On 4th October 2019 I had the privilege of attending an audience with Julie Jackson, President of Uncommon Schools. Uncommon Schools is a non-profit organization that starts and manages urban schools for low-income students. At the time of writing there are 54 public K-12 charter schools (20,000 students) in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. The “schools are joyful and rigorous, full of love and learning, and fiercely dedicated to closing the achievement gap and changing history”. This was an event arranged by Ambition Institute.
Julie Jackson is the President of Uncommon Schools. She oversees all 54 schools as well as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Julie has been in education for the last three decades and her strong leadership and commitment to improving public education have earned her several honours.
As much of what Julie said is applicable to governance too, I thought I would do a short blog about the things that really struck me in her address. She started by talking about her father (who was murdered when she was young) and the three principles he gave her.
- Welcome challenge, learn from defeat
- Never let your first defeat be your second
- Always have a high bar of excellence. Don’t let anyone else set you bar
As governors there will be times when we would be faced with challenges and some of these would be quite tough ones which don’t pan out how we thought they would. In such cases, we need to work out why things happened the way they did and try and learn some lessons from the experience. Setting a high bar of excellence for ourselves is important too. This is true of individual governors and of the board. Have a high bar of excellence for the way you perform your governance task at an individual level. Make sure that the board as a whole have set a high bar of excellence for the whole board and for the school. Don’t let anyone say that children under your care can’t perform well because, for example, their background. As a board set a high, aspirational bar for every child and that bar is your excellence bar which you and not anyone else have set.
Julie talked about putting “kids always first”. This is not something that only executive leaders should be doing. The whole board should look at everything they do through this lens too. She also talked about the need for “humble leadership” and the importance of leaders being good at developing their team, resourcing good practice and dissecting it and applying it. Again, this is everything a good board should be doing. When most of us join boards we come with our specific skills, we do need to learn to apply these skills to governance and learn to govern. Good board leaders (chairs) will help their team members do just this. The board should be researching and studying good practice and bringing it back to their board.
Julie talked about what makes excellent leadership. Excellent leaders will be working to make their curriculum “joyful” and excellent. Writing the curriculum, deciding what to study and when is a job for the executive leaders. Excellent board leadership happens when the board holds the executive to account for the curriculum. This holding to account, this challenge, if done correctly will lead to an excellent curriculum. Julie wanted school leaders to ask themselves, “Do parents like to send their children to our school?” This is a hugely important question for governors to be asking too. Ask this question and follow it up with
- How do we know this?
- If the answer is yes then how do we ensure this continues to be the case in the future and we don’t become complacent?
- If the answer is no then what are we doing to change it to a yes?
Julie talked about CPD and developing teachers. She said
- Organisations should value their trainees
- Training should be ongoing
- Observations are not a “I got you” observations but a developmental process
- If a gap is present throughout the region then that is not a teaching gap but a curriculum gap and that is then addressed
Julie also explained how they decide on what their non-negotiables are. As everyone is involved in developing these, there is buy in from everyone.
As governors we should be asking questions around staff CPD as well as the observation culture. Well supported staff who have access to good CPD feel valued. Ongoing training is another thing we should be aware of. We should ensure that this happens for our staff and we should also ensure that the governors are also accessing courses on a regular basis.
When Julie talked about the need for the culture not to be one of “I got you” that made me think of the board/head relationship. The role of the board is to challenge the executive leaders and hold them to account. The board must be careful that they don’t come across as trying to catch the head out. The reason we ask challenging questions must always be to ensure a good education for the children. This can happen best in a culture of mutual respect between the board and the executive.
Julie also talked about the three things which happen at Uncommon Schools which make them the successful schools that they are. These are
- Putting children first
- Humble leadership
- Good professional development for all
I think these are three things which any school and any trust can and should adopt. This has nothing to do with no excuses policies (Julie had made the point that it’s actually no excuses for adults not to do the best for the children under their care), traditional or progressive philosophies, pedagogical methods or governance structures.
Tom Rees (Executive Director – School Leadership, Ambition Institute) asked Julie what drives system generosity. Julie said that she believes that Uncomon Schools are successful because they understand that their job is to increase their impact, that good teaching is good teaching and that what they do is for “kids, and kids are kids everywhere”. Again, these are simple rules and are applicable everywhere there are schools.
Julie also took part in a panel discussion. Joining her on the panel were Dame Rachel de Souza (CEO, Inspiration Trust), Leora Cruddas (CEO, Confederation of School Trusts), and Sir Kevan Collins (Chief Executive, Education Endowment Foundation). The panel was chaired by Tom. Rather than try and capture the entire panel discussion, I will write about the one or two things which each panel member said which I thought were very interesting/important.
Rachel made the point that Inspiration Trust has a brilliant CPD programme across the trust with mentoring and support available all the way through. Rachel said the trust works as a family and as people feel valued they tend not to move. This is why there are very few vacancies across the trust. She would like teachers to be leading research. Rachel mentioned development needs for trustees and governors (that made me very happy).
Leora said that we need to develop civic leadership. School leaders must not make decisions which will harm other schools in their locality. She also said that she prefers the term agency to autonomy.
Sir Collins said that though there are great things happening in the sector we need to be able to scale excellence and “we need to become the best in the word at getting better”.
I really enjoyed listening to Julie’s speech and hearing the others on the panel. I’m really grateful to Ambition Institute for giving me the chance to hear Julie speak. It was a privilege. I’ll end by quoting something she said.
“Keep doing the work. We have an obligation to teach kids.”
Governors, keep doing the work. We have an obligation too.
Read Tom Rees’ blog about the event.