CEO’s Blog: March 2019 Words fail?

I found myself in a situation last week in which, far from the first time, I used the expression “words fail” in describing my response to a shocking piece of news. It is a common enough phrase, and is valuable when, in the moment, our limited vocabularies cannot convey the sentiments we feel at that precise time.  It is also a shorthand way of demonstrating the significance of such a moment in that the richness of our language makes the communication of almost any series of emotions relatively straightforward for most of us – and the greater our command of the English language, the easier it should be to represent ourselves through it. 

As educators, we know that language acquisition in young children is both highly efficient, and of crucial importance for their development.  The ‘language gap’ between children from disadvantaged contexts and their peers can be above 19 million words of spoken and written experience by the time they start school – and such a gap once opened is extremely hard to close.

So, the week after World Book Day, I feel compelled to put pen to paper (or more precisely tap finger to keyboard) to express my thanks to all of those children, parents, staff and governors in our schools who promote and embrace the joy that comes from the written word.  Cynics will, and have this week, made comment on costumes superseding reading – and just how “literary” is Star Wars or Wonder Woman?  However, for those of us who see reading as an experience as opposed to an activity, developing a culture amongst children that embraces all that writing can give is more important than the finer details of what constitutes quality.  James Patterson wrote: “There are kids who love reading, and kids who are reading the wrong books.”  I believe that, and I see that in our schools.  Finding a ‘hook’ to get children to read may necessitate compromises on quality which, we hope, they’ll find for themselves as they begin their reading journey.

My own reading journey has most recently taken me to Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens”.  A chapter within this book was the prompt for this blog.  When discussing the development of civilisations, Harari refers to the earliest written records belonging to the Sumarians of Mesopotamia.  This civilisation was remarkable.  They are responsible, through their use of “base six” numbers, for the 360 degrees in a circle, and the 24 hour day.  They also used “base ten” for economic transactions and describing quantity. Their written records are solely, in effect, receipts for the buying, selling, and renting of goods, and title deeds for ownership.  Their language is described by Harari as “partial” (meaning that one could not write everything that one could say).  They had no written poetry or fiction for example, or written legal statutes and histories.  Other “partial” languages include those of the Inca and Mayans in the Americas.  Conversely, Latin, Greek and more latterly English are “full” languages in which all spoken words can be written. So, apart from when “words fail”, there is the opportunity to convey feelings, emotions and meaning through written as well as spoken word.  With this freedom, poetry, fiction, and a wealth of genres therein, were and are able to flourish.

However, Harari conveys in his book a warning for the future.  He argues that the truly universal language now is number.  Like musical notation, and Sumarian, number and mathematics is a “partial” language.  It is also the language of the computer, and the language of money.  Indeed, this Blog has been converted into a series of numbers in order for it to be recorded, and shared.  The ubiquity of the “arabic” numeral (although these actually originated in India) has made number a truly global language:

In modern times, not even all numbers are equal.  The world is dominated by the “zeros and ones” of the Information Age.

Perhaps reading, and enjoying the experience it gives, is part of our defence against a return to a “partial” language – of txt spk, Insta, numbers, and emojis?  If we lose the richness of our language, our young people are much more likely to find that “words fail” them far more frequently than their parents do. ☹

Thanks for reading – and not just this Blog! K?

Mike

CEO’s Blog – January 2019

First, I would like to open this blog by wishing you a Happy New Year, and hope that you had an enjoyable and peaceful holiday period.  It was only a fortnight or so since my last blog (although, of course, it was “last year”!) in which, amongst other things, I promised to return to the matter of our Trust-wide Conference, hosted at John Taylor Free School on Monday 7th January – the first day of the new term.

As many of you will be aware, the themes of our development were metacognition and self-regulation, feedback, and collaboration. The Education Endowment Foundation, a representative of which joining us for the day to support our professionals in conducting and accessing research, have collated a huge gamut of studies undertaken to establish what has impact, and at what financial cost.  The areas of focus all stood out as being of high impact on progress and at low financial cost. In our planning of the event, we were also enthusiastic about these areas as all our schools recognise the value of developing our expertise here, whether engaged in nursery provision or working with sixth formers.  Beyond this, we all personally develop as lifelong learners through a greater understanding of these themes.  The day, therefore, presented us with a real opportunity to develop our practice, and our selves.

In an opening session, I sought to define the three areas of focus (borrowing heavily from the Education Endowment Foundation website).  Regarding metacognition, we can define this as explicitly helping pupils to think more about their own learning.  We teach them specific strategies for the planning, monitoring and evaluating of their learning.  By feedback, we mean any way by which we redirect or refocus a learner on their goals in order to move them closer to realising them.  Finally, in terms of collaboration, this is when learners work together to achieve individual and shared learning goals, through structure and planning, by teachers who know their children and their abilities, and who provide regular opportunities for children to practise their skills of working together. 

