Last October, I had the pleasure of listening to Roy Lilley (health policy analyst, writer, broadcaster and commentator on the National Health Service and social issues) at the annual Leading Edge Conference. For the last couple of years, Alex Gavins and her team have managed to source a speaker from outside of education who somehow seem to strike exactly the right kind of harmonious chord with those of us in the audience.  As Roy discussed the parallels between the challenges facing the NHS and our education system, I was introduced to the idea of positive deviance. This was one of those moments which resonated with me profoundly, and as the Educating Northants team embarked on our journey, I became more convinced than ever that positive deviance was what our profession, and indeed our county, was crying out for.

What Is Positive Deviance?

The beauty of positive deviance as an approach is that it is fundamentally affirmative in its nature.   It is an approach to change which is based on the idea that in any given organisation or community, there are people whose uncommon but successful actions and behaviour enable them to find better solutions to a common problem than their peers – despite the fact they are working with similar challenges and have no additional resources or knowledge.

Pascale, Sternin, & Sternin. (2010) outline that the approach is based on the following principles:

  • That the solutions already exist within communities and that they have the best expertiseto solve any given problem within this community.
  • That ultimately communities self-organisethemselves and have the right resources and assets to solve a problem.
  • That communities have collective intelligencei.e. the intelligence and knowledge that is required within a community, does not exist only within the community’s leaders or those external to the community, but that it is distributed throughout the entirety of the community.  Positive deviance aims to draw out this collective intelligence and apply it to a specific problem which requires behavioural or social change.
  • That positive deviance promotes sustainability at its heart because the community or organisation has sought and found solutions to a problem from practices and behaviours which already exist within the community.  As such, the successful behaviours are already being practised in the community within the same constraints and challenges of the current situation.   
  • That it is easier to change behaviour by practicing it rather than knowing about it. “It is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than think your way into a new way of acting.”

Acting Rather Than Thinking

We all know that education is tough at the moment – and that it has been for some time now.  Regardless of our role or location within the system, the same challenges exist (albeit to a greater or lesser extent) in relation to recruitment, retention, funding, and the ever-decreasing resources which are available to support our most vulnerable learners.  Add to this, an accountability regime which at times can feel punishing and restricting in equal measures, it is no wonder that the discourse surrounding our profession is often dominated by negativity and helplessness.  Yet despite this – and I write this against the backdrop of what has been the hardest year of my professional career – I still truly believe that I have the best job in the world.  

One of the things that has anchored me to this belief this year has been the opportunity to work as part of an incredible team of educators in organising Educating Northants.  @621carly has documented our journey here in our opening address to 600 delegates on 30th March 2019, it was never more clear to me that what we were seeing at the University of Northampton that day was the power of positive deviance in action – and at scale.  

Collective Intelligence

During that day, over 600 educators had chosen to spend their Saturday sharing and learning from each other.  What’s more, we had the pleasure and privilege of hearing from many, many local educators who gave their time for free to let us know what they were doing in their classrooms and schools day in, day out to make a difference to their communities.  These colleagues face the same challenges and constraints as the rest of us, but they have not let this deter them from seeking out and finding solutions which are working despite the odds.  Issues relating to engagement, curriculum design, assessment practices, factors significantly impacting on the lives of our children outside of school, technology, behaviour, professional learning and much more, face all of us regardless of phase or institution type.  Yet here in the Waterside Campus on the 30th March were living, breathing examples of positive deviants who were telling us how they are transforming the lives and communities of those lucky enough to be touched by their work.  And the programme itself, which represented a huge array of differing educational philosophies and beliefs, demonstrated the power of collective intelligence.  We had been very clear from the start that we wanted the conference to be nonpartisan and welcoming to every voice within the education sector – what was most important to us, was that we tapped into the power of collective intelligence and invited everyone to part of the conversation.

Just Be Yourself

And so as I took my children to school this week – a rare opportunity afforded by different term dates between counties – I was given a piece of writing by the class teacher of my middle daughter Zara, who had written this independently following a philosophy lesson.

At 7 years old, here was a voice which at its very core had the belief that being yourself was enough – in fact, it was more than enough.  A voice which held firm the belief that being yourself, regardless of any beliefs, interests, backgrounds or ambitions, should be celebrated and not hidden away.  

Over a week later, as I reflect on Educating Northants and the conversations which have taken place – and are continuing to take place – I am reminded that Northamptonshire and our educators should not hide themselves away. Despite a narrative which at times has been hard to hear about our schools and county, we have every right to celebrate being ourselves. We are not going to accept that our story is told for us by others.  Instead, what Educating Northants has shown us is that we have more than enough positive deviants to author our own story, and show the rest of the education system in England what can be achieved through the power of positive deviance. 

This is just the beginning of the conversation.


  • Pascale, Sternin, & Sternin. (2010) The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems. Harvard Business Press. Print. 
  • Singhal, Arvind, and Lucia Dura. Protecting Children from Exploitation and Trafficking Using the Positive Deviance Approach in Uganda and Indonesia.Save the Children Federation, Inc., 2010. 
  • Sternin, J., & Choo, R. (2000). The power of positive deviancy.Harvard Business
  • Tuhus-Dubrow, R. The Power of Positive Deviants: A promising new tactic for changing communities from the inside. Boston Globe. November 29, 2009.