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S ta k eho l der engagement

Stakeholder engagement Taking accountability seriously Alan Cowley takes a close look at this new area of interest within education and how it can impact positively on school outcomes


S ta k eho l der engagement


he world is changing, and changing fast. The rapid development of digital technology brings at once improvements in our capacity to learn in the widest sense, choice in leisure activities, faster and better personal communication, a seemingly ever-increasing access to information and, as we see in the news, political revolution brought about for a desire for greater democracy and freedom. Within numerous staff rooms I have encountered those who will lament the passing of ‘the good old days’ (just as, if I’d lived in an earlier age, I’m sure I’d have bumped into those who lamented the passing of ‘ye good

olde days’), when authority in itself was reason for compliance. The majority of us however, see things differently. We recognise the need for change, and although we might not be comfortable sometimes with the speed of that change, we see it as part of normal life. What we define as ‘normal life’ changes with time. Within the UK our expectations are changing. Attitudes are shaped by events. We expect our institutions to register and acknowledge those changes. This is why Stakeholder Engagement is so important. Your stakeholders are people who are affected by your school or who have an effect on you.

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They will include obvious groups such as those who make up your school community: parents, staff and crucially – your pupils. It will also include your local community and perhaps the business community. Stakeholder Engagement is at once an indication of your commitment, and a means by which you can check and then demonstrate that you take the people within those groups seriously. Over the last 5 years or so the public at large has grown extremely cynical about our great institutions and, more importantly, those who run them. Within the private sector we still see bankers with expectations of huge bonuses, in spite of the

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S ta k eho l der engagement

By and large, schools have avoided negative attention...most people trust schools and school staff impact on the rest of society caused by the economic crash that was in part driven by that very bonus culture. We’ve seen news media outlets pilloried for the way that they have exploited those who were the most emotionally vulnerable in order to make sales. Within the public sector we’ve had politicians who, from their background, should have known better, but thought nothing of fiddling their expense accounts; managers in the National Health Service or Social Services who appeared to look the other way when they should have been intervening; and police officers who were prepared to sell information for cash. All of them put their own interests first, and all of them thought they had a right to do so. All of them assumed that it was OK to carry on behaving in a way that was no longer appropriate. There is of course another commonality – they provide a service. Our attitudes towards service providers have changed markedly over recent years, and no doubt the errant practice of those I’ve just mentioned have served to influence an increasingly jaded public opinion. Gone are the days when you go to see your doctor, explain your symptoms, take your prescription and


come away. No, we expect a searching conversation with some form of explanation about how the doctor has reached a diagnosis. For good measure we might be invited to stand on the scales, have our blood pressure measured and face a small barrage of other questions about our general health. We expect a full and thorough service. Whether we’re paying for that service directly or indirectly through taxes and National Insurance payments, an increasingly smaller number of us are prepared to accept being treated as if we are an afterthought. Stakeholder Engagement in Schools By and large, schools have avoided negative attention. We do start at an advantage here – most people trust schools and school staff. That’s not always the case of course, but as a rule - and we’ve just undertaken a survey of over 200 Ofsted reports - parents tend to be supportive of schools and teachers in their views. But we should by no means take this tacit support for granted. As we’ve seen, there is a growing trend that demands ever individual service.

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For the last seven years now I’ve drawn gasps from audiences when I talk about the parents who walk into the office of a school leader, point out that in their daughter’s report her performance indicates that she’s two grades below target, and that if things don’t change rapidly the parent’s solicitor will be the next person calling. The usual response is “This couldn’t possibly happen in my school!” Which is precisely what the many school leaders who have had that experience tell me, except they add three words to the beginning: “I just thought....”

