Flawed School Improvement Plans: Black Swans and Grey Rhinos

Every year, the world’s school leadership teams look to create a school improvement plan for the year ahead. 

What can we learn from the school improvement plans we’ve made each year, in the past? What have we prioritised? How did these priorities work out? 

There were, and are, never enough resources or time to go round. Our plans struggle to survive intact their encounters with an awkward reality. 

School leaders are called on, in the moments where we create our plans, to be strategists, forecasters, architects, benchmarkers, truth-tellers, psychologists, inventors, navigators, accountants, investors, storytellers, designers, influencers, chief culture cultivators, team-builders, conjurers, community builders and project managers. 

This is why I’m in awe of the world’s school leaders!

We are called to make crucial decisions, affecting the lives and livelihoods of thousands over time, in the face of competing demands, uncertainties and dissidents – decisions that shape the course of the future, even, in the long-term, the fate of nations!

Enter, a black swan

And then a black swan shows up. A black swan: a rare, unexpected, high-impact, often-catastrophic events beyond the realm of normal expectations. Westerners previously believed all swans were white, because there were no reported sightings of black swans: the discovery of a black swan in Australia shattered this belief, and undermined confidence in our certainties and assumptions.

The Covid-19 pandemic was a black swan. Schools were closed to children for the first time in the history of public schooling, and no one had planned for it. It scuppered every school improvement plan that year. Schools scrambled to work out how to teach remotely, and how to safeguard the most vulnerable. The black swan of covid taught us that our systems and societies are more fragile and less resilient than we assumed.

Or was it? Was a pandemic unanticipatable? Is another one? What’s our contingency plan for a still more devastating pandemic? a crippling, once-in-a-century financial crash crisis and collapse? A climate change tipping point? One of these is likely to occur in the decades ahead. What if black swans are actually grey rhinos?

A grey rhino is an obvious danger we ignore: highly-probable, high-impact, neglected threat, often visible in advance – a charging rhinoceros visible from far away but ignored until it’s too late. 

What black swans were actually grey rhinos – anticipatable? The pandemic is an obvious candidate for a grey rhino. Another is probably charging for us at this instant.

How can we anticipate and scenario-plan better in future?

Start by learning the lessons we can glean from past experience.

By questioning our assumptions, our approaches and our thinking. 

By opening our beliefs and our grounds to scrutiny and challenge. 

By testing our ideas and our plans. 

Four lessons learned from 10+ school improvement plans

One year, I did a sabbatical where I got to work with and learn from several inspiring headteachers.

One day, I spent the whole day just reading, reviewing and thinking about their school improvement plans. 

It was dizzying, fascinating, enthralling. Like much else in learning about school leadership, I loved it. I could have done it all week!

Here are the lessons I learned from the day I spent reviewing these plans of ours.

Lesson #1. Overload: All our plans were so overloaded as to be impossible to effectively review. None chose just two or even three top priorities.

Lesson #2. Disconnect: All our plans were disconnected from the reality of the experience of the staff and students who find school most difficult. None set out the perspective of a child, teacher or support staff member.

Lesson #3. Avoidance: All our plans avoided identifying the trickiest obstacles and basics. None set out the greatest barriers, nor the student-staff interactions they wanted to cultivate.

Lesson #4: Rigidity: All our plans were rigidly boxy, ultra-rational and bureaucratic, not narrative, emotive or human. None told a truly inspiring, exciting story of where to get to and how. All were made up fast by a senior team under intense shortages of time to invest in involvement, scrutiny, challenge and iteration.

I include my own school improvement plans in this critique. Overloading, disconnected, avoidant and boxy plans seem to exert a sort of gravitational orbit on all of us who labour under conditions of intensity:

(a) vast numbers of stakeholders

(b) intense time pressure

(c) wide distance between school leaders’ perspectives on the one hand, and staff and students’ vantage points on the other

(d) internal pressure to seem in control in front of large numbers of others  

(e) external pressure from parents, governors, inspectors, trustees, trusts, local authorities, auditors, government bureaucracies, finance constraints, local mayors and dignities, other external agencies, and other assorted political, cultural, economic, technological and societal contexts!

This is me, in the fortnightly meetings I lead.

Exit, pursued by a rhino

I feel great admiration, awe and pride when I think of the school leaders I know who set out every day with hope, enduring courage and perseverance to educate the world’s children.

I feel incensed at how badly we prepare our school leaders to handle the astounding and ferocious complexity, uncertainties, unpredictability of schools, with all of the thousands of interactions between teachers, students, staff, parents, carers, families, siblings, friends, rivals and leaders – not to mention how badly we prepare each other to deal with the critics, complainers, detractors, snipers, carpers, trolls, press, haters, shamers, outrage merchants, pitchfork keyboard worriers, zealots, crusaders, timewasters and social media mobs.

I feel great excitement when I imagine the possibilities that lie before us, if we come together as a profession and champion our greatest teachers, educators, school leaders, headteachers, experts, edubloggers, inspirations, thinkers, writers, scientists, creators, founders, dissidents, mavericks, heretics and freedom fighters.

Nothing less than the future of schools and our civilisation is at stake.

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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