Journeying to Great II: The Purple One

November 28, 2013
Stephen Tierney

Post is reblogged from Stephen Tierney’s personal blog as Leading Learner

I’ve just invested £14 in an attempt to make a crucial point during our next INSET (In-Service Training) Day.

Quality Street - Purple One

We are a good school but we are not yet great.  We want to be and intend to be.  My role is to help discern what we keep for the next stage of our journey, what we abandon and what we tweak.  The first part of the “journey” can be found in the previous post, “Journeying to Great: 1. The St. Paulsing Way”.

Having visited two great schools in the last fortnight I’m wondering whether it’s all about the Purple One.   To make sense of this I need to share two different conversations that have come together (in my head at least) and will hopefully help us on our journey.

Freedom, Responsibility & Interdependence

The first great school I visited was St. Paul’s Catholic College, in Burgess Hill.  I was there as part of the SSAT (The Schools Network) Redesigning Schools Programme.  In conversation with the Headteacher Rob Carter (@robcarter2012) we discussed the differences between good and great schools.  I started scribbling down a simple table describing schools and their “Loose/Tight” features relating to the coherence and consistency found within them.  It looked something like this:

School Description

Vision & Values (Coherence)

Systems & Consistency

Not Good At All









Just as a quick aside, I have deliberately not used Ofsted gradings in this table as they sometimes miss the point and certainly the gradings will confuse things here.

Rob made it clear that the “Loose” in the Systems & Consistency column, in the table I drew, was not the same in “Great” Schools and those schools that are “Not Good at All”.

In schools that are “Not Good at All” the loose systems leads to a lack of consistency and huge variability.  Senior leaders have failed to get a grip of what is going on and allow unacceptable variations that lead to poor outcomes for students.

However, the “loose” in great schools relates to the freedom middle leaders had to implement the school’s vision & values in order to produce very high value-added outcomes for students as part of a holistic education.  This freedom is balanced with a responsibility for ensuring high quality systems are in place - for example, tracking students’ outcomes, ensuring great teaching & learning and the professional development of staff - that eliminate inconsistency and ensure students have a great education.  Middle leaders are supportive of each other and hold themselves and each other to account, in essence, they made the vision and values explicit for staff and students every day, everywhere and in every way.

“We’ve Moved from Red to Blue but Probably Need a Bit of Purple”

Move on five days and I was in Milton Keynes for my first meeting as a member of the Teacher Development Trust’s National Teacher Enquiry Network.  The meeting was at Shenley Brook End School and hosted by Chris Holmwood (@LTCSBE) the school’s Senior Deputy Headteacher.

Chris told the story of Shenley Brook End’s journey from good to outstanding.  One of the slides he used was:

The original idea of red/blue appears in Mike Hughes’ “The Main Thing Is Learning” and the above is an adaptation of his diagram which Chris used as part of his presentation.

The original idea of red/blue appears in Mike Hughes’ “The Main Thing Is Learning” and the above is an adaptation of his diagram which Chris used as part of his presentation.

In talking about the move from the red to the purple, in a hugely engaging narrative, he said something along the lines of “but you probably need a bit of purple”.

The Purple One

Eureka moment


My mind immediately made links with the conversation the previous week with Rob.  The “Loose” in great schools is a purple one.  It is not simply a balance of the blue and red, as the situation requires, but it is a shifting of the determination of the response to middle leaders.  They have been given and accepted the freedom to make decisions, to really lead, and the responsibility for being accountable for the outcomes.

In a school stuck at good, is the former what senior leaders are not very good at doing (giving freedom) and the latter (accepting accountability and demonstrating peer accountability) what middle leaders are not very good at accepting?

Leadership Changes as Schools Move from Good to Great

The table below is a summary of my thinking thus far with a massive assist from Rob & Chris.  The table is a bit of homespun theory.  I offer it, not because it is necessarily right but, because I found it useful in shaping my thinking:

The Journeying Table

Not Good at All

In schools that are “Not Good at All” there is no underlying direction or way of operating to guide staff and students and their systems are inconsistent.  In short, chaos rules and people seek survival either on their own, doing their own thing or by offering each other support against a common enemy – senior leaders, staff, students, parents, Ofsted – the list of “enemies” is endless.  There is no compelling narrative that is inspiring, engaging and directing the school community.  The tightening might be a response to inspection or fall in numbers or new headteacher, somewhere and somehow an impetus for change must be introduced.

Journeying to Good

There needs to be an engaging vision and direction of travel expressed by the headteacher.  Some practices are now unacceptable and there is a bottom line introduced.  There has to be a tightening of both the coherence and the consistency but both of these may be driven by the leader, you are in the red zone of autocratic leadership.  I would suggest this is neither good nor bad, it is just what is needed at this stage.  Heroic leaders can be parachuted in to save the day but on their own they will only ever get the school to good.  There is the introduction or imposition of protocols for lessons and possibly learners, data is introduced and used to monitor outcomes and track students’ progress and professional development is focussed.  Monitoring by senior staff is the order of the day.


There is a coherence and consistency around good schools that can be very comfortable.  Staff are aware of the vision & direction of travel and the strong systems produce a consistency of outcomes.  Middle leaders are increasingly influential.  The problem is what has taken these schools to good won’t make them great.  I think this is where I am going wrong!  Simply doing more good things isn’t the answer – the great schools I have visited made a decision to move on in a very deliberate way.

Final Thought

Leading is a little bit like moderating students’ work, you can go on all the courses you like but as soon as you start on the real scripts they are never the same as the ones you have just moderated.  What is required is an underlying understanding to guide your marking.  In leadership it is the vision & values, within a school, that produce coherence for the many different members.  There is an explicit narrative that describes a way of thinking and operating that guides people, in short, there is a known Way.  Middle leaders can not only explain and describe the story, they embody it in great schools.

The next part of the “Journeying to Great” series was envisioned after listening to Professor David Hopkins for the first time, after 26 years in education, don’t know what took me so long!

If you are interested in reading more about the “Shenley Brook End Way”, Chris wrote a chapter in the book “Sustainable School Transformation”  which describes their journey:

Stephen Tierney

In September 2013, Stephen became the Executive Headteacher of a Blackpool federation.  He is one of SSAT’s long standing advocates and his contribution to the early System Redesign and Four Deeps research is valued highly.