Go Upstream

When under pressure, go upstream. Work out what to preempt.

We need to stop just pulling people out of the river.

We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in”

Desmond Tutu

The parable of the stream

A roaring river in the mountains. You and your friends see two kids in the rapids calling for help. You have to help them!

You jump in and get them safely to the bankside. Not long after, another kid appears in the water, calling desperately for help. And another! They’ll drown if you don’t save them. 

You race upstream and up the mountain. At the top of the rapids, you can clearly see why so many kids are falling in. There’s a treacherous bridge that they are trying to cross, not realising it’s unsafe. They’ll keep falling in if you don’t fix the bridge, first putting up a fence to prevent them from trying to cross.

Reactive vs Preventative thinking

Likewise, in school leadership, I so often find myself drawn into what’s urgent, pressing and immediate. In one school I led at, there was so much disruption and defiance, that fire alarms were set off regularly, students were shouting at teachers, and teachers weren’t able to teach. 

Dealing with misbehaviour required us to be very reactive to the moment. A centralised behaviour system helped to solve the problem of defiance, but didn’t resolve the deeper issues: that students hadn’t developed the habit of listening and learning well in lessons, didn’t see why they should, and some had more fun in the ensuing chaos than when learning and listening studiously.

Schools have a tendency towards downstream action. The urgent calls on us instantly to react fast. *Preventing* takes time and is harder to think through. As school leaders, having spent years responding to urgent problems we can’t ignore, we often overlook that we could be anticipating and preventing them. We see ourselves as problem-solvers. Crisis managers, even. 

What if we saw ourselves as prevention experts? What if we went further upstream, to find and fix the faulty bridges, the systems, causing most of the problems in the first place? 

Prevention beats reaction 

Prevention is less complex, less costly, less time-consuming, less stressful. 

Reactive interventions tend to be more complex, more costly, more time-consuming and more stressful. 

The more upstream you solve the problems, the less inconsistency you end up with at the end. The less confusion. The less unwanted variation. 

Why? Because upstream affects downstream more than downstream affects upstream.

Things go wrong. But it’s often predictable ahead of time, that things will go wrong in the future if not well anticipated and prevented.

Our upstream thinking is often not clear enough for excellent prevention.

Not enough clarity early on, brings about inconsistencies later on. 

Upstream efforts look at the systemic factors that influence problems. Broken bridges upstream force us into demanding and draining rescue efforts downstream.

The more preventatively we think, the less time we waste rescuing. Prevention beats reaction.

Let’s go upstream and fix the bridges.

Strategy is upstream of capacity.

For example, people complain we don’t have enough staff to do what we need to do. Instead, we can go upstream from capacity to strategy and ask: is our current strategy making the absolute most of the staff we do have, or is our strategic focus fuzzy and far from clear?

Prioritising is upstream of time pressure/task management.

For example, people often say there’s too much to do and not enough hours in the day. Instead, we can go upstream from tasks to priorities and what to deprioritise, and ask: am I and are we all clear on our number 1, 2 and 3 priorities as a school, and each? Am I and we clear on what we must let go of and not do?  

Comms is upstream of staff purpose.

For example, leaders sometimes sense that staff aren’t that motivated or committed. In this case, leaders can go from downstream motivation to upstream communication, and ask ourselves: how do and how can our comms help our staff reconnect with our shared purpose, our impacts, and our inspiring success/turnaround stories? 

Clarity from leaders is upstream of consistency from staff.

For example, there can be unwanted and detrimental inconsistencies in lessons. Here, we can go from downstream inconsistency to upstream clarity, and we can keep asking: how can we as leaders keep bringing clarity, constantly communicating, revisiting, reiterating and reinforcing the most important routines with the rationale for how consistency supports each other?

CPD is upstream of staff capability.

For example, SLT can end up bemoaning that a staff member lack the skills or capability to get the results they’d like to see. Instead, we can go from downstream capability to upstream CPD. We can look to our CPD programs to see how we’re developing staff, and how we encourage staff to take the initiative to develop themselves.

Curriculum is upstream of assessment data. 

For example, we often end up overanalysing vast reams of numbers or grades from mock exams or assessments. Instead, we can go from downstream data analysis to upstream curriculum development. We can benchmark our curricula to the very best in the world, and ensure that poorly designed curricula limitations aren’t holding back teachers’ subject teaching or students’ subject learning.

Leadership is upstream of staff alignment.

For example, staff beliefs tend to diverge – but they will more likely clash and bring about confusion downstream if leaders aren’t aligned and lack cohesion in core beliefs upstream- such as whether the head and SLT truly value teaching students lifelong responsibility, or if some prefer short-term indulgence for an easy life. Going from downstream all-staff (mis)alignment further upstream to SLT cohesion, or even further upstream to leadership clarity. 

Line-Management is upstream of performance. 

We often consider someone “underperforming” or notice a staff member struggling. It’s worth going from downstream underperformance to upstream line-management, by seeing how well their line-management partnership, support and input has been and is going over time.

Support is upstream of follow-up and feedback.

Plenty of feedback to staff who seem to be misfiring in lessons or beyond, might not have to be given at all, if in the first place our support around teaching involves excellent support, examples, live modelling demos. We can go from downstream, responsive feedback to upstream, preemptive support.

Suspensions and exclusions are downstream. Combining a behaviour curriculum, wellbeing curriculum, resilience curriculum, CPD, role-modelling, listening, understanding, resilience mentoring, pre-teaching, conversations, consistency, reading intervention, safeguarding, early help, sleep/wellbeing knowledge, parent/family support, career mentoring, disability screening, graduated response, specialist expertise, excellent alternative provision, pupil support units, off-site directions are upstream. 

Example: repeat suspensions 

“How can we reduce suspensions?”

