Leadership & Domain Specificity: Part 2: What are characteristics of the “domain” of education?

In Part One, I set out some thoughts on the duality of generic and domain-specific skills, and looked at how people responded to a poll I created with leadership and business books as an example of ways to explore cross-disciplinary thinking in education. Many people felt that there were elements to learn, though a number of eloquent commentators suggested that there were parallel pathways to develop expertise.

I was fascinated (and a little nervous) to read Matthew Evans’ (@head_teach) nuanced and thoughtful blog setting out some of the arguments for the ‘translation’ (https://educontrarianblog.com/2020/08/06/wear-sunscreen/), and I think we probably agree wholeheartedly that any ill-considered adoption of ‘management techniques’ because they are done somewhere else is wholly inappropriately for education. We both, I think, recognise the value of people exploring other domains for personal growth, and a deeper understanding of the human condition, but accept that this is about the individual – and should not be used at scale to leverage an education system. As Matthew says, the way we perform our roles is an expression of who we are – which is a function of our experience, what we have learned and our values. I think Matthew would agree with me that any thoughtful reflection process to help shape those values is positive: it’s just not something we should privilege over school, teaching or other experiences when it comes to our role. In that sense, learning from the business world is no different to learning from your travelling, gap year, family status, competitive sports, music, the arts, the military – we can be shaped by the sum of any experiences (good or bad) – perhaps it’s just that more business leaders write books about it and market them more effectively? I agree that our own personal values – whatever they may be: whether that’s football teams, faith or business philosophy – are rarely going to be appropriate as the basis for a universal leadership philosophy, or a definition of what school leadership can be.

I hope we both, ultimately, accept that the interesting debates are in the middle – what bits can we cherry pick, what personal values can we import, and critically evaluating the value-added scalability of these ideas in our own context – without going to either “straw man” extreme of wholescale adoption of The Latest Fad, or refusing to learn anything at all from other domains. I suspect Matthew’s experience – and the seniority he holds, with the associated time pressure – encourage a more utilitarian focus on the job that needs to be done for the School; while my own experience in middle leadership, and with more time to think about “what could be?” and shape my own journey of becoming, enables a more philosophical exploration.

As ever, I feel that it is the need for equilibrium and critical consideration of the educational impacts that is essential to create real and meaningful value. With a partial eye on some thinking and reading in terms of my Masters’ preparation, I think the most interesting component of this comes when we try to analyse and explore more specifically what are the *features* of education’s domain and our structures that make it difficult to transfer components from other domains, and business in particular? What features do we have, intrinsically or imagined, that change the way we lead or manage people compared to Google, for instance? How are these components defined, and are they sub-divided – ultimately, what I’m interested in exploring are the structures that prevent cultures and similar ideas being translated across place.

This is not a short post. I’ve tried to organise my thoughts here, in comparing “schools” to “businesses”: I’d be grateful for any other comments and ideas to clarify and shape this thinking! I was hugely grateful for the input of super educational thinkers on the first post, and blown away by the fact that Kim Scott herself (author of Radical Candor, which prompted Part One) took the time to engage and reply – and she was utterly candid in her thinking! I’d love to hear more from this – I do accept that some observations are relatively trivial, fixed and offer little in the way of solutions: for now, I’m interested in exploring the limits of the problem!

Disclaimer: I’m definitely not an economist, so I’m sure lots of these things have technical and clearer terms!

Domain 1: Who are our customers, and what is our product?

By comparison with business domains, perhaps this is our most obvious and visible differentiating factor. What is our product? How much agency do we have? We don’t often have a sharply defined and “unique” product, with a clear relationship and control on the outcome. At best, great teachers and schools can influence “some” of the students’ output – but we have to share that influence with parents, environment, peers, socio-demographics and a range of other variables. It is intrinsically difficult to measure and judge personal input in to the wider collective outcomes. This, clearly, depends on the leverage within a school: an NQT will have less significant impact than a teacher of ten years in that school, who can pull fewer levers than the Head. This does not denigrate any role: but the scope of one’s impact is different based on your role, perhaps more than your personal characteristics.

In terms of the “product”, we also have a “compulsory” education system in primary/secondary education. While modern Higher Education in the UK is a bit more marketised by the choice-driven approach, in “a school”, generally, the students have to be there. They might not have to be in *your* classroom/school, but there is no choice that they have to have an education, and the format of much of that is dictated by external control.

We are regulated/inspected and reviewed by OfSTED/ISI – who make a judgement about the quality of education product, as well as the regulatory and safeguarding components – and there is often an inevitable trend towards doing “what OfSTED want” rather than being able to ‘own’ a product in a free-market environment. It’d be fascinating to evaluate the extent to which the regulator’s impact on the system compares to other industries – do all electricity companies do what OfGEM want in the same way that we do, for example? I suspect not: certainly the range of variance in energy offers, tariffs and approaches seems far more “free market” than the education domain.

