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Why Heads Need to Practice Their Powers of Persuasion

October 7, 2019, 15:32 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • Each day can present a number of scenarios that test a headteacher’s persuasion skills – how good are yours, and how might you improve them?
Why Heads Need to Practice Their Powers of Persuasion

Let’s be clear. I’m not going to try and persuade you that there’s merit in acting like a high street geezer, asking passers-by if they “Wanna buy a watch?” No – there’s a fine art to persuasion that has nothing to do with buying dodgy goods. Well, most of the time, at least…

Instead, what I’m going to attempt here is look at where we can use tools other than the ‘charismatic leader’ model. It’s been some time since scholars have researched the myth/ reality behind the charismatic leader with the same feverish intent we saw in the early 2000s.

Three approaches

Indeed, a core aim of the original headteacher’s qualification was to provide individuals with tools that extended beyond raw charisma.

Systems were seen as a robust strategy for driving standards forward. In part, this has proved to be the case – but if we’re looking at persuading somebody towards your own way of thinking, I’d suggest considering the following three approaches:

• Data
• Apology
• Nudge

Just as it has everywhere else, technology has changed the school system and driven certain aspects of it forward. When used carefully, technology can certainly be a useful persuasion tool, since the key to persuasion is immediacy. Can you grab core facts when you need them?

In a school environment, the time available for this can be limited, yet the right data will be invaluable when trying to coax someone into agreeing with your point of view. Take attendance, for example – it’s the legal duty of parents to ensure their child attends school, and a limiting judgement when being inspected.

At the time of writing, the national average for attendance is 95.8%, with persistent absence standing at 15.5%. That’s your first key fact. Core to the art of persuasion is knowing your subject. Pupils falling below 90% attendance convert to persistent absentees. They can obviously move out of this category once their attendance increases, but this is where you need to know your data. Meeting with a parent and not having the child’s and local/national attendance data at your fingertips puts you at an immediate disadvantage.

At this point I have to raise a critical eyebrow at some of the information systems used by the majority of schools. Approximately 90% of schools are currently using systems to manage their school data that are grossly out of sync with modern technology. SIMS, as used by over 80% of schools, hasn’t received an update for many years. Its longpromised successor, SIMS 8 (AKA SIMSOnline), was meant to launch last year but appears to have been delayed indefinitely.

SIMS is heavily reliant on a complicated report process. Indeed, I’ve heard one head remark that they had to write down each step they took to prepare a relatively straightforward report, because the sequence was so hard to remember. The same can be said of the second biggest provider in this space, Integris. It recently received a minor update, but remains built around a complex system of multiple ‘bolt-ons’ that can result in data being inadvertently duplicated or even over-written.

Schools are gradually becoming wise to this, and are increasingly turning to swifter online systems such as Arbor, Cedar, BromCom and others. The difference is night and day. At a time when school leaders have never been more pressured, the ability to access critical information in a timely way is more important than ever. Being able to enter a meeting with a fistful of facts to hand not only gives you confidence, but can have an immediate calming effect on the meeting itself.

In certain situations, data can do all the persuasive heavy lifting for you, to the extent that all you have to do is knock the ball into the net. A good data system should be able to clearly indicate the times of day when incidents have occurred, allow for instant comparisons of one child’s behaviour against the school or cohort, highlight attendance trends and perform any number of other data tasks that you can draw on and use to prepare yourself for meetings. The days of deciphering behaviour books and trying to glean attendance data from an impenetrable MIS ought to be over.

A simple ‘sorry’

Allowing data to serve as your ‘persuasion muscle’ can relieve heads of a great deal of anxiety, though the health warning I should issue here is to not use it as an aggressive tactic. The art of persuasion involves creating a ‘win-win’ atmosphere, which can only be achieved by listening and retaining an air of calm. It’s neither conducive, nor attractive, to become defensive.

That applies always, even at the end of term. You and your colleagues might be at your most fatigued, and may have a meeting due with a parent who’s raised a frivolous complaint. The mere fact that the parent has set aside time to meet with you deserves your professional engagement. If you’re at fault, then address the issue and don’t just offer excuses.

An apology can ultimately pave the way forward for resolution by clearing an argument. Making excuses will only serve to dilute an apology. It might seem like a natural position to take, but if your ultimate aim is to persuade a family towards your way of thinking, then a simple, unequivocal ‘sorry’ can clear their concerns, letting you then get on with the main business of the meeting. It’s a humble approach that can drive forward your argument.

The nudge

Finally, there’s the nudge. To understand ‘nudge’, you have to appreciate that persuasion is a dance and that you have to keep time with your partner. You won’t win many arguments by merely forcing your position; challenging exchanges should feel like a partnership, albeit one in which you’re ultimately leading and carefully manoeuvring your partner forward.

Nudge considers small changes – suggestions which, if taken over time and in their entirety, will enable others to reach a position that goes against that which they may have originally held. As a headteacher, you’ll have a plan for your school and its environment, including what is taught. How you deliver this plan should be carefully considered. Aim to build on existing achievements, even if these might be initially thin on the ground. This will help you engage with the community and make them feel part of the plan, even as they’re being nudged towards your vision.

Persuasion might come easily to those with the gift of the gab, but they can easily be found out if the data or school ethos doesn’t back them up. And never be too proud to clear the air – a simple apology harms nobody, and can reward you with a parent possessing restored dignity and faith in the school.

In brief

Persuasion is an art. There may be examples of charismatic headteachers driving forward their vision through sheer force of personality, but the reality is that these are rare, and individuals concerned often risk being found out if they don’t have their facts right. Politicians might be able to get away with that by ‘brazening it out’, but school leaders can’t. What I’ve outlined here are three routes leaders can take in pursuit of their ultimate aim of persuading someone else that they are wrong and the school is right.

Anthony David is an executive headteacher

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