When decisions get made in schools, it can be quite commonplace to hear the following words in the staff room, “I / we were not consulted.” Speaking to a school leader about the same decision, I am likely to hear these words, “I consulted and met with staff about this proposal.” So, where’s the truth here?
Well, there is a distinct possibility that both parties probably have it wrong. Consultation is very much a misunderstood term and for effective consultation to take place in schools it is imperative that both education leaders and teachers have a common understanding as to what a consultative process actually is.
To start with, consultation in schools involves seeking feedback through a formal conversation about an issue or proposal. Feedback incorporates the different opinions that people may hold in regard to matter under discussion.
Based on the above definition, consultation has the following implications for leaders and teachers as part of the decision-making process in schools:
- Consultation is a difficult process to lead, particularly with complex issues. It can be a lengthy process too. Subsequently, there needs to be an understanding as to why consultation does not take place or few people are involved in a decision, especially if matters are time sensitive and a deadline cannot be moved. More information about tough and time sensitive decisions can be found in this post.
- Seeking feedback through consultation should mean that leaders will openly listen to all feedback if it is sought. The key skill of listening is put to the test here, whereby the leader of the consultation asks questions to solicit the feedback without passing judgement on the comments received. This is important for building a culture of trustworthy consultation; teachers need to feel that they are being listened to, which leads to the next point.
- Teachers must understand that consultation involves leaders taking the feedback and making decisions with it. This could mean that none, some or all the feedback is embraced in the decision-making actions. Leaders have a duty to clearly explain this before the consultation process starts, as frequently consultation, to those involved, is about winners and losers. It is important to explain that following consultation, some people may not be happy with the final outcome.
- Leaders should be careful when coming into consultation with what their thoughts are on the issue / proposal under discussion. If you air your thoughts first, could this lead to ‘groupthink’, which needs to be avoided at all costs, if you are seeking to make the best possible decisions through consultation. Sometimes, it is useful to share your ideas first, if you have a team who feel they can speak openly and challenge the views of the leader without repercussions. Also, where the leader may lack expertise with a particular decision it is also important to state the uncertain ground upon which you are standing and good teams will support you.
- Finally, with any good consultation process, when a decision is made go back to those consulted and explain how you arrived at it, as much a possible. This builds further trust in the school culture that teachers feel that there input has value in shaping the decisions and direction of the school.
Consultation is important to schools and can help in the establishment of healthy school cultures and good decision-making in the best interests of the school the students and its staff. Consultation is also an opportunity for school leaders also to reinforce the mission, vision and values of the school before matters begin to get discussed. Achieving consensus through consultation will be both difficult and time-consuming but as long as the school community understand and embrace the process of consultation, greater results will be achieved.