CEO’s Blog: 12th November 2021: “Flanders and Glasgow”

This week sees our news broadcasts dominated by our history and our future.

Yesterday our schools and our nation fell silent in an act of remembrance for the fallen of war.  With the Armistice, and the first Remembrance Day, being commemorated over a century ago the importance of society’s collective memory living on beyond those who bore witness to the events themselves becomes ever more important.  We are well-served in our locality by the inspiring National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas.  Taking my late father, himself a former servicemen in the Royal Artillery, to the Arboretum a number of years ago was a wonderful experience for us both – giving a time and a place for him to remember his own service and that of his comrades.  He was deeply moved to see the regimental motto of the Royal Artillery (“Ubique” – Latin for “everywhere”) writ large, and we sat on the bench with cannon motifs and spent some cherished time together.  It is a day I will never forget. 

Today marks the final day in the COP 26 global conference on climate change hosted in Glasgow.  At the time of writing, we await the conclusion of the summit, and our news stories are focused on whether a binding and meaningful agreement between nations can be reached.  Draped in the hyperbole of “eleventh hour”s and “last chance saloon”s, that provide an artificial sensationalism that the event really doesn’t require given its gravity, we all look to the world’s leaders to support changes that will make a positive impact on our world and all the species that inhabit it – now and into the future. 

Our Trust’s involvement in a net zero carbon new school project, supporting community regeneration on the site of the former power station in Rugeley is, as with the National Memorial Arboretum, a local response to a global issue.  We are hugely proud of our involvement as we see the school and wider site develop.  It promises to be an amazing school and community resource for children and young people aged three to nineteen. 

As educators, we have a sobering responsibility to the children in our schools to ensure they can look back into our collective history, to place their own lives into a wider and meaningful context and preserve our collective memory of our past.  We also have a similar duty to ensure those same children can look forward, and contribute positively, to a better world that is as free from the smoke of a burning rainforest as it is from the smoke of a Flanders field.  This is no minor undertaking, but it is something we must be resolute in our commitment to. 

I am currently reading “Ravelstein” by the American novelist and commentator Saul Bellow.  In it the main protagonist Abe Ravelstein, a university tutor of philosophy, quotes Friedrich Schiller: “Live with your century, but do not be its creature.”  For our young people, who one day will be not so young, we should wish this.  That they can see the horizons from which they come and the horizon to which they are heading.  For those of us already not so young, we can reflect that with regard to COP 26, as was the case in the Europe of 1914, it is the children that always pay the price for the sins of the fathers. 

As always, thanks for reading.

Mike

CEO’s Blog: October 2021: “The marble and the sculptor.”

For this month’s blog I wanted to recount a conversation that I had recently with a headteacher, working in a school outside our Trust, as part of a performance management review process I was invited to support.  Only a year into post, and with much of that disrupted by lockdown and restrictions, she wanted to update me with her translation of her approach to the school’s improvement priorities into a staff-wide ‘call to action’. 

We discussed the responses of staff to change, and the headteacher confirmed that “everyone wants the school to improve”.  Whilst that in itself is positive, my challenge was straightforward:  It is very easy to affirm that we’d like our school to be better.  Parents, children, and community members want their school to be better too.  In fact, almost everyone wants all schools to be better.  To want anything else would be difficult to fathom. 

However, we all know that wanting something and making it happen are not synonymous.  I once heard a goal described as “a dream with a deadline” – and we can all appreciate that both personal and corporate achievements need to be focussed on tangible activity or, in short, work. 

Work requires sacrifice.  In scientific terms, “work” is defined as the transfer of energy through the exertion of a force.  Such a transfer comes at a cost.  We transfer the energy we have within us to others.  To children, to their families, to our colleagues.  John C Maxwell wrote with regard to leadership that “a leader must give up to go up.”  Talk to any leader, and they will be able to identify with this, and cite examples of the sacrifices they have made on their leadership journey.  There is no success without sacrifice.

So, my challenge to the headteacher colleague was to ask what sacrifices her colleagues were prepared to make in their desire to see the school improve.  That is the true test of their commitment. 

I am truly humbled by the sacrifices so many colleagues in our schools make – daily, weekly, termly – in the pursuit of excellence for their communities.  Those sacrifices sometimes go unrecognised, but the impact of them is crystal clear. 

