CEO’s Blog: February 2022: “That’s the only thing you need to know, Mike.”

The original theme of my February Blog was planned some time.  However, I have felt compelled to reflect upon the events of the last few days in the Ukraine and, together with so many others, offer my thoughts on how this can be considered by our schools. 

When I was a trainee teacher, my first placement school was a Roman Catholic high school in Liverpool.  My head of department, and mentor, had the initials “JC” and irreverently referred to himself as “the second most important JC at the school, but I’m the only one with initials on the timetable”!  As we planned my first series of lessons for my Year 8 class, he told me they were studying a unit of the national curriculum entitled “The Making of the United Kingdom”. 

A key aspect of the unit focussed, quite naturally, on Henry VIII and the Reformation (the breaking away of the Church of England from Rome).  “JC” wanted me to tread carefully, delivering the unit with integrity and objectivity, yet understanding the context of the students and the Catholic school I was teaching in.  He sat me down.  “OK, Mike.  This is the bottom line: Martin Luther?  Good Catholic (he went on to reference to Luther’s condemnation of the sale of indulgences and the excesses of the medieval papacy which many modern Catholics would concede as requiring reform).  Henry VIII? Bad Catholic (then articulating Henry’s pragmatic and cynical use of church powers for personal gain).  Got it?  That’s the only thing you need to know, Mike.  Any problems, let me know.”  Having processed all that, I set out to teach the module.

Teaching historical events, even those with consequences today, is far more straightforward than teaching events of great magnitude that we know will become “historical” but occur in our own times.  There have been numerous events in my three decades of teaching that I could reference here, but perhaps the most obvious and profound example would be the September 11th attacks on The World Trade Centre and The Pentagon in 2001.  Teaching in a culturally diverse school, our approach needed to be one of abhorrence towards the perpetrators together with great sadness for the victims, but a clear acknowledgement that our school community is a harmonious one and must remain so. 

With regard to the recent events unfolding in the Ukraine, and all such events of magnitude, my reflections would be as follows:

First, that some children will be afraid about the consequences for them and their immediate families here in the UK.  It can be difficult for them to rationalise and contextualise complex geopolitical situations, and they require our reassurance – in as much as we can offer it.

Schools can be a place of harmony and sanctuary.  We are affected by the world and its divisions, but we remain communities with joy and care for each other at our heart.

When our children ask questions of us, we should recognise that they are curious – which is good – and that they trust us to answer them honestly and sensitively – which is also good.  In that context, we need to ensure as adults that we understand those events sufficiently that we role model the qualities of active citizenship we seek to impart into our children. It is also honest for us to frame our answers in the humility of our own limitations, however.  Children sometimes think their teachers know everything.  For them to hear from us occasionally that we do not is no bad thing!

In an Information Age, we should encourage children to triangulate information from a number of sources, and that those sources need to be as reliable as possible.  Our students’ favourite YouTubers may have views on a seismic event, but our young people should not give those views any more credence than their own unless they have good reason to.  There is plenty of propaganda and ‘fake news’ out there too. With war, there always is.  Concluding this point, there will always be conspiracy theories and “edgy” opinions that are often seductive to some young people who baulk at conformity to any perceived orthodoxy of view.  But the “edgy” theories of holocaust-deniers, alien abduction victims and flat-earthers are only seductive because they are on the margins.  And they are on the margins for a reason. 

Finally, as educators we should be able to distinguish that our requirement to be “apolitical” does not mean the need to be morally ambiguous.  Sometimes the marshalling of undisputed facts makes it clear that a situation is not “evenly balanced”, and that all sides of a debate deserve equal ‘air time’ any more than flat-earthers should get time in our geography lessons or alchemists in our chemistry laboratories.  Some situations are clearer than that:

We work in an exciting and changing world, which sometimes doesn’t just wait at the school gate but comes into our classrooms whether we like it or not, and whether we feel ready or not.  Our over-riding priority is always the wellbeing of our children and their families.  From there, we can help them understand that world.  I am always in admiration for all those who work with sensitivity and strength in equal measure to ensure those ends.

As always, thanks for reading.

Mike

CEO’s Blog: January 2022: From ‘snake oil salesmen’ to ‘grifters’ – the eternal importance of due diligence.

Welcome to my January blog.  It’s arguably too late to wish readers a Happy New Year, but it would be impolite not to – and I’d rather be accused of being a little tardy than rude!

I worked with a very skilled, experienced and somewhat battle-scarred Deputy Head who would regularly describe those who appeared to overstate their credentials or promise mountains and deliver molehills as “snake oil salesmen”.  This term refers to charlatans who, purporting to be doctors, swindled the credulous of their savings for a miracle cure which didn’t work, but by the time of realisation by the customer, the swindler had long since left town. 

Whenever we engage in recruitment, and whenever we seek to engage external suppliers of training or expertise, our due diligence compels us to dig deep in order to ensure we have sourced an individual of quality befitting of what we require and what our schools deserve.  Alistair Smith, in his “ten features of world class schools” elevated “Recruit well” to the lofty status of feature #1 on his list, and with good reason.  Great schools are constructed by great people.  Rigorous selection processes, challenging tasks and the testing of competences and values are all a part of the assurances we require. 

