Managing sustainable change in schools

May 18, 2017

Connie Walker

Assistant Principal, The Boulevard Academy, Hull

Managing change in a new school might seem like a contradiction but Connie Walker still needed to bring staff with her as she revised the CPD strategy.

For the purpose of sustainability – of both schools and staff – change must precariously balance between two points: improving and embedding.

The first point is the need for continuous improvement and to avoid stagnation, and the second is the need to allow time for change to become embedded in the fabric of the school.

Often the issue of change requires leaders to overhaul and adapt a model of values and mindsets in long-standing establishments. However, as the Assistant Principal of a four year-old free school, I have had a reasonably blank canvas to start with. Therefore, the process of change has also meant the establishment of processes and structure from scratch.

My objective was to design an effective Continuing Professional Development (CPD) programme with a culture of coaching at the core. I wanted to move from an ad-hoc INSET programme to one whereby INSET days are structured to engage staff with discussions around teaching and learning, and that continuously require staff members to reflect upon their practice. While the programme is still in the early stages of development, building the structural foundations and the values linked to embedding a coaching culture has been crucial.

Designing the coaching and INSET programme was important, but not critical to managing the cultural change needed to make coaching the norm. Initial instinct led me to map out deadlines and agendas; reflecting on Kotter’s ‘Eight Steps to Change’, the idea that I needed to ‘create a sense of urgency’ prevailed.

Creating deadlines did, to an extent, appear to create urgency, but also panic and the sense that coaching was a tick-box exercise with no real purpose. In a school that has been graded Outstanding, and where student attainment is high, there was no obvious ‘urgency’ to communicate. Regardless of my brightly coloured PowerPoint, and group discussions on INSET day, coaching simply did not happen.

Managing complex change

Knoster, Thousand and Villa’s 2001 model for managing complex change (see above) was particularly pertinent in my reflections on this challenge. I had communicated a ‘vision’ during the INSET day (which appeared to be shared with the majority of staff members) and I had sent out clear ‘action plans’. But I realised that skills’ ‘incentives’ and ‘resources’ were missing.

In order to ensure sustainable change, my focus needed to shift from timings of the process to ensuring that it actually happened. For this to occur, I needed to ensure staff had the understanding and skills to coach – and the belief that it was worthwhile.

As a consequence, I utilised meeting time to discuss teaching and learning, rather than presenting my plans. I asked staff members to ‘showcase’ a lesson, with the other members of staff as students. This enabled new conversations around teaching and learning to develop naturally and re-inspired staff to experiment with teaching strategies. Creating an environment in which staff were happy to reflect enabled them to develop coaching skills.

Furthermore, we removed the grading of lesson observations for performance management and replaced it with the opportunity for staff to ‘share’ with their line-manager the aspects of teaching and learning they had been developing under the support of their coach.

To manage this element of change, staff were given the opportunity to discuss how coaching and performance management could interlink and therefore this decision was driven by the staff body – rather than the leadership team. This gave empowerment to staff and therefore increased both incentive and engagement; not only would coaching help to develop and refine their practice, but there was a formal recognition of their achievements.


Currently, the coaching culture in my school is ‘emerging.’ It has an established process which has been underpinned with collegiate and discussion-based INSET days where teaching and learning development (with some fun!) has been at the heart.

The recognition of achievement has been important to the process of change, as has the frequency in which coaching is discussed. However, the involvement of staff reflections in the process has been more integral to establishing successful change than just visions and deadlines. At the mild sacrifice of time and turnaround, the foundation of a ‘coaching culture’ has become embedded in the everyday practices of staff.

Reflecting on this process, here is some advice about managing change for my future self (and for you):

  • The involvement of and reflections from those who you wish to change is critical to ensure their engagement
  • Worry less about the timing and more about the quality and sustainability of the change you are implementing
  • Keep the vision clear, but critically consider the drivers of the people who you are persuading to change. Present the reasons for change accordingly

The Teaching Leaders seminar, ‘Managing Change’, presented a number of theories on change, but also the critical opportunity to discuss and explore where my particular strategy was going wrong. Using this, I was able to quickly diagnose where the issues in the implementation of change were.

In addition, the experience of other participants enabled me to create a more successful structure. Meeting regularly with other participants, and reading and discussing relevant theories of change and reflecting on current practices with my coach has helped me reflect on my own strengths. But it has also helped me to identify and learn from the leadership strategies used by other leaders in the school to strengthen my own competencies.

Change management is one of the evidence-informed methods used on our Expert Middle Leaders programme (formerly called Teaching Leaders). Follow the link to the webpage or fill out an enquiry form to find out more about our two-year fully-funded training programme.

This article originally appeared on the website of the Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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