The ultimate guide to managing change in schools

Maddie Kilminster - 8 July, 2021

Category : Blog

The ultimate guide to managing change in schools

Schools are used to change. New students come in, classes rotate and cohorts move on. Leadership changes, each coming in with a new vision for how to run the school.  Schools also need to react to changes in requirements, regulation and funding imposed by the Government, Ofsted and their Local Authority. Recently the Covid-19 pandemic

Schools are used to change. New students come in, classes rotate and cohorts move on. Leadership changes, each coming in with a new vision for how to run the school. 

Schools also need to react to changes in requirements, regulation and funding imposed by the Government, Ofsted and their Local Authority. Recently the Covid-19 pandemic has given schools perhaps the most changes they’ve had to deal with in years, often having to adapt overnight. 

Schools may well be used to changes on a daily basis, but when it comes to implementing changes to technology, ways of working and culture, schools can learn a lot from the change management principles used in industries like tech and business to make sure changes are successful and have a lasting positive impact. 


Why is change important in education?

Each term and each year, staff work to cycles of continual improvement with the objective to provide the best quality of education and care to their students. From updating textbooks and materials, to adjusting teaching and assessment strategies, to training and upskilling staff, to procuring new systems (like an MIS, or piece of online learning software) – schools are always looking for ways to improve their provision, to ultimately improve student outcomes.

When changes are managed well, they can be transformational. The most successful changes have a positive impact on both students and staff, bringing everyone together in the shared goal of working in new and better ways.


The challenge of change in schools 

Changing a system, or a way of working, doesn’t automatically bring improvement. Changes need all staff behind them if they’re going to work. Often when Leadership introduces something new, some staff are not brought into the change in the right way, they may think the change is being done to them – mandated from the top. This might mean they’re either confused or sceptical, and the change therefore might not have the desired effect. 

In busy schools, one of the central concerns of introducing new ways of working is the impact on staff’s already high workload and the highly time-pressured environment they work in. Staff can be reluctant to change ways of working that they’ve been familiar with for years, fearing that learning new processes will impact their ability to do their job to their best standards.

“People should come before systems… In any systems change, if people don’t have a sense of ownership or the right skills, this simply creates an added challenge.” – Jason Brown, CFO at Bath and Wells Multi-Academy Trust


Changing during a pandemic

Since March 2020, schools have had to deal with rapid changes to regulations, online teaching and learning, as well as changes to student and staff personal situations, their wellbeing and vulnerability. Very quickly, schools have had to get used to totally new ways of working internally, with parents, and with other services in their local area.

As with any crisis, humans tend to react and adapt to change in a curve – which starts with panic but ultimately results in finding new ways of operating under the “new normal”. 


As the dust settles a little with the pandemic, schools have started to take a step back and reflect on the lessons they’ve learned over the last year, and changes they can make to prepare themselves for the future. 

Hear how six MAT Leaders have coped with the pandemic, and how they’re creating sustainable plans for the future in our new free ebook for MAT leaders.

At the top of Leaders’ minds is asking themselves whether the systems they have in place can cope with flexible ways of working going forward.

  • If things change again, do we have a good communications system?
  • If staff have to work remotely again, can they access all the student information they need from home? 
  • Do we have quick ways to track vulnerable students and staff?
  • How quickly would our systems update if the DfE changed guidelines again?

Check out advice from Rachel Coldicutt, expert on tech and social impact, on how to reflect on the rapid technological changes that have happened during the pandemic, and how to plan for the future. 


Example of impactful change: Switching MIS

One of the most important changes that many schools have undertaken is to move to cloud-based systems like Arbor MIS (Management Information System), to give them more flexibility in the way they run their school. Did you know that almost 1 in 5 schools are predicted to switch to a new MIS in the next year?

At Arbor, we’re experts in change management. We’ve worked with over 1,890 schools and MATs to roll out Arbor MIS successfully to make a measurable improvement to the way they work.

In fact, 92% staff say Arbor has changed the way they work for the better. 81% say Arbor has improved how they analyse and understand data, and 92% say they save time with Arbor compared to their previous MIS.