Stakeholder engagement isn’t just about communication, and it certainly isn’t just about responding to complaints If we want to avoid being the victims of this creeping dissatisfaction we need to make

S ta k eho l der engagement

sure that we take our role as ‘service provider’ seriously. The notion of Stakeholder Engagement is nothing new. Most courses and publications on Stakeholder Engagement, or Participatory Practice – many of them aimed at local authorities – talk about the need to communicate with the public and to have systems in place that allow the public to talk back. Quite often the advice offered refers to oneoff events such as managing a brownfield site development, or developing a new site for a waste management project. Which is why in my opinion, local authorities don’t ‘do’ stakeholder engagement well. Stakeholder engagement isn’t just about communication, and it certainly isn’t just about responding to complaints or suggestions. It’s about setting up your whole system so that it’s designed to meet the various needs of your different stakeholders. It’s about demonstrating to people that they matter. It’s about trust. Schools are also waking up to the fact that an effective strategy for Stakeholder Engagement provides another way of selfevaluating and checking the quality of your school. As Stakeholder Engagement theory may well contain concepts that are not widely recognised within the context of a school, I’ll start by examining what should be an obvious one. Let me state clearly that I really don’t think that Ofsted should be the reason why schools ‘do’ Stakeholder Engagement, or anything else for that matter. You should be doing it because it’s good to do... whatever ‘it’ is. But as Ofsted has proved to be a major influence on school improvement, we’d be rash to ignore them. So, if we take our

main stakeholder group – pupils – the current Ofsted inspection framework says: “Inspection is primarily about evaluating how well individual pupils benefit from their school. It is important to test the school’s response to individual needs by observing how well it helps all pupils to make progress and fulfil their potential.”

s SLT Discussion Point ept of nc co the e nis 1. Do we recog nt? Is it Stakeholder Engageme another name? something we have by nduct an audit of 2. When did we last co holder group? the needs of each stake t audit and its 3. Can we evidence tha s? outcome our main business is h ug ho Alt 4. r pupil the development of ou ensure we do w ho stakeholders, ups are gro r lde ho ke that all other sta e in the aim? allowed to play their rol l opportunities in 5. Do we extend equa staff who work staff development to all within the school?

The three key phrases here are: ‘individual pupils’, ‘individual needs’, and ‘fulfilling their potential’. Remember, this is not just about most of your pupils, it’s about all of your pupils and Ofsted look closely at pupils from those groups that traditionally find it hard to ‘fulfil their potential’. Naturally, there’s the obvious stuff: How has your curriculum been adapted to meet the needs of all pupils? Do all groups of pupils perform to their full ability? By and large this sort of item is signalled in advance of the inspection in your RAISEonline data. Then there’s the not-soobvious stuff, the things that aren’t measured within the performance data but which may serve to have a real impact on the outcomes for individual for groups of pupils and attitudes that might affect performance: „„ the extent to which pupils, parents and staff are committed to the vision and ambition of leaders, managers and governors „„ the respect and courtesy shown by staff towards each other and pupils These are the key elements of

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Stakeholder Engagement. Do all members of your school community feel part of that community? If so, be sure you can provide evidence of this. If not, what are the barriers and what are you doing about them? Is there a suitable range of school activities that includes the interests of all pupils? Does the school’s home study policy include measures for those pupils for whom work at home is impossible? Is this policy applied? Can you demonstrate it? Stakeholder Engagement and the School Business Manager This is of course the area where School Business Managers are most often involved through two routes. Firstly, let’s stay on the same theme with Clubs, Societies and Extra-curricular activities. To what extent does the school underwrite these opportunities? If clubs are not subsidized, is this putting targeted pupils off participation? If they are subsidized, are targeted pupils taking part? Have you ever run a theoretical costing exercise on the clubs/ after school/lunchtime activities

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S ta k eho l der engagement

on offer in your school? It can be quite a salutary exercise to see where this precious resource is being spent. Schools will often measure participation in clubs and societies by asking teachers for the number of pupils who attend. These numbers are added together and expressed as a percentage of the total school population. However, it is important to consider that some pupils may be attending more than one club; this is not a reliable indicator of engagement. What is true for the pupil stakeholders is certainly true for their parents, but this is one group that I’ve talked about at length in previous editions of this publication. With that in mind, I intend to use parents here as a way of segueing into another set of stakeholders who are often overlooked. The other area where School Business Managers often have


a direct input is through the issue of respect and courtesy. Your school’s reception staff are your front line, the first contact parents, pupils and the wider public have when they come into, or phone the school. Do they see pupils and their parents as valued customers? Have they actually been part of that conversation about a shared vision? Training for the admin team usually revolves around the improvement of specific rolerelated tasks such as updating knowledge on relevant aspects of the school’s MIS, or first aid training.

