Why a slow shift can have a better long-term impact than a sweeping swing, with Oliver Wright.

Leadership is all about making a difference, isn’t it? The better the leader, the bigger the difference!

It’s an easy trap to fall into. We see great leaders making a huge difference, so we take that to mean that great leaders always do big things. Add in those well-known sayings such as, ‘A new broom sweeps clean’ and the tales of new heads sweeping into a school, making massive changes, and their school being judged by Ofsted as ‘outstanding,’ and it’s easy to see how we can all get caught up with making changes, where the bigger the better…

Let’s just slow down a little bit though.

Lasting change

Of course, there are times when grand gestures are needed. Sometimes people need to see a difference quickly. Those quick wins earn credibility and buy time to make the longer, more difficult changes that may be needed. In terms of time, these can also be real winners.

My first leadership position was as subject leader for Geography. I inherited a subject no-one had shown any affection for in a long time (and because of this, a relatively healthy subject budget too). Taking the subject from one that was incredibly poorly resourced (pre-internet), to one with a class set of atlases was a massive win (and took literally a couple of phone calls and an afternoon). It may not have had an immediate impact on learning, but the enthusiasm it generated for both staff and students towards the subject and the corresponding openness towards working together to develop teaching and learning was worth it.

However, often, lasting change doesn’t happen through buying another brand-new scheme of work or taking part in a big time-consuming new initiative. It comes about through small changes, carefully implemented by a thoughtful leader. These may not have the’ wow factor,’ but good leadership isn’t always about fuelling your own ego. The wow factor often comes from developing others and this isn’t always as quick as just jumping on a new bandwagon.

Developing anything (or anyone) starts from where you are. Rather than ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water,’ you grow and develop the baby.

We don’t throw out the children and get different ones. We rarely demolish the building and start again, so why would we do the same with a member of staff or an entire curriculum?

Careful listening, observing what’s happening, reflecting on what you see, then sensitively beginning to nudge. It’s rooted in a belief that the solution to any issue is right before us. This approach is rooted in a desire to see people succeed. It’s based on building good, strong, growth-focused relationships. Space and trust are needed for these relationships to flourish. It also means there are ‘no one size fits all’ answers to every situation, but there are evidence-based suggestions. Research gives us clues as to what could work, yet it is the skill of the teacher in applying that research that makes the difference.

Slowing down

Whilst I’m not going to give you a list of top tips for maximum impact, I would like to encourage you to slow down for a moment and think. Maximum impact comes from having the space and time to develop strong relationships, reflect on research-based evidence for improvement and build in time for coaching-type interactions. If consistent nudging forwards is an effective way to develop practice, then what will you do to make sure it happens?

Your answer may depend on what level of influence you have within your school. As head, you can decide on what time is put aside formally for professional development: how this is used, what accountability measures are in place, how frequent, how time consuming. However, whatever your role within school, you probably have more influence than you think. It doesn’t need to be a massive change. Developing
good relationships and shifting the conversation to focus on learning will have far more impact than you realise. Making sure that what you consider is research-based and matches your school context will make it much more effective. Having an open and supportive culture, where it’s OK to try new things, OK to learn from those in school who are seeing success and OK to adapt, will make it a success.

So… how will you slow down enough to notice? What will you try?


  • Oliver Wright

    Oliver is an experienced headteacher who helps those who lead at The Key. Before this he worked in primary schools in Sheffield and Derbyshire for over 20 years. His experience ranges from large city schools to small Peak District schools. He also presents for Teacher Hug Radio and is a co-chair of governors.
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