CfESEND blog: exploring leading and change in our SEND offer - Derby College

Blog by Mandie Stravino OBE, Principal and CEO Derby College Group, for the Centres for Excellence in SEND programme.

Leadership reflections

Here at Derby College, I am delighted to be part of one of the three Centres for Excellence in SEND; it gives us the opportunity to share the journey we’ve taken towards integrating inclusion into everything we do. We are proud of the distance we’ve travelled in our organization: our provision for students with high needs was graded ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted in 2016 and confirmed in a short inspection in 2019, as well as the College gaining a ‘good’ overall. But the transformation that got us to where we are now did not happen overnight.

As Professor of Leadership, John Kotter says, ‘Too many managers don’t realise transformation is a process, not an event, it advances through stages that build on each other and it takes years’ (2007).

I see change as exhilarating, exciting and necessary, but acknowledge that not everyone does. When we talk about organisational change, what we really mean is making things better, and surely everyone wants that? Who would say ‘no’ to the opportunity for improvements that benefit ourselves, our learners, our teams, our organisations and ultimately the whole sector?

While the idea of big-picture changes is often welcomed with open arms, making those personal changes to turn the idea into reality can be uncomfortable at best, so resistance to change is an understandable reaction.

Unlocking change – getting the right culture

When leading transformation from a whole college perspective, my starting point has been to create an environment where there is an appetite for it: getting the right culture. Business management guru Peter Drucker captured the importance of this with the famous quote ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’. That articulates the premise that if the culture isn’t in the right place at the point of change instigation, no amount of strategy or policy could ignite the passion or commitment required to actualise it.

Part of creating that culture has been about listening; fostering a robust and ongoing conversation with all stakeholders so that everyone feels involved in determining the direction of travel. Collaboration and co-creation are vital to explore what that vision looks and feels like, and what strategy is needed to make developments that are representative of everyone involved. We use the Design Thinking method to facilitate these important exploratory conversations, which is a concept based in Entrepreneurial Thought and Action.

Once the organisation, along with all stakeholders internally and externally, has developed a vision of what it plans to achieve, the focus can move towards strategy. With the vision established, the policies and the strategic documents to underpin transformation can be written comparatively swiftly – that is a relatively straightforward task. Creating the roles to enact that strategy, finding people with the right set of skills, knowledge, and talents, specialists in their areas with the mindset to take those vital roles – that takes longer.

Once in those strategic roles, colleagues must be enabled to enact the vision. Not only by nurturing behaviours and beliefs, but by giving them the room to be ambitious and over-extend – in many cases the remit of the strategy is the starting point. Trusting colleagues’ judgement and leadership expertise is not about abdication of responsibility from those in the most senior roles, it’s about providing support for colleagues to be empowered by the framework. I often remind my colleagues “It is not my job to make the decisions, it’s my job to create the right environment for you to.” The starting point for empowering people to do that is to ensure that everyone is actively involved in co-creating the future.

Making ‘change’ a part of the core culture of the organisation and making every effort to see that change as permanent is part of Derby College’s ongoing cultural evolution. And every one of those incremental steps is important to wider transformation. For example, inclusive language is an important aspect of our culture, it’s why we prefer the more active term ‘inclusion’ to the descriptor SEND. The team has recently had extensive discussions around the term ‘disclosure’- how our young people have to disclose a learning difficulty or a disability; how our staff have to disclose their inclusion need or disability when they are employed by the organisation. We’re not keen on the word disclose, with its connotations of secrecy, so we’re moving proactively toward the word share, which we feel is more inclusive.

When we embark on those kinds of discussions, collectively exploring what those smaller incremental changes look like and more importantly the impact of them, people start to model what they want to see. They become active in engendering that change.

Continuous evolution

Any organisation can write the most exciting inclusion policy, but unless the actions in that policy are living and breathing through the experience of learners, the policy isn’t informing the culture. To ensure the policy stays at its most vibrant, the quality improvement approach can be based in the mechanics of a simple ‘plan-do-review’ cycle – the model that teachers learn when first joining the profession.

Embedding values, behaviours and shared norms in our culture is one of the drivers of Derby College’s success. But our learning journey is a continuous one and our work will not be complete until active intervention to support inclusion exists as a regular part of life, beyond the organisation, beyond our local community. Until the ripple is felt everywhere there is always work to do. That is why the Centres for Excellence in SEND provide such a valuable platform for the sector to share effective practice, learning from each other, and moving forward together.

Please contact us on: to join the Leadership discussion, book a 1:1 Leadership session with me, or request a session on the use of Design Thinking to unlock change in your organisation.

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