Internationalism over isolation; how to live in an age of stupid.

It’s not often I get to stroll across Westminster Bridge, umbrella in hand, on the 1st March, St David’s Day and wearing a Martisor for the start of Spring. The Houses of Parliament, the river Thames, Boudica and Big Ben, all familiar and famous. Especially familiar for me on that first Wednesday morning of March as two memories from nowhere came flooding back into my mind’s eye as I made my way to the Outstanding Schools Europe Conference (OSE23) over in the old London County Hall. 

My mind went back to a moment in the summer of 2007 when a group of students from Tomsk and Bristol had one of those international days that looking back from the tumult of 2023, seems quite surreal, and unreal.  I stopped on Westminster Bridge to remember how excited these kids from Siberia were to be in London and all wanting to take their photos with the Palace of Westminster in the background. 

I have kept in contact with a number of students and teachers from this time and despite the dangers of having such an association now I spoke with one of them from Wales only a couple of weeks ago as she now works in Bishkek. We spoke about the fears of male family members being conscripted and some of those young lads from her school, not quite young lads now, are in the military.  The crumb of comfort I took from the conversation was that none of this work that we did on international education back then, the opportunities, the friendships, the projects, have been forgotten, much as we both wanted to weep at where the World is now in 2023.  Global citizenship then and now is still alive and well despite the counter narrative of the 2020s in so many parts of the World, not just Russia. Gary Linekar was not wrong in his recent tweet.

I have been working in London over so many years but I have never lost the joy of being in that truly global city with its remarkable history and its energy and dynamism. Finally seeing Big Ben clean and restored and without scaffolding, for the first time in years, brought my mind back to another moment from ghosts of career past.  One of my first ever A Level Politics classes had the luck to not only have an exceptional tour of Parliament, back in the late 1990s, but we were invited to climb all the way to the top of the clock tower and stand in the vicinity of Big Ben itself at midday.  The vibrations from the bongs weren’t pleasant but I remember looking at the faces of my students knowing this was one of the great days in education.

I have had many great days in education and looking back from my window on Dacia Boulevard here in Chisinau, I feel very fortunate to have had a career of nearly 30 years where I have been able to use international education to change lives, schools and communities.  When I spoke at the closing keynote panel at OSE23, with the wonderful Anita Gleave of Chatsworth Schools, it was these experiences I drew upon.  I have also come to realise more and more these past few years how much more freedom I have as an international school leader and leading international schools, than had I stayed in the UK. Watching colleagues in England forced to strike for the very basics in education and the continued politicisation of education in the state system, I am more than glad to have found a way to continue using international education as the driver of standards, opportunities, personal development and holistic education. 

The “age of stupid” in education can be seen in many ways.  It can be the inability for people who use the words “woke” or “cancel culture” to actually define them adequately but instead reveal what we all know that anyone using such lazy language is attempting to mask pejorative language, prejudice, misogyny and often racism, that even they think is beyond the pale.  It can be seen in the banning of books and AP courses in states like Florida.  Attacking Pride or Black History Month as “dangerous”.  The most startling of all for me in the UK has been the shrill debate from those in education who believe young children are being taught a curriculum straight from Pornhub, backed up by the same media who attack men in drag for reading children’s stories. 

No wonder teachers and school leaders are leaving in droves and not being replaced. The “age of stupid” does go hand in hand with those who bang the drum about “British Values”, as if this was as an impenetrable force field of virtue, without allowing any examination or scrutiny of Britain’s colonial past, the finest hours and not so finest hours. Not realising that the language of politicians like Braverman against immigrants and calls to leave the ECHR, are anything but virtuous values to be teaching kids.  Give me the panto dame reading Snow White in a library to the lies around 100 million migrants wanting to come to the UK and victims of trafficking being called criminals. 

