Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Tons of ideas

People talking

Inspired by Google's and Dupont's approach to boosting performance, David Linsell describes how the school gave every staff member £100 in bonds and tasked them to experiment with their own methods of improving the school.

At Ratton School in Eastbourne every member of staff has the power to fund and lead improvement. Each year we present a polished school improvement plan to governors with a review of the previous year and already completed plans for the coming year. Each year we have tried to produce a plan that is shorter and easier to understand.

Although we were always proud of what we had achieved and enthused about what needed to be done, there had been a nagging feeling about whose plan it was. Who knew what it said? Who understood it?

We had linked the plan to performance management but the impact of this top-down approach to improvement remained limited because there was a lack of ownership and the ideas came from a limited or restricted group of staff. That was when we introduced the 'school improvement bond' as a radically different approach to designing and implementing school improvement.

It started when Rob Robson, principal of the Samuel Whitbread Community College in Bedfordshire, recommended that I read The Future of Management by Gary Hamel. Hamel wrote about the need to make innovation everybody's job and he describes new ways of mobilising talent, allocating resources and building strategies.

He argues for 'innovation democracy', citing examples such as the DuPont company's emphasis on freedom to experiment: "All employees are granted a half day a week of 'dabble time' which they can devote to an initiative of their own choosing - so long as they are fulfilling their primary commitments."

Google's 'just-try-it' philosophy is another example, designed to enable 'rapid low-cost experimentation', by giving people time to innovate and reducing the approval levels. The actual inspiration for our school improvement bonds came from Rite-Solutions, which created an internal stock market where employees could set up companies within the company.

What was clear to us was that for innovation to be effective, resources needed to be redistributed and staff needed to be given the freedom to innovate. We were fortunate at the time to have the resource - an increase in student numbers and low staff absence afforded us an additional £40,000 to allocate to school improvement.

Staff shareholders

Senior leadership grappled with the challenge of encouraging a 'just-try-it' culture at Ratton. They came up with the idea of the school improvement bond. All staff were issued with two bonds, each to the value of £100. The first was valid until 31 December 2008 and the second until 31 May 2009.

Staff were free to invest their bonds in any school improvement 'company' of their choice. They might choose to become a shareholder in one or two or choose to delay the investment of their second bond until they could see how the companies performed.

Any member of staff, or groups of staff, were free to set up an improvement company at any time. The only rule was that they could not be the sole investor in their own company. They had to issue a very simple improvement company prospectus including:

  • company name

  • proprietors

  • objective(s)

  • how the company will report to shareholders

  • how the company's funds will be used

Although staff initially questioned whether the money was real, once the bonds were issued there was a flurry of activity trying to persuade staff to part with their bonds with many of the companies based on existing teams (see below for a full list and description).

Company nameObjectives
Displays and ICT in the Art Curriculum Develop ICT in the art curriculum to  develop cross-curricular displays
Elasti Maths Stretch A/A* mathematicians
Engage in  Recreation Provide students with a structured  extra-curricular programme with  a wide range of activities
Film (and  Radio) Club Develop students' understanding of medium of film
Geography  Improvement Co Develop and expand the range of  ICT facilities and resources within  the geography department
Green Jumper Co Recognise and reward efforts and achievements of student leaders
Green Room Provide year 11 students with exclusive meeting place and specific area for student leadership team
ICT and Essentials in English Improve teaching and learning in English; facilitate and enhance the new curriculum
ICT in Food and Textiles Introduce Licence to Cook programme  and increase understanding and practical  work through increased use of ICT
Kitchen Bonus Improve staff changing facilities, staff  presentation and welfare; increase speed of  service; enhance dining room ambience
KS3 After-School  Cookery Provide year 7/8 with the opportunity  to cook a variety of dishes and meals
Linguacadabra Provide resources for KS2/KS3  extra-curricular language learners
LRC DVD Store Update audio-visual resources  for learning resource centre
Medical Room Move and refurbish a more  appropriately located medical room
Promoting Textiles  Technology Provide students with more interesting  insight into study of textiles; support the purchase of a laser cutter
Quick Multimedia  Studio Create quick set-up photography/  multimedia studio for cross-curricular use
Science  Resources 4 All Purchase enough textbooks and revision  guides so all students have access to  information in and out of school
Site Lock Stock and Repair and Clean Team Purchase smaller more portable cleaning equipment, upgrade rechargeable  tools, purchase lockable caging storage  system, install lockers for 15 staff
Technology 4 All Provide real-life work-related learning  and experiences for all students
Turnaround Provide academic and pastoral work for  on-site excluded students and motivating  alternatives for unmotivated students

The site manager was quick to persuade the cleaners to invest in new equipment. The catering manager got all the canteen staff to invest in improving facilities in the dining hall. The PE department clubbed together to use their bonds to buy in coaches for additional extra-curricular activities. The maths department bought resources for catch-up classes. Other staff successfully cajoled a wide range of colleagues to collaborate. The head of English accumulated over £4,000 for new technologies and my PA raised the most money, over £6,000, to fund school bonds for student leaders. In all, 21 companies were established covering a wide range of activities.

Governors were supportive but worried about value for money so in April 2009, Rob Robson of Whitbread Community College and Vice-principal Dave Goode carried out an interim evaluation for us.

After interviewing a range of staff, governors and students, they concluded: "This is a very exciting project that is already having a very positive impact on the perceptions and actions of a range of staff across the school. The project has the potential to have a major impact on the improvement activities at the school and enjoys the support of senior leaders, teaching staff, support staff, students and governors alike and we would strongly recommend that the project is developed into the new academic year."

The students were impressed by the amount of money being invested, thought it a good idea to give staff a greater say, and wanted bonds themselves. They were aware of, and saw the value of, most of the companies.

Value for money

There is no doubt that the school improvement bonds fulfilled the aim of 'letting a hundred flowers blossom' but they also had a number of additional benefits. The bonds were value for money because our school improvement budget was spent by and not for those who make the difference.

Accountability was clear and direct. The scheme created cross-school teams and broke down barriers between teaching and support staff. They enabled staff across the school to lead activities, not just managers, and a wide range of staff became much more aware of the complexity and issues involved in implementing school improvement.

By popular demand this year the scheme will run again, but we have less money to put into the project and want to give more people bonds. Therefore staff will still get two bonds but only to the value of £50 each and governors and student leaders will also get bonds.

To ensure staff are clearer about what they are investing in we will be tightening up on the prospectus and reporting, but without stifling creativity with bureaucracy. We will be starting with a Bonds Bazaar, before which nobody will be able to commit his or her bonds. This way we believe we will be able to maintain the innovation and increase the collaboration.

David Linsell is headteacher of Ratton School in Eastbourne, an 11-16 school with a roll of more than 1,200 students.

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