Why leaders need the “shouty people out of our heads”. Moving on from labels and back to children and education.

There are many moments in this role when nothing quite prepares you for the challenges a school leader faces daily. It really has been that kind of month and we know we cannot please all of the people, all of the time, nor should we try. There simply are not enough hours in the day for a start. On a quiet morning in early September in Chisinau, the voice of someone shouting from outside came through my open window and there on Dacia Boulevard, was a keyboard, social media warrior; a self-proclaimed tribune of the people, recording himself and his tirade against my school and all the terrible things he believed it represented.  

It’s his democratic right to voice his view in a free society, and in the same spirit, I am more than up for a debate with anyone when it comes to education and especially the work and purpose of Heritage. Unfortunately, when I walked towards “shouty man” to confront him in the same spirit of dialogue, he stopped filming and quickly walked away out of sight towards the gates of Chisinau. Pity. 

Before I took the role at Heritage, nearly three years ago, I was asked by a fair few people close to me, why I was going to work in a “private school”. Often from people working or educated in a private school or working in a Multi Academy Trust in England (MATs). MATS are a unique system to England that, in a lot of cases, has taken school control from a local community, concentrated wealth and power of education in the hands of a few, often with business conflicts of interests and removed local accountability of schools from the places they are supposed to serve.  They also often adopt what they think is the paraphernalia of a UK private school in the name of “raising standards”;  an over complicated and convoluted dress code, a House system with the most bizarre fad names, a rigid rule system and a narrow curriculum based on fewer subjects and only “career/workplace” skills and qualifications as the focus. As The Jam once sang, what chance have you got against a tie and a crest?

Social agency & mobility for working class communities at its “finest” it would seem, led by middle class professionals taking away the very ladders they themselves climbed to improve their lives and benefit from opportunities not so long ago. The recent news that “Britain’s strictest Head” and a very politicised one at that with the current governing party, is in the running to lead the Social Mobility Commission, doesn’t fill me with hope either that “hot spot” communities, like the one I came from, will get the support they so desperately need. Especially when a lack of basic understanding and such a political view sees endemic poverty as the fault of an individual and the state’s role should be minimal. 

Apart from the taxpayer funding these schools, there is not much that differentiate most MATs from private/independent schools other than private/independent schools in the UK are much more likely to have a strategic approach towards both the holistic curriculum and social responsibility and working with local state schools rather than compete against them.  I know this from long experiences for example, the South West region of IB schools I helped found a number of years ago and the work of schools like Cheltenham Ladies’ College in lending their expertise such as university applications to schools like my former one at Wyedean.  The Thames Valley Partnership, with Eton College working with local state schools, sharing expertise, teacher professional development and unique learning opportunities, is another example. 

In a month where the complete bankruptcy of the Brexit idea and its cult gets exposed further as the UK struggles with a fuel and food crisis that has led to friends in Moldova asking if there is a fund they can contribute towards to help, the opposition Labour Party, instead of challenging the continued avoidance and shouting “elephant” at Brexit and the ongoing woes of the UK, decided to make taxation of private schools their eve of conference news story.  

The morning after the Brexit vote, Friday 24th June, 2016, I went to a Heads’ meeting of the South West region of English schools at Bristol Brunel Academy, to listen to the then National Schools’ Commissioner, Sir David Carter, speak to us about the next phase for academies and MATs. The horror and weight of what the narrow victory meant in the EU referendum dominated the day five years ago.  Sir David was an outstanding Head whose leadership and vision for schools in tough parts of Bristol is an achievement that any school leader can admire. His Cabot Federation MAT is also a strong example of a MAT working in the right way and a model all MATs could emulate if the system is not going to change any time soon. On that Brexit aftermath day, Sir David uttered a phrase that has come to mean more and more to me over the last 5 years; that is it is not about the structures but the outcomes.  

I know Sir David believes completely in the MAT system for state schools for England but I also know that he is a genuine leader in education who recognises the need not to get bogged down in such semantics about structure and focus on building school improvement and sustainability within the school systems and culture.  He is also a leader in education who believes in collaborations, networks and partnerships, learning something new to bring back and improve your own context no matter how good you are. Geoff Barton, another sage voice in UK education, as ASCL leader, made a strong plea for the new Education Secretary in England, Nadhim Zahawi, to fund schools adequately and not to get sidelined with the so-called “Trad v Prog” debates that have done so much damage and resulted in a very harsh, cruel and polarised debate.