Despite the war next door, the rise in prices, the blatant attempts of the Kremlin to destablise Moldova for daring to want to choose a prosperous, democratic, European path for its future, I still feel that there is more understanding of the globalised society in Moldova and the national education community, across all sectors, despite the lack of funding, continues to work to embrace new pedagogy like AI, and international education, to prepare young people for the future.  To have the right skills, mindset and qualifications.  The state system in England really does seem to want to go back to the 1930s for some in power right now, both in terms of the narrowing curriculum and the increasingly centralised control.

One of the things I realised was disappearing fast from the UK in education at the start of the 2020s were the very developed networks and collaboration between schools across the UK and internationally.  The lies and removal of Erasmus and Etwinning for schools in the UK still remains one of the most nasty and twisted acts of spite from Johnson and the cult of Brexit. Outstanding teachers and school leaders in the UK, despite all the pressures they are under, continue to fight to put international education into the heart of their curriculum and schools.  But it shouldn’t be like this and these are the very people we don’t want to lose from education.  It does seem to be finally dawning though that Global Britain and Brexit Britain are not the same thing, cannot co-exist and are in fact diametrically opposed. 

One of the best examples of school networks and collaboration remain groups like ECIS and we were proud to be announced as their school of the month for March.  Another one is COBIS and the Black Sea Schools group of COBIS is a complete source of strength for us here in Moldova.  Watching how we have all supported colleagues in Ukraine and BISU, gives me hope for how the future narrative can and should be in education. At OSE23 it was a pleasure and privilege to meet colleagues from BISU in Anna Azarova and it is awe inspiring to see how they have kept learning continuing in the most challenging existential crisis of a nihilistic war now over 1 year old. Anyone who reads the continued plight of girls and women in Afghanistan who have had education removed cannot help but be struck by this ultimate act of stupidity. We celebrated Women’s Day here on the 8th March and I thought of how fortunate I am to have such strong females in my life from dear friends, colleagues, daughters, sister, wife and my mother. 

I had to cross Westminster Bridge again after OSE23 to make my way to the House of Lords to have tea and a catch up with an incredible female politician, Baroness Jan Royall. Jan has always been a fervent champion of young people and working with her from Wyedean and her support for the people of the Forest of Dean, makes her a rare figure in an “age of stupid”, especially in modern politicians. Jan met me at the Peers entrance and then took me through the Lords to find a place to grab a drink and talk.  For a student of politics of my age, it was a fascinating tour as politicians I grew up with, remembering from the last 4 decades, walked by. Jan is a huge supporter of Moldova and I am really pleased that she will be coming to Moldova at the start of April to visit Heritage. Jan epitomses international education in her values and outlook.  I caught the train from Paddington, back to Bristol, grinning from ear to ear.

Being back in the UK for the last few weeks, working from home has meant being able to enjoy some wonderful British cuisine. I may be a citizen of the World but I miss fish and chips, pork pies and proper English breakfasts in Moldova. It was also good to go and spend time in my beloved Wales and at the start of Spring, even with the snowfall, it was a perfect time for reflection, drinking in some spectacular scenery and getting ready for the last part of the academic year at Heritage as we have around 9 weeks left of the academic year. 

As I personally approach a new decade this month, and I am not a big fan of birthdays,  I do look back over my career, especially my time in Moldova these four years and all the challenges faced, and the pull of sitting quietly in Wales in the hills, just walking the dog, writing and focussing on my own children getting onto the next stage, is a very strong one. The thread of international education has been the one constant in my life from the opportunities I was given at school as a student, to all the incredible work I have been fortunate to have been involved with over many years working with great people (and great students) who believe in young people and the future. It is a privilege to be in this amazing arena. 

I suppose the reflection on Westminster Bridge I had at the start of March was part of this feeling of whether or not we have succeeded in challenging the age of stupid. Have we developed global citizens in our students?  Are these years of the 2020s a blip in World History and actually the challenges and the way we have all responded gives us the skills and belief in our values, our shared global values, to ensure there is a better future?  Time will tell. 

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