Last week in school, as a Chair of Governors I was lucky enough to spend some time with Year 6. We’re making closer links with pupil voice and leadership, but in order to do so, we’re building on how they come to understand the school vision and purpose. In terms of our own internal accountability, this is crucial. If our purpose is not having our intended impact, then what are we doing? So this is not a meander around abolishing accountability, rather owning our ability to account for what truly matters for our learners.

Building roots and foundations and cultivating the ground is essential for growth. I’ve recently written around the subject of accountability and what this means, but from a unique lens of a leader who has changed platforms, now working across multiple settings and teams, with the benefit of being able to notice more, be present in what has happened as the world shifted during and after Covid, but also noticing as the conditions and weather changed, our schools, children, staff and communities need attention, but as so often happens when we have experienced a trauma, the numbness, longing for equilibrium and the safety of the familiar, may  have been impacted by wider system processes of denial, that we could get back to normality-whatever that appears to be , when in fact, moving forward and creating new paths suited to the steps our  young people will take in life may be more beneficial. It would appear we’ve become lost in the forest where it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. The breadcrumbs we currently look for to plot our pathway are now stale and blown about in the winds. We need to come up with another navigation system and make some new signposts. the milestones we meet along the way may need a revamp.

What I know about Resilient leadership is any navigation of successful leadership is underpinned by a secure sense of awareness, which informs clear purpose and cohesion, and steers our focus on what we value and measure . The Resilient Leaders Elements model I have encountered along the way( see below) outlines how important it is to understand who we are and what we are doing, what we are about. This helps us to bend in the wind, as opposed to cracking, or uprooting, and to carve a path even in the densest of woods.

If we take the analogy of a tree growing strong roots, we need to make sure where we grow our tree allows us grow our tree in nutritious ground, and feed it so it can grow strong roots and build a strong trunk with purpose. Trees grow towards the light. Where are we shining the light? What encourages growth along the way? Is this what we notice and celebrate, or do we become hi -jacked into clipping off branches, or only nourishing the top soil, rather than ensuring the roots are fed? When we’re holding ourselves to account, what matters? What is the yield we want to collect and measure?

Asking Year 6 “What is education for? Why do we learn? What helps us learn?” was insightful. Looking at ground level, considering how  this informs motivation and engagement is crucial. If children base their answers on an uncertain future benefit, are they likely to engage or see learning as relevant and meaningful right now? Are they even in a position to access learning? Making sure they are equipped to climb the tree from the ground up and they can navigate the pitfalls at every step is crucial. Knowing where we want to enable them to go , and how to support this and recognise their progress is important, but this is surely more than just academic. If we’re growing whole people, what does this mean in terms of enabling them to gain a sense of themselves, and for us to evaluate our schools in terms of enabling their growth? It certainly scales up to considering whether our schools and the system are nourishing our learners for their now, and for the future and whatever they may need as they grow. Certainly, reflecting on the independence and resilience they needed for lockdown and the negotiation of the plethora of emotions is something we must surely prioritise.

If we consider that the basic principles of emotional intelligence theory, self -awareness, awareness of others and empathy for each other underpins the ability to self-regulate, and therefore develop self-motivation,  we need to recognise the importance of  facilitating interaction and interpersonal relationships to support this. Learning from each other, exploring possibilities and creative solutions can be vital skills to support resilience and intentional being, fundamental to deep metacognitive adventures. Where are we holding ourselves to account for this?

I’ve worked with educators in the consideration of this in embedding meaningful assessment for learning at all levels, that fuels intrinsic motivation, rather than building systems that promote extrinsic motivation, where searching for the next summative medal or badge programmes children towards seeking external validation to prove their worth, rather than building their realistic  self- concept, and thus positive self-esteem as a vehicle for them to succeed, and develop independent strategies to support this. In our tree analogy, we want them to develop the motivation to climb the tree with specific support and feedback, not wait to be hoisted up it. The same applies for our schools. If we’re empowered to develop reflective evaluation based on where we want to climb to, or the growth we want to see in our tree, then we will focus on what matters to reach that outcome. This is what we will build our evaluative process on and share our successes, as well as the areas of weakness we need to strengthen. These are the deep foundational principles of a positive culture and ethos, that  also connect with Seligman’s PERMA well-being model. Individuals become connected to each other and their purpose, rooted in meaningful activity, and authentic relationships of trust an addressing areas of need. Imagine a world where we hold each other to account for enabling individuals secure in themselves, their ability to interact with others and their environment and with the versatility and integrity to lead themselves in their sense of purpose. Surely this would empower them to succeed beyond a narrow set of measures?

If we want this for our young people, our system needs to be rooted in this for our schools. Assessment for learning on a grand scale, formative and developmental, rather than narrow summative assessment  with associated badges and their emotionally charged impact. Currently Ofsted is the equivalent of putting names under the sad cloud or the sunshine and we know where that ends up! Our new world needs an accountability system that empowers and motivates our schools to lead with humanity.

Ultimately this explores whether we want to lead with the intention of love or fear. What we know about the nervous system, and what Polyvagal theory tells us that if we activate our sympathetic nervous systems beyond the levels we need to mobilise action, then we can tip into fight or flight situations, or right into the Dorsal state, where freeze predominates-the rabbit in the headlights, or playing dead so the dinosaurs don’t catch us. Here learned helplessness or futility lies. Our tree will not flourish. Heavy winds will take it down, or we may fall off it.

