without careful oversight, good ideas can be made to fail quite easily. Successful implementation is key to seeing the outcomes we want for our students.
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