Sunday, 7 February 2016

SLEs: The foot soldiers of system leadership?

SLEs: The foot soldiers of system leadership?
How can we better recruit, train and deploy Specialist Leaders of Education?
(Session for the Canons Park TSA Conference on 6th February 2016, co-presented with Athena Pitsillis, SLE)
I have just been appointed as an SLE. I have no experience yet of being deployed as an SLE. I have not yet received the SLE training.

In fact, the NCTL, after validating our appointments, have little more involvement and will no longer be organising the training; it is now down to regions to organise it using the training materials provided.
I applied because I was looking forward to working with a team of SLEs to develop areas of expertise, contribute to training programmes, work in partnership with a range of schools for our mutual benefit, and in the hope that they, too, would get involved with our TSA and contribute based on their own capacity. Schools supporting schools. Schools co-developing schools. “Leveraging on deep inter-school partnership which can be developed via three major inter-related thrusts: professi nal development, partnership competence and collaborative capital” – yes, Hargreaves’ words were ringing in my ears as I eagerly clicked on the NCTL training materials. I have been called an idealist before (usually as a synonym for na├»ve), but I am proudly so.

What did I find?

Not what I was looking for. In fact, I was confused, deflated, then plain frustrated.

“Developing trust and relationships”?

Questionnaire on my working style traits?
Role plays of body language to inspire trust and confidence?
What were they selling me?

Another session on leadership styles? (I swear I have already had to sit through some of that as part of aspiring leader courses). So the positional charismatic leader is still being sold then? 

Scenarios full of language and concepts that I was hoping were on the way out (such as graded lesson observations and the cult of ‘outstanding’ alive and well)?
 Inverted commas or not, this poor teacher is still called ‘satisfactory’, not his/her obviously high-stake OBSERVED lessons, but him/herself!

And so it continues...

And the reassuring and heart-warming finale of top tips for credibility:

Establishing trust, gaining credibility, resistance, RESISTANCE, BLOCKERS… CLIENT. Yes, even the coaching programme uses the term ‘client’! Isn’t that selling the wrong narrative from the start?
Not what I was expecting. Not the language of Hargreaves and co. Not the ‘collaborative capital’ I had been reading about and digesting for the last few years.  And to be honest, if anyone tried some rehearsed ‘meant-to-gain-trust’ body language trick on me, I’d be resistant!

(In the interest of partiality, here is what a SLE who has gone through the training, and who is on the whole positive about it, had to say: Specialist leader of education training: be ready for a businesslike approach - 'Sometimes the training borrows too much from business leadership and management models, rather than education.' Teacher Andrew Jones reflects on his SLE preparation.)

Where are the discussions about system leadership, distributed leadership – a highly debated and nuanced topic, and one generally not promoted particularly well by the then NCSL. What about building teams, networks, pools of expertise, programmes built on research? What about the promise of ecological leadership? What about giving us something to really chew on, something that would elevate the debate and engage us intellectually with some exciting literature and evidence followed by some nuanced discussion and then ambitious planning focusing on reimagining a self-improving system in specific contexts?

Is this then any wonder that articles like this one appear On the Guardian network?

Add colleagues on twitter highlighting issues such as “SLEs often used as income stream for their own setting” and being deployed on top of existing workloads as “consultants on the cheap”.
And actually, many of the issues around SLEs cannot be denied.

The title itself is cringe-inducing, and certainly promoting the old paradigm of the expert bringing wisdom onto the less clued-ups, the old beacon model of parachuted ‘specialists’ who will firefight, troubleshoot and rescue you from the clutch of an Ofsted RI.

And then the recruitment criteria and process… the restricted areas of ‘expertise’ which means that the opportunity to recruit key support staff is limited, which means that all teaching schools can potentially recruit colleagues covering the same areas, regardless of location, with no national or regional link to ‘demand’ or ‘needs’. The incentive is therefore present to compete for a potentially over-crowded ‘market’. In fact, the potential for perverse incentives, as highlighted above, is endless. The non-deployment of SLEs is also an absolute waste of talent and obvious willingness to change the system from the inside out. It would take a little effort to harness this commitment and deploy teams of SLEs to work strategically in teams, developing resources and supporting a range of programmes. The ‘traded services’ model cannot be the only way to go, with the hypocritically paid lip service to Fullan, Hargreaves and co.

