At 5.30am on a Saturday morning, after a long week at work, you’ll usually find me in the polytunnel cutting flowers to take to market. I’ll be up to my eyes in sunflowers, zinnias and my personal favourites, helichrysum, but whilst that might sound extreme, it’s actually one of the most peaceful and relaxing moments of my week – until one recent incident…
The mellow sounds of birdsong, hoverflies and distant cockerels were suddenly interrupted by the splurt and gurgle of a new irrigation system, springing into life on all sides. Not a fountain or sprinkler system, but rather a gentle gush of water through a network of pipes placed among the flower beds. Still, it was something of a shock. “Ah yes, sorry,” said my husband, once I’d returned to the house. “I forgot to tell you. We’ve finally got the watering system automated.”
Hell for leather
Irrigation systems on automatic timers might seem like a far cry from the demands of running a school, but it’s a good analogy for demonstrating how long-term system planning can help save resources, mental capacity and that most precious commodity of all – time. We now lose less water, thanks to using drip pipes in place of indiscriminately spraying hoses, and the water actually reaches the plants, since the pipes are arranged along the beds. We no longer worry about the watering, or indeed even do the watering. The system does it for us.
It takes a certain amount of discipline to spend time considering how your jobs ought to be approached and managed, when the temptation can be to go hell for leather and attempt to complete them as quickly as possible. During a busy day, especially at schools on rapid improvement journeys, we’ll often simply troubleshoot as we go along. There can be a tendency to feel that our resources are too stretched to allow for investing time and thought into how our systems are actually working.
However, stopping and giving yourself a moment, even just half an hour, to create a template or a process will reap multiple rewards in future. If you never make time for this, the likelihood is that you’ll be constantly fighting an uphill battle to get things done, while never feeling as though you’re actually getting anywhere.
Keeping things grounded
One area I’ve recently tackled in this way is subject access requests. As data protection officer for the ASSET Education trust, these come directly to me. I’ve created a tracking template consisting of a process and record sheet for when we have to work through such requests, containing a key information box at the top, followed by a series of date checkpoints that are generated from the point when the request is received.
As many readers will know, there’s a 30-day turnaround for providing data. The process sheet allows us to stay on track, allays worries about deadlines and provides clarity as to who’s doing what, so that nothing slips through the cracks. It allows us to record any decisions made, as anyone with experience of data responsibility will know how careful we have to be about third party data. The tracking sheet keeps our work in this area grounded, and gives us a straightforward way of evidencing decisions, should anything be questioned or appealed in future.
This system we use isn’t rocket science. If anything, it’s utterly pedestrian, but it does mean that now, when we receive a subject access request, the process simply rolls on without us having to worry about non-compliance, since it incorporates a guide that shows people what to do. It’s replicable and – here’s the magic word – scalable. It doesn’t matter how many requests we receive; the system will still be able take them.
The power of forms
One tool that I’ve found to be transformative in creating scalable and efficient systems are ‘forms’ applications. We’re a Google organisation and therefore use the Google Forms app, but I’ve previously used Microsoft Forms and SurveyMonkey to good effect. Once you get to grips with them, you’ll quickly realise just how useful they are.
When looking at induction and onboarding in our trust, I built a questionnaire that took new employees through important information and documentation. We had to provide a flavour of our trust remotely, as it wasn’t practical for us in the central team to meet everyone at all of our 13 schools face-toface.
We therefore created a form that took staff through a welcome video from our CEO, links to key policies and a quiz that helped new staff find out about some of our other schools. It also included a GDPR awareness section and a field for entering feedback.
The beauty of forms applications is that they generate spreadsheets containing all the submitted data. At one point we faced the daunting prospect of onboarding the staff at three primary schools in one go, but we had a system that was both paperless and scalable. Within a week or two of the schools transferring to us, all staff had completed the questionnaires and we had immediate access to the evidence.
I originally learnt the craft of design thinking and scalable systems when working as a SENCo. Five years ago, at least, the business of SEND involved keeping track of many different pieces of paper and referring to unwieldy classroom folders. Individual education plans would often be produced in differing formats, with ‘one page profiles’ only just starting to become commonplace.
I worked hard to create templates that could be used consistently and helped devise a system of pupil passports, but the improvement that made the biggest difference was a standardised sheet for use with the class folders. It was effectively just a straightforward contents sheet containing instructions, such as ‘update each term’, but it made the system come alive and become replicable without my constant input.
Design thinking takes into account the people using the system. I consciously examined the contents sheet system from a class teacher’s perspective, and made sure every piece of information was in the right place. I could then step away and let the system run itself for me.
To restate, this approach requires discipline and a certain level of resilience. You may have to tell people that you won’t be able to do something straight away because you’re working on system improvements. Some will always want instant action and results, but I’d encourage everyone to be more architectural in their approach. Scalable systems allow you to build significant capacity from one day to the next. If anything, to not use them is a false economy. After all, people can’t run around like headless chickens forever.
On which note, I’m off to feed ours, because that’s one system we haven’t automated yet. All in good time…
Make the perfect system
• Create templates that people can’t write over – familiarise yourself with ‘read only’ and ‘copy only’ settings and restrict editing rights to the original files.
• Think through how people will follow the system and process. Will a ‘guide to’ database be needed, or can instructions be included within the templates?
• Consider the terms colleagues might use to search for specific items and save documents with sensible names. If you can develop a shared language, the files you create will instantly become more ‘findable’.
• Ensure people know that your new system exists by working on the principle that people will need telling seven times (often in different ways) before the message really cuts through. Highlight it in the staff handbook, pin something to the noticeboard, mention it in conversation, bring it up at the next staff briefing – then add it to the agenda again a few weeks later.
Rebecca Leek is director of strategy at ASSET Education, and a former SENCo and system leader for SEND, having previously founded and run an arts social enterprise for eight years; she also currently co-runs an organic fruit farm in North Essex with her husband