Finding hope in education as we prepare to return to a new academic year

Nobody has a clue what the World will look like in 5 years’ time. And yet, we’re meant to be educating children for it.

Sir Ken Robinson

There have been a number of Ken Robinson quotes rolling around my head this summer: from his “schools kill creativity” to “imagination is the source of human achievement”. One of my favourites is his definition of creativity as “ideas that have value”.  It is, however, the one at the top of my blog this month that sums up where we all are in education around the World at this moment as we head into the final stretch of the Summer break with planning already underway for what comes next in September and a new academic year. Planning for 5 months into the future seems the impossible task for all school communities around the globe. A second spike in cases of coronavirus from societies who began to unlock threatens to send us all right back to the start of this 2020 nightmare version of “Snakes and Ladders” meets “Jumanji”. What is keeping us all going is hope, so the sad news this weekend that Ken has died of cancer is a tragic loss for us all in education: His was a powerful voice: wisdom and advocacy for schools and for children to fight and a constant reminder to us all that education must be much more than exams and processes linked to work only. 

The chaos over the awarding of examination results this summer seems to have added yet another unnecessary level of stress to our young people. The IB set the ball rolling – doggedly adhering to their algorithm and ignoring centre assessed grades from the people best placed to make informed assessments: the teachers who know their students well and whose professionalism and integrity should be valued and made use of when formal examinations have not been sat due to Covid19 lockdown restrictions. In the UK and for the international schools who follow iGCSEs and A Levels, the algorithms that initially sent cruel and pointless shockwaves to so many young people in August on results days were at least reversed and centre assessed grades issued, eventually.

The flaws in the “standards” agenda and those who have politicised qualifications, fearful of “grade inflation” now find another paradigm shift in education: to begin to accept the “digital revolution” that intelligent voices like Ken Robinson have been advocating for many years. There is sort of hope here too, as all national education systems look ahead into the rest of the 2020s. Together we have started to think about what education could and should look like in light of the sudden adaptations and shift in thinking we have been required to make in 2020; changes which will probably continue long into 2021, and so, why not look further and seek to make this innovation an intentional and integral element of education going forwards. If this still doesn’t make you want to go and grab your popcorn and take a ring side seat, for a genuine gamechanger in education the announcement of the US Charter school groups KIPP and Uncommon Schools, that they will ditch their behaviour management techniques beloved of certain “strict” Heads in the UK, will certainly make you order in both sweet and salty varieties to sustain you. 

Ken Robinson’s advocacy of creativity and arts in the curriculum and a movement away from the 19th century foundations of public education systems is something that has always resonated with my own approach in education. Building a narrow curriculum focusing predominantly on literacy and numeracy is not going to prepare our young people for the 2020s in any meaningful way.  One of the reasons I could not stay in the English state system in 2019 was because the curriculum was being forced into ever narrower parameters. The holistic approach, breadth, variety and innovation of subjects from languages to arts was being squeezed out because school managers were taking their lead from the department of education linked to a neo-liberal approach to learning and students as taking their place in a workforce only.

The Oak Centre at Heritage International School and local artist Andreea.

For me, the creative subjects are integral and one of the most hopeful symbols of creativity for me this summer at Heritage has been the wonderful mural on the side of the Oak Centre, our centre for student leadership and wellbeing, painted by young local artist, Andreea Dorin.  Andreea’s mother is Heritage music teacher Nina, whose creativity in teaching music in the lockdown was breathtaking in its vision to allow all students to access, enjoy and create music and art. Andreea’s mural can be seen all over the campus: in our outdoor learning area and study garden and it follows you as you walk along the fence of the school on Dacia Boulevard. 

It has been a wonderful summer of creativity back home in the UK for us. I have enjoyed writing, reading and spending time with my family. I supported my wife Gen as she participated in a local, Bristol “Arts Trail” – she set up a socially distanced exhibition of her handcrafted artisan silver jewellery under a gazebo in our front garden over a long weekend, joining dozens of other artists, artisans and creatives in celebrating the “other” subjects which supported them through lockdown. The very talented headteacher and innovative podcaster, my friend and colleague, Carl McCarthy, jumped on a great idea this summer to record the story of my mentor, friend, artist, teacher and our dear family member, Les Jones, at his beautiful old house in the hills of mid Wales. Listening to Les’s story was inspiring, a real polymath as he spoke about his love of reading, his sports in his younger days, when he studied PPE (when it meant scholarly subjects pre Covid) at Magdalen College, Oxford and how he was an artist, gardner, sang in various choirs, set up credit unions, took part in leading his communities and quaker group. You can listen to Carl’s recording of Les, “A bucket of coal” on his More teacher Talk podcast

