CEO’s Blog: May 2022: Letter to Year 13 revisited.

Those who’ve been reading my blogs for some time may recall that I once wrote a “letter to Year 13”.  It was July 2019, and the blog can be found in the archive on the MAT’s website.  Part of my reason behind writing that post at that time was that I had a “Year 13” of my own.  My eldest had just completed his A Levels, and we were awaiting his results.  Little did any of us know that those results would be the last externally examined outcomes that our young people have received – at either Year 13 or Year 11. 

Two years of Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) and Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs) have been the intervening reality for our young people as they’ve done everything they could to contend with the difficulties and turbulence of the last two years in our schools.  And we, staff, parents and the wider community, have done all we can to support them.

So, as we see the resumption of examinations and tests in our schools (at the time of writing, Year 6 have just commenced their SATs, and GCSEs and A Levels begin in earnest imminently) I have chosen to re-publish my letter.  Again, I have a personal reason to re-visit its themes: my eldest being at the point of concluding his university studies via his Finals assessments, whilst my youngest is sitting his GCSEs this summer too.  I still stand by every word within it, and perhaps they may resonate even more so than they did almost three years ago. 

Dear Year 13,

I want to take a few minutes of your time to share with you some of my thoughts about the times you’ve had at school, and the time that is to follow.  You’re well beyond clichés of “crossroads” and “milestones” by now.  However, if you’ve got your head screwed on, then you won’t be beyond some plain old advice – dolloped out in a spirit of humility and love.  Like so many things in your life, you decide what to do with the contents of this letter.  You have attained an age, and therefore a right, to make those decisions yourself.  You also bear a responsibility for those decisions too – the accolades and accomplishments and the ownership of problems are yours.  May you be thoroughly prepared and equipped to deal with both.

So, here goes.  I’ve written you a list.  I hope it makes sense.  If it does, that’s great.  If any of it resonates with you – even better.  The list is in no order, other than that in which the ideas came to me, which has little bearing on their importance.  It’s also by no means exhaustive, as you’ll see, but it is based on some of the challenges I know that some of you will face.

  1. Your identity is your most precious asset.  Don’t trade it for conformity, but neither parade it for provocation.  It isn’t a hairstyle, a tattoo, a fashion sense or a particular taste in music.  All those things are other people’s creations that you may admire to the point of emulation.  But they’re not you.  Treat them as the superficialities they are.  What your identity is, is something for you to discover for yourself.
  2. The predetermined groups of which you are a member don’t define you.  Don’t be taken in by the misconceptions that there are traits or characteristics you should exhibit or actions you should take because of a group you are deemed to be a part of: your sex, your ethnicity, your age, your abilities, your background.  Do not allow others to place guilt upon your shoulders for actions or opinions of others in your ‘group’, or place expectations upon you for a ‘cause’.  This is the worst form of identity theft, and should be resisted.  And don’t judge others by their predetermined groups either!
  3. In an age of polarisation in so many parts of our world, do not confuse abstinence from debate as agreement with you.  Descartes wrote that “he who hid well, lived well.” More recently, university students in the United States have coined the phrase that “silence is safe”. Encourage dialogue with others as a means of finding truth.  There is a difference between legitimate and civilised debate over issues that matter and the deliberate intention to cause offence.  Don’t ever do the latter, and don’t ever allow those with differing views get away with accusing you of it as you engage in the former.  There are plenty who’ll try to.
  4. Read.  Read opinions that will challenge you, and those that will be affirming too.  Don’t believe all you read to be true, but do believe that you can find truth through reading. As with all things, don’t sell yourself and your abilities short when choosing what to read.  Nothing is “beyond you” – but you may need to read something else first! Be prepared to be profoundly moved by what you read.
  5. It is better to live with remorse for your actions, than regret for your inaction.  So be active.  The world hasn’t agreed to give you anything, or make anything easy for you.  But statistically if you’re reading this blog, you’ve already been given chances in life that most of the planet’s other seven billion residents have not.  Don’t be a confirmatory embodiment of the stereotypical “entitled, snowflake, millennial”.  Your actions can change the world in as profound a way as those of previous generations, and they will.
  6. Never write lists with more than five key points in them.”

And now I break my own rule above with a genuine sixth point, written in earnest to all young people – including my own son – as they embark on their tests and exams. 

6: You’re stronger than you think you are.  You show that in all you do and all you’ve done, and in all you’re committed to doing.  Surprise yourself with your accomplishments, celebrate them, and then resolve to achieve yet more – for yourself, for those around you that you care about, and for the world we all inhabit. 

Wishing every one of our young people the success they deserve this summer – and offering my sincere gratitude to all those in their schools and homes who want the best for them too.

As always, thanks for reading.


CEO’s Blog: April 2022: “Eyes on, hands off.”

No, this is not a misquoting of that famous scene in The Karate Kid where the sagely Mr Miyagi instructs “Daniel-san” how to wash his car.  In that scene, the Karate master was instilling the importance of practice and repetition through the “wax on, wax off” command. 

My theme for this latest blog is school governance – something else that is improved through practice and repetition of the correct techniques.

The concept of “eyes on, hands off” is straightforward enough.  Our governance, not just in schools, but in hospital trusts, police and prison services, and many other public and private bodies, should be driven by effective scrutiny (“eyes on”) and yet clear delineation from the executive function (“hands off”).  For “eyes on”, governors need to be knowledgeable – not only about the organisation but also the communities and stakeholders it comprises, the statutory framework within which it operates, and what its vision, ambition, strengths and weaknesses are.  They need to then be able to tap into that knowledge to help leaders at all levels make better decisions, through effective questioning and by bringing their own experience and insights to the decision-making process.  The best decisions, and the most robust strategy, is that which is forged in the crucible of challenging debate. 