If we consider that in order to reach a flow state within the autonomic nervous system,  the Ventral Vagal state where we feel safe ( the conditions for brains to receive and connect) , positive social interaction, physical safety and calm mental states are necessary. We need to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Right now, we need to consider what will activate the parasympathetic nervous system of our schools system. What conditions and culture do we need to create from an intention of love? I’m not suggesting fluffiness. This is big bold, important love for what we want for our children, staff, families and society. If we light up purpose, clarity of direction and empower a culture of authentic leadership, where leaders have ownership of evaluative processes, coupled with appropriate levels of peer and organizational challenge to mobilise and support, then we have deep metacognitive analysis and a clear rationale for self-improving schools, where we may even succeed beyond any imposed ceilings.

Fear creates trauma, and impedes meaningful connection. If we consider this in terms of what we know about Cognitive Science, we need to calm the storm and the leaves flying around, refine the focus, and determine where the light is shining. We know positive interaction, scaffolded development, meaningful talk founded in social constructivism enables and empowers learning. We also know feedback is best when it feeds forward towards shared goals. It is time for the system to focus on :

What is understood to be the shared goal for our young people? What is education for? What do we want our learners to experience and be doing, saying and feeling? What do we value-how do we measure that?

It needs to be more than ticksheets, or a framework linked to pushing the latest political agenda, and definitely needs to recognise the societal and global changes our children are facing in their lives. I’ve been suggesting PSHE needs to be at the foundations of curriculums, not an add on, since the early 2000s.There is a tide that now recognises this.  We need to start with who we are, and build the connections with learning, with the world and consider what this means in terms of what we’re there to grow, the branches of our tree and the blossom, fruit and leaves it develops. This will feed the measures by which we judge our own effectiveness, therefore what we focus on in terms of ensuring we grow towards this. It will also grow the determination to succeed and build an intrinsic sense of value.

Solo taxonomy outlines key processes that might support the how, in terms of connecting the branches, scaffolding thought and skills to build creative and versatile decision making, as well as robust approaches.  Refining processes, joining up ideas, in multistructural understanding to build towards relational and generalised overviews offer opportunities to consider strategic development and enabling vision.  This is a call for joined up thinking-our way through the woods. When I consider this in terms of Valerie Hannon’s four stage model to enable a system geared towards Thriving, I think we would be on to determining a clear vision and mission. If we want our children, staff and families  to thrive, then here are some clear signposts.

If we consider the world is in the midst of anger and denial in terms of the Kubler Ross curve, the time for bargaining is here, but we also need to accept the world has changed. What are the opportunities that are open to us? What is blossoming? If so, what are the measures that matter? Where do we need to look to pick and enjoy the fruit? What will a good yield look like? I acknowledge some of this will be a collective understanding of core academic skills, but it’s bigger than this. Our children need to be equipped to navigate uncertainty, and be equipped with the interpersonal and intrapersonal skills to meet societal and global challenges head on. Our measuring systems need to value these too.

At the heart of work I’ve undertaken with schools, with Sarah Caton and our Boundless Inspiration programme, we’ve developed an approach that synthesizes this in  a meaningful theory of change and a framework for developing a broader set of measures intrinsically linked to values and vision, therefore rooted in meaningful measurement and accountability. Much of this work was informed by Big Change’s  Ten Big Hopes for Education, my work with  Resilient Leaders Elements and the Barrett Values model. The Resilient Leaders Elements consider the interplay of identity and purpose and work on an individual and organizational level, but really exemplify the facets of what it means to enable resilience in the face of uncertainty. I’ve worked to consider how this translates at layers of levels, from children right the way up to organizational process and systems to drive strategic direction. The framework is correlated to ensure development across facets when focusing on key areas, and identifying areas of strength and weakness. Imagine a system that leads from this stance, and strands all the way through. It also connects with key leadership standards and is being used for staff development priorities and learning, as well as supporting development opportunities for young people in aligning emotional intelligence with cognitive capacity and skills in resilient decision-making.

The Barrett Values model offers a means of considering levels of consciousness to inform right from individual to organizational and system levels. Imagine a curriculum that considered this. I have looked at the key questions that would drive this and the organizational self evaluation and development that it would fuel. What this allows is values-driven and authentic leadership and opportunities to focus our accountability measures where they matter and impact for the difference we want to bring about.

Notice what happens in levels 1-3  if we get locked in survival mode. This was inevitable for many during Covid, and in some places, the need for Safety and stability is driving the cycle, but it is only when we lift ourselves into transformative practice and consider the difference we want to make that we shift from reactive and fear driven culture. The time is here for building a system where robust, supportive and developmental vision-focused accountability underpins our focus. It’s time to invest our efforts in robust and targeted use of a range of meaningful evidence linked to our intended impact in a formative process, where we are active in our own destiny, not leaping from high-stakes Ofsted or external summative visits that can result in micro management and blame culture, but rooted in quality processes linked to our vision and mission, what matters for the lives of those we serve, to ensure our tree builds legacy and agency in our evolving world.

What we measure ultimately drives what we focus on. In a world where resources are pressed, it’s time to work out what really matters. Then the how becomes more obvious and more meaningful and drives positive and deep action for change.

Disclaimer: I do not hold the rights to the images included in this blog and , excepting Resilient Leaders Elements, have no affiliations with companies mentioned. I’ve simply referred to them as key models that have interacted with my own consideration of the issues.

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