my daughters enjoying the Welsh coast

It certainly hasn’t been a traditional summer and my cabin in Bristol was my UK HQ, enabling me to work daily with my colleagues on the other side of Europe, interview potential teachers from all over the World, complete routine annual tasks like the school evaluation analysis and school priorities, but also undertake the new, unexpected additional challenges of planning for our physical return to school in Moldova whilst still in a crisis that shows no sign of going away. I have known no summer like this as a school leader and couldn’t even spare the time to go camping in Devon by the sea with Gen and the girls, but I made sure I cleared the decks to finally get to the sea with them and Les as we ate our chips looking at the beautiful, calm, sunny sea at Aberystwyth.

Conferences online now seem to be twice weekly and I was extremely proud this month as my dear friends and colleagues from Heritage, Inga Chiosa and Tatiana Popa, spoke to global audiences as part of the Global Schools Alliance group about our remarkable story here in Moldova on our distance learning plan and our preparations to return to the next normal this September. 

Annie and Dylan

The memories of walking daily up the hills around Llanidloes with my daughter Annie and the dog Dylan, were in my mind as my wife Gen navigated the road works and detours of the delightful M4, M25 and M11 to get me to Stansted for my return flight to Chisinau.  I have really missed Moldova and never really felt I was away as we could never quite switch off this summer. The trepidation of flying back in the circumstances of Covid19 and what lies ahead as we get our school community back safely, is something I have never felt in all the Augusts I have experienced; where the summer has to be formally packed away and the work for the autumn started. It was bad enough saying goodbye to my children and wife, missing Dylan goes without saying, but it is also the comfort of the familiarity of home that we sometimes take for granted, that I will also miss. My wonderful mother in law Val, produced, before I left, the best roast beef and Yorkshire puddings that will help me keep a close memory of home for when these days and weeks really get challenging.  Returning, I discovered a Moldova suffering a very hot summer and long drought: the worst in over 70 years, so the uncertainty, unrest and fear of what comes next is palpable.  These are some of my reflections sitting in my apartment in Chisinau getting ready to meet new and old colleagues and to begin, in earnest, our induction and preparations to get our children back into physical school safely. 

Anyone who has led an organisation, especially a public oriented one such as a school, will know that there are many stakeholders and many opinions on what happens next in this crisis.  As leaders we base opinions on facts and judgements on wisdom.  The problem in this crisis from the start has been the lack of consensus in the scientific and political community around the causes and approaches to Covid19.  The one thing 2020 has taught us is that it is not going away any time soon and societies need to learn how to live with it and function as best as possible. There are all sorts of models across the World, all with degrees of success and failure, all driven by the lack of a successful vaccine and the consequences of infection from transmission. Societies have risked unlocking lockdown and from Chisinau to Bristol, cafes, restaurants, leisure activities, non essential shops, museums, libraries and pubs have all unlocked.  Essential services like supermarkets, health services and transportation, have never stopped and there is plenty of evidence of how they have managed to successfully reduce transmission and identify cases.  Behaviour has had to change to make this work.  Fundamental behaviour.  The WHO and the UN have played a crucial role in providing advice and guidance for governments and organisations in the private and public sectors.  The three basic measures of wearing a mask, washing hands and giving space are universal and the WHO and UN have also run two strong campaigns warning about mis-information in this pandemic and encouraging us to look forward with hope to “Build Back Better”. 

As a school leader, this burden of responsibility to decide our next moves for a new academic year has been one of the heaviest I have known in my long career.  As I spoke and told my colleagues last Monday, all in our isolated bubbles around the school over GoogleMeet, there is no manual that comes with this and everyone, rightly or wrongly, has an opinion on what is best next. The Ministry of Education here in Moldova, has offered a wise solution for school communities to look at their capabilities to bring back children safely under “next normal” measures or to continue a form of distance learning.  Having examined the evidence, the risk of bringing children back to school is the same whatever the model, even if you have shifts or shorter lessons. Consequently, we have chosen to return with our next normal, continuing to use some form of online meeting for assemblies, parent consultations, staff briefings and concerts. I was asked by a parent why I wasn’t continuing with the full DLP, especially because the situation hasn’t really changed since Spring.  My answer is that my disappointment in March was that we had a fully planned matrix to remain open and had prepared to put in place exactly the measures we have planned for our return this September. Remaining open then could have been an option, as reopening now should be. Students need to be physically back in school if they can be safe and any risk can be minimised. There are enough examples around the World where returning to school has been shown to be successful and we are confident in our plans to return.  It is going to take another paradigm shift in our next normal mindset and some time for successful induction, but it can be done.  

