When leading a community of whatever size or structure, a critical question for leaders is ‘how do I take people with me?’ Sharing your vision and explaining your rationale for changes, or initiatives you want to implement, is essential but communication needs to be a two-way process. Leaders can’t just ‘transmit’, they need to listen and ‘receive’ if they want to learn, earn trust and gain buy-in from their communities. If people aren’t following you as leader, then you’re just going for a long walk on your own.
Since arriving at Wellington School in lovely Somerset during August 2019, I have been keen to put in place systems and structures that enable me to quickly and accurately gather the views, suggestions and observations of students, parents and colleagues. I started as the new head with lots of ideas and plans, but I needed to know what others thought about the road ahead; I needed to hear the voice of the community I have the privilege of leading.
While none of the steps we have taken, and as described in this article, have been radical in their own right, the overall impact of a number of incremental changes has been significant.
If people aren’t following you as leader, then you’re just going for a long walk on your own
While a student council did exist before my arrival, I felt it needed remodelling. The single student council saw 12-year-old students sitting next to students in the upper sixth – conversation didn’t flow as I wanted it to and younger children seldom contributed to discussion; they were there, but I didn’t feel that they really had an effective voice.
To address my concern, we decommissioned the single whole-school council and replaced it with the lower school council (years seven and eight), upper school council (years 9–11) and the sixth form council. Each meeting is attended by the respective head of section and the deputy head (pastoral), who then bring minutes and items for further discussion to me and other senior leaders.
Boarders can share their views with the already established boarding council and we have also recently constituted the student learning and student pastoral councils to deal with teaching and learning, and pastoral matters respectively. I meet with our head girl and head boy each week, and they do a great job in keeping me informed of the general mood of the school.
The outcome of this complete overhaul is that I and other senior leaders can better hear and understand the concerns and perspectives of students of all ages. We can receive suggestions from students far quicker and we are better able to help students understand the rationale for any decisions which have been made.
As a result of the steps we’ve taken, I feel we’ve opened up really excellent and genuine two-way communication with our student body.
I want parents to feel part of their children’s learning journey. It could be said that the model of yesteryear saw mums and dads dropping off their children at the school gates and, figuratively speaking, picking them up again at the end of their school careers.
Apart from reports and parents’ evenings, school leadership and parent body didn’t really meet (unless there was a problem) and parents’ associations were there to support with fundraising and to plan social events.
I challenge that model. Parents’ associations across the land do an absolutely amazing job in supporting schools, but that doesn’t mean they have an opportunity to offer their views or provide feedback on decisions made by the senior leaders of the schools their children attend.
Confident in the merits of creating two-way communication channels between me, senior leaders and Wellington’s parent body, we have constituted a new parent representative group. It is distinct from the parent’s association and made up of a number of parents from each year group. I meet this group once a term and parents are invited to share their views and suggestions on school life with their respective rep in advance of each meeting. In addition to reps, I have also used Teams to host numerous parent forums and these have been very well attended by parents of day students, and UK and international boarders.
The most inspired initiative will go nowhere if staff don’t understand the rationale behind it or haven’t had the opportunity to discuss and shape it.
How, then, does a leader go about putting in place the structures and channels needed to facilitate meaningful dialogue between leadership and the staff body?
At Wellington, we started by fundamentally restructuring ‘Common Room’. Everyone who works at Wellington – full or part time, prep school or senior, teaching or support – is now a member of common room. The chair of common room and I meet and speak frequently, and our common room constitution has been refreshed.
We already had in place a headmaster’s advisory group – an informal representative group which meets once or twice each term to discuss any aspect of school life. The advisory group is a wonderful way for me to get a better understanding of the mood of common room and provides colleagues with the opportunity to put questions to me. We’re now in the final stages of putting in place a more formal works council, which will meet twice each year to discuss matters relating to pay, hours, holiday and matters of health and safety.
Both the advisory group and the works council include colleagues from across the school – prep, senior, teaching and support – and the works council, the more formal of the two bodies, can include union members and those colleagues who are not members of a union; it is not a ‘closed shop’.
The final way in which I have tried to create meaningful, two-way communication across the Wellington community is through the use of online surveys.
Online surveys aren’t a particularly innovative tool, and they do have their limitations, but when you agglomerate responses they can yield some very helpful information.
Asking parents, students and colleagues questions around the same theme has also been very helpful in highlighting differences in perspectives and it is in exploring these different points of view that decision-making can be refined and enhanced.
Our former students have been absolutely brilliant in supporting Wellington and one of my key priorities is to deepen the relationship between school and alumni in the years ahead. To this end, we have been working closely with the Old Wellingtonian Association (OWA) and we have created a new body – the development board – to support our development office.
The development board is made up of a variety of former students who are able to make suggestions, challenge ideas and act as advocates for school initiatives as they are announced.
Wellington is proud of its history and heritage, but we are equally proud of being a progressive and forward-looking school. Putting in place structures which enhance the flow of ideas and feedback, and facilitate constructive dialogue, is a win-win move and speaks to our commitment to providing an education which holds on to the best of the past, but confidently embraces 21st century change.
Open communication builds trust, enhances understanding and sees the experience and wisdom of our whole community being directed to the benefit of Wellington School. Now, more than ever, students, parents and staff need to work together for the common good and improving how we communicate can only help this cause.