In The Britain of the 2020s, education could still be a main export and one of the key drivers of a real “Global Britain” if this polarisation of education could stop.  Speaking of drivers, it was heartening to see Polish and Dutch truck drivers use their fluency in their second/third language of English on European Day of Languages, to explain to BBC Radio 4 why the offer to come to the UK for 3 months to help the crisis wouldn’t be taken up. 

The ordinary teacher just simply wants the respect their profession is due and less bureaucratic nonsense.  This isn’t just unique to the UK and I can say that with my hand on my heart from the other side of Europe, 30 years on from the collapse of the ultimate bureaucratic nonsense that unfortunately still lingers here in Moldova. The removal of Nick Gibb, as English schools minister, may aid this return to schools being less politicised places in England’s national debate but I fear the awful language and determination to stamp out what the Right in the UK (and US) sees as education’s battleground in “woke, cancel culture” and “critical race theory” will continue to take the attention away from supporting schools through the next part of the pandemic into 2022. Adequate funding and genuine assistance to heroic school leaders and staff on their knees from this crisis about to enter a potential winter of a genuine national crisis for the UK should be the only focus.  But when the head of the office for standards and inspections in England, Amanda Spielman, recently criticised  school leaders for prioritising wellbeing and the basic needs of children at the start of the crisis in 2020, you know it is more about one individual but intrinsic to the system entrenched over time. 

This oversimplification of schools into crude labels is something I would like to see less of from the pandemic in the “reimagining education dividend” most conferences now want to keep talking about, despite the fact we are not through this crisis, to fully analyse the impact by a long way. The people who tend to stick to the simple labels have often not experienced any other form of structure, system, school culture and certainly not out of their local-national context. The debate about the purpose, structure and outcomes of schools and education is a very healthy one and one that needs to be returned to continuously as the rapid changes and challenges in our local and global societies continue at pace.  Schools that have existed for decades and centuries did not get to survive and thrive by avoiding looking at the wider World and their place in it and only inward. 

My latest TES article on why school leaders should say no: https://www.tes.com/news/school-leadership-learning-saying-no-lesson-tough-network-collaborations

We are all products of our experiences and environment and I am no different.  I am very fortunate that my educational worldview was the result of remarkably dedicated educators and wonderful schools in my home county of Shropshire.  In my state primary school, John Randall, the love of learning, creativity, outdoor play, history, math, science, reading, as well decent values of respect, caring for one another, being part of a community, all come from this time and school.  Teachers who gave you boundaries and allowed you to fail and grow.

When I look back to my state secondary school, Madeley Court School, it is hard to believe that this state school in a former mining town in the East Shropshire coalfield, had the facilities for learning that it had.  It is no longer there and the “new school” is part of a MAT and local children find it nearly impossible to get into this school.  The land that the school once occupied is now a private housing estate and a retail park.  The school that was so formative in my life and gave me the opportunities to be the first in my family to go to university as the son of a coal miner, always springs to my mind when I see the clip from the West Wing drama and Sam Seeborn describing that schools should be palaces.  All schools should be palaces of learning, like Madeley Court was. The priority for governments should be that simple but mine has decided to increase its number of nuclear warheads by 40% this September and not put that money into children and school or at least eliminate the disgrace that is Food Banks.  

My state school was such a palace of learning and I see that so much now. We had an artificial ski slope, two huge gymnasiums, an actual theatre, a beautiful big library full of books and the equivalent of 3 indoor swimming pools. The school had tennis courts, a running track for athletics, science labs, workshops, art, music and drama studios, ICT suites and enough outdoor pitches and woodland that the English Schools’ Cross Country event was held there regularly.  It wasn’t just the building and facilities though, the teachers were intelligent, intellectual, caring, dedicated, worldly wise and genuinely interested in supporting and developing young minds and people to be the best they could be. For me, all schools should be like this, state, private, whatever the label.  I got to see the World and develop a love for international education because of the opportunities we had to visit Europe and work with countries in our learning. 

