By | April 2, 2018

The current Department for Education SEND Workforce Contract ends this week and the new contract holder is to be announced. As a consultant I am remarkably proud of the part I played in securing and delivering this work with and on behalf of both London Leadership Strategy and NASEN. £5million is a considerable consultancy fundraising win and successfully implementing something of this scale to effect such change is something I am glad to have led.

But more than this the DfE SEND Workforce Contract in itself – and the forming of the Whole School SEND consortium that it part funded – was part of a wider programme of work. It was part of a planned approach to system development.

System level programmes are those that try to impact beyond the local and direct delivery – the ‘what you do’ – into the wider ‘how things are done’. Think tanks, special advisors, campaigning charity CEOs, social entrepreneurs – all roles for people who want to make the ‘system’ better.

Clearly the definition of ‘better’ is not universally agreed so it’s worth separating the skills of system development from debate over whether the changes are desirable or not!

Know your agenda 

One of the things I always tell people who are looking to effect significant and system level change is that if you wait for the funder or government to make money available it is too late. You are then working to their agenda and definition of the problem and not yours. That is not to say that funders cannot be right, but rather that as a change maker you have to be clear on your theory of change, on your values and on your non negotiables. Chasing funding can lead to a mission drift or consideration of the issues through a narrow lens.

Whole School SEND

Attached is an essay on where Whole School SEND came from (it is long so if you are going to read it put the kettle on…). Whole School SEND didn’t start when the DfE Invitation to Tender came out – it was conceived several years ago in response to growing concerns over systemic issues in SEND workforce development.

The essay doesn’t pretend to be an academic piece or a formal evaluation but rather outlines some of the things that were taken into account when drawing together a model to influence at scale.

And take home messages for those trying to do this in related or other fields?

The first is to quote the RSA. “Act like an entrepreneur and think like a system”. Be creative. Make the most of opportunities that come along.

And the second – being a change maker is messy, it doesn’t always win friends and it is hard work. Be sure before you embark on it!

But if it’s the road for you then a few hard learnt words of advice from someone who lives system influence.

  • Look down the road a way ahead. Not a year, not two, But 5 or even 10. Reactive and pragmatic policy making and fundraising have their place. Proactive better. Prospective – thinking ahead and influencing the policy and funding of tomorrow, the best. Those who are reforming our education system today sowed the seeds many years ago through quiet dinners, funding think tanks and priming funders.
  • Be clear what you want to achieve. The outcomes and principles and values. Don’t be afraid to have them challenged – and test them regularly with those you are working for  – but hold them dear.
  • Understand the barriers to achieving the outcomes you want at a system level. Research this. Talk to people. Get different views. Step outside of the echo chamber and meet with those who represent the barriers. Know the system. The users, providers, funders, advocates, friends and foe.  Follow people you don’t agree with on social media. Buy the papers of people with different views. Talk to people who hold the power now and spot those who will hold the power tomorrow.
  • Research the solutions. There is rarely anything new under the sun. But sometimes you have to step out of your world to find it. Part of the joy of consultancy is crossing between fields. Look beyond your sector and your disciplines. Some of the best thinking around Whole School SEND came from what health were doing on knowledge sharing and the commercial world on communities of practice. The SEND Advocates programme came from work I had done in cultural sector.
  • Be bold. If you believe it say it. Step up to it. And take risk. Be prepared to be wrong and to make mistakes – not recklessly of course, but be prepared to risk failure.
  • Collaborate and build new. Another advantage of consultancy is that – while when I work for clients I always hold client interest in front of mind – I am able to take a more impartial view of what solutions might be. I specialise in forming new consortiums and partnerships, on helping organisations to pivot for vision – and even in helping organisations close as a route to better pursue mission. When the jobs of the workforce rely on funding it is really easy to avoid making difficult calls – I have lived this personally – but sometimes a new model is the answer.
  • Evaluate on an ongoing basis – summative evaluation is important – testing against your goals and what you set out to achieve is an essential discipline. But this needs to be matched with formative evaluation – considering the impact on an ongoing basis and adapting accordingly. This is the skill set of many entrepreneurs but it doesn’t always sit well with funders – understand this tension and that the solution is always dialogue.
  • Let it go! You can nudge a system. Encourage it. Build levers for change into it. But you cannot control it all. The traditional top down control model doesn’t work for many things (it has its place though and shouldn’t be ignored). With Whole School SEND we put much of the power ‘out there’ with white label resources, skilling the frontline, raising new voices. And we were rewarded in spades. Organic growth isn’t accidental growth. Just because something doesn’t follow a pyramid pattern of training or centrally controlled consultants doesn’t mean that quality is threatened. Trusting judgement of others does not mean that approaches to raising standards aren’t applied. It is just a different way of working.

And remember not every issue or barrier requires poking of an entire system. Not every solution needs to go to scale. Proportionate response is another phrase I use regularly. Alongside national projects at scale some of the rewarding consultancy or management work I’ve done is on supporting high quality local direct interventions.

For Whole School SEND I am delighted to remain part of this community of practice and look forward to next steps. And for other nudges to the system –  well, watch this space.