2020

Living in Truth and the Power of Powerless. How we shape the 2020s through education

“Education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity”

Aristotle

“The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts”

CS Lewis

It wasn’t a coincidence that a few days after the 12th December, with BBC Radio 4 still in my ears, I went to the library in America House, along Bucharest Street and near to where I live, grabbed a coffee, and began to read how people in Eastern Europe have spent decades living under a system and regimes that they had no power or franchise to challenge. As I enjoyed the flat white coffee in Tucano Coffee, probably one of the few places who serves them the right way, I began to read about the way Vaclav Havel in the 1970s and 1980s had developed an idea of more than existing and coping in Czechoslovakia through his concept of living in your own truth.  He called it the power of powerless and it had helped Charter 77 supporters in the 1970s and 1980s find a way of living without being subsumed by the sclerosis and stagnation of the Brezhnev Soviet System. I put down my book and began to think of the stories I have been told over the last few months by my colleagues and their families about how they had achieved the same, perhaps without attributing it with such an intellectually grandiose title, but amounting to the same thing.  In a system that believed religion was the opiate of the masses, people got baptised in secret and at home.  The famous samizdat presses still allowed the spread of ideas and “decadent” poems and works of literature to be read and understood. The airwaves received the voices of the BBC World Service and Radio Free Europe.  From Elvis, to The Beatles, to Punk: music crossed invisible borders and young people found outlets to define themselves that was not the state narrative.  Higher culture and art was still appreciated on both sides of the Iron Curtain.  I am still fascinated to read how the great poet, Anna Akhmatova, committed all her poems to the memory of her closest friends and wouldn’t write them down for fear of the consequences of not following the zeitgeist of Socialist Realism.  And whilst Mandelstam perished in the Purges, Akhmatova survived; it is said because Stalin himself appreciated her “bourgeois individualist work”.

For me, now over 6 months living and working in Moldova, the answer to the question of global uncertainty entering a new decade in very fraught and uncertain times, jumps out at me daily: EDUCATION. You can see exactly how powerful education and educated young people really are when the World’s most powerful man, a terrified old man in his 70s, trolls a teenage Swedish Climate Action campaigner and tries to ridicule her autism. This autumn, the government in Moldova fell in a vote of no confidence and a new one replaced it ahead of anticipated presidential elections later this year. Moldova’s and Eastern Europe’s progress is based on people wanting to improve their lives and make sure they keep what is of value with them, so it is not all lost in the drive to “modernity”. I see this in the value placed on family, for example, or community, or honouring traditions and festivals.  I see it most of all in education. I have made this latter point several times publicly to various audiences I have spoken to in the last few months and it is this; there is a genuine commitment in the transformative power of learning in Moldova and Eastern Europe.  It is there in investment from government and private industry.  It is there in the high quality of the teachers in terms of their education and pedagogy, it is there in the realisation of governments across the political spectrum that this key investment in this crucial public good is going to be the paradigm shift needed for the next generation to make the progress necessary for a more prosperous society. 

Moldovan National eTwinning Conference 2019

Finland is rightly held up as an example of a successful long-term strategy for education to improve society and tackle the serious global issues of the 2020s through investment, commitment and high-quality investment in teachers and infrastructure.  It is a country with an all-female cabinet and Prime Minister who is 34. And yet, it was Estonia that came top of PISA last year, demonstrating how this former small Soviet republic has seen its hard work come to fruition in the recognition of its enviable, World Class education system.  Countries like Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia are all on an upward trajectory.  It is one of the reasons I came to work in Eastern Europe as a school leader and much as I keep my ties and connections to the UK and admire so many brilliant schools and educators, I realise that to live in my own truth as a global educator, I am in the right place in Moldova.

