Perfecting the art of change management at your school or trust

Amy Underdown - 12 April, 2023

Category : Blog

Perfecting the art of change management at your school or trust

We all know the Heraclitus phrase that ‘the only constant in life is change,’ and yet change is also the thing we fear and put off until necessary. The world of education has sometimes been slow to pick up on the great and sweeping changes that we’ve seen in the rest of the public sector,

School change management

We all know the Heraclitus phrase that ‘the only constant in life is change,’ and yet change is also the thing we fear and put off until necessary. The world of education has sometimes been slow to pick up on the great and sweeping changes that we’ve seen in the rest of the public sector, particularly when it comes to embracing cloud technology. The reasons for this are understandable: budgets are tight, retention is challenging, and the landscape seems to be constantly shifting. 2022 seemed to epitomise this landscape of change, both politically and also in the sheer numbers of schools who moved to the cloud: in one term alone nearly 1,500 schools alone moved away from legacy software. 

Why is communication so important to change management?

Day-to-day, I speak to many MATs who are thinking about moving to the cloud and trying to align their systems, particularly as they look to grow. And what I’ve found is, whether I’m speaking to a newly formed MAT who doesn’t really know why they’re moving to the cloud, or a long-standing MAT with tens of schools, the common pitfalls remain the same, meaning trusts are setting themselves up for a far more challenging journey into cloud-based life than it ought to be. 

It all comes down to change management and communication. In Lewin’s original change management model from the 1940s, communication sits as one of the steps in the first phase – long before any kind of implementation or decision-making. Skipping this step is hazardous, but it’s something I see time and time again. From the second your team starts to think about change, be this of an MIS or something entirely different, it needs to be communicated to all those it affects. It needs to be communicated why you are thinking about change, what the impetus was, what benefits you’re aiming for and what the long-term goal is. It’s also worth mentioning that this communication piece doesn’t sit within a single email; it should be an invitation for others to be involved in the conversation. 

Where to start?

I’d always recommend starting with a document which clearly defines: what is being changed, who it is going to affect short-term (decision-makers), and who it will affect long-term. I’d also recommend putting together a working party, who are consulted throughout the entire process. Said working party shouldn’t just include directors and the CEO, but should be representative of stakeholders, including a headteacher, perhaps teachers or office managers. 

The misconception made here is that communicating a decision is a tickbox exercise of letting those who will be affected, know about the change. Instead, it should be formative and beneficial to the decision-making process itself. The working party should be a broad spectrum of what your trust is all about so that you get different viewpoints and skillsets feeding into the conversation. And, the likelihood is, if you turn to those invested in the ‘old way’, and say, we’re thinking of moving forward with something new, people will come out of the woodwork with crucial expertise on what it is they need to do their jobs well. 

What I see far too often are well-meaning and well-researched project leads, who have spanned the entire procurement process, done their research and likely chosen the best system for their trust. And yet, there’s an assumption that all those other stakeholders will automatically reach the same conclusion without the months of context. Instead, it feels like a decision has been made and isn’t to be questioned. Those stakeholders are still at the beginning of the journey, meaning that whilst the project lead is trying to implement the project, they’re simultaneously having to justify and reconvince the trust that this was the right move. Of course, this means implementation itself suffers, training lacks buy-in, and engagement/uptake is low, meaning that even if the system were the perfect fit, nobody is bought in enough to realise the benefits. Day one of the new system becomes a rush to make up for the lack of previous dialogue. 

Managing change with growth

With growth leading as the goal for many trusts, strategic management of such changes becomes increasingly important. It goes without saying that those schools who are yet to academise are increasingly the most reluctant to do so, with a loss of autonomy most often quoted as the biggest reasoning. If MATs are set on growing and retaining schools, in a gradually more competitive landscape, they must caveat these fears with clear communication and an openness of conversation, regardless of whatever change they are making. 

The other side of change and moving systems, for example, is not so much managing expectations as to creating expectations. Speaking strictly to MIS, it’s interesting that most trusts (though this will change), have never had to move before and have always used the same system. As a result, the question is often: this is how we did it before, how do we achieve the same thing, but in the cloud? The question should be: how can we do this better, with the support of cloud systems? 

‘Cloud’ has been a buzzword for a while; there’s an idea that schools and trusts need to simply shift everything they currently do into the cloud. I would ask those that still buy into this philosophy why they want to directly replicate something which they are actively moving away from? Instead, why not acknowledge you want change and pick strategic tools that can make a measurable difference to the way your organisation runs? Improve your workflows, improve your processes, let the technology be part of your culture and vision rather than a tickbox, consider how it can be part of your school improvement plan, think how you could reduce workload or boost wellbeing. A change of this kind should be exactly that… a change. 

Closing thoughts

What it all comes back to is that initial impetus to change, when the decision is made to think about something new. That’s when the real change starts to happen, and in order for it to be successful, central teams must have their change management and communication piece secure from the beginning, so that everybody knows exactly where you are going, why you’re going there, and how it’s going to transform the way you work for the better. 

Since we started with a quote, it seems like a good idea to end on one too, this time from author and thought leader Lisa Bodell:

“”Change cannot be put on people. The best way to instill change is to do it with them. Create it with them.”

Matt’s article appears in our free ebook for MAT leaders, all about creating a cohesive trust, which you can download here. 

Or, discover more of our content for MATs here.

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