CEO’s Blog: “We have done so much, for so long, with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.”

Readers of my blogs will recall that earlier in the year (March 2020) I drew my inspiration from Michael Palin’s “Pole to Pole”, a book I had chosen to read during the most restrictive phase of our initial Covid-19 lockdown. 

For my blog this month, I return to Palin but this time via his earlier journals from “Around the World in 80 days.”  Restricted to travel options that did not involve flight, much of his time was spent on merchant ships as they traversed the world’s oceans delivering and collecting cargo.

Naturally, with such protracted periods of time at sea, Palin became very well acquainted with many of the sailors and other crew members aboard ship.  In the final chapter, a sailor left him a message in his cabin.  It read as follows:

“We the unwilling, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful.  We have done so much, for so long, with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.”  This quotation, attributed to politician and historian Konstantin Josef Jirecek, is something of a mantra for the crews of the merchant navies of the world.

Being a merchant sailor is a hard life.  It has dangerous at times, and monotony at others.  With such a sentiment, the question begs as to why they still do it?  The answer lies in the worth of the job.  The cargo is precious, and those who expect to receive it will suffer if it does not reach its destination. 

Those of us working in schools may, at times in our career, have felt similar.  There have certainly been times during the last six months where I have heard and seen such a view expressed, often forcefully.  And yet, we’re back in September and working as hard as ever.

We do so because of our ‘cargo’.  Schools and their staff bring learning, opportunities, experiences, friendships, personal growth and collegiality to all within their communities.  The impact of us not carrying such precious cargo would be devastating on those who rely upon it.  Perhaps, after months of remote learning, creative solutions to providing support, and working differently in many areas where orthodoxy seemed to dictate our practice, we really are “qualified to do anything with nothing.” But let us all hope for calmer waters and more favourable tides than those we’ve encountered most recently.

Thanks for reading.  Take care, and stay safe.


CEO’s Blog: “If you have to tell folks ya is, ya probably ain’t!”

One of the reasons I enjoy history, and became a History teacher, was my capacity to enjoy and recall events with reasonable accuracy and ease.  Thinking of a theme for my blog this month, I was reminded of two training sessions I attended – one as a delegate many years ago and one as a presenter only last year.

About twenty years ago, I attended a training event on the future of technology in schools.  There was a phrase on a PowerPoint slide (then still something of a novelty) that took me aback:  “We will be the last generation that will ever be lost.”  The presenter argued that the new technology of satellite navigation, that was increasingly commonplace in the maritime world but still highly exclusive for motorists and other ‘land lubbers’, would become so cheap and so small that GPS navigation would soon feature in our watches and on our phones.  Consequently, we may well be the last generation on Earth that feels the sense of bewilderment, and even anxiety, of being genuinely lost. 

The second, more recent, training event was when I was invited to speak to a group of middle leaders who were all aspiring for senior positions as their next career move.  A question came from a colleague in the audience asking me to amplify how my ability, as a Trust CEO, to direct and shape an organisation strategically was different and more rewarding than the time when I too was a middle leader.

I’m not quite sure why in recent days these two events came back to me, but in both cases I reflected that both the presenter and the questioner were, quite simply, wrong in their assumptions.

Whilst we may all have access these days to GPS that works, there is a clear and popular perception that right now we are more than a little ‘lost’ in our world.  Many of our old assumptions, tried and tested ways of working, and our points of reference have been challenged and found wanting.  I have written before that during turbulent times it is more important than ever to hold true to one’s vision and one’s sense of purpose.  We have seen last week our primary phase leaders extending their provision to enable the return of more children to school, and this they have done with great consideration and an enormous amount of love.  Our ten primary schools are each finding their own way, conscious of the approaches of partners within the Trust and beyond, but thinking first and foremost about what is most effective and practicable for their own communities of children, parents, staff, and governors. 

