Values, not rules

Values-conscious schools have seen improved behaviour, increased confidence and capacity, and better spiritual, moral social and cultural education.  These underpin effective learning and higher standards.

back to school The sun is streaming in the window at the back of the hall.  The school staff are smiling,  suntanned and relaxed,  bearing witness to the long days of summer sun.  What a different energy from the one I felt in this room 3 short months ago.  We are here to look forward to the coming year, determined to hang on to all that is special about this school, in the face of the challenges and opportunities of a new school year which includes the start of a 2-year re-build and whatever new initiatives Mr Gove identifies next.  For me, this is the culmination of 9 months’ work supporting this school to re-define its values.  I had offered the headteacher the use of the Barrett Values Centre’s School Values Assessment (SVA) as a means of helping to address some of the anxieties in the system which she defined as

  • conscientious teachers worried about being observed, in case they were found wanting;
  • staff feeling intimidated by some parents, so that parents’ evenings were becoming a source of anxiety;
  • some negativity and rumblings among the staff behind the scenes, which the head was finding it difficult to flush out.

The Values Centre’s School Values Assessment survey is a disarmingly simple and potentially extremely powerful instrument.  We all know that work is more rewarding when our work allows us to live our values.  It asks 3 simple questions

  1.  What are your top 10 personal values?
  2. What are the top 10 values you experience in school?
  3. What top 10 values should the school now focus on to move forward?

The results provide leaders with a systematic means of evaluating the climate of the school and providing the gateway to a powerful dialogue about things that really matter, which underpin excellence in learning and teaching – and frequently remain hidden.

The first feedback on the results of the diagnostic to the SMT was puzzling. While the leadership team congratulated themselves on the good match across the three categories closer scrutiny revealed some hard messages.  person questioningOne group of staff was having a different experience of the culture from another, and it wasn’t so positive.  Later I fed back to the whole school.  There was no point in hiding the hard messages: those who experienced the culture most positively were upset to think that their experience wasn’t universal.

We kept focused, knowing that acknowledging that people had different experiences was the first step to understanding and addressing what was happening.  The unspoken negativity had risen to the surface for the first time   The ‘elephants in the room’ had been acknowledged.

In the third session I posed the question ‘what are we NOT talking about?’.  three wise monkies smallPeople were encouraged – anonymously – to express the inexpressible and together to talk about how – as a school – they could address such difficulties.  It was as emotionally draining as it was necessary.  While they had had to face difficult issues, they had talked about them. As an outsider,  I could see what wasn’t evident to those who were viewing the picture in close-up: that there were subliminal messages in the culture which could account for the different experience of different groups of staff.  In the SMT we talked about system changes which could help.

The ‘desired culture’ helpfully included a call for ‘shared values’.  Starting with the 10 values which had originally been identified by the whole staff as representing the desired culture (several of which they were already experiencing), we spent the day honing them down to 5 which they felt essential for the coming year.  Most importantly, they spent time agreeing definitions, identifying what that value would look like in practice, and what they individually and collectively, needed to do to grow the value.  I overheard discussions about the difference between teamwork and co-operation; there was a lively debate about what ‘open communication’ means, and evident agreement about ‘passion for learning’.

The dialogue which resulted from the headteacher’s courage in starting this journey has led to a new level of trust and confidence amongst colleagues. They have articulated shared values.  which are beginning to be understood by all.  Next time, I hope they ask children, parents, and governors, too.