“Let’s go upstream.

How clear and united are our SLT, head, line-manager, trust and behaviour team on our school ethos, values, culture, belonging, connection, purpose and meaning?

How knowledgeable and expert are we about what the best schools and school leaders out there do, and how they think?

How is our CPD developing staff knowledge and habits around relationship-building, trust-building, encouragement and support?

How are we making time for support, attention mentoring, preteaching and reintegration for students struggling with several suspensions?”

Preparing and planning well upstream can save massive problems, life-damaging decisions, headaches and heartache downstream. 

Upstream of accountability is leadership, knowledge, expertise, role-modelling, strategy, clarity, CPD, comms, support, trust-building. 

For example, SLT might notice teachers are late to briefings or lessons. Before we confront them, we can ensure leaders all lead by example and build trust, all staff know how leading by example and norms affect each other, what our strategy is for student habit change and norms, clarity on what we expect and why, CPD on the psychology of habit, comms to recognise efforts, encourage and nudge, and support to ask how things are and how we can help – preventing the need for much of the confrontational, reactive follow-up we felt forced to do before and reducing, minimising or even eliminating it, and replacing much of it with proactive, preemptive leadership clarity.

Further upstream, we can prevent problems before they break out.

Upstream success

School is a massive upstream success. For almost all human history, and right up til just a few hundred years ago, far less than 10% of people got to go to school, and far less than 10% could read. Over 90% of the world’s people get to go to school, and over 90% of people around the world can read and write. 

Education upstream brings empowerment downstream.


See through the Upstream view

Switch to an upstream mindset.

Reduce the probability that problems will happen.

Reduce problems’ impact when they occur.

Reduce their frequency and risk of recurrence. 

Upstream action influences what happens later down the line.

Upstream thinking can reduce downstream problems later on. 

As leaders, it’s hard and rare to find and make the time to work out what’s happening further up the stream: what’s 100% within our control, and most within our circle of influence. Our beliefs. Our views. Our goals. Our choices. Our habits. Our mindset. Our identity. Our thinking. Our approaches. Our boundaries. Our responses. Our clarity. Our unity. Our personal consistency. Our comms. All of these are entirely up to us. There’s so much we can do upstream, so much we overlook, so much more we can do to increase our influence, leading by example. 

Know the three nopes

What holds us back?

Upstream thinking requires radical responsibility, initiative and ownership.

Listen out for the barriers to upstream thinking and low ownership, initiative and responsibility.

#1.Nope, don’t see it” – problem blindness, low initiative

Here, leaders don’t think something is problematic.

For instance: ‘Behaviour around school isn’t that bad; some of the staff are tired of hearing us talk about it and want to hear about something else; we’ve got to focus on other things!’

We all have blind spots; we all tend to be oblivious to so many things and overlook many early warning signs. 

#2. “Nope, not my problem” – tunnel vision, low responsibility 

For instance: ‘Behaviour is up to the behaviour team, the pastoral team. We sixth-form teachers don’t have much to do with it; it’s not our problem to deal with.’

We all have limited time, headspace and bandwidth; we all struggle with overload and have to define our roles with a narrow, selective focus so as not to be overwhelmed with life’s vast complexity and human society’s unpredictability.

#3. “Nope, not my job” – low ownership

For instance: ‘Behaviour isn’t up to me to solve – I’ve got enough on my plate organising trips!’

We all find responsibility tough to bear; we all struggle to focus 100% on what’s 100% within our control, to begin with.

Look out for the three nopes. They are forces that push us downstream, impeding our chances of preventing problems. They reveal a lack of the responsibility, initiative and ownership required for upstream, preventative thinking and preemptive leadership.

Leading others upstream: questions for upstream leaders

How to get everyone thinking upstream?

By leading by example on radical responsibility!

Six quick ways to start

Here are six things I am trying to keep in mind and keep returning to, to lead by example on prevention and help our teams think more preemptively. Six things that I reckon might be worth trying out if you wanted to implement upstream thinking and help your teams think higher upstream. 

  1. Getting shared understanding: share with teams what upstream means, and the why – better prevention of recurrent problems – leading CPD in 1:1s and in team conversations by sharing downstream non-examples –  often, staff underperformance, student data analysis, last-minute intervention, endgame outcomes, blaming parents or the local authority.
  1. Noticing: notice where we are stuck being reactive, or where there’s problem blindness, tunnel vision or low ownership – listen out for the three nopes from staff (‘it’s not a problem’ / ‘it’s not my problem’ / ‘it’s not my job’). 
  1. Puzzling: work out where upstream preventative thinking is in short supply, and find the ‘broken bridges’ and overlooked preemptions most within our circle of control – often, strategy, priorities, comms habits, SLT clarity, CPD leadership. Ask- “what’s the best next step in our comms?” “where do we need to take CPD next?” “What can we better deprioritise and say no to, to make time for what matters most?”
  1. Asking: ask lots of prevention questions; keep asking people, all the time, until they’re heartily sick of it: what’s upstream of this? how can we preempt? what’s MOST within our control here? what’s highest-impact?”
  1. Clarifying: check that people are clear on what the point in upstream thinking is. “Are you clear on what we really mean by upstream and downstream? What examples are you noticing? What do you think of this way of thinking? Where are you finding it coming in handy?” 
  1. Thinking together: invest time in thinking longer and harder about upstream areas: strategy, clarity, expertise, CPD, support, line-management. Focus key leaders’ and teams’ attention on them by putting them and the above questions on agendas in 1:1 and team conversations. 

Ultimately, if we all prioritise prevention really well as school leaders, we can help some of our very most vulnerable staff and students to have much greater chances of success.

The mantra that turns difficulties into opportunities. That prevents them in future.

Go upstream.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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