CEO’s Blog: April 2019 Wellbeing – More than a kite mark

Back in the 1990s, when I first assumed formal leadership responsibility in a school and started to correspond regularly with parents, I noticed a problem.  Our school letterheaded paper on which all letters would be sent (and, pre-email, there were many) had an area in which to type that was just about half of the size of the A4 sheet itself.  Underneath the obligatory school crest, address, phone and fax numbers, headteacher name and qualifications was the “window” within which the contents needed to be inserted. 

Beneath that modest white space of parchment, there was a plethora of assorted logos and icons.  The school proudly reported its “Arts Mark”, “Sports Mark”, and “Language Specialist School” statuses.  An Assistant Head counterpart at the school once wagged that if we collect enough subject-specific accolades, perhaps we could be described as “comprehensive” again!  We were a “Fair Trade” school.  We were even insistent on declaring to the world that we’d been successful in a “Big Lottery Fund” application.  In amongst the logos sat – no larger or smaller than the others – the school’s “Investor in People” status.

Some years later when I took up the headship at John Taylor, we explored the “Investor in People” process and accreditation.  As is the case with many of the ‘kite marks’ above – and numerous others – it is the audit, evaluation, action planning and implementation that is valuable as opposed to the letterhead logo.  However, we were minded not to pursue this approach at that time for two reasons.  First, there were cost implications.  By this stage, school funding was becoming much less generous than it had been in the late 1990s and the cost/benefit of even a relatively-modest amount of money needed to be considered before being spent.  Second, it was pointed out to me that studies had shown that there was no direct correlation between holding the IiP accolade and demonstrating the attributes that define a “good employer”: recruitment and retention rates, employee satisfaction surveys, numbers of grievances, training and development budgets, attendance levels and absenteeism etc. In short, organisations which profess to “invest in people” didn’t seem to ‘walk the talk’ any more than any others.  Despite the obvious counter: “What would these organisations be like without this status?” we chose to move on to other priorities.

I remain open-minded on the value of ‘formal’ designations, audits and awards for such areas of our work.  Certainly, to provide evidence of a basic standard of provision, and to assure others (for example, governors) that schools take issues seriously such accreditations can prove beneficial.  They also can empower a lead colleague to drive forward change and improvement by giving an external impetus to what would otherwise have been just another school priority.  When areas such as wellbeing are, correctly, described as “everyone’s responsibility”, without structure they can easily slide into becoming no one’s.  Accreditation, and then subsequent reassessment, reduces this risk.  Recently we have witnessed a resurgence in quality marks, including those associated with wellbeing.

However, in themselves such designations are insufficient to ensure that an organisation’s culture is one in which wellbeing is considered as a priority and all stakeholders work positively and harmoniously.  As Peter Drucker famously wrote “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, and the highlighted cases we regularly read of organisations – including schools and MATs – with “toxic” cultures show that a kite mark can’t protect you. 

So, from where does a culture conducive to wellbeing emanate?  In my opinion, the answer is leadership.  Given that cultures are by definition enduring and resilient, the maintenance and development of cultures is not the sole responsibility of a school’s most senior leaders, and nor does our responsibility end when our tenure in a school does.  Drucker’s distinction between leadership and management stems from the difference between structure (the domain of management) and culture (the realm of leadership).  Structures can be changed pragmatically, rapidly, and with limited turbulence.  Culture far less so.  This is why so much attention is paid to the legacy of leaders – their presence endures, for good or ill, long after their departure from the role and the organisation. 

When we recruit new colleagues, we always advise them of their own empowerment in the “inter-view” process.  They have to consider whether their way of working, and their philosophical outlook, chimes with ours.  If there is a ‘cultural dissonance’, neither they nor we will be truly satisfied in the relationship, despite any superficial KPIs that may point to effective performance. 

I have written previously about the generosity, energy and talent of the colleagues I work alongside.  We see those attributes in abundance when it comes to the wellbeing of children, families, and their colleagues.  Supporting individuals through personal and professional challenges, organising staff social gatherings such as Christmas parties and sporting events like participation in the Derby 10k recently, and raising awareness and funds for charities and causes that personally affect our communities are all to be cherished.  A kite mark cannot guarantee to deliver any of these things, only great people can.

Thanks for reading.

Mike

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