What we’ve learnt from 50 heads’ appraisals
By Barry Speirs, Head of Leadership Consultancy, RSAcademics
Having now completed 50 heads’ appraisals over the last four years we have been reflecting on what we have learnt about the process and what works best.
RSAcademics’ 360-degree appraisals draw on feedback from people across the school community – governors, staff, parents, pupils and feeder/destination schools. We typically collect feedback through face-to-face meetings at the school and manage the process with a team of two consultants – a former head who works with one of our leadership development specialists with experience from outside the education sector.
Schools are different from other sectors
I started working in the school sector five years ago after a long career in HR and leadership development in international businesses. This included many years designing and organising appraisal systems in different settings. However, there are several aspects about schools which invite a different approach to appraising the leader.
- There are few jobs where success is influenced by managing such a wide range of stakeholders – not just the number but the differences between staff, parents, children and governors and often the intensity of close-knit relationships of that community (e.g. staff at a boarding school).
- Although unreasonable and unrealistic, to many people ‘the head is the school’. With the exception of a few celebrity leaders (Branson, Musk, etc.) there are few organisations where the values, characteristics and impressions made by the leader have such a big influence over what people think of that organisation. This means that success, and therefore appraisal of Heads, needs to take account of these less tangible aspects. What matters is not always easily measured. This brings additional legitimacy to the 360-degree process – people’s perceptions really matter.
- Then you have the characteristics of the governing body and the chair of governors. Typically, few have led schools and are unlikely to understand the details of the job. They are unpaid, part-time volunteers. It’s obviously different to a typical boss relationship and different to many other non-executive relationships.
- Another difference is the extent to which people in the school community, especially staff, expect to be involved in the appraisal process. In many schools, staff expect to be able to provide feedback.
Make it personal and supportive
It’s interesting to compare the typical approach among state schools with the independent sector. In the state sector, a head’s appraisal is typically focused on school metrics and much of the effort is in analysing these. The National Governance Association discusses how heads’ appraisals are about holding the head to account. AGBIS, on the other hand, refers to providing helpful feedback.
Certainly, in our experience, appraisals add most value when they focus on the leader as an individual. School metrics are already included in the head’s reports to the governing body and discussed at committees. Our key question is therefore: ‘What is going to be most helpful to this head in this school at this stage in their career?’
Depth rather than breadth
Although we collect feedback from a broad range of stakeholders, the report is usually focused on a few areas that matter most. We don’t use standard headings or competencies but focus on what’s most important. This means that each appraisal report is unique – explaining the themes that emerge from the feedback and our own insights. In one school the focus may be on working with the governing body or strategy, in another it may be about leading the SLT or engaging with key stakeholders.
Looking across all our appraisals to date, some of the most common outcomes include:
- improved confidence, self-belief and reassurance
- improved alignment, understanding and appreciation between heads and governing bodies
- changes to organisation capability, support or even structure
- focus on strategy – e.g. clarity, alignment, communication
- areas for personal effectiveness.
Include detailed feedback
The more appraisals we have done, the more we recognise the value of detailed feedback. Only two people – the head and chair of governors – typically read the full report and we find that heads are often hungry for detailed feedback.
A typical appraisal report is 20-25 pages and covers three areas:
- leadership strengths and achievements: 5-8 themes
- development areas: 5-8 themes
- recommendations: 10-15 ideas for how to take it forward
150-200 anonymous verbatim comments (categorised as from staff, parents, pupils, governors, feeder/destination schools) is also typical.
Focus on the future
One of the most useful parts of the process is helping the head consider what to do next. We err on the side of too many ideas and try to create a menu of options which the head and chair of governors can discuss and choose those which are most appealing. These typically include options such as recommended reading, working differently with the SLT or governing body, reorganising, utilising the support of others differently, further analysis or exercises, ideas to allocate time differently or improve work/life balance, different approaches for people management – e.g. relating to delegation or communication, individual coaching, mentoring or some other training intervention.
Given that these are experienced leaders, the recommended approach is less about fixing deficits and more about playing to strengths whilst being good at getting advice and complementary support.
The appraisal report should lay the groundwork for the head to agree a personal development plan, which will include some quick wins as well as actions to be taken over coming months and years.