Finally, I was inspired to choose this theme (which I think is apt as we look towards a well-earned half term break) by a quotation I saw recently for the first time by the French surgeon and Nobel prize winner from the early twentieth century, Alexis Carrel:

Sometimes the sacrifices made are in self-improvement.  They can be the most challenging and yet amongst the most rewarding.  Again, I am proud to be surrounded by colleagues who are always learning, always growing, always seeking further ways to improve.  They “give up to go up”, and their schools and the children who attend them are better off for it.

As always, thanks for reading.

Mike

CEO’s Blog: London Marathon 2021 (Part 2): Je ne regret rien!

My regular readers will know from the trail of breadcrumbs I have left in my past two blogs whether to read on or not.  This blog is the second, and concluding, part of my marathon adventure and, once again, you are warned that what follows is wholly self-indulgent and largely unrelated to the blogs I typically write about leadership, schools, children and stuff. 

So, if you stop right here, there are no hard feelings and I’ll hope to pick up with you via my next “proper” blog later this month.  If you’re still here, remember that with choices come consequences.  And also remember that you get what you pay for – and this blog is free!  There is a quid pro quo, however.  Whilst this blog is essentially a way for me to document what I will state here at the outset was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had, it is also a way for me to avoid boring others to excess in the real world.  If someone is interested in my marathon (I use the possessive form, because it is mine now!), I will direct them here.

I’ll begin by reminding you where we left off in Blog #1 in mid-September: a few weeks before the race, training going OK, some nerves, random ornithology about herons and pheasants, and much excitement.

Now we can fast forward to Saturday (2nd October) and the day before the race.  The bag is packed and the train from Watford Junction is booked.  The plan is to drive from home to Watford (which, remarkably, is 26 miles from central London), park up and get the train in from there.  My wife’s thinking is that if she has to scoop me up off the tarmac at the end (neither of us really know how likely this might be), she can at least bundle me into our car – where there is a blanket on stand-by – and drive us straight back home.  Vicki has been amazing in her support for all this throughout, helping with logistics, motivation and fundraising.  She is a star.

Next stop after arrival at Euston is the London Excel Centre, for bag drop-off, final registration (proof of ID, lateral flow test result etc.) and to collect the bib for the race.  The queues are long, as we were warned they would be on the day before the event, but the atmosphere is jovial, and the excitement is palpable.  There are a worrying number of young, athletically-framed young men with chiselled features and broad shoulders, accompanied by slender young women clad in Lycra.  By comparison, I present to the officials as someone who is holding the kit for a friend who has popped to the toilets.  Imposter syndrome was hanging around my neck tighter than the drawstrings of the bag.  They call it “Maranoia”, and it is very real!

Then after all that, back onto the Docklands Light Railway to Canary Wharf and the hotel for the night.  A carb-laden pizza, a glass of wine (to settle the nerves) and an early night with “Strictly Come Dancing”, listening to the torrential rain outside and hoping for calm skies in the morning, which there were.  A breakfast of porridge, beans on toast and more porridge – again in the company of the ripped, the bronzed and the beautiful, and a photo (in full gear – including the recommended bottle belt) before setting off via Lewisham to my start at Blackheath.

The train to Blackheath was packed with runners and the smell of anticipation and “Deep Heat” muscle spray was in the air.  My start gate was “Blue” and my wave number was “13” – neither the colour nor the number that is characteristic of optimism and success.   But superstition is for the weak!

Then we wait.  And wait.  It is now 9:30 am, and all the sponsors’ hot air balloons and rah-rah commentary over the Tannoy cannot provide comfort or distraction.  I talk to a nice man called Vash, who is running his first London Marathon too (for the “Make a Wish” children’s charity) and a lady from Texas who has been training in 100-degree temperatures for this.  As the day unfolds, her training will be more relevant than she envisaged at the start.  It will get very warm later!  A few photos at the start line, throwing away the old and tatty hand-me-up hoody that I took from my son’s wardrobe to keep me warm before the race, and we’re away.   It’s 10:36 am, and we have 26.2 miles to go – except for the meandering and weaving that will add precious extra yards to the route.  If the race goes badly wrong, those extra yards are very much on my list of excuses together with various real and imaginary causes of my downfall which include an olive of dubious origins on my pizza, my choice of running socks and the air conditioning in the hotel but excludes diet, training, and inherent ability.

Before moving to the race itself, I must write briefly about the people I met at the Marathon.  They were incredible.  So many individuals with stories of personal courage, and so many running for great causes, raising funds for those who need them, or in memory of those no longer with us.  From a diversity of backgrounds, places, ages and contexts, “#WeRunTogether” was a fitting strapline for the race, celebrating the return of the mass participation event after two and a half years, and the fact that the event unifies us all.  It is the contradiction that we all collectively are running our own race individually.  It just works.

