CEO’s Blog: June 2022: What would my Mom think of that?

At the time of writing, this coming Sunday (19th June) will be Father’s Day.  It is this event in the calendar when, as a father of two, I annually see the hope of a day without the demands of “cash and carry” or “the jobs list” dashed on the rocks of reality.  But it was also the fact that Father’s Day is coming that reminded me of two sporting stories from which I intend to draw the themes for this month’s blog.

The first story is one some of you may remember.  The year is 2012, and it is December. There is a cross country race being run in Navarre.  As the competitors approach the finish, in first place lies Abel Mutai, the Kenyan who won a bronze in the London Olympic Games only a few months earlier.  In second, but some distance behind, is Spaniard Ivan Fernandez Anaya racing in home country. With no more than 10 meters to go, Mutai slows down and stops – believing he’s already crossed the finish line.  Clearly, Anaya can catch him, despite the yawning gap between them that existed.  Which he does. 

Rather than overtake, Anaya pushes Mutai forwards and gestures for him to keep going to cross the line in first place. 

After the event, Anaya was asked about his actions by a journalist.  He replied, “My dream is that some day we can have a kind of community life.” “But why did you let the Kenyan win!” protested the local journalist – clearly bruised that home-grown talent hadn’t won gold. “I didn’t let him win.  He was going to win”, was Ayala’s response.  “What would be the merit of my victory?  What would be the honour in that medal? What would my mom think of that?”  

And second, there’s the footage from a documentary about Liverpool and England midfielder Steven Gerrard.  A one-club player, he was courted by several rival clubs (most notably Chelsea – twice) to sign a contract that would have certainly been highly lucrative and in all probability would have assured him of greater success in terms of trophies.  Gerrard remained with Liverpool, topping the “Match of the Day” pundits’ list as the greatest player never to win the Premier League.  There is even a website devoted to “Ten rubbish Man Utd players with more premier league medals than Steven Gerrard” featuring a whole host of players that the annals of football history now overlook, and whose blushes I will spare in this blog. 

But when asked why he didn’t move, earn more and win more medals, his response was typically brusque: “But who would I show them to?”  With immediate and extended family all hailing from Liverpool and supporting the club that bears the city’s name, Gerrard knew that a league winner’s medal emblazoned with Chelsea-blue ribbons would not impress those he cared about, any more than Anaya’s gold medal won as a result of Mutai’s error would have impressed his mother.

We all have a conscience, and we all have sense of right and wrong.  These are individual to us, and we judge and are judged in the world according to them.  However, our values are transmitted from generation to generation.   Working in schools, we see this in the attitudes and actions of parents and grandparents. 

Unfortunately, in our world there will be a minority of people where the answer to the question “what would my mom think of that?” either would not be known or, if it were, the answer would not be one that would occupy a space upon the moral high ground.  Yet for the overwhelming majority of young people, “what would my mom – or Dad – think of that?” is a good sense-check before making a choice when faced with a dilemma.  For all those parents whose children would ask themselves that question and make the right judgment call as a result, we in our schools thank you. 

As always, thanks for reading.


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.