‘United we stand, divided we fall.’ – Consistency in schools


I once visited a school on a leadership course where the Head told the delegates “When we interview, we directly ask teachers if they will comply with our clear but firm expectations & rules. If they have any doubts we won’t offer them the job”. This included students walking in silence in the corridors and all staff eating lunch with students, amongst many other unusual (for me) practices.

I thought this was a really interesting strategy. The Head was ensuring that he only employed people that were committing to being consistent with the school’s ethos. Some might think this is overly controlling but I can see there is real truth in the phrase ‘United we stand, divided we fall’. I have seen that success in schools can be down to this. Not necessarily how the school does things but that there is unity across staff and students in the application of the strategies/rules.

So if it’s as simple as that, why don’t all schools just ensure consistency?

It’s tough.

Teachers are individuals. When teachers get into their classrooms, they are usually the boss of their space and are mainly autonomous in what they do. That autonomy leads to people creating their own rules and expectations. It’s as though a whole school becomes a set of mini-schools where the personalities and preferences of a teacher take precedence over the whole school.

Teachers don’t like being told what to do. That autonomy means that when others tell them what they should be doing, one reaction might be to ignore it. Compliance seems a strong term. But it is compliance, to set and agreed principles that create consistency. Some teachers dislike compliance and counter it with being treated as a professional. This is a false dichotomy. Teachers can be treated as professionals and be expected to fulfil their part in a whole school system.

Leaders don’t hold teachers to account. As a leader, this is a huge challenge; possibly the biggest challenge of school leadership. I’ve seen this over and over and in the worst case scenarios leaders are scared or ill-equipped to have professional conversations with staff. Leaders say things like ‘Well, that’s just so and so, that’s the way they do it’ or ‘they’ve done it that way for years, they’ll never change’. In other cases friendships and relationships have got in the way of tough conversations. Or there is a hope that the teacher will leave the school so the ‘problem’ disappears and so isn’t worth dealing with.

Fairness is essential. If one member of staff doesn’t do something, the same conversation should happen if another person doesn’t. No leader should be sacred of a member of staff. This is equally true within the leadership team. If staff see a leader not fulfilling the process that they’ve been told to follow, it can lead to staff feeling that it’s one rule for one and another for another.

Most leaders will know the theory, but in practice there have been horrific situations which lead to accusations of bullying, competency procedures and sadly people ‘losing’ their jobs. This needs to be shared and discussed much more in leadership and with new leaders. In my career I remember those few leaders that have done this well but sadly this can be overridden by those that have done it very, very badly.

Teachers don’t agree with what they’ve been asked to do. There are many policies and rules that a school can choose to adopt.  Some may be controversial. Some may seem nonsensical. Either way, if you listen in the staffroom teachers will be pointing out which policies or processes they don’t agree with. If there isn’t a channel for staff to share or air their concerns about these, they may just do it their own way.

Good teachers ‘carry’ those that don’t comply. I’ve blogged about his before here. It’s really easy for leaders to shift their focus.  Focus on those that do, so those that don’t seem like a minority. This may seem a great strategy until those that ‘do’ start to become burdened unfairly. They get more, those that don’t, get nothing.

Lack of clarity of what they want from staff. So far, we’ve assumed that leaders have made very clear what they expect. Expecting staff to be ‘professional’ isn’t enough. They need to have clear expectations and processes so they know what they should be doing.

Leaders have the big picture without the practical processes. Strategic thinking is great. It gives the overall plan of what we’re doing and why. However, if it lacks the practicalities of how things will be done, it just remains susceptible to individual interpretation, leading to inconsistency.

It is also useful to include the ‘why’ we are doing this. The logic or research behind it is important. If the ‘why’ is illogical or unreasonable, it may lead to staff questioning its value and then not doing it.

Consistency requires consistency over time. If you have a transient staff, including leaders, it can be really difficult to embed consistency. If a teacher arrives and the ethos is strong and embeded there is more chance that staff will follow it. Where there is no precedent or continuous changes, it is easier for teachers to do their own thing. This is one of the biggest challenges as a leader in a challenging school context.

The processes are too complicated. If a teacher has to fill out a triplicate form and deliver one to a head of year’s office, one to the tutor’s tray and then email a version to a line manager, there is a good chance they’re not going to have the time or inclination to complete it. The time spent on the process may outweigh the value They see in completing the process. Leaders need to think of the value of any process over the time cost.

Teachers don’t feel supported. Even if they do complete the triplicate paperwork , if nothing happens, even a discussion or a response, a teacher will feel that they are isolated. Efficient & appropriate communication in schools can be lacking. Leaders need a process to follow to ensure that teachers feel supported. If a teacher has an incident in their class, who will check they’re ok? Who will ask them the next day if they’re ok? Sometimes we assume these things happen but we’re all so busy that no-one does it. It needs listening, planning and organisation to support staff.

In the initial anecdote, the Head teacher’s strategy of checking compliance from day one was a clever way to ensure that his school continued in a manner that he deemed was necessary for students to be successful.  But if all schools did this would they end up without teachers? Are all teachers willing to ‘sign up to’ a system where the expectations are clearly on them to fulfill and comply with?

How can leaders best ensure consistency within schools without it being a dictatorship? Does it have to come at the expense of autonomy in the classroom? Should it account for teacher personalities? How can accountability be effective without being personal or based on relationships? Should compliance to school policies be assessed?

One of the teacher standards is “Teachers must have proper and professional regard for the ethos, policies and practices of the school in which they teach” how is this upheld?

In my eyes, it’s schools that nail consistency, that have the highest chance of being successful. It’s the challenge of leadership of how to do this with humanity and professionalism.


2 thoughts on “ ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’ – Consistency in schools

  1. I agree with all of this.

    And yet my perspective is somewhat different.

    I appreciate your recognition, in your last point, about the importance of leaders supporting those of us at the chalkface. And I share your frustration with colleagues who won’t ‘do their bit’ – they make life harder for the rest of us.

    And yet. And yet. Were I to be told this in a staff meeting my response would be thus.

    Okay, I’m happy to insist on top buttons being done up. I’m happy to report any pupil I see smoking. I’m happy to issue a sanction to anyone using abusive language, including on the sports field.

    Right up until the point where a senior leader decides that actually Mr Grumpy went a bit over the top there, and undermines me. And then I’m going to shrug and say well, sure, I get that this particular individual has very particular reasons for being allowed to get away with his misbehaviour, or why the actual approach taken by the school can’t be exactly what the official position states… but then you must recognise that if that’s going to happen then it’s better for me not to fight battles which I can’t win.

    To me, this feels like a more serious problem than classroom teachers betraying their leaders.

    It’s difficult to resolve though. Maybe it can’t be done. Those examples above are all real instances of rules I was told to uphold, upheld, and was then told did not actually matter. I could see the point of view of my senior on all three occasions.

    If you actually, properly, fully mean it, including when you think I’ve handled things badly, then I’m on board.

  2. Pingback: Educational Reader’s Digest | Friday 16th June – Friday 23rd June – Douglas Wise

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