I am an English and Media teacher with a keen interest in developing effective CPD. Recruited as a ‘CPD SLE’, does that mean that if the opportunity arises to work on developing English resources arises, I won’t be able to work in collaboration with others? If I were expert on the subject of behaviour management and inclusion with years of teaching RE under my belt, would I not be called upon to collaborate with a team of colleagues to develop network-wide curriculum development programmes? Isn’t the point of the interview to bring to the fore your commitment to working towards ‘alliance architecture’ structures, harnessing ‘professional capital’, in brief to show that you have some understanding of system leadership?

No one ever told schools that they had to ‘sell’ their SLE time! No one advised us to sell a ‘diagnostic consultation’ only to sell a further package afterwards – not that diagnostic tools aren’t useful; far from it! And yet, in these times of budget restrictions, it is too easy to understand why schools do it. But it is no excuse. We owe it to ourselves to forge fewer, perhaps, but deeper links for everyone’s benefit within a network of schools. This of course requires a true vision and sense of collective moral purpose.
The article and tweets mentioned above illustrates short-termism of the current system. From lack of deployment to crude exploitation, if you haven’t given up after the training session (no official follow up), then it is easy to see how it might be hard to retain SLEs, or at least their commitment and enthusiasm. And of course, if you’re appointed as SLE belonging to a specific alliance, then moving jobs means that alliance loses an SLE, and the SLE must face asking their new boss to be released to work for their former alliance… I am sure there might be flexibility there, but there is certainly a need for clarity.

I think we are once again selling ourselves short - pun intended. Surely we must seek to develop new ways of leading a self-improving school system beyond marketization of so-called expertise underpinned by a fear of Ofsted.

We seriously need to reconsider the role of SLEs and aim for a more ambitious and strategic deployment.

In fact, I think we should start with calling the role something else. Any ideas?


Athena Pitsillis, another Canons Park TSA SLE, introduced the session by discussing the metaphor of SLEs as footsoldiers of system leadership. The phrase came from a blog by Keven Bartle who set out in the original post the alliance’s vision in terms of SLE deployment. He writes:

“Our belief is that the work of the alliance needs to be filtered through the lens of R&D if it is to truly be seen as doing it right, and the work of our alliance needs to be committed to the genuine improvement of partner schools of it is to truly be seen as doing it well. (…)
If we are to use research to do things right and S2SS to do things well, we will need a committed group of individuals who are genuinely enthused about the concept of being part of an alliance forging a distinctive identity and pathway in an already crowded system improvement ‘market’ (in essence, an alliance that does not want to be part of that ‘market’ at all).
SLEs, within our schools and locality but also beyond our schools and locality, will be the foot soldiers of our approach to system leadership. You will be utilised. You will be free for all partners. You will be integral to the success of the alliance.”
Extract from the Keven Bartle’s blog, SLEs: The Footsoldiers of system leadership

Chatting with Athena ahead of the session, we started to think about the connotations of the phrase ‘foot soldiers’, and whilst we agree with the sentiment in the post above, we couldn’t help but think of the problematic limitations of the metaphor. Athena articulates this beautifully by quoting Tennyson in Charge of the Light Brigade:
‘Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do…’

SLEs as ‘foot soldiers’ are deployed or parachuted into schools with the aim of problem-solving, trouble-shooting and offering alternative solutions. However, is that the role sold to us on recruitment? Is this what our role should be as part of systems and distributed leadership?
This forms the basis of our session discussion, aiming to inspire debate around the role of SLEs and challenge the way they are ‘sold’ to ‘clients’ in order to elicit improving standards.

Athena further explores the role of foot soldiers:
       Foot soldiers were organized into heavy infantry.
       These were among the first troops ever to be drilled, and they fought packed in a close rectangular formation, typically eight men deep, with a leader at the head of each column and a secondary leader in the middle so that the back rows could move off to the sides if more frontage was needed.

This led her to reflect on the fact that SLEs are mainly deployed individually and work alone and in isolation.  There is a lack of trust when you’re just parachuted in to solve a problem. Oh, and foot soldiers fight the opposition and die!

However, the idea of foot soldiers is not necessary negative.  

We need to re-assemble SLEs into teams of strategic partners where they can co-construct and develop the systems in which they are working. In this way they will have more impact in the schools and alliances they work in.

Thankfully, and after my exploration of some of the issues (what Philippa Cordingley would call ‘wicked issues’) around recruitment, training, deployment and retention, Athena moved on to reminding us of what we aspire to, and what the alternatives may be. We went right back to Hargreaves.

