13 Dec

Is leadership and knowledge in schools as unique as we are led to think?School leaders often talk about domain specific knowledge and how running a school relies on having gathered this knowledge in a school. Some assert that schools provide the domain where the knowledge required to successfully lead in this sector is learnt. This is a premise that I challenge. The school is not the domain, it is the setting in which domain specific knowledge is applied – this is fundamentally different.

It’s a regular comment made, and if I’m truthful, appears to be one deployed in order to put upstarts like me who have career-changed back into our boxes. However, when we talk about “transferrable skills” what we really mean is “domain specific knowledge that is employed in multiple sectors”. Quite simply, schools require lots of domain specific knowledge, and this is evident in expert roles within education, such as the SENCO and Timetable Planner. They provide specialist training courses for these individuals in order for them to learn how to do these roles, and practise makes them effective at them within the school setting.

If we break down the tasks that teachers and school leaders carry out within the school setting, these are largely mirrored in other industries outside of education. Designing and delivering a curriculum isn’t exclusive to teaching; this in itself is domain specific knowledge – subject specialists have more expertise in their given area, and those using the same exam board have more refined expertise, but the principles underpinning the domain specific knowledge are the same. This is evident in thousands of trining companies, and in the best businesses that incorporate an effective induction process (one I am yet to see in a school setting), or where CPD, and annual training is required for specific roles. A curriculum is specific to the setting, the planning of one is not.

Move to fitting the curriculum into a timetable, organising CPD, outside speakers, assemblies etc – these seem specific to a school, until you realise that businesses have shift rotas, schedule workloads across the country, organise subcontractors, CPD, and servicing of fleets of vehicles. These largely cross-over the Project Management domain; in fact my domain specific knowledge in Project Management and Logistics has proven to be more than sufficient to sit with those responsible for all these and provide advice on how to solve issues. Likewise, I use Gant Charts when organising the curriculum into my SoW, and how they will fit across a year.

Running a departmental budget, or one for a school? This is again domain specific knowledge, applied in the setting of a school. Sure, there are nuances, but none so different to those that occur when moving between organisations. Health and Safety in a school isn’t very different to that outside. In fact I have seen schools claim not to know that accidents need reporting under RIDDOR, and this go unchallenged by those with less domain specific knowledge. Throw into the mix school leaders asking staff to tape down cables, and a whole host of things that are against the Electricity at Work Regulations (1989) or the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974), then we start to move into the realms of prosecution with ignorance not being a defence.

We must remember that this is not unidirectional, teachers are often told of their transferrable skills, and how they could thrive outside of the sector. This is because they have developed the ability to present to a large group of people, plan effectively, lead a team, communicate with stakeholders across a sector, and can assimilate new information quickly. Again these are not specific to the School Domain, this is just the setting they have been learnt in. I think there is a deal of protectionism that is seen in the education sector, born out of a time when leaders from big business came in, believing themselves to be charging in on white horses to rescue schools from themselves. This is understandable, but the fault lies in the lack of humility of these leaders, not in the knowledge they had that could benefit a school.

As someone that has moved between the military, to logistics management, then teaching, I believe humility is the key. Having the intelligence to understand that one has a knowledge-base that is transferrable is beneficial. Knowing the strengths this brings to your appointment is good. Having the nouse to know when to sit down and listen to those who have worked in the sector for longer is crucial for successful transition between domains. One has to learn the nuances and difficulties inherent in the new setting and its infrastructure. This requires the former expert to sit back and listen to how things are done, process this, and then ask questions. Certainly, this is how I have done things, with success after leaving the Army, and has thus far proven successful in education.

Remember, schemas are built upon, so relating existing knowledge to the new setting is as simple as providing a nuanced context that enables this knowledge to be applied within a new framework. For schools to innovate, and be at the fore of transforming our sector, our profession benefits from being able to do what it does best – magpie ideas, and work them into our repertoire. With an increased number of career-changers coming into the profession, the best leadership will embrace and nurture this inbound knowledge-base. This is not to suggest that a year in the classroom qualifies someone to been SLT, but it does serve to advise those seeking to recruit and develop staff – Develop your staff, and take advantage of those with experiences outside of our sector. Their domain specific knowledge may serve to improve your organisation, and drive your ambitions forward. 

Originally posted in the "pintsizedpedagogy" wordpress blog - December 2020 

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