March 2022 edition: An Interview with Luke Sparkes

An Interview with Luke Sparkes

Caroline Whitty, Editor of Trust Journal, talks to Luke Sparkes about Dixons Academies Trust’s approach to professional growth.

 1. What led you to decide that it was time to jettison traditional appraisal for a more progressive and forward-looking approach?

At Dixons Academies Trust, we have a long history with self-determination into which, for many years, we tried to mould our approach to appraisal. But, in truth, it never felt quite right. We have a hugely committed team; we have exceptional school leaders and yet after every appraisal cycle we would have to chase the documentation.

To us, appraisal felt like a ritual of school leadership – something that had to be because it had always been.

Alongside what had come to feel like this non-negotiable irritant of appraisal, as a Trust, we were closing in on coaching being fully embedded… and the clouds parted. It became increasingly clear that we were running dual systems with overlapping objectives. One which was embraced and rooted in self-determination and one which was a bureaucratic and unvalued outlier.

At Dixons, we have always been purposeful disruptors; we have always been willing to challenge the orthodoxy of ‘but it has always been done like that’. So, we have jettisoned appraisal; we have decoupled the link between pay progression and performance management instead directing resource to reinforce the structures of our coaching model and extend it to all: teachers, leaders and associate colleagues.

2. What studies and evidence were most influential in your development of a coaching-based professional growth model?

A Harvard study found that frequent, regular check-ins with managers improved performance, which is no surprise. The study’s truly amazing finding was that the conversation did not have to focus on a particular task or skill. Just having any interaction – an informal conversation about family or the weather – lifts performance.

And, when we reflect on it, this is true – we do better when we feel we are amongst valued colleagues and friends and when we feel valued too. And, as the study shows, that will drive performance but, crucially, only as a by-product of genuine care.

...we need to play an active role in our professional growth and not that old fashioned once a year someone else getting to summarise us in a typed box with a limited word count.

Luke Sparkes

Patrick Lencioni (whose thinking we are indebted to at Dixons) evidences that people cannot be fulfilled in their work if they are not known. And, perhaps in our new approach to professional growth, it is challenging this sense of anonymity that we have really zoomed in on.

Our original seven step approach to coaching is framed in the expertise of Paul Bambrick-Santoyo and his seminal work Leverage Leadership. This has augmented over time as it has become embedded and healthily nuanced to meet the needs of our different academies at their different stages on our Academy Transformation Model. This is only possible because of our intentional commitment to Aligned Autonomy.

At Dixons, we intentionally design the sharing of knowledge into our operating model. We have sought to do this over recent years through our OpenSource project. Initially, this was an internal project – but then it grew and grew and grew and we were persuaded that it had reach and we started to share it. And now it has born further iterations in Dixons Insight and Onsite which you will hear us talk more about over the coming year.

3. What's the scope and status of your pilot and what are the key learnings to-date?

Our pilot is ongoing bringing in our most recently joined schools in the north west (effectively to build our new approach to professional growth as their baseline iteration of coaching). This allows us to do the critical thinking on implementation at school level. Alongside this, we are also piloting the approach in key teams with significant coaching expertise (for example within our central team). This dual pilot affords us to have oversight of theory-based expertise and operationally-focused implementation. Our thinking is to use the feedback and iterative improvements of the pilot to ensure we are ready for the Trust-wide roll out in September.

At a really simple level, our new model will ensure that everyone in our organisation is coached. This will only be simple to deliver if it has been thought about deeply and mistakes captured and remedied in the pilots.

Just as the coaching based approach to professional growth is predicated on candour, so too is the efficacy of the pilot. We need to know how to make this work well.

If we are determined to create a healthy organisation, each of us must have agency and self-determination.

This means we need to play an active role in our professional growth and not that old fashioned once a year someone else getting to summarise us in a typed box with a limited word count.

Traditional performance management strongly contradicts Dixons’ agile approach; it is too ritualistic and too infrequent. Traditional performance management builds bureaucracy and elaborate rituals around measuring performance but usually does not improve it. Instead, we want each one of us to have conversations about performance as an organic part of our work – focusing on fuelling performance in the future rather than evaluating the past.

4. How much learning and development work have you had to do to undertake the pilot?

At Dixons, we have too great a regard for the complexity of work undertaken at every level of our organisation to duck the hard work of implementation planning. Increasingly, we have come to understand this as central to our ability to move theory into practice. Where Dixons is perhaps (with gratitude) viewed externally as having expertise in fostering school culture, internally, we see this as the soft edge to the hard work of implementation.

Perhaps, this is also why we have increasingly been able to dismantle the all too often excused barriers between the educational and operational sides of Trust workings. Sincerely regarding implementation as pivotal presupposes a nurtured respect for, and excellent free flowing working relationships with, teams that cut across the organisation.

Our non-educationalists are equitably central to the development of education at Dixons.

In every meeting we have had with our Principals this academic year, we have focused on the implementation of professional growth. As with so much in school leadership, we know the implementation of our new approach to professional growth will be Sisyphean. As a team, we need to develop from the outset the humility to retrace our steps and rework our plans in response to feedback. We are firm in our belief that this is a rock worth rolling tirelessly uphill.

5. How has this new model been received by colleagues across your trust?

We know we are only in the initial stages, but our pilot and communication strategy so far has garnered important feedback; our associate staff have told us just how appreciative they are of this new approach.

For our school leaders, perhaps where coaching is less well embedded, there have been valid concerns about carving out time and the inevitable stretch of developing further expertise. What has been deeply apparent in this implementation process is the level of candour we have fostered. Worries are being aired and thereby supported. Remedies are being shared and new alliances of support forged.

We have sought to take the heat out of the ask for year one of our new approach. We have asked schools to think of year one as a habit-forming phase – our objective is only to make sure the conversations are happening because we are wholly committed to the power of checking in.

We will know we are succeeding if our colleagues continue to report feeling increasingly valued.

6. What do you hope to be the main benefit of severing the link between appraisal and pay?

Given there currently is no benefit, there is nothing to lose!

Performance-related pay for teachers was introduced in September 2014. Pay progression for all teachers in maintained schools depends on appraisal outcomes and meeting standards set by schools. However, academies are free to set their own pay and conditions for teachers, including criteria for pay progression.

Even the OECD’s top-down survey of different countries’ systems concluded that unless base pay for teachers was very low (and therefore making financial worries greater) then the effect of performance-related pay was either negligible or negative. We also know that repeated use of external motivators (such as pay) will suppress intrinsic and altruistic motivation in the long run – negating our commitment to self-determination.

Therefore, given that we have jettisoned traditional appraisal, we have also decided to end the link between pay progression and performance management. There is strong evidence that our attentions would be much better directed elsewhere.

7. What advice would you have for other trusts considering a similar journey?

Do not hesitate – our staff are our greatest resource – they deserve practice grounded in pathfinding research.

Further reading

Professional Growth at Dixons - Guiding Principles