Saturday, 11 April 2015

The Pareto principle and the great divide

I just scared myself looking at my last was at the end of January! So far this academic year has seen just 5 posts to my blog - in previous years I averaged 1 post per week during term time. In fact I've just passed the 2 year anniversary of starting this blog and I've now written less since September 2014 than I have at any time since I started it. I think it's about time I explained why...

SLT role
Good grief it's busy as SLT! I wrote a post (here) back in October about my first month as SLT and the multitude of unexpected pressures that suck away at your time. In all honesty I've had to stop posting to my blog so regularly because I've simply been that busy that I couldn't justify any more time sat in front of a computer writing a blog post each week. I've wanted to post, in fact I've even started a decent number of them and then saved them in draft because I wasn't able to finish them to a point where I'd be happy to share them publicly. In fact half of this post was written months ago, but seems to fit with what I wanted to say today.

This isn't intended to be a whinge about workload or that kind of thing so don't worry about digging out the violins, however I do have some observations about the tensions caused by the SLT role.

Is there a great divide?
As I got closer to and then started my new role as assistant head and I became increasingly aware of the perceived divide between SLT and middle leaders/mainscale teachers. I know it's not just at my school, I've seen it at every school I've been in but it becomes really clear as you get up close to it and then jump across into SLT, I think it's particularly visible to me as I stayed at the same school.

It started with the jibes from my fellow Friday afternoon staff footballers who were counting down the number of games I was likely to be at before I become "too important" to play with them. I'm pleased to say this has stopped as I've carried on playing!

It continues with discussions about timetables where as an assistant head I teach less than half the number of lessons I did as a head of department, leading to jokey conversations about me having plenty of time to think up jobs & initiatives to keep the middle leaders and mainscale teachers busy.

The thing is the structure of a week for a member of SLT is so massively different to that of a middle leader they look like completely different jobs. Compare SLT to a classroom teacher and it's even more different - I actually teach only slightly more lessons than a main scale teacher gets for PPA.

I'm not necessarily saying its wrong, but it changes your perspective of the job massively. A marking policy that is completely manageable on an SLT timetable can become tough to manage as a middle leader, and completely impossible as a main scale teacher. Teaching a difficult group when you have loads of time to prepare/recover, plus a level of seniority to trade with, is very different to having a similar group amidst full days of teaching.

Of course much of the time not teaching as SLT is spent doing management & leadership functions, so the "loads of time" is a fallacy, but the perception is there from those outside of SLT even if it's not the reality.

I like to think I'm fairly approachable and try to make sure that I spend time talking to colleagues at all levels of the organisation, and have great working relationships across the school. A great part of that, and the fact that I wasn't always SLT at this school, means that I think some are more open and honest with me than they might be with the other members of the leadership team. I know for a fact that that some will say things to me that they wouldn't dream of saying to others in our SLT. This gives an interesting insight at times...

No time for perfection
I think the biggest actual disconnect I've discovered as part of all of this is the perception from many staff in general that all actions from SLT are deliberate, and that SLT have complete control over everything that happens in the school. Now I'm not suggesting that we go around blundering into things and have no control over what goes on, but we are a team of humans and with that comes limitations. Similarly we work in a setting that has a massive number of stakeholders with a vast array of needs and agendas, and are subject to legistative, judgemental, procedural and time constraints that limit or shape things in all manner of ways.

Sometimes the size of a team means that not everyone can be consulted properly in advance. Sometimes the speed a decision needs to be made means that only the most central consequences can be considered (see comments about Pareto below). Sometimes an element of planning falls between areas of responsibility meaning it gets missed. Sometimes a task is simply not done quite as perfectly as it might have been because a human has done it or they ran out of time. All of these are issues to be guarded against, and even planned to be mitigated, but none would be done deliberately. However I know from that the consequences of what I know to be a small human error at SLT level can be seen as a direct decision to undermine or cause issues for other staff.

I've seen a situation where a given member of SLT has been working as hard as they could on something, but due to the realities of life in schools it ended being delivered to a wider audience slightly before it was completely finished. The reception from others in the school was frosty "it's a half baked Idea", "they've not considered the impact on...", "why couldn't they have told us that weeks ago?" and so on. The expectation from the school as a body is that the SLT have all the answers and have the time to plan everything out fully. The reality is that there is so much going on that there is too often no time to complete any task fully, sometimes it just has to be good enough to get the job done.

Pareto principle for leadership
If you've not heard of the Pareto principle it stems from the observations by Italian Economist Vilfredo Pareto that 20% of Italians own 80% of the land. This has been extended to business in various ways with assertions that 80% of profit comes from 20% of your clients, or 80% of sales come from 20% of the sales team. It is also used in health and safety where 80% of injuries come from the 20% most common incidents and so on.

In my experience it can be fairly safely applied that about 80% of the behaviour incidents in a school come from just 20% of the students (you know which ones!). Similarly about 80% of the high grades come from 20% of the students. 80% of absences come from about 20% of staff, I could go on...

Furthermore another aspect of Pareto in terms of leadership is that if you consider 20% of the stakeholders in a given decision then you'll probably expose 80% of the potential issues. Due to time pressures and general day to day management constraints it is common for leaders to have to revert to this 80/20 rule in all sorts of situations in order to see the wood from the trees. Many leaders do this unknowingly, or some knowingly but rarely is it applied in a cold, deliberate way, however the Pareto Principle can be used to prioritise all sorts of things in all sorts of ways. Yes it's a rule of thumb but it actually fits reasonably well in many situations, and does force a level of perspective that can help get the job done.

Of course I'm not saying it is a good thing to be forced to prioritise like this, and certainly if you're one of the 80% of the stakeholders that is not consulted who then raises one of the 20% issues then I completely understand that you'd feel aggrieved, but that's not really what this is about. What I'm trying to say is that SLT sometimes set themselves up a little as infallible, and are often expected to perform that way by wider staff. However often what they are doing is their best given the situation they are in and the conflicting demands they have on their time. Often this means prioritising and that then leads to some people feeling overlooked.

For SLT the key thing is to acknowledge that we're doing this and to communicate more clearly with those involved. Be willing to acknowledge that at the bottom of all decisions is a human that has done their best, but may not have done it perfectly. For those outside of SLT looking in, perhaps consider if it was physically possible to do it better, or if the compromise you need to make is actually the right one for overall progress (are you one of the 80% or the 20%).

Yes SLT are paid more in order to make decisions, yes SLT have more time in the week in order to make decisions, but that doesn't change the laws of physics, and it certainly doesn't make anyone perfect or infallable. Time is finite for all of us. We all have constriants to manage, and differing perspectives.

I think the biggest thing I've learnt as a member of SLT is that I can't always take the time to be a perfectionist, but I can do the best I can given the time and resources I have available.

No, I'm wrong... the BIGGEST thing I've learnt is that once I've had to commit to something that I know might not be perfect I need to avoid beating myself up over it and constantly revisiting it. I've spent too long doing that at various points during the year and it's done me no favours. You don't needs to be perfect in order to get it right for the vast majority of the time; the important thing is to make sure that even if something isn't quite right it is still one of the least bad options!

This is just me rambling again - sharing the thoughts bouncing round my head - comments always welcome!


  1. Very interesting insight. I remember moving from a class teacher into middle leadership and how difficult it was taking in all the additional considerations and staff. It was years before I truly felt I was doing the job well and understood what the role is. It sounds like you are on a very steep learning curve. Thank you so much for sharing this as it has given me food for thought for progression and a deeper appreciation for how much SLT have to juggle, particularly when starting out. Diolch.

  2. Many thanks for the feedback!