Time always seems at a premium in school offices, but it really is important that the induction is done carefully and thoroughly

But what about customer care training? Are they trained in conflict management? Do you have a policy about answering the telephone? What training do they receive? How frequently do they have training? When the school has a new initiative, are your admin team involved in the training so they have at least an awareness of what’s going on?

It is the provision of training for what we might call these ‘soft skills’ that indicate how seriously we are taking Stakeholder Engagement. And we mustn’t forget that one of the greatest causes of anxiety within the school workforce is the stress that we feel when we’re asked to do a job we’re not trained to do. Our staff are also amongst our

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S ta k eho l der engagement

stakeholders, we need to ensure that they too feel valued, and one way we can do that is to show that we take their training and development seriously. I would suggest that means being able to demonstrate a thorough induction programme for new members of the admin team. Time always seems at a premium in school offices, but it really is important that the induction is done carefully and thoroughly. What about at the other end? When staff leave? Do you conduct an exit interview? More to the point, why do you conduct the exit interview, who conducts it, and when is it done? Why should this matter, and why have one? Well the point of an exit interview is to provide the organisation, in this case your school, with information about how it might improve. A properly conducted exit interview can provide valuable information; a bad one can actually cost the school very large amounts of money. I know of a school where, within the space of one year, three different data managers were recruited and trained, only to be replaced. The cost of advertising the posts and providing the training alone ran to many thousands of pounds, training which other schools benefitted from! So who conducts the interview? In most organisations it’s conducted by the line manager, or, if the organisation is large enough, someone from HR. Why? If you allow the interview to be conducted by someone not involved with the member of staff who is leaving, you open up the opportunity for them to talk honestly about issues to someone who can be seen as independent. If exit interview

In a target-driven environment it’s easy to forget that our real business is shaping the development of people training has been widely available to staff, you could even ask the person who is leaving to nominate someone they’d like to have the interview with. Remember, this is about finding out about the role, and the best way to do that is if the person leaving is comfortable with the interviewer. The when is always an issue. Frequently we’ll conduct the interview near to the date of departure. However, if there is an issue with another member of staff – and let’s face it, it happens – are they really going to tell you when they’re still working in the same environment? I like the practice where as part of the induction new employees are given a complete file of expectations and routines – you can’t possibly be expected to remember it all – one section of which explains about the right of all employees to a career development programme and also what the procedure is should you leave. My suggestion is that the school would like to conduct an exit interview and that that would happen at a date perhaps two weeks after the employee has left. This allows time for the now former employee to think through the implications of what they are going to say, and reassures them that they can

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do so without any feeling of discomfort. I suppose the other area I should cover here is what we talk about. The exit interview should be a conversation that touches upon a series of points but is not constricted by a structure that deflects from an area you need to explore more fully. Poorly conducted interviews start with a classic question which is ‘Why are you leaving?’, to which you’ll usually be given a standard answer ‘for promotion’, ‘ better money/holidays ’, ‘shorter commute’, ‘ need to reduce/ increase my working hours’. What you really want to discuss is what was it that prompted the colleague to start looking for a new job in the first place? Was there a catalyst that you need to know about? Again, there is a definite need for an understanding of open-ended questioning and we always add input on Transactional Analysis and body language as well. By handling exit interviews in this way, you give a very real indication that you’re taking all of your staff seriously. Life in a school environment is rarely tranquil. Most of us arrive in the morning and, before we know where we are, we’re going to be late for the evening meal. Sometimes it pays to slow down, stand back and take stock. In a target-driven environment it’s easy to forget that our real business is shaping the development of people: people who trust us with their education; people who trust us with their children’s future; people we share that responsibility with, and those who make up the community we work in. These are our stakeholders. We have a common interest and I would maintain that if we keep their needs in mind, we can’t go far wrong as a school. n

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Stakeholder Engagement - Just4SBMs  

This article first appeared in Just4SBMs magazine, which is a specialist publication for School Business Managers in primary and secondary s...

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