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: 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