Wendy Hick

Empower everybody – and give people time to think

Tue 29 Nov 2016

MiP Conference 2016: Leading head teacher Wendy Hick gave an inspiring talk to delegates about how real staff engagement and a positive, reflective approach can turn struggling organisations around – and surprisingly quickly

Wendy Hick, now head teacher at Cranmer School in Mitcham, south London, spoke to conference about how her innovative approach to leadership had helped to turn around a failing school. Manorfield Primary in Tower Hamlets had been in special measures when Hick took over as head teacher in 2012; less than eighteen months later Ofsted rated the school as “outstanding”.

“Normally, people go in and take a troubleshooting approach, they look to get a quick fix,” Hick told delegates. “I took a very different and more considered approach. I thought what am I going to do to raise the morale of the staff at this school?”

Hick described how she used “appreciative inquiry” to try to unpick what was happening at the school. “Our main focus was not to look at what was going wrong, but first to look at what was going right,” she explained.

“I think that was the crux that really changed their perception of me as a leader, and of the approach that I was going to take. I could immediately see it from their body language – because we were talking about what was going well at this school. We a spent whole day looking at people’s strengths and gathering their views on what an ideal school would look like.”

With help from academic and consultant Stefan Cantore, the entire staff, together with parents, governors and pupils, worked to create a shared set of values for the school. The values they settled on were: “to be curious, empathetic, respectful and purposeful”.

“I don’t mean just having some strapline or slogan,” said Hick. “I mean living and breathing that vision, understanding what it really means. If that vision is created by everybody, it empowers everybody. You cannot overestimate how important that is.”

She stressed it was vital to involve the whole team – including teachers, teaching assistants, cleaning and maintenance staff and dinner ladies. “We came up with a series of questions to explore and spent a year going through them. There were people in that room who had never spoken to one another before,” she recalled.

“I think that’s one of the issues in our organisations – we do not give people the chance to reflect, to think and really analyse where they are and what they want to do next.”

The school also set up an extensive coaching programme, where any member of staff could have access to a coach. “That took a long time, creating a culture of listening and questioning, rather than the fire-fighting approach, where you’re just rushing down the corridor,” said Hick. “I can’t say enough about how important that is.”

She added: “And that’s not a coach with an agenda. They could talk to them about anything they wanted, about their work and their practice.”

Hick admitted she was “swimming against the tide” and her approach was challenged by some members of staff, especially early on – although only three out of 150 chose to leave.

The powers that be also took some convincing, said Hick. “It’s fair to say Ofsted and the local authority were surprised by my approach. But when they started to see the impact it was having – and quite quickly – they turned their views around. And they’re now starting to use that approach in a lot of other schools.

“I think you have to be a risk-taker – taking the other journey is of course a lot easier. But every organisation if different. I’m using the same approach where I am now, but in a slightly different way.”


Conference reporting by Craig Ryan.

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