I had written in the introduction to the event programme, that we intended the day to be a blend of inspiration (igniting enthusiasm and creativity) and application (providing practical strategies that can be added to our professional toolkits).  We sought to capture some truly great work from colleagues engaged in areas covered by our underlying themes – from within the Trust and beyond.  For events such as this, I believe this format works best.  By encouraging delivery from the Trust’s own staff, we give colleagues an opportunity to share their craft and for their peers to see that excellence in their own school context is within their grasp. Engaging with external specialist deliverers is essential if we are to aspire to be the very best, and to ensure our practice is aligned to a wider gamut of theory and practice elsewhere. 

When looking to assess the impact of such an event, I believe it is important to look beyond any surge of enthusiasm or spike of activity – as welcome and encouraging as those things are – but towards legacy.  I set colleagues the challenge:  Will we see the strategies of the day in our classrooms this time next year?  Will the collaborations that are sparked by the event continue into next term?  Will our own personal timeline of professional development mark out the event as a milestone of significance?  If many of us are able to answer “yes” to these three questions, then the event will have been worthwhile. 

Initial feedback (we’re still gathering questionnaire responses) has been hugely positive.  Of course, there will be many “even better if…s”, and we’ll look at these carefully.  With 500+ attendees from a variety of schools and with a diversity of experiences, inevitably some will have benefitted more than others.  But it remains true that, because of our scale, we were able to bring national and international guests to us, in one of our schools, for less per delegate than the cost of an average school textbook.  In times of financial pressures, this is a massive achievement.  It would not have been possible without the expertise and time of a number of colleagues from across the Trust – none of whom were allocated additional time to undertake this work.  Like me, and so many of my colleagues, they believe in what we’re doing and the impact it will have on our children and their communities.  I’ll close by thanking them for their support, together with everyone who attended with an open mind and an open heart.  In that context, the photograph I’ve chosen to accompany this blog features the stars of the event: us all!

Thank you for reading.

Mike

CEO Blog December 2018

I’m a relative unknown to the Twitterati, and hardly a frequent flyer to the Blogsphere.  However, it doesn’t escape even me that this is the time when we see a huge number of end of year, end of term, blogs and messages.  With shades of Michelle Obama’s “imposter syndrome”, I’m always more than a little apprehensive that an end of term message of good will can very easily be perceived as a rather regal “Christmas message to The Commonwealth”.  To avoid such issues, I don’t normally leave it quite so late in the term to update my CEO’s Blog.  This year, however, the scale of activities that have been going on and the “to do” list being even more stubborn in its immovability than in most previous years means I’ve left it late. 

Again attempting to avoid another seasonal favourite – the “Review of the Year” – I’ll merely state that it’s been a hugely positive 2018 from my perspective as our Trust has welcomed great new schools into its family, achieved considerable successes for its communities and seen our amazing children and adults achieve beyond their own high expectations. We can look forward to 2019 with a great deal of positivity and promise.

Much of this success is attributable in my view to the culture that pervades our schools, their communities and out Trust.  In our Strategic Plan, we have attempted to articulate our key attributes – collectively and individually – that drive us to be successful:

Our commitment to ensure learning is at the heart of all we do: Keeping “the main thing, the main thing” – prioritising our people, time, energy and funding to the improvement of the educational experience – both formal and informal – we provide.

A passion for excellence: Only comparing ourselves with the best.  When finding it, seeking to match and then surpass it.

Restlessness and curiosity: Looking for opportunity to be involved and to learn from new experiences.

Courage to innovate: Leading change – in teaching and learning, curriculum development, organisational structures.

Tenacity and resilience: Holding to our mission in times of turbulence, and remaining resolute until we achieve what we set out to do.

Collegiality: Listening to others, sharing with others, learning from others.

I’m sure you’ll agree that these are both worthy and aspirational.  However, these attributes are articulated in the words and actions of so many of our adults and children every day, every term, every year.  Peter Drucker, the “father of modern management” once famously stated that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Having worked in a number of different organisations, in different sectors, with very differing cultures, I can only agree with him – as I’ve seen poorly-conceived strategies and plans sail to new lands through the efforts of individuals and teams to make them work, and conversely I’ve witnessed highly-polished strategies crash on the rocks of disappointment through a deficit of cultural capital.

To err is human, as we all know.  There are times when we all fall short of these ambitious attributes.  But our achievements far outweigh our shortcomings as a community.  At this time, it’s only fitting to thank all those in JTMAT who live and work by these aspirations, and the positive impact that they have on all those around them, improving lives – and the world.  Seeing so many of our children and staff working together towards a single and shared goal – the Christmas Concert hosted by John Taylor Free School, performed by the choirs of all nine of our primary phase schools – is an example of this spirit:

It was a lovely occasion, and one which we will all remember with fondness for a long time.

Looking forward, our first day of the new term sees us gather together for our first ever MAT-wide Training Day.  It promises to be hugely exciting and beneficial.  The invited speakers are exceptional in their fields, the practitioners delivering sessions from our own schools are great at what they do and generous to share their work, and we participating are receptive to new ideas and ways of working. 

We anticipate the impact of the event to continue long after the spike of enthusiasm typically felt by attendees on “courses” has diminished.  This is about continual and continuous mutual and self-improvement – twelve schools and some wider partners working together to a shared end of staff development and improved provision for our communities.  I plan to report on this in my January Blog.

Thank you for reading, and have a great Christmas and New Year.

Mike