Make change positive

  • 13th October 2023

Carolyn Reed and Katie Cardona set out the protocols for making effective change while keeping stakeholders on board

Never in the history of the independent schools’ sector has there been such a flurry of activity.

The threat of an impending Labour government with its promise of the addition of VAT to school fees, the cost of living crisis, and increasing operational costs have created the perfect storm. Even the most financially secure schools are examining ways to ensure long-term stability, sustainability and with a fair wind, some growth.

Potential solutions are numerous. External investment, a buyout, partnership with another school, extension of year groups either at the top or bottom, or even conversion to academy status are all options on the table. Each one involves change – change for governors, parents, staff, alumni and frequently for the pupils.

Change can be positive but equally many people dislike it, especially when it involves a change to their best laid plans for their children which they have frequently spent time deciding upon. Changing from a girls’ school to a mixed environment when you have deliberately selected single sex, a move from one location that is walking distance from your home to one that involves a car journey. The list of changes goes on and can initially be unsettling for parents. Staff too will experience change in different ways depending on what it means for each of them.

Handled in the right way though, difficulties and backlash can be mitigated and even result in stakeholder support. Here are our top tips for managing change in your school:

Start any change project by undertaking robust research to help you better understand the market in which you operate. This will help you to make the right decisions regarding your future and also provide valuable information regarding your competitors. Data that is invaluable includes knowing what changes your competitors are making. This could be information about changes to their structure, or building projects they are undertaking or transport links they are introducing or strengthening. Knowing what’s happening generally in the market is essential too, for example, getting information about population projections in your area and finding out about proposed building developments that could affect your ability to recruit.

Governors play a crucial role in any change project. The project will have been instigated as a result of their strategic direction and therefore they must take responsibility and be active in all stages of the project.

Governors will be working with the head and senior leadership team in working out the finer details of the change project. They must ensure they have thought about every single aspect of the change and how it will affect each stakeholder. This might be as elementary as how lunch arrangements will be affected, to the much bigger topic of staffing.

All these details need to be in place before any attempt can be made to create the communications that will form the key part of the change project launch.

In cases of a merger or acquisition, each party should form a working group to deal with the process of change. It will be the responsibility of the working groups to iron out all the details and oversee the process of due diligence.

Clarify what the result of the change is going to be because this will become the school’s new vision and is crucial to the way in which you tell others about the project. Positivity, improvement, excitement and meeting the needs of your parents are all aspects to consider.

It will then make a huge difference to all stakeholders if you make that vision real.

As we all know, a picture is worth a thousand words, so gather together all the visual material that you have. This will come from architects, classroom designers, uniform suppliers, brand specialists who have created a new logo for you and even from your archives. All this will help you to tell your story in the most compelling way.

At launch stage, it’s helpful to have a brochure that describes how you arrived at this decision, your rationale, and how the new structure will affect each year group. It’s helpful to know who the school leaders will be, if you know at this stage, as that is hugely comforting to parents.

First and most importantly, establish who your stakeholders are. This is a much longer list than might be imagined. For example, the parent stakeholder group is made up of all of the different year groups that will be affected and this could even be as granular as parents of boys and parents of girls. Parents will be most concerned about the impact the change is going to have on their child. Be sure to give them as much information as possible.

Sometimes staff seem to be considered as secondary stakeholders at the planning stage, but their support is central to the success of the project. Be sure to be as open and communicative as you can bearing in mind that confidentiality is crucial in the early stages. It often happens that even at the date of the launch, the exact details of staffing in the new school structure are unknown. This situation needs to be handled with enormous empathy and understanding. Colleagues will be anxious about job security and what’s happening to their job in particular, and will need full support from governors, head and senior leadership team, as well as a clear understanding of the process.

Schools undergoing change should invite stakeholders to in-person events during the launch period. This is an excellent opportunity to show transparency, empathy and engagement.

Where possible, have governors present and ready to engage and answer questions. A good way to prepare for this is to have a level of media training where all the worst questions are thought of and answers are considered and rehearsed. Should a question be asked that you haven’t thought of, don’t worry. It’s perfectly acceptable to say you will come back with the answer. Honesty is the best policy and stakeholders will welcome the offer of a personal conversation, if that’s needed.

You might be heaving a huge sigh of relief once you’ve told your community about the change.

But don’t crack open the Champagne just yet! Even with meticulous planning, it sometimes happens in the days after the launch that critics make themselves heard and this can stir up stakeholders who were otherwise perfectly happy. For example, it could be that a journalist is a parent or other stakeholder and is keen to get a negative story into the local press. Keep your ears and eyes open as pre-empting any trouble is by far the best way to deal with the critics. Be proactive in seeking them out. Invite them in to talk about any concerns they may have.

Carolyn Reed and Katie Cardona specialise in comms for Reed Brand Communication.

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