Top strategies to implement change

Any big change that you introduce at your school should be planned and implemented using change management principles to make sure the change is manageable and impactful for staff. Effective change only happens when people change their habits, which is when they are adequately prepared and buy into how the change will benefit them.

“When we bring in change, it’s not mandated from the top-down; it’s based on research and best practice – for example, when we see something working well or we see a strength that we want to embed across the cluster.” – Nick Cross, CEO at Kings Group Academies

Here are our top five change management principles from our in-house experts to bear in mind when making any large scale change at your school:

1. Establish your need for change

The first things to think about when you’re starting a project are why you need to make the change and what you want to achieve over the long term. The reasons you need to make the change will have a lot to do with:

  • Your baseline: the ways you’re working right now 
  • Your target: the ways you’d like to be working in the future

Once you know where you want to be, you can break down your vision into manageable steps you need to go through to get there. You’ll then be able to track the progress you make from your baseline towards your target.

Our teams at Arbor have found some great free online tools for planning, for example Miro, the smart whiteboard tool.

 2. Create a change network

When you start your project it’s important to work out which of your staff will be directly involved in or impacted by the change. Putting in place roles and responsibilities across your team will help you assign clear owners for every stage in your project.

Staff who have a positive attitude towards the project will make great advocates to promote it to others. It’s often worth nominating one of these people to be your official Change Manager (or a few), who will be responsible for leading the project. 

Change Managers can work closely with other staff in a “change network” in order to coordinate communication, respond to feedback, provide support and report on progress.

When schools move to Arbor nominating a Change Manager (called an Arbor Champion!) is a really useful part of the process. 

 3. Communicate

When you’re undergoing a big change at your school or organisation, the easiest thing to do (but most often forgotten) is to talk to each other. When you’re coordinating the priorities of different staff members, communication can be challenging, but keeping everyone motivated and on the same page is one of the most important aspects of successful change management.

However you create your communication strategy, remember these two top tips:

  • Have regular “stand-up” meetings to check in with key project stakeholders 
  • Create a forum for staff to share updates and resources (we love using Google Docs and Slack at Arbor)

 4. Be prepared for resistance 

It’s inevitable that some colleagues will be resistant to changing the way they work. It’s a good idea to ask them to explain why they view the change as a challenge. It could be that they’re worried their job is at risk or that they lack the right skill set.

We recommend involving everyone who is going to be impacted by the change in meetings and decisions right from the start. It’s also important to make sure there are channels for staff to give feedback throughout your project. When schools switch to a new MIS, for example, we encourage them to bring staff into demo meetings with us early on to make sure they understand how the system will impact their day-to-day work, and they can voice any concerns.

“If you know you need to make a change that’s important to the direction for the trust you want to set, have confidence. Managing ‘through’ people is too problematic, and the pace and direction of change is not guaranteed.” – Nick Cross, CEO at Kings Group Academies

 5. Track progress and celebrate successes

Finally, when a project comes to a close, too often we think about the problems that came up along the way, rather than celebrating what went well. Marking key milestones and successes helps demonstrate the progress that your team has made together and gives due credit to everyone who has given time to the project. It also validates your reason for the change and keeps everyone on track to achieve the longer term goals of the project.


We’re here to support you to switch MIS

We hope our change management tips have given you some useful food for thought when you come to lead change successfully at your school or MAT.  

If you’re considering moving to a cloud-based MIS at your school, we’d love to walk you through the tried-and-tested approach we take to making the move manageable and tailored to every school, with support from us every step of the way.

We work with school teams throughout the year to move them to Arbor’s cloud-based MIS (check out our blog on how to work out the best time in the year to switch). We can also manage the whole process 100% remotely – we’ve moved over 700 schools to Arbor since the pandemic began! 

Want to find out more?

To learn more about Arbor MIS, arrange a personalised demo for your school here, or get in touch at | 0208 050 1028.

Arbor schools – share your experience

If you’ve recently made the move to Arbor, why not share how it went for you on the Arbor Community forum (of over 2370 users!).

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