For over 6 years now I have worked with remarkable educators from Eastern Europe and seen first-hand the changes that are taking place.  Often, it seems no progress is taking place but as you become more immersed in schools and into networks of teachers and leaders, you realise that whereas countries like the UK are becoming a monoglot society based only on knowledge of English, most young Moldovans know 2,3, even 4 or more languages fluently enough to be significantly more mobile in a global society for education, employment and life fulfilling opportunities.  The dedication, hard work and resilience of students, supported by parents who truly value education and respect education, is markedly different here than in many Western countries. The Founders of my school are typical of those from the private sector who believe in investing in public goods such as education and who, in the words of Kurt Hahn, seek to produce the future leaders who don’t exist now.  The mission of Heritage to be such a school here in Eastern Europe, offering a World Class education in a network of social responsibility, is something that resonates with the way I want to live in my own truth as a school leader. This is how we shape the 2020s and beyond; by producing such leaders through the holistic global education that is currently influenced by narrow nationalist and populist governments who want to look backward, not forward. 

Slovakian Ambassador, Dr Dacho’s Diplomatic Reception for the Moldovan Community in Commemoration of the 30th Anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.

One of the greatest lessons from the Soviet period is that ideas survive long after their advocates have left the stage. For example the enduring idea of Europe, an idea that hasn’t been the divisive issue here as in the UK, will continue to be an idea that citizens on the continent and elsewhere will believe in as a force for good as the World seeks leaders able to tackle the urgent issues we face, such as climate change and inequality.

Heritage International School hosted an IT education conference in December, with the Ministry of Education and The Innovation Academy for teachers and school leaders across Moldova.  I have been to many similar conferences over my career, but what struck me about this conference and gathering is the absolute certainty that these educators would take the ideas and contacts back to their schools to make them work:  that it wasn’t a short term initiative overload or capricious fad.  It felt great to be out of the false binary choice world that many education systems find themselves in, thanks to politicisation and marketisation of state education.  I felt extremely proud of my colleagues who spoke with me at the event.  Inga Chiosa, Tatiana Magalaes and Tatiana Popa: three brilliant educators and school leaders who work tirelessly for their students and wider school community.  I felt the same sense of pride at the Technical University of Moldova the following Saturday at the national eTwinning conference.  When I had the honour to be invited to speak to the audience of phenomenal global educators bringing the World daily into classrooms in this corner of Eastern Europe, it felt a joy to be living in truth again through meaningful education and with educators who really do want to change the World and who are there for their students.  As I watched the staff and students put on the end of semester Christmas play, A Christmas Carol, with music representing our many nationalities as an international school, it was with a sense of enormous pride to see this in front of our parents and wider school community.  This is the hope for the 2020s.

To return to something I mentioned earlier in this blog:  the work of global organisations being beacons of hope, even when it feels hopeless, I had the honour of attending a Radio Free Europe event just before the end of the semester.  Radio Free Europe is one such beacon of hope.  The brilliant Moldovan journalist, Valentina Ursa, had coordinated an insightful project over the year that analysed, “deep-dived”, if you will, Moldovan society through regular weekly blogs and broadcasts from a range of diverse people across Moldovan society.  To look at this broad spectrum and see the energy and work of such people believing in this society is humbling.  It gives hope for societies that they can heal deep divisions and find common ground to go forward: perhaps something my own country should look at right now. Ironically, it is deeply respected, long standing UK institutions like the British Council, that societies in this part of Europe in particular, look to as a powerful model to emulate. I will be saying this when I speak in London in February and in Cairo in March at international education conferences.  I will also make this same point when I am asked to provide a journal and broadcast for Valentina and Radio Free Europe later in January as a contributor to the 2020 RFE project.

And so, it is back to school after Christmas and the end of a troublesome decade that saw the new “roaring 20s” begin with a threat of WWIII over Iran, Australia being devasted through fire and further inequalities and climate change behind most global stories.  Nevertheless, I will be facing my colleagues, my students and the parents of my wider school community with hope and optimism for the 2020s, drawing upon what I see daily at Heritage International School, in Moldova and in wider Eastern Europe. We are not powerless, and we do not have to accept that which is untrue.  The foundation of education is enlightenment and truth in the Confucian and Aristotelian traditions, and as my dear colleagues demonstrate daily, in the words of Dr Arnold of Rugby School, we are introducing them to the very best of what has been thought and said so they can go and make their own mark on the World and hopefully lead in a better way. This is my hope for the 2020s even more so after the last decade.

Rob Ford

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