We therefore can’t innovate, for example, and offer a completely different syllabus – we have to provide students with a specific number of GCSEs, or post-16 options, and the content, style, format (if not the experience) of those is externally provided to us, and we have little to no input in them. In his book, Leaders with Substance, Matthew Evans (@head_teach) argues that the “product” is the curriculum, and it is the job of Senior Leaders to understand and define the how, and why, of what we teach. But even that curriculum is heavily constrained – particularly for state schools, who have a limited menu of options from which to choose. In many instances, our “product” therefore is simply to get the best output we can through the pre-existing system – namely, the best results we can at GCSE/A Level.

However, unlike many businesses, we also operate in an output zero-sum game. School X getting 100% A* at A Level means – by definition – that School Y may not be able to: there are only a fixed number of A*s awarded by the exam boards. As the recent issues around Scottish qualifications have shown, the intended stability of cohort moderation means that inevitably, some people will lose out, irrespective of how your experience, product or teaching of them has been. It’s difficult to think of a business example where this is also true: there is a significant potential disconnect between the hard work, effort, talent of the staff, and the outcomes, because of our very specific context.

Domain 2: Type and place of education: are we becoming tribal?

‘Teaching’ and ‘education’ is not a one size fits all job description. I have a younger brother who is a primary teacher: I can’t imagine anything further from my personal comfort zone and skillset! But even within phases: KS3 teaching is pretty different from KS5 teaching, and I think a ‘one size fits all’ policy doesn’t. How specific is the domain? Can you be an “expert” teacher if you’ve never taught above GCSE? Below Sixth Form? Primary?

Equally, as a Geographer, I think there are probably a range of experiences depending on your placed setting. Independent, state, special schools, mainstream, urban, rural, day school, boarding, single sex/co-educational – there is an enormous variation in type and place of the school setting. I cannot imagine working in a boarding school because of how it fits with my life: I know others who absolutely adore it.

It feels like there are some tensions and personal philosophical components wrapped up in this too: ask people about how they feel about the independent sector vs state schools, for example, and you’ll get some emotive and political responses that you probably wouldn’t get if you asked them about primary vs secondary, or about British Gas vs Octopus Energy. I would imagine (though no data!) that fewer people go from KS1-2 in to KS3-5 or vice versa than transfer from independent to state – and yet those people may be regarded very differently. How specific is the domain? How transferable are your skills?

In effect, we become a bit tribal, and defined by our sectoral/phase/type domains – identifying as a “boarding teacher” rather than “teacher, in a boarding school” – or whatever the example might be. I don’t have data – I’d love to know, in an average year, how many appointments of e.g. SLT are done outwith the ‘tribes’ – how many state DHTs are appointed to lead Independent schools; how many day school DHTs appointed to lead boarding schools; how many independent DHTs appointed to lead a MAT?

I think this links back to our product, and the intent of any school to try to maximise it. In a boarding school, what you are “offering” to your customers is different to a day school – and therefore expectations on teachers are different, the expectation and relationship with parents are different, and perhaps even the extent to which you can control components of the environment change. The development of domain-specific expertise becomes more niche here because employers deliberately seek sectoral expertise: I think we end up with a number of teachers who ‘specialise’ in a sector as part of their career progression – and arguably, there are structural advantages and disadvantages here. Of course, the individuals’ experience and expertise grow and develop, and they increase their own skill – but the counter argument is potentially that the mixing and diffusion of ideas and innovation across the “education” sector is reduced.

In Part One, this discussion all started from a discussion of Kim Scott’s Radical Candor. Compare this tribal development of niche-domain expertise to Kim Scott’s experience and CV: a former Google corporate executive, including work with AdSense, YouTube and Operations, she later joined Apple to develop and teach leadership. She has been a CEO coach at Dropbox, Qualtrics and Twitter, she has been a senior policy adviser, a business developer, a founder and CEO of a software start up, she’s a Princeton (Russian, if I remember rightly!) and Harvard Business MBA graduate. Earlier in her career, she worked as a senior policy advisor at the FCC, managed a pediatric clinic in Kosovo, started a diamond cutting factory in Moscow, and was an analyst on the Soviet Companies Fund.

We don’t have many people like that in education. We might have “career-changers” – but what we usually mean by that is someone who did a different job, and has now joined a teaching tribe – they’re an independent school teacher, or a girls school teacher etc.! How different would our experience be, and what would we gain or lose from this variance? Certainly, I think the challenges of personnel management are viewed through a very different lens when you’ve had such a diverse career – compared to someone who has built up an enormous experience in a very small niche domain! With contextual analysis comes the other component of this – the ability to select, recruit and train people, and then appropriately reward (or penalise) performance.