Likewise, when selecting individuals to lead staff training and development programmes and events, we need to demonstrate the same levels of discernment.  Certified programmes, such as NPQs and Masters qualifications, carry an implicit, de facto, mark of quality – but only when delivered effectively. The rigour, relevance and legitimacy of other training can be far more hit-and-miss.  Many of us will have heard stories of headteachers and senior leaders who, having hired guest or even “keynote” speakers to major events will sit, open mouthed and agog, as the speaker espouses messages far removed from the school’s own direction of travel or even its fundamental values.  This can only come through a lack of due diligence.  Specifically, being unaware of the content and tone of what will be delivered in advance of the session itself.  We need to be better than that.

Where I have some sympathy for those headteachers and senior leaders is when they are genuinely mis-sold.  The educational charlatan, or to use the language of the millennial, the “grifter” is ubiquitous.  With sanitised yet slick profiles on LinkedIn and Twitter, and a few vanilla testimonials from unverifiable sources, they peddle their wares as consultants, trainers and facilitators.  Twenty years ago, their market appeared centred on “ideating” and “future-scaping” (ugh!), ten years ago their gaze shifted working with disadvantaged learners, and today we appear to have a fixation upon the promotion of diversity, inclusion and equity. 

Please do not interpret the above as an expression that these are areas where I do not believe there is work to be done.  There is.  Plenty of it.  That’s the point.  The “grifter” will “follow the money”. 

We need to be wary.  I sometimes think “what would our best governors on our strongest governing bodies ask?”  They may ask the following: What area for development or problem are you seeking a solution for?  Why is this solution the right one? What alternatives did you reject, and why?  Why is this deliverer the right one? How will you know if this has been impactful?  If these questions cannot be answered with confidence and specificity, I would suggest further consideration at the very least prior to engagement. 

You may be asking what has spurred this blog.  Have I, or we at JTMAT, had our fingers burned?  The answer is “No.” Or perhaps “not yet.” No due diligence is watertight, but we do look to mitigate risks.  Seeking out, rather than asking for, testimonials and recommendations is valuable.  If the advisor or consultant came from a background of working in schools, looking at the performance of the school during their tenure and after (leadership is legacy, after all), may also be prudent.  In the age of information, none of these steps should prove time consuming or costly – and many readers will rightly point out the obviousness and mundanity in all this.  And yet I still see regularly consultants and advisors with no demonstrable evidence of their track record, no legitimacy of their proposed methodology, and no tangible impact of its implementation hired by schools. 

So my advice, such as it is, would be that your time and that of your colleagues is precious, as is the money entrusted to you to spend on staff training and development (a common casualty when the financial cleaver is being wielded to balance the budget).  Spend both wisely.  That means undertaking sufficient due diligence to be confident that what you’re getting is aligned to what you need.  It’s that straightforward.  It really is.

As always, thanks for reading.

Mike

CEO’s Blog: December 2021: “The mind’s ear.”

I was recently reading a chapter from Martin Amis’ semi-autobiographical “Inside Story”, and found a particular section entitled “the mind’s ear” fascinating. 

We have all heard of “the mind’s eye”, an old and much-used phase that most famously can be found in “Hamlet”, when the protagonist of the title confides in Horatio that he sees his father in his “mind’s eye”.  We all know what this means, and also what it feels like to be able top picture something so vividly in our thoughts that it has all the characteristics of being genuinely “visible”.  Before Shakespeare, Chaucer used a similar turn of phrase in “The man of Law’s tale” and it was in common usage. 

Martin Amis describes the process of writing as drawing upon the “mind’s eye”, but also “the mind’s ear” – particularly in the creation of dialogue and settings.  Again, even before looking up the term to see whether Amis created it or deployed it, I knew what this meant.  As it happens, the expression dates back to the eighteenth century at least, being used by poet Matthew Green in 1733’s “The Grotto”.  However, unlike its Shakespearean counterpart, it has fallen out of favour.

The festive period is often, rightly, described as a feast for the senses.  Now fifty, when I think back to those magical times as a child, it is not only the sights – the tree and lights, the decorations and presents – that I remember.  There are the sounds in my “mind’s ear” too.  Laughter, or groans, at jokes read from Christmas crackers, the singing of old “music hall” songs with then elderly relatives long since passed, and songs by Paul McCartney or Wizzard that when played today still take me back to those Christmas holidays. 

As we grow older we can somehow lose sight, and sound, of the magic.  In ‘Herzog’, Saul Bellow wrote that “every treasure is guarded by dragons.  That’s how you can tell it’s valuable.” The treasure of our magical childhood memories is guarded by the dragons of responsibilities, pressures and world-weary cynicism.  But it’s still there, and working in schools – even in difficult times such as these – is as good a place as any to find it. 

As we move toward the end of term, I want to thank all those who keep the magic of childhood alive.  Parents, our school staff and all who want the memories that will be created in those “mind’s eyes”, and “mind’s ears”, to be a wonderful, and sustaining part of those young lives.  May they look back with fondness upon this season’s festivities and ensure that the dragons that guard their treasured memories in their future can be defeated!

As always, thanks for reading.

Mike