Preparing for the new academic year

We have looked at schools around the World, the advice from the WHO, UNICEF and we have seen the success of public organisations operating under strict measures.  It can be done.  Keeping children out of school and continuing with the uncertainty risks deeper damage to the mental health and wellbeing of this generation.  Studies will take time, but evidence, such as the recent WEF work, show we could seriously damage our young people through continued isolation and they need hope like no other generation has needed hope for this decade.  Greta Thunberg reminded us in her meeting with Angela Merkel this week, of the two years wasted on climate change, as the Greenland ice shelves are now disappearing at an irreversible rate.  We know this Autumn/Fall the US presidential election results between Joe Biden and Donald Trump will have a profound effect on global politics and leadership. The cult in the UK, pushing faster and faster for the No Deal Brexit for January 2021, seems to be about to get its long held wishes, as Britain’s existential turmoil and lack of leadership and chaos in governance at every level in my home country has been laid bare this summer, cruelly exposed by this crisis. Nobody knows what the World will look like in 5 years but we know doing nothing is still not an option at this point of the crisis.  Families cannot stay isolated in their apartments forever: not all have large gardens, pools, access to online ordering, an ability to leave and return to the country and for those who advocate schools remaining closed and on DLP, many do not have access to the full range of technology required to maintain a longterm adherence to those emergency measures. Heritage as a World Class school has the space in the corridors, classrooms, public spaces like the canteen, library, entrances and outdoor spaces to make a safe physical return school possible and this is what we are planning for in these remaining hot August days.

Whilst our plans for a safe return inevitably steal the spotlight in all our minds, we continue to develop our other priorities as our schools grow and we continue to develop Heritage as a beacon and model of innovative international education for the 2020s and beyond.  It has been good to look at the developing list of speakers being collated for our Founders’ Second series, for example. These innovative lectures ensure our students continue to have real World examples in their educational experiences. Our student numbers continue to grow and this summer, our successful launch of Heritage Language Academy has been a great move forward. The team of new and existing international teachers joining us from the UK, US, South Africa and Philippines continues to bring the World to Moldova and it is why we are truly the only international school in Moldova. When you also factor in our outstanding local teachers it is clear that we have a uniquely balanced position to blend local knowledge with global perspectives.  We will continue to support our national education community and our global networks; from our colleagues and friends in the British Council to Etwinning.  Developing student leadership and our social responsibility continues from the successes of last year. Our commitment to the UN’s SDGs and working to support our communities is the very essence of our mission as an international school. As the first and only recognised Cambridge International school in Moldova, we have spent the summer working with our colleagues in Cambridge and we are proud to be a pilot school for them in the primary sector. Our new Lyceum continues to be developed and we are looking forward to beginning our formal accreditation with our colleagues in COBIS this year. 

As I look from my apartment window here in Chisinau at the small square below where my elderly neighbours come to sit, socially distanced, to enjoy the cooler summer air, there is a lot of hope this August here in Moldova. What 2020 has taught us so far is that we cannot treat this crisis with ignorance, nor can we approach it in any remotely familiar way. Any previous crises of any similarity have not taken place in the globalised, hyper connected world in which we now live.  Doing nothing is not an option or credible strategy either. 

As far as young people are concerned we need to actually put them first in this crisis and any strategy in any country needs to stop planning their approach with young people and children as an afterthought. The future damage we are storing up for this generation is too frightening to contemplate. I have felt embarrassed trying to explain to my own children why it is ok for a pub or a restaurant to be open for business or for people to be able to travel and fly, yet they cannot go back to school physically. If a school can minimise risk, teach our next normal measures and operate under the measures so many other organisations have developed and successfully used so for many months, we should until such time as credible vaccines are developed.  That is the hope this August and the reality of envisaging the next five months to five years for our schools around the World. It takes leadership and we need to see more of it right now at all levels and around the globe.

Rob Ford 

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