Teachers inspired their students at Madeley.  There is nothing more to it than this and when we stop some of the navel gazing that this pandemic has unfortunately inspired to many in the plethora of online conferences and the snake oil sales pitches that are now everywhere, reimagining education will get back to the simple impact and influence of an inspirational teacher in the classroom again. There are many children, in schools families pay directly for, and in schools that are funded through taxation, where children don’t necessarily get the support, the inspiration and care that they should get when they come to school.  I watch private schools in Moldova and the wider region, where the “prestige” and desirability of the “product” are the USPs, akin to owning a Gucci handbook, instead of the actual education and life transformation of their children that any good school knows is the very essence of their reason for existing as an organisation.  I experienced this right at the start of my career at Bootham School, York, an outstanding independent school with an international outlook that has been my lodestar in my career since.

If I had got the chance to enter into a dialogue with the guy on Dacia Boulevard earlier this month I would have corrected his assumptions.  My students, who practice critical thinking and study deep knowledge and how to debate, could have told him. But he is right on this; we are a fee paying school but we also pay a lot of tax, are not for profit and unlike the UK, we do not have a charity status. People also have the right to invest in their children in the ways they can but the best investment, as any parents know, is to spend time with your children. That is not about being rich, poor or privileged. A brilliant student leader in the school doesn’t see her father much because he works driving trucks on the West Coast of North America to Alaska and back so he can give his daughter the opportunities of this education for her future.  It is humbling. 

I would have told him that we have a developed social responsibility commitment to our society and country that supports charities for animal welfare and young children and their families.  We work in networks with a large number of state schools and we have given time and expertise for free over 1000s of hours on professional development across all areas of education.  At the start of the crisis, we spent several days with the minister and his team to show and give our online learning, policies and advice.  We have continued to lend our support as a school to the country.  Shouty Guy doesn’t know that because we gave the country the free expertise and means to develop online learning and hope for a workable solution in those weekends in March, we stopped the Plan B from the Ministry to close schools, not pay teachers and to all come back in the summer vacation to make up the time. But Shouty Guy just sees a bright red, shiny school when he looks.

We have a tiered fee structure and we have full scholarships.  We represent Moldova in a range of global education arenas and we continue to bring this all back to Moldova to shape and change education.  We keep families and investments in the country and endeavour not to add to the migration of skills and working people as well as be a place for the international community to come because there is a school for their children.  We are educating future leaders in our young people in ground breaking innovative education and instilling the decent liberal values that will ensure the next generation are not corrupt, divisive charlatans harking back to a time when only a very few benefited.  We have local schools attending our Founders’ Lectures to hear unique speakers and real world examples. The 3rd series of the school’s Founders’ Lecture got underway this month and we welcomed back the UK Embassy’s Chevening scholarships to inspire young Moldovans from Heritage and the local state schools who joined us. 

We don’t improve any organisation by looking inward and ignoring what others are doing more successfully.  Countries don’t improve this way either and for all the shame of Brexit and the Orwellian doublespeak of “global Britain”, in Moldova we can look to a president in Maia Sandu, at the UN 76th general assembly in September speaking as a leader, who didn’t use the event to make a lame joke about Kermit the Frog.  Herein lies the differences on the opposite ends of Europe for me right now and why my career took me to Moldova. 

When I look at the daily activities of Heritage and speak to my peers in conferences and forums about the school’s work and mission, I am extremely proud of what we are building here and how that is having a wider positive impact. The compassionate global citizens being created who are proud of where they are from but don’t see the need to hate another human being for not coming from their part of the World.  Students who see they have a role in helping and lifting up others through student leadership and compassion. It is not because of the label but it is about the focus on impact and outcomes. It is what we did at Wyedean, Crickhowell, Wootton Bassett and Ridings every day.  What they are still doing despite all the pressures and difficulties of the 2020s so far. All state schools and fantastic schools for any child to thrive at.  

It is also because we have a school culture and a team of professionals at Heritage who believe in the transformative power of education, as I was fortunate enough to have in my education when I was a child. This is what we all want for our children. As we approach winter this October, with more uncertainty and cases still rising, we need to keep our focus, our certainty, on education and students.  We need to get the angry, “shouty people” out of our heads, online or in the street, we have seen what damage they can do with Brexit and Trump, and we need to keep our focus on what we are doing in our schools globally, that continues to give hope for the future for our communities. Whatever our school is called. 

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