For race day at least, it seemed all of us were able to suspend our cynicism and embrace our humanity.  It was truly inspiring.  I ran alongside a range of other competitors, but only for a few miles each.  To find someone with a pace, a gait, a time target and energy levels to match one’s own is pretty much impossible.  So we’d run, chat, and either I’d move off or they would.  There was “John” from Hertfordshire, running for Macmillan who saw me through Miles 3 -7 (past Greenwich Maritime and The Cutty Sark) until the ‘Kernow’ flag that adorned his running vest was greeted by whoops of delight from a Cornish contingent of spectators and he was lost to them.  Then there was Craig from Basildon, and Rebecca from Cape Town.  All with stories, all first timers like me, and all great people.

So, let’s pick up at Mile 8, where we see (but don’t photograph – the phone has gone away now, it’s only function being to track my route via GPS for the App.) high streets with steel bands, dhol drummers and busy pubs blaring out “Eye of the Tiger”, “We are the Champions” and other suitably upbeat tracks over loudspeakers.  It’s just great.  At Mile 9, we are over a third distance, and all is good.

The half-way stage is just the other side of Tower Bridge which, to run across, is a high point of the event.  Shortly after, we find ourselves in something of a “contraflow”, with the more experienced club runners heading towards Embankment and the finish (they are on miles 21-23) whilst we literal ‘also rans’ are trudging through Miles 14 to 16.  The sun is high in the London skies now (about 1:00 pm) and the opposite carriageway has more than a few runners now walking.  Psychologically, that’s not great to see when we know that they are far ahead of us and we have all that to come, but the legs are still functioning fine and I choose to turn a blind eye, looking to the crowds on my near side as opposed to my fellow runners beyond the barriers. 

Miles 16-18 are largely residential.  No real landmarks to see (and I’ll admit that my gaze was sometimes towards my own feet rather than the scenery) and the crowds were sometimes quite thin.  I comfort myself on mile 16 that there are only ten miles to go, but then I think back to where I was ten miles back (and Cutty Sark) and become acutely aware of just how much running still lies ahead – and that’s if I’m lucky!

Mile 19 is a high point.  We’re back at Canary Wharf and the business district.  The high-rise office developments offer welcome shade from the sun, and there is a brilliant surprise around one corner when Vicki cheers me on and takes an ‘action shot’ as I run by.


Then we’re back onto the ‘contraflow’ for Miles 20 to 23, but this time heading towards Embankment ourselves.  There are still plenty of brave souls pouring through in the other direction at mile 14, and I’m beginning to feel leggy.  I am not watching the time on my watch at all, but I am conscious that I’m slowing down from a pace that was quite pedestrian to start with. 

At some stage after Mile 23, we move into what is clearly the final phase.  Basically, a 5K.  The contraflow is over, and we’re running through undulating tunnels and flyovers towards the banks of the Thames.  After Mile 24, I see green matting that reads “2000 metres to go” as I run across it.  That, and the amazing crowds, give a much-needed boost to morale: I will do this, and I am not going to walk!

We turn right at The Houses of Parliament and the heavens open with a ferocious cloudburst (I am running for ‘The Rainy Day Trust’ after all!) and we head towards Buckingham Palace and The Mall.  We pass a “600 metres to go” sign, and then we turn the final bend.  I congratulate random strangers running alongside me, and they reciprocate.  We’ve only gone and bloody done it!

Marshalls give us a smile and a hearty “well done” and gently shepherd us away from the finishing line and towards our bags, containing our medals.  The rain stops, and we literally bask in the warmth of achievement.  I check the time: 4 hours 31 minutes and 23 seconds.  I’d hoped for ten minute miles (which I’d calculated as a 4 hour 30 minute finish), and worked out – and I’ll admit that this was only when my brain was no longer mush – that the 0.2 miles at the end meant that I’d got there.  My average time was 9 mins 59 seconds per mile, would you believe.

So.  That’s it.  We found our way back to the tube, to Euston, to the car and home.  I was exhausted, and thought I would fall asleep on arrival home.  The reality was that I was awake much of the night, still “buzzing” from the day. In actual fact, most of this blog was written during that time. 

I always round off my blogs by thanking you for reading.  However, here I want to thank all those who supported me – through encouragement or sponsorship – to do this.  If you wanted to help ‘The Rainy Day Trust’, my page is still open here. They’re a very worthy cause that I’m proud to have helped.

Thanks for reading. 

Mike