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I've got to be strategic but what on Earth does that mean? Attendance as a case study

I've been a senior leader for seven terms now and I have to admit that I thought I wasn't that good at it.  I lost a little confidence and this in turn made me start listening to those voices on the internet that I've always ignored.  I begun to think that they may have a point: that teaching is a rubbish profession and that there is no real way through.  That SLT and Ofsted and the Secretary of State are the enemy. Then I remembered that they are wrong.  I remembered that I have no idea why some of these commentators are actually still in schools.

I didn't think I was any good because I forgot about my lack of patience.  Change takes time. Strategic change takes time.  The areas that I lead in are doing brilliantly. The school is continuing to improve well; the Science department banked the best results ever and is well above national averages in every way possible.  Pupil Premium students are doing better than they ever have as a group and the gap between our young people in this group and all students nationally is falling rapidly.  I could go on, but the point here is not my achievements.  I'm not a hero. The point is that all of this represents better life choices for young people.

All of this within a brutal year of staff restructure forced upon us by Government budget constraints.  What I've (re)learned is that we can do whatever it is we need to do despite . Teachers are epic.

What has all of this got to do with anything much?  Well, two and a bit years ago I started to share my leadership journey.  I stopped because I lost confidence.  Trouble is, I think I may know a thing or two.

One of the biggest challenges is to be strategic.  From experience, schools are far too reactionary and prone to knee-jerk reactions.  This isn't necessarily because of poor leadership and management but because we are so hectic battling through the daily routine that we haven;t got the time to stand back, reflect and become pro-active.  Now, this isn't a bad thing.  Indeed, one of the best things about teaching is its hectic nature: It's organic. Different. Spell binding.  One can reach the depths of despair and feel on cloud nine all within five or so minutes.  Daily I'm touched by the acts of humanity that occur on every scale.  It's true that I work with people that far surpass my skill, knowledge and understanding.

A school must invest in time if it is to be pro-active.  After all, being pro-active is fairly straight forward.  In addition, teachers are good at it. After all, Schemes of Work are strategic documents in that they chart the future.  I guess a politician would call it a road map.

As a head of department I used to invest a Saturday with the team, some place nice.  In this time we would reflect upon the year gone by and plan for the future.  This year, attendance was added to the list of responsibilities.  This is a great learning opportunity for me as my strength lies in teaching and learning and I am the first to admit that the pastoral element of school doesn't come naturally to me.   Having said this, it is clear to me that teaching and learning can not succeed without the academic support side of schools.  The two are interdependent. Indeed, the main barrier to learning within some of our groups, and in particular Pupil Premium, is low attendance.  Sure, quality first teaching needs to come first, but there's no point in being blessed with the best teachers in Brighton if students aren't there.  Furthermore, it's pointless investing in interventions that aren't accessed by these students regularly enough for them to succeed.

Now, I've quickly learnt that improving attendance is a massive challenge but we are hugely lucky in having a very talented academic support team and our attendance officer is pure gold.  The problem is that they are reactive.  Not because they aren't great at their jobs, but because they need the time to be.  It's the simple things, like having the time to share attendance patterns and, more importantly, the reasons why.  For example, there may be a dip in Year 9 attendance because of the transition to Key Stage 4 and the resultant rise in expectations and work load for young people. In addition, we need to engage parents.  Especially those who don't wish to engage.

The first stage has been to create some time.  Off site (getting ten people together at the same time is a mission) with a meal, using a combination of teaching time and after school.  I know that some will pour scorn on this approach but the reality is that teams have to sit together and talk if they are to be strategic. This time needs to be uninterrupted so all of the tangents can be explored.  Furthermore, staff should be rewarded for their commitment to the job, even if this means a simple meal off-site.  The outcome is a better plan.  The team understand the patterns of attendance across the school; are aware of the long term trends and have done some major thinking around parental engagement. In other words we now have a plan and can be strategic.  We must step back, reflect to prevent being reactive. We must stand and stare.

Being strategic?  It's simple really - it's having a plan.  All teachers need is the time to formulate one and it's a sound investment of the cover budget to facilitate it.

Photo Credit via Flickr

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