The Heart of an Independent School
An independent school shouldn’t lose sight of the practical realities of what it means to be a school: curriculum, timetables, the nitty gritty of teaching and all which that brings. But if it wants to stand out, it needs to be something more than ‘just’ a school. The trick is to powerfully enhance what it is that makes any particular school unique.
How can this be made to work practically?
The first thing to do is to carefully examine the way the school is managed.
Management should be aligned so that key people are fully responsible for their respective areas and for piloting these areas towards the objectives laid out for the school as a whole. Coordination between them should form the basis of the management of the school, so the relationships between them are key.
The role of Head should be to encourage all through positive leadership and direction to create fully their own jobs and to generate high quality work every day. This usually works best if founded on the assumption that staff are bursting to do this anyway and love to take hold of and solve the problems inherent in whatever it is they do.
The Head should ideally have the personal belief that all the staff are brilliant.
The funny thing is that, the more you look at this, the more things often to fit into place. Most schools have in the team already people who it seems might have almost been genetically designed to perform certain functions.
The Head should obviously be answerable to the governing board of the school, with whom he or she should continue to work closely.
An ideal Head should be a bit ‘mad’. He or she may not the ‘respectable’ choice nor the tame choice. A Head possessed of the energy need to keep the school expanding may not ‘fit inside the box’ and may be a bit of a rebel. Only someone outside the conventional box is easily able to plot expansion into new territories that most schools need in order to stay alive and attractive.
A statistic is supposed to measure what someone actually does and is supposed to be something which that person feels they can directly influence on a daily basis - otherwise there really is no point to having one at all. With a statistic an individual should be able to tell how he or she is really doing, as opposed to how they might feel they are doing.
It’s a real difficulty in teaching: how does one really measure the care and education of a child accurately and consistently, on a day-to-day basis, given the vast number of variables in this field? Units of measurement can vary wildly from subject to subject.
Figuring this out, as well as workable stats for every other area of the school, will be one of the tasks any Head faces.
Promotion and Marketing
The task of this part of a school is to create and maintain a desire for and affinity with the school and what it does, through newsletters, advertising, leaflets, the internet, letters and so forth to existing publics, old publics and any potential new publics.
Outside experts can be hired who can work on pulling together the loose ends and floating concepts and creating a school ‘brand’ which will be more powerful, more consistent and, it is to be hopes, more effective. Schools should figure out how to greatly multiply the amount of promotion they are putting out, but at less cost. Trends change, people need and want different things; surveys should be regularly used to establish the best ways to proceed, as well as taking advice from some knowledgeable sources.
Aristotle said that there were three basic ways of persuading people about anything.
Use logic: facts and figures which a school has on its side, unarguable details about what it offers and how it offers it, and, most significantly, results. Results speak most powerfully to any parent; academic and pastoral results which can be achieved every day need to be more widely known and used by those dealing with potential customers. Often the Admissions Department, upon whom a private school depends most to get new people into the place, are quite frequently the last to know what is going on in the rest of the school: they occasionally get so left out - unintentionally, in most cases - that the oddest ideas of what is actually happening can sometimes develop.
Yet the people who are actively trying to sell what the school does should be amongst the first to know exactly what is being sold. So a school needs to strengthen greatly the communication between those who work to produce results and those who speak to others about them. There’s usually plenty to get enthusiastic about - hardly a day goes by at most schools without something amazing happening somewhere. And every time something noteworthy happens, Admissions should know about it!
Apart from dry facts and tangible results, there is the unseen power of emotion at work in persuasion. These are the ‘feelings’ which often guide parents in making decisions even when all the facts have been studied. Schools often use emotional words like ‘friendly’, ‘caring’ and ‘safe’ in its promotional materials, based normally on surveys. One could say ‘warm, compassionate, and secure’ or ‘welcoming, responsible and stable’ as well. A school at its best should be all of these things, or hope to be, and should continue to stress these emotional factors in its promotion.
But schools can get complacent about this too: if they are saying that they are ‘friendly, caring and safe’ they really have to live up to those words in every way with every child. They cannot afford the luxury of opinions about their own students which detract from that approach. They have to be friendly, and caring, and safe no matter what is flung at them and no matter who is in their classes; they have to be friends with their students even when they are sometimes invited to be enemies.
Only by being true to their words can that message - that a school really is friendly, caring and safe - ever effectively communicate. Word of mouth is still the most powerful way of attracting new students, and heart-felt sincerity along these lines is what gives that word of mouth its strength.
Besides, isn’t being friendly, caring and safe an end in itself?
There’s a third way to persuade people, according to the ancients.
Using the personal character of the individual in charge to carry forward an argument or view is a valid channel to accomplish a result.
Politicians and celebrities try to use this all the time, and we can see this element all around us in the media trying to persuade us to buy things, from Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken to Blair’s New Labour. The fact that it is used politically and commercially doesn’t detract from the fact that it works: it is individuals who most often persuade us to make decisions, even when we’ve digested facts and absorbed emotional responses.
Everyone should use this to the school’s advantage when they can. Each member of staff in a school has something to bring personally to their area of responsibility and, one-for-one, making it their own and investing something of their personality into it will serve only to enhance their effectiveness and results. People respond to the personal touch.
Plus it’s more fun that way.
Looking over the marketing and communications of schools - some of which have been successful for over a thousand years - this is a major element: the Head Teacher’s profile is high and his or her influence is expected in every part of the way the place operates. Head Teachers put out personal newsletters; they appear on website pages; they turn up all over the place.
By taking over staff meetings, appearing in Assemblies, running ceremonies, greeting parents on site and being a very visible Head available to parents, students and staff as well as putting out loads of communication from me personally, an active Head can help to enable everyone to ‘connect’ with what the school does as a whole.
Of course, in a school teaching is by far the most important thing that is done.
Every other part of a school exists to serve and assist the teaching part in its work.
This is really why any changes are made elsewhere - to get the longer term view over the school’s academics, and to put attention on what really matters: the education and well-being of the students in the school’s care.
A school should always aim to do better at this, and to do it more consistently.
In my opinion, we should be producing a higher academic standard as a matter of course.
More is expected of teachers than just to put the students in front of them through a set of requirements until they are done. That in itself can be a tough job, especially as standards decline generally in the world at large. But to really succeed, a school has to add something special to the mix. Or, to put it another way, it has to remove something from the path of students so that they achieve more than expected.
The verb ‘to educate’ comes from the Latin word educare, related to the word educere, which means ‘to lead out’. The task of educators is not to ensure that students are merely able to regurgitate what is put in front of them, but that the end result of their education is that they have been ‘lead out’ to contribute to whatever subjects they have studied.
These are philosophical points: the central one is that schools need to reach for the sky when it comes to academic standards. Teacher training and further enhancement should be elevated to its proper role as a tool for enabling all to do better and more fulfilling work.
Schools need to devise ways of getting teachers to share information more regularly, enabling swifter and more coordinated handlings of individual students. They have to carry these forward and develop ways of pouncing even more rapidly upon pastoral and academic situations as they arise - or even before they arise.
Every student should move up to his or her next level with ‘value added’. It’s a school’s job to ensure that this is actually what is happening every term, every week, every day and every lesson, whether a staff member is directly involved in teaching or not.
Luckily, in most schools there is an absolutely superb bunch of people at its heart, most of them unacknowledged geniuses in their own right. Everyone needs to appreciate these people more for what they already do, and give them whatever help they need to do it even better.
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