Slow Burn Leadership: Pausing For Thought in GCSE Results Week

Photo by Nick Abrams on Unsplash

On tortoises and hares:

In GCSE results week, educators can expect the usual flurry of reaction and commentary. There’s a lot of noise, a pressure for immediate responses and an urgency to rush like hares when we should be more like tortoises – steady and measured in our approach. A brand-new set of data appears and suddenly every school leader and teacher has a new context to work in. All schools will have cause to celebrate and reasons to reflect. These two months can set the tone and agenda for the year ahead but there’s a case to be made to take time, proceed thoughtfully and practise ‘slow burn leadership’.

There’s plenty of cringe inducing leadership jargon around but I like this phrase. It came into my consciousness when I had the good fortune to attend the ‘Slow Burn Leadership Conference – an event organised by Norwich Research School, in association with Evidence Based Education. I originally intended to quickly post my reflections on the event back in June with it fresh in my mind, but, in keeping with the central message of the event, I’ve taken my time. It’s better to be thoughtful than to rush….

… Oh ok, I admit it, I’m also late getting around to writing this up because I was more than a little preoccupied with completing the school timetable and the usual mid-summer school madness that comes in June and July. That’s sometimes the issue isn’t it? We work in a profession that is often described as ‘time poor’ and work load heavy. Perhaps our responses to the GCSE results are our first opportunity to slow down. We should deliberately avoid any knee jerk reactions.

At the Slow Burn Leadership conference, Stuart Kime spoke brilliantly about the ‘blunders of our governments’ providing the following quote from Sir David Normington:

“…since the days of Margaret Thatcher, Ministers have been judged by how active they are: by their ability to get things done, to set short deadlines, to drive things forward. This can sometimes make it difficult for civil servants to get their concerns and reservations heard. Those who expressed doubts or argued for slower implementation, say the authors, have increasingly seen their careers blighted and been characterised as blockers of change”.

Stuart Kime drew parallels with our profession, suggesting that the best school leaders are good listeners that grasp the reality ‘on the ground’ rather than  rushing to conclusions or hurrying through change. Kime advised us to take heed of the of the ASCL Ethical Leadership Framework and deliberately practice virtues of wisdom, kindness and trust. So, what does this mean as we make sense of our GCSE results and plan for the year ahead? It means not divorcing data from its context, or policy from reality. It means listening and reflecting in order to understand the big picture. It means being wary of our own biases and not making snap decisions with limited information.

On that note, let’s also remember that before the results arrive, we already know a lot about our young people and about our own schools. There is information about their education that extends beyond these grades. GCSE results reflect 5 years of secondary schooling and not two years of exam preparation. In fact, they are more than that, they reflect 11 years of education in total. Education itself is a ‘slow burn’. Learning takes time.

What’s more, exams aren’t the total sum of a child’s achievements. After all (whisper it) they are just the exam results. They aren’t the total culmination of a curriculum. At the Slow Burn Leadership conference, we were also treated to a talk and Q&A with Sean Harford, Ofsted’s National Director, Education . He underlined that exam results aren’t the main objective for schools – the quality of education is. The two are not mutually exclusive of course and Ofsted’s new framework reminds us that the challenge is to hold this in balance. What we learn about our pupils’ exam performance is limited to just that. We might learn something about our pupils from their exam attainment, but we won’t learn everything.

Young people are more than a set of numbers. So too are schools. Let’s practise slow burn leadership and proceed cautiously with the new data of GCSE results week.