Domain 3: Staffing Issues: Recruitment, Rewards and Retention

Unless there is a significant crisis (financial, or otherwise) which threatens the inherent existence of an institution, I believe that the most powerful thing a Governing Body (and leadership team) can do is to get the right staff in to their school at all levels, and create a culture in which they can thrive and create the best possible outcomes and environment. In that principle, I think we have greatest alignment to the business world: after all, as Kim Scott explained, management is about collaboration: and the fundamental three things of feedback, team-building and achieving results are the same. And yet, I think we have a significantly weaker range of levers we can pull to maximise our management approaches.

First, in terms of teaching staff, the way we go about our recruitment in the first place is staggeringly different. Of course, it’s linked to the academic year and timetable modelling, but the impact is that the hiring and firing of personnel is hugely complex at all levels, in any sector. The academic year, and how our resignation deadlines linked to timescales and terms provide a massively different way of organising recruitment and staffing. If you are in a tough school, you’re likely to be there for a long time before you can leave – that’s pretty difficult to reconcile with some of the conceptual understanding of Silicon Valley cultures. I think the way we manage personnel is one of the biggest differences between education and ‘the business world’… not least in the way we interview and hire: when you talk to non-teachers about the experience of ‘an interview day’, they generally look horrified. For many people, the concept of the gladiatorial rounds, the meeting and informal small talk with all the candidates – it’s all really bad as an HR and hiring process!

Second, when we get people through the door, and started in our schools, we are further constrained by the challenges of pay and conditions. While the TPS and the holiday offer is an undoubted and unarguable attraction for some, there are longer term challenges in terms of being able to match salary expectations relative to house prices, for example. Teaching is not a profession for those seeking wealth: and it’s interesting that very few schools (even the wealthiest independents) have significantly broken that model. Or, if they have, and somewhere, there’s a school paying classroom teachers or middle leaders north of £100k on a regular basis, no one has told me!

We also have a series of “implicit” expectations which aren’t often codified, contracted or recognised deliberately. Working in a boarding school, for example, comes with a range of expectations of longer hours, house duties, or perhaps Saturday schooling. Working in certain schools, you’ll be expected to coach sport, or be involved in extensive extra-curricular activity. You are likely to have the requirement to be a form tutor, do duties, go on residential trips wherever you are, or have to do Open Days, or Parents Evenings. All of these things, in other jobs, might get overtime, or TOIL – we just accept it as “part of the process” of teaching – that wonderful catch all of ‘other reasonable duties at the Head’s discretion’

Perhaps the bigger issue in terms of teaching – culturally, compared to the Silicon Valley or City business models – is the inability to tangibly recognise and reward expertise and skill in a domain. In part, as I discussed before, there’s an inherent tension in the “attribution” of any outcomes – we play a role in the results of our students, or in the progress of the school, or the recruitment of Sixth Form students etc. – but it’s very hard to argue that you can be directly accountable for anything as an individual teacher (leadership is slightly different).

Have a look at this classic “nine box model” for HR and personal development, for example. It’s an excellent business model, showing performance, and potential on different axes. You could equally look at some of Simon Sinek’s work on performance and trust, which is a slightly different model based on his Infinite Game work (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyqLJSclNb4 )

Our problem in education is that a lot of the levers – in either direction – aren’t really applicable to personnel management in our domain. We struggle to work with some of these components, particularly when we try to apply them without contextual sensitivity!

The concept of compensation, performance related pay, bonuses, or the ability to financially recognise and incentivise high performance is completely absent from the education profession. Do well? Get the best results ever? Excellent – you might get the teaching point scale drift, or a cost of living increase. Kim Scott’s concepts of Radical Candor are worthy, but difficult. You might work with brilliant people and have excellent relationships, but in education, neither you, nor your family, will see a tangible benefit for your excellence. The cost-benefit analysis for the individual teacher/leader is a different one, compared to the City banker who makes the mental trade off of “I’m going to work all the hours for two years, get the bonuses and buy a Porsche”. Or retire early. Or buy a house.

The reverse is also true. Poor performance is difficult to directly attribute – you can’t solely blame a teacher for a set of results by themselves – and it’s very difficult to meaningfully hold people to account for outcomes, only behaviours. There is a correlation, of course, but it’s not perfect. Like any organisation, the difficulties of dealing with the “low performer” or “low trust” is challenging for schools, and the culture that it can create. Often, these individuals can have huge ripple effects in a wider school culture. The link to academic years, and the challenge of accountability makes it difficult to curtail a mediocrity or culture of dialling it in.

