With burning desire
Tim Wilbur, Director of Schools Consultancy at Gabbitas Education, reflects on how a struggling school in Cyprus became a success
In the last academic year, I was seconded from Gabbitas Education to a leading independent school in Cyprus. The task was not only to serve as Interim Director but also to conduct an extensive turnaround project for the school, which continued to suffer from the 2013 economic downturn on the island. Having faced similar circumstances before, one of the keys to success had to be staff empowerment.
The school was rather unique; the governance, most parents and a third of the teaching staff were all alumni. The school was struggling in part not because it wasn’t loved, but because there were too many groups ‘loving’ it in their own idiosyncratic manner. It was a challenge!
The staff were, however, incredibly gifted as a body – many with further subject degrees – but unfortunately few with postgraduate qualifications in teaching. Collectively they were loyal and, as teaching positions in Cyprus are in high demand, the majority had served for over 25 years. They were also heavily unionised, again typical to Cyprus. Therefore, there were the usual positives and negatives that any school leader has to accommodate.
To bring some coherence to my relationship with the staff, it was important to talk to each of them individually, as I did, and then to engage them collectively on topics they felt it important to tackle in the turnaround process. As the basic issue was a loss of fee income, they had automatically assumed that my role was to supervise a redundancy programme. Whereas this was part of the equation, a thorough revision of the curriculum and timetable was also necessary. Committees were created to look at the shape of the week, class sizes, alumni representation on the board and others. However, I initially kept the writing of a strategic plan within Gabbitas Education, as there had to be some pre-conceived plan of action.
Having formed the various staff committees, I then asked my PA to write an email asking anyone “with a burning desire” to help the director review the strategic plan. As ever, my mischievous PA wrote the email verbatim and the ‘Burning Desire Committee’ was formed.
Every now and again, a school leader needs a huge slice of luck. Thankfully, only four teachers applied but every one of them was gold dust. They comprised three very talented young professionals of about eight years’ experience (all alumni) and a gnarled, older but equally good HOD. It was a potent brew, with the exuberance of youth tempered by a worldly realism, or some may say cynicism, guided by experience. The meetings were fun and on numerous occasions the teachers prevented the director making a complete fool of himself by providing cultural and environmental understanding.
Two of the younger teachers had just completed their advanced skills status and were desperate for an opportunity, both to put their ideas into practice and to experience senior management decision-making; and the HOD, often overlooked, brought his wisdom to bear. One of the young teachers was a media studies specialist. She was seriously disappointed by the current website. One day, she brought me not just the blueprint of a new site but the idea of a wider web platform to support the curriculum as well.
In other areas too, young professionals were depended upon and given opportunity. In the cold light of day, this was perhaps unfair to that generation who were patiently waiting their turn. But I had the distinct feeling that part of that waiting might be merely to achieve status and not do anything once they had got there.
In the circumstances, we found that only serious step-change management would re-establish all that was good about the school. I would like to say the turnaround was a success – the changes at least gave it an ongoing chance – but like most things educational, only time will tell.