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: February 2019

“We Believe in the Power of Defining Moments…”

Several months ago, I read a compelling blog from a counterpart of mine on the Headteacher’s Board, in which he described the influence of his parents on his life and career.  As a parent myself, with my eldest son (in Year 13) making some pivotal decisions about his next steps in life and learning, I understand more now than I did when I was his age the importance of guidance – and taking heed of good advice.

To illustrate, I will recount an instance which I believe shaped my future considerably.  An incident which I did not witness, nor even know about until a few years ago. 

My parents grew up in Liverpool during and immediately after the Second World War.  In the post-war years in which my father had his own future to consider – a future which for him and his peers offered plentiful employment, but much of it unskilled and low paid in the reconstruction of the city and the recovery of industry and trade after the war – careers advice and guidance was effectively non-existent.  In this context, my father told me about a day when his father (my grandfather) received a letter from the headmaster of his school (St Margaret’s Boys School, Anfield) requesting he attend a meeting. 

“We believe that your son has the potential to achieve well next year if he stays on with us” was the message delivered by the headmaster to my grandfather.  My father was fourteen at the time, and eligible to leave school in the summer, as many of his peers intended to do, and take up employment – but without sitting examinations or achieving any qualifications.  The headmaster advised that staying on to “fifth form” and the achievement of the School Certificate would enhance my father’s prospects and opportunities considerably.  After discussion at home – presumably about the cost of staying on (by not earning a wage) compared to the opportunities staying on presented – my father stayed on into fifth form, and duly left school with his School Certificate and found employment with a firm that could offer career development and promotion.  This, in turn, changed both his life and those of the children he would have many years later. 

When I joined John Taylor, I was instantly captivated by the school’s mission statement: “We believe in the power of education to improve lives – and the world.”  For me, as a history graduate and teacher, the notion of causality has always been fascinating:  the choices we make, and those that we reject, those made by others around us, and by others before us.  These are the “sliding doors” defining moments that can be so influential, perhaps arguably most so during our ‘formative years’.  You will undoubtedly have your own, some of which you may not be aware of! 

As a teacher and leader in school, I reflect on the fact that the headmaster of St Margaret’s Boys School did not have to write that letter, and my grandfather didn’t have to respond.  My father could have rejected the idea of staying on too – especially when his classmates were leaving, and earning.  But they didn’t. 

However, this is not a blog about the fatalism of the choices of others and being somehow ‘swept along’.  There is a wonderful phrase that I heard used in a sporting context that is fitting here:  Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.  Similarly, that “things turn out best for those who make the best of how things turn out.”  We must not forget personal responsibility in defining ourselves and our young people, my own son included, have to accept that challenge.  But we, as parents and educators, can make those opportunities easier or harder for young people to take through the choices we have made, and how we prepare them for theirs.

Thank you for reading.

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