David Hargreaves explains that:
‘A self-improving school system is one that leverages on deep inter-school partnership which can be developed via three major inter-related thrusts: professional development, partnership competence and collaborative capital.’ (Hargreaves, 2011)
Bearing this in mind, what do we like to change?
       Systems leadership should be about interaction, setting direction and developing people.
       Move away from ‘trouble-shooting’ or ‘firefighting,’ to working together as teams. Needs to be a process of development and support, not a quick fix.
       Move away from language which implies a sense of failure and one-way benefit such as ‘clients’ and ‘support.’
       Assembling ‘foot soldiers’ to become ‘systems thinkers’ (Fullan, 2004) whereby they can use research and more of a surplus model rather than a ‘sticking plaster chat’ OR the enforced ‘do it our way to improve’ approach, using instead strategies which will have impact. Not short term solutions but long-term sustainable development.

Athena referred back to Fullan writing in 2014:
 ‘We need first to sort out quality ideas, and then to incorporate them into collective action. It is not so much that we have to put blind trust in the wisdom of crowds, but rather we have to create the conditions under which local wisdom can be amassed and mined.’


‘To change, organizations and systems will require leaders to get experience in linking to other parts of the system.’

And here we have it: strategic thinking, system leadership, action-driven endeavour – just what the recruitment process focused on. In fact, the more we read and aim to articulate our vision for a different system, the more we are drawn to the idea of the world of education as an ecology. The next quotation we introduced is taken from a paper tantalizingly titled “Ecological Leadership: Going Beyond System Leadership”:

[…] there is shift of focus away from ‘‘positional leader’’ (Wielkiewicz and Stelzner 2005, p. 327) to leadership that draws on collective voices emanating from the ecology—a departure from the stance of system leadership which is still predominantly centred on nurturing positional leaders, especially head teachers with macro views of benefitting the school system.
(Ecological Leadership: Going Beyond System Leadership for Diffusing School-Based Innovations in the Crucible of Change for 21st Century Learning, Yancy Toh, Azilawati Jamaludin, Wei Loong David Hung, Paul Meng-Huat Chua, published online: September 2014)

Here is an attractive and alternative perspective to the traditional narrative which, even when it proclaims differently, ends up being about positional leadership. The trick therefore is to allow these voices to be heard and put in place systems to allow them to collaborate and learn from each other.

And so we come to articulating alternative ways in which we will be deploying SLEs:

       Moving towards a more ecological leadership approach which maximises resources and includes all, engaging those involved to share and co-construct a vision (Harms & Leis)

        We need ‘collective commitment’ (Fullan) to improvement.

       SLEs need proper training in how to optimise research, use appreciative enquiry and action projects in order to think strategically, make decisions and lead systems to conceptualise their own improvement from the inside out.

       SLEs should be involved in whole-school and whole-alliance strategic level decision making.

       Building capacity and sustainability through action research, project development and working in teams to create off the peg research and resources ‘starter kits’ (the idea is not to start from scratch every time) to create tailored and co-created inputs that suit the needs of schools.

In short, allowing SLEs to lead specific projects and utilise their skills and potential.
In fact, we aim to go beyond this and are toying with ways in which the team of SLEs could further lead the work of the alliance through steering the alliance strategic groups – a truly distributive structure.

And so we keep our eyes on the immediate future, and our determination to do things differently, keeping firmly in mind Hargreaves’ maturity model and its 12 strands:

The professional development dimension and its strands:
joint practice development
mentoring and coaching
talent identification
distributed staff information

The partnership competence dimension and its strands:
fit governance
high social capital
collective moral purpose, or distributed system leadership
evaluation and challenge

The collaborative capital dimension and its strands:
analytical investigation
disciplined innovation
creative entrepreneurship
alliance architecture

We kept this slide up as we opened up the discussion, highlighting some specific strands such collective moral purpose, analytical investigation, alliance architecture
And we will leave you with this as a point for immediate discussion:

“The role of the centre is to set up the conditions for cultivating and sorting the wisdom of the system.”
(Systems thinkers in action: moving beyond the standards plateau, Michael Fullan, Teachers transforming teaching, 2004)

NB: During Philippa Cordingley’s session on Design Thinking in the morning ahead of our own session, Athena and I kept looking at one another so much did it resonate. I really ought to redraft this post to incorporate the ideas she introduced, but that’s for another day. I do realise that what we are talking about here is DESIGN THINKING, and the changes we seek to bring about could be described as a set of nested behaviours.