In this context, I’m reminded of the final verse of a Robert Frost poem which was first brought to my attention by a Deputy Head I worked alongside who read this poem (most fitting, with him being an English teacher originally hailing from The United States) as part of his retirement speech:

Great leadership is about finding a way through, especially when the path is far from clear – and even diverging.  All our schools – primary and secondary – through their leaders are doing just that each day.

With regard to the second training event and the request that I describe the opportunities presented by my role as CEO, the answer I gave surprised the individual who asked it.  I stated to the audience then, and I maintain still, that I had most control to shape my own work when I was a head of department.  As a Head of History, I could determine syllabus choices, recruit staff and support their development, order stock and manage my budget with relative ease, and create a culture and environment for learning all within a vision for the subject within that of the school.  Crucially, I was largely immune from the buffeting of policy changes and ministerial decisions.  In short, I had genuine, albeit localised, power. 

Today, I find myself far more at the mercy of the changing policies we see coming over the horizon, and also issues that can seem to appear from almost nowhere.  Whatever the title of my role may be, it is far from the level of genuine, autonomous, power I was able to wield as a subject leader.  Some CEOs, and headteachers, local authority leaders and even ministers may advise you differently.   But I’ll end with a quotation from the boss of a mafia crime family in response to a question from a congressional committee:  “Senator, being powerful is the same as being ladylike.  If you have to tell folks ya is, ya probably ain’t!” Throughout these times of major challenges, understanding the limitations of our influence is no bad thing.

Thanks for reading.  Take care, and stay safe.


CEO’s Blog: When no one is watching.

I hope this Blog finds all its readers safe and well, as we continue to live and work through these times. 

There are numerous writers and broadcasters who have made the timely, and expedient, connection between the 75th anniversary of VE Day and the current Covid-19 situation.  This may appear contrived in some ways, or even exploitative – of our history, or the current times we face, or both.  However, there are clearly ways in which we can look at our own experience today and then apply that lens to observe wartime Britain. 

A nation subject to restrictions on movement, concerns over supply of essential goods and even the rationing of them is a common factor then and now.  Daily governmental briefings, global updates, and speeches of victory, collective support, and expressions of admiration for those that work to protect us are all abundant now as they were throughout the wartime years. 

I am in no way attempting to compare scale of suffering or sacrifice, however.  Clearly, these are very different times in as many ways as they are similar. 

What I choose to highlight here is an essential sense of ‘goodness’ that we will commemorate tomorrow for VE Day and how that same goodness is still found in abundance today.  We know that during the war there were black marketeers and spivs, there were those who flouted blackout restrictions and engaged in “careless talk” which did indeed “cost lives.”  But the overwhelming majority of the population would “keep calm and carry on” with stoic fortitude and kindness to others, for example by “digging for victory”, taking in an evacuee, or housing a family ‘bombed out’ of their home during a raid.  They did this not through compulsion or fear of consequence, but because it was the right thing to do.

Similarly, we read stories today of those who fall short and flout restrictions – the fly-tippers, the panic-buyers, the Covid-inspired internet scammers, and the irresponsible socialisers.  But again, we know that the overwhelming majority of people now, as then, are driven by kindness, compassion, and a sense of collective duty to support each other as best they can. 

CS Lewis wrote that “integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.” Peter Hitchens defined “conscience” in the same sentiment.  In our school communities, it would be naïve (and we know for a fact that it would also be untrue) to claim that every single child is working hard to fulfil their potential, to learn and grow, and that every parent and adult is doing all they can to support them.  However, we also know – for a fact – that almost all of our children, their parents, and other adults are carrying on: working hard, learning and growing, and supporting each other.  Like the citizens of 1940s Britain, they do so because it is the right thing to do today – and that there will be a dividend on this investment tomorrow. 

So, as we continue through our time of restrictions I want to thank all our children and adults who are working so hard, being so supportive to each other, and so kind.  We serve amazing communities who are resilient and courageous, and also full of goodness.  When we return to full provision in our schools, and in the wider community, let us all do more than hope that these admirable traits persist and strengthen – let’s work to make certain they do.

Thanks for reading.  Take care, and stay safe.