Once upon a time there were three English teachers.  They worked hard, cared for their students and their colleagues and over time were grateful to receive promotions.  But they never stopped reading stories.


In leadership positions, they were asked to make judgements of their colleagues and of teachers and leaders in other schools. Quality assurance is important, they thought.  There’s no harm in that. 


But they began to feel uncomfortable.  As they had never stopped reading stories, they would hear and see stories in a school that were being ignored.  Trying to capture why a school was working or not working shouldn’t be the job of an outsider.  Surely the school held many stories within it.  If those stories could be told and heard and pondered, wasn’t that the way for the school to know itself better and become better?


The power of knowing and telling your story has been recognised in industry for decades.  The marketing world has always known it.  It was how Stephen Denning transformed knowledge sharing in the World Bank. Kendall Haven and Tony Sinanis have written on the power of story for school leadership and learning.  Baroness Susan Greenfield’s latest book, ‘Mind Change’ proposes that the ability to shape and to make sense of story can help to maintain our human capacity to reason with empathy in this technological age.

School review – that involves deep self-evaluation, not just external judgement – is notoriously difficult.  How do you know when your fish-tank is getting murky, if you’re swimming in it day to day? (with thanks to Sue Roffey for the metaphor) It’s hard – but equally, you don’t want to wait until someone tells you it needs a clean!

Our approach to school review supports schools to know and tell their own story, for two main reasons:

  1. Where leaders are able to articulate a deep and complex story we think there is more coherence, clarity, alignment of values and expectations, as story is the primary form by which human experience is made meaningful.

  2. When members of a school community are asked to share their stories, it heightens their awareness of their histories, their values and their investment in their schools.

What is a Leadership through Narrative Review?

Each review is a situated case study, informed by the principles of Appreciative Inquiry, whereby the core evaluative aim is for the school to better understand itself and be better placed to plan for improvement with an increased sense of agency.  This relies on a climate of openness, trust and empowerment, all of which are built in to our approach to school leaders and in to our methodology.

Data is gathered using a series of semi-structured narrative interviews. The richness of qualitative data arising from the interviews can give rise to dominant threads, themes and characters, defining moments, unhelpful diversions and emergent myths. We ask the leadership team to meet these story fragments with courage and interest in order to create a more generative future for the school.  At each school the Headteachers have selected or invited the members of staff to be interviewed and over a two day period the storytelling takes place. In the afternoon of the second day, a Nominal Group Technique is used to maintain the school’s ownership of the data.  The processing, theming, interpretation and prioritisation of outcomes are all owned by the school: facilitated by the reviewers.

In our first two years, we have worked with eleven schools, six primary and five secondary.  In the secondaries an average of 45 staff and 10 pupils have been interviewed and in the primaries an average of 27 staff and 13 pupils.

The evidence so far is showing a richness of information about the culture of the organisations and the energy unleashed by storytelling, which school leaders can harness for improvement.

Our team consists of three interviewers, Max Bullough and Carolyn Hughan have been headteachers and Leah Crawford has been a Local Authority English Adviser. All of them are English teachers.

Max, Carolyn and Leah will be presenting on Leadership through Narrative at the warm and welcoming Hampshire Pedagoo, 2018 on Saturday 15th September at Eggars School in Alton, Hampshire.  Meet us there or get in touch with Leah through this website.

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