With regard to effective questioning, I have seen the power of a great question transform a strategy from one which may well have encountered either challenge from stakeholders, problems in its implementation, or both.  As a headteacher with a governing body, and now as a CEO with a Trust Board, I am incredibly grateful to the governor and director colleagues respectively who, through their effective challenge, have ensured we move forward as seamlessly as possible – and in the right direction. 

Questions such as “what alternatives were there, and why were they rejected?”, “have we the capacity to give this the time and energy it needs?”, “what happens if we do nothing?” and “how will you know what success looks like – and how will we know?” are the questions that school leaders should relish. 

With reference to “hands off”, the message is fairly simple: individuals cannot be held accountable for decisions they have not made.  We sometimes hear in political circles, particularly in the United States, reference to “overreach” where typically an individual or group has strayed beyond its remit.  Such over-reach blurs lines of accountability and can be both de-stabilising and demoralising.  Like many social interactions, and governance is essentially a social interaction, such straying can be inadvertent, gradual and sporadic.  Yet, over time, it is corrosive.  I have been fortunate to work with governors and directors who understand and appreciate such risks and take every step necessary to ensure they do not manifest.  Through my networks, I am aware that not all leaders in the sector and beyond are so fortunate.

From NGA’s “What governing boards and headteachers should expect from each other.”

I want to close with a huge “thank you” to those governors and directors who are generous with their time, their insights and their expertise.  School governance is the single biggest act of volunteering in this country and without it our schools and their communities would be much the poorer.  I know that many governors find the experience rewarding and engaging, and certainly my own experience as an infant school governor for ten years was something I remember with great fondness and positivity. 

Our Trust thrives in no small part due to the work of its governors – individually and collectively – and this blog is in a small way recognition of that.

As always, thanks for reading.


CEO’s Blog: March 2022: “How to code, and what to code.”

Viewers of regional news in the West Midlands will no doubt have seen the very recent story regarding the deployment of driverless buses to ferry passengers to-and-fro at Birmingham International Airport.  The inaugural journey was the source of much publicity with the system’s developers, together with local politicians, enjoying the ride. 

Driverless vehicles are not new, but still extremely limited in number and scope.  Were that not the case, we would not have had this event as a “news” story!  The reasons behind their relative rarity are two-fold.  First, on a technical level there are many considerations that are required for such vehicles to be considered safe and roadworthy – typically involving sensors, including infrared for night-time travel, and computer back-up should there be a malfunction.  Second, there is a confidence or perception consideration.  Observers will point out that we will readily place our safety in the hands of a stranger when we get on board a train, bus, or taxi and yet we are, statistically, far more reluctant to submit our welfare to an unseen but incredibly accurate and stress-tested microprocessor.  In this context, it is arguable that the technical issues are more easily surmountable than the psychological ones.

You are probably familiar with the quotation that “children must be taught how to think, not what to think” (Margaret Mead).  With driverless vehicles, we understand that there is primarily a “what to think” approach to programming.  Driverless cars are programmed with the rules of the road – speed limits, signage, rights of way etc. – and also the technical specifications of the vehicle, and how those may be affected by differing driving conditions such as the icy road, the cold start to the brake disks etc.  In this capacity, the computer controlling the vehicle has far more knowledge than any bus or taxi driver, or any other driver whose vehicle we may enter.  I think it is pretty safe to state that we all “get” that.

Where driverless cars struggle to convince us is at the psychological level.  After all, we can often see the taxi or bus driver and make a quick, superficial appraisal of their fitness to drive us.  Crucially, we also acknowledge that they have a “stake in the game” too.  Their own personal safety is a sign of their commitment regarding ours, as is their personal accountability should something happen.  Here, the driverless vehicle is, by definition, conspicuous by absence.  Maybe that’s why the term “autonomous” (suggesting a positive quality) rather than “driverless” (suggesting a deficit) is becoming the preferred term?

Finally on this, I read Noah Yuval Harari’s work “Sapiens” – in which he refers to the challenges of programming such vehicles.  The problems do not relate to the Highway Code or braking distances.  Relatively speaking, those ‘knowledge-rich’ aspects of learning are easy for the computer.  Far more challenging, and for me more interesting, are the philosophical and ethical challenges associated with coding an ‘autonomous’ vehicle (which, of course, is not truly ‘autonomous’ if it is programmed!).  Harari describes going into a car retailer showroom to peruse the latest models.  “Would sir want the Renault Egoist (which would, in the event of an impending accident, save the owner at whatever cost to other road users and pedestrians) or the Renault Altruist (which would make decisions to preserve whichever lives it could calculate most likely to be saved, whether that included the owner or not)?” Why car would you buy?  If you bought the “Altruist” would you feel safe?  And if you bought the “Egoist” would you feel guilty? 

We live in a world increasingly controlled by technology, and that technology is programmed with default settings – whether it is the number of rings on our mobile phones before they switch to voicemail, or the channel settings on the TV, or the preferred route calculation methodology on a SatNav.  Very few of us have the inclination or technical prowess to change them.  We stick with the default – where someone we do not know has made a decision to programme into devices the configurations that they have.  That is why we are seeing a rise in the prominence of coding and programming in our schools and society of course, but also why we are seeing a heightening of interest in ethics and philosophy.  The philosophy of “trolley dilemmas” is fascinating, and well worth a look if you are unfamiliar.  Their study has produced a field in its own right: Trolley-ology!  Trolley problem – Wikipedia

Our young people therefore need to not only know how to code, but what to code.  These decisions have far-reaching consequences.  Computer Science studies should always include a compulsory module on moral philosophy!   

As always, thanks for reading.