by Liz Free


Posted 23 April 2020

A version of this was originally published in the Tes Magazine on 27 March 2020

It is thought we make around 35,000 remotely conscious decisions each day, with almost 230 of these being made about food alone.

As a school leader the number of choices that have to be made is only magnified – both in sheer numbers but also the importance of the decision made. After all, if we fail in our decision making we fail our communities, we fail our students and we fail the potential of their futures. And decisions will be scrutinised by school stakeholders at every level. No pressure then.

Furthermore, in an increasingly fast-paced world, school leaders are coming under increasing pressure to act quickly and decisively which, as noted by education administration researchers and academics Wayne Hoy and Cecil Miskel, can often lead to poor decision making:

Regardless of the strategy, decision making often causes stress, which produces irrationality

they write.

So, how can school leaders become more effective decision makers by reducing stress and/or irrational decision making?

  1. How to make a decision

Obvious as it seems, it is important to gain pertinent information, ideally from multiple sources, to inform decision making. Poor decision making often falls at this first hurdle by failing to do this. ‘Pertinence’ is one of the major challenges but is absolutely critical in making good decisions. To do this you need to use qualitative and quantitative data.

There can sometimes be a temptation to over rely on qualitative data, which can potentially be incomplete, misleading or not directly applicable to the situation. Added to this, we are all subject to a range of cognitive bias and need to be aware of this to try to avoid information distortion. 

Once you have the relevant information, the next step is to compare the alternatives before choosing your preferred decision.  The ability to triangulate as much information as possible will stand you in good stead to make good decisions in a climate of uncertainty and risk.   

A classic example of this decision-making dilemma under pressure that most school leaders will face at some point will be whether to close a school. The past few weeks have been a good example of how difficult this can be. A lack of clear guidance and huge pressure from school communities trapped heads in a situation of whether or not to shut a school before the government finally declared it mandatory.

There will be a time when every leader is faced with the big question: ‘Do we open today or not?’ 

One headteacher recently described this to me as one of the biggest no-win decisions you’ll make as a head. 

With curriculum compression, examination pressure, attendance under scrutiny and parental expectations, closure is a significant decision where not everyone will be satisfied with the response.

Say extreme weather is expected. The data may be sketchy as you rely on ‘predicted’ future weather, knowledge of what has happened before and the possible risks to students and staff. But you need to make the best call with the known knowledge, triangulated against multiple sources and options.

For example, using your knowledge of the school’s ability to keep students safe in a range of modelled weather scenarios triangulated against predicted weather and expert weather advisories will give you the pertinent information at this moment.

Once the decision is made, just as important is that the decision and the reason it was chosen, is clearly communicated. In our school we send emergency communications to our school community listing the core reference points and the risk to students while acknowledging unpredictability

  1. Which decision first?

Making decisions themselves is challenging enough. However, add to this the number of decisions that need to be made and we see how easily a high-pressure situation can develop.

Under these conditions the school leader’s quality of decision making will likely be compromised. We need, though, to avoid the risk of ‘irrationality’ that comes with making decisions under pressure and be able to make the right decisions at the right times.

One useful way of prioritising decision-making is with ‘The Eisenhower Matrix’, designed from a quote from the inimitable former president, where he identified his decision-making process: “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

Superbly simple, this clearly outlines a structure for prioritising decisions and also introduces the power of delegating (see image). This is something I have had to learn as a leader and find this incredibly helpful when being faced with multiple situations simultaneously.

The Eisenhower Matrix

Rather than risking decision-making paralysis, this systematic approach takes the steam out of the pressured situation and focuses the time of the leader to tackle the decision with a logic that should ensure the best outcomes for all involved.

This ties in nicely with another good leadership maxim called the Pareto principle that states that by investing just 20 percent of effort one can reach 80 percent of the overall result. For the remaining 20 percent of the result, 80 percent input is needed.

This is a very useful concept for effective time management: target your time where it will have the most significant difference to your organisation and your work to help you make the most effective decisions.

  1. What happens if we get this wrong?

You cannot get every decision right every time. However, with ever more pressure on leaders to make decisions and get them right or face immediate and intense scrutiny, we risk creating a culture where making wrong decisions leads to high stress and anxiety.

As such, school leaders need to have systems around them to help discuss when decisions went wrong, identify what they could do better next time, and simply have access to a supportive, trusted individual or network that can offer guidance and solace when required.

This is important not just to reduce the risk of stress and irrationality leading to poor decision-making but also to reduce the risk of senior staff having to take time off work, or worse leave the profession altogether.

Indeed, in education we know that nearly one third of school leaders leave within three years of taking up their post. At a time of increased student population and high turnover with the profession, we need to do everything we can to keep great school leaders for great schools.

A good guiding principle for decision making is to focus systematically on how the decisions we make as school leaders will affect our pupils, and work down from there.

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