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.

Mike

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.

Mike

CEO’s Blog: Learning: a precious resource.

Learning: a precious resource.

For the past week or so, I have been reading Michael Palin’s “Pole to Pole”, in which he charts a journey from the North to the South Pole, passing along the line of longitude (30 degrees East) with the greatest land coverage.  This takes him from Greenland, through Norway and the former Soviet Union, through Egypt and the Middle East, to East Africa and finally down into Antarctica.  Originally broadcast in 1992 but filmed in 1991, it is an extraordinary documentary of some extraordinary times, featuring the fall of the Gorbachev presidency in Russia and the breakaway of the Baltic states, and the election of a new government in Zambia to replace the seemingly-irreplaceable Kenneth Kaunda.  At a time when we cannot go anywhere, the opportunity through great writing to travel, at least in my mind’s eye, across the globe is a welcome one – and something that I’d recommend to you all.

One recurrent theme, from country to country and continent to continent, is the importance that is placed upon education and learning.  In countries where state repression and censorship is routine, Palin sees citizens seeking truth and enlightenment via underground and foreign media, whilst yearning for a free press and the opportunity to expand their understanding of the world.  In the most impoverished countries, he writes about young people tuning in to the BBC World Service to learn the English language – and to follow our football!

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When resources are scarce, people are innovative and creative.  Palin sees this in the households he visits, where resourceful families ‘bulk up’ small amounts of meat to feed many mouths through the addition of lentils, potatoes and other staples.  He sees this on a grander scale with rusted iron ships and steam trains reused and recycled, given new life as bicycles and ploughs.  Our powers of ingenuity seem boundless.

So this brings me to where we are.  Not sub-Saharan Africa, but facing a time when, through necessity, we are working in a very different way – being similarly innovative and creative.  Our schools thrive on routine and planning.  Timetables, calendars, and playtime bells chart our day and rule the working lives of our children and adults.  Much of this, but not all, has been stripped away right now.

Our staff, and our children and their households, are finding new ways daily to work around the current restrictions that we face.  The “school resource” is currently very scarce, but our creativity and innovative spirit is not. 

The typical curve of technological innovation comprises a small number of “early adopters” at the forefront and, the other side of the “herd” in the middle, are the “laggards” – a euphemism for the cynical, the unskilled, the generally baffled and the technologically-terrified.  Recent weeks, and especially the last few days, has seen this curve squeezed.  We’ve seen vlogs, blogs, tweets, YouTube videos, Vimeos, Skypes, Teams and every other conceivable way of engaging creatively in teaching, learning, collaborating, sharing and working. We seen this from our children and adults alike who, through their compulsion to keep learning moving, have ventured into territory they had previously feared or never felt the necessity to tread. Hats off to them all! 

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We can look forward – and we must.  In the short term, I look forward to more broadcasts of assemblies and lessons in schools, photographs and files of work undertaken with vigour and enthusiasm by children, subsequently assessed with care and expertise by adults who care for them and their education deeply.  In the long term, I look forward to many of our newly-acquired skills becoming regular features of learning once we’re back in school.  This must be part of the legacy from all the difficulties and sadness we face now.

I’m going to sign off now, but I’ll look to blog again soon.  I’ll close by thanking all those working to keep learning going – our children, staff, and parents.  You are amazing. 

Thanks for reading.  Take care, and stay safe.

Mike