Third, and slightly separately to that, we also have a challenge inherent to the structure of the pay scales in teaching: typically, they are correlated to experience only. If you want more money, you can’t get it by becoming more expert at what you do – the old “Advanced Skills Teacher” payment scale has gone, and your only route to development is to move to the leadership scale. That isn’t the same skill domain, and we have no real ability to incentivise or recognise the “experts” in their subject or curriculum in terms of meaningful progression and performance within that domain. We either end up promoting people out of their competence – which is bad for us, as schools and organisations – or we offer things as “trades”. We assume that people will work for a future reward, rather than an immediate one – and I think we’ve all seen “this will be a good role for your career” or “this is going to be helpful for you in the future” – used as a mechanism to create discretionary effort in schools.

Domain 4: Purpose

I believe that a lot of education runs on this discretionary effort – and I think this is linked to the vocational and moral purpose components that make up many people’s motivations to do the job. I have talked before about the philosophy of servant leadership, and the notion of giving one’s time and energy on behalf of other people – and I think that a lot of teachers join the profession with the intent of “giving something back” or “serving their community”.

There are definitely a number of excellent companies who have a superb moral purpose, and have “found their why” (Simon Sinek) to inspire their employees to share it. Apple’s perennial role as “pirates” against someone else’s Navy is an excellent example of a re-invented role and vision as a company: they constantly seek to define their ethos and purpose, and have huge buy in as part of that. Simon Sinek talks, in the Infinite Game, of a “Just Cause” (https://simonsinek.com/the-infinite-game) that is worth employees sacrificing their time and interests for – and I think a huge number of educators would say that they believe in the moral and social purpose of education as their Just Cause. But it’s not particularly linked to the “product” – it’s that big picture vision that keeps people working on a smaller scale. Doing the long hours, the marking, the workload, the time away from family, set against relatively low financial compensation – teachers believe in the transformative power of schools and education as a whole, not of their P3 lesson on Tropical Storms. Our motivational compass is broadly different across the domain, by comparison to business.

In business, though, we can see purpose allied to progression – and here, I think is perhaps one of education’s biggest challenges. Many of us relish the fact that “no two days are the same” and “you don’t quite know what you’re going to get” when you teach a particular topic – but the intellectual and practical narrative of our long-term progression in the classroom environment is fundamentally repetitive. Complete an academic year, go again the next. Different students, but the topics, the lessons, the content – it’s essentially unchanging as an exercise.

We can’t really make huge “progress” as educators – the zero-sum game, and constrained market approach of our environment means that the nature of education doesn’t always allow us to do anything significantly different, better or stretching within the classroom. Personal challenge is really difficult to find: again, the only real “progress” you can make is to switch domain – through promotion to leadership, or specialisation, or doing something outside of education – and this isn’t the same in business. In recent years, I think the rise of Masters’ level Education programmes, EduTwitter, and conferences like ResearchEd and TeachMeet are potentially a result of this search for intellectual progression and satisfaction in a domain which does not always provide the opportunities for them internally.

The interesting consequence of this is potentially linked to the leadership environment that is created as a result. Often, our leadership teams are selected on previous experience of discretionary effort in a completely different domain and skill-set – and it’s no wonder that there exist so many challenging environments that workload and wellbeing are highly cited in teacher job satisfaction surveys. The wider purpose is lost within the mis-matched skill set of the leaders’ domains.

Reflections:

I believe that these four key components make education a very different leadership and management environment to many of the business models and leadership books that are written about. Some of them, I think, are so fundamentally embedded in to the structures of the education system that we do not have a chance of changing them – we can’t easily innovate, adapt or creatively think our way out of a big educational system that we operate within.

I do not think, however, that there is no value in exploring the components that we *can* leverage. The personal, human and authentic leadership stories that are emerging from places like Duston School (with Sam Strickland, and Kat Howard), or through excellent work by thinkers like John Thomsett and Jonny Uttley (Putting Staff First) show us that there are certainly cultural elements that we can influence within our domain, and learn from. The skills of team building, feedback and being clear about the culture you intend to work with, and create – I think these are universal skills that work across multiple disciplines.

The big question that I am left with is wondering how “specific” the domains have become and considered in terms of the diffusion of innovation, cultures and ideas. We have seen a number of research-informed components making their way in to certain sectors of the education “domain”, but I feel like the balance is focused on state secondary schools, rather than almost anything else. This is where I think the next “context” conversation is valuable: how specific does the skill set become – or need to be? When Matthew Evans talks about Leaders with Substance, do we actually mean “Secondary Comprehensive Leaders with Substance”, rather than “MAT CEOs with Substance”, or “Leading a Girls School with Substance”. To what extent are our domains eternally specialising?

To paraphrase Dylan Wiliam – are we in a position where everything works somewhere, and nothing works everywhere when it comes to the domain of leadership, management and cultural creation for teacher development?

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