“The flower that blooms in adversity is the rarest and most beautiful of them all”
“You have to be at your strongest when you are feeling at your weakest”
Quotes taken from the daily signboards at various London Underground stations the day after the Westminster attacks; 22nd March 2017.
Last weekend I had the privilege of being asked to speak about international education in Manchester at the annual British Council Ambassadors’ conference which was centred on the concept of “cohesion”. The relatively new Holiday Inn hotel in the centre the conference was held at over the weekend spoke to my younger 1990s student self as it was themed around the music scene of “Madchester” and as several people commented, spending a Saturday night in the Hacienda was a dream come true. The room rather than the club I am afraid. As my eight year old daughter Evie, gently reminded me a few days ago, I am more “male, pale and stale” than ever. Choosing a room named after The Stone Roses rather than the actual seminar theme probably wasn’t the wisest thing to base a decision on though. The train going up from Bristol was absolutely packed with revellers on the way to the Cheltenham Festival and continuing up to Birmingham and then towards Manchester, where it was raining of course, people were getting on and off after finishing work or going for the evening in the city after a long week. Carriages were also full of students going home or visiting friends. Ordinary people going about ordinary lives. As I walked around Manchester on the weekend I remembered one of the last IRA acts of terrorism was the bombing of Manchester centre in 1996, just before the historic Good Friday Agreement finally brought a peace and an end to The Troubles. One of the architects and classic terrorist turned statesman, Martin McGuiness died only last week. I was a very young teacher back then and had started to make my history lessons less abstract by using “revolutionary” video conferencing with schools in Germany and Russia in the late 1990s and saw the learning power of international education even then. What happened in London on Wednesday was another random and senseless act of terror where people were going about their daily lives; tourists walking across Westminster Bridge, a mother running late to pick up her children, an American husband celebrating his wedding anniversary with a trip to London and a policeman, with a wife and young kids, doing his duty to the very last. My theme for the Year 8 assembly on Thursday was already based on “Tolerance and Understanding”. Just as my generation grew up used to the acts of terror from the IRA, this generation is also sadly growing up in such a world. What inspired me in Manchester, what always inspires me, is talking to and listening to people who continue to work hard in classrooms, in society and in their homes to ensure that the narrative for our kids is one of hope and that the World contains infinitely a lot more good in it than it contains bad. As a school we held a reflection for the victims of Wednesday and in tutorial colleagues discussed the events with students.
I once worked in a school where non-uniform days and specific charity days like today’s “Red Nose Day” were symptomatic of what a group of researchers from Groningen University in Holland called “blind activism”. Students paid a pound but had no idea why. I am happy to say having walked around the campus at break and lunchtime today and seen Wyedean students enjoying the Red Nose Day events in the sunshine and why it is exactly we are working together in a cohesive way to make sure we understand issues and why it is a key part of our values to assist and support other people.
Another area of community activism has been the national and our own school campaign to stop the current proposal on the Fair Funding Formula especially as Wyedean would be the worst off secondary school in West Gloucestershire despite being one of the most successful. My thanks to parents, staff and governors who have contributed to the national consultation. I have been in correspondence with our local MP, Mark Harper, and Mark kindly agreed to visit the school on the 7th April to talk with leadership and governors on this issue and wider school funding. Wyedean School does not advocate taking funding away from any school to “fair fund” but it seems completely irrational that the Chancellor’s budget this month found several £100millions for Free Schools and Grammars when the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the OECD, all professional associations and others predict that nearly 100% of state schools will be in chronic deficit by 2020 with an average of a £300k deficit to fund. This will equate to 6 teachers being lost on average, larger class sizes, a narrowing further of the curriculum and for some schools being only open for 4 days a week. Wyedean School is exactly a beacon of educational excellence and opportunity on both sides of the border needed in this area. We are over subscribed for September for new Years 7 and 12s and we are being invited regularly to national and international conferences and fora to show case the work that goes on here. I think it is called a no-brainer. I’m hoping eventually the DfE see it that way too.
I was really encouraged as a school principal to hear the new chief of OfSTED, Amanda Spielman, make curriculum one of her priorities as she spoke at the ASCL conference:
“We know that there are some schools that are narrowing the curriculum, using qualifications inappropriately, and moving out pupils who would drag down results. That is nothing short of a scandal where it happens. Childhood isn’t deferrable: young people get one opportunity to learn in school and we owe it to them make sure they all get an education that is broad, rich and deep.”
Reading that makes my educator’s heart beat just that little bit faster. This is why having the resources to realise it and less capricious fads from the DfE is vital. Over the next few months one of my key priorities at Wyedean is to look at us becoming an IB World School and offering genuine aspirational and challenging World Class 21st Century learning to the communities we serve on both sides of the border. The school’s social media and new website continues to show daily the quality of the compelling learning that is the hallmark of Wyedean School and our commitment to outstanding education for our students. This week alone the work of our Duke of Edinburgh scheme was recognised with a substantial grant to allow it to expand further, Joshua Thomas in Year 9 was runner up in the FameLab finals in Cheltenham, the gospel choir performed and competed in the Somerset Music Festival and our sports successes for the Wyedean Warriors in Netball and Football in particular add to a great year for our sports teams this year. I am particular proud of the school’s partnership work on LGBT+ and it is a focus for our priority meeting as a staff next week as we continue to work with Jonathon Charlesworth and Stonewall on challenging homophobic and transphobic behaviour as we aim to be a trans-inclusive school under a collaborative partnership with the DfE.
Next week the South West’s Regional Schools’ Commissioner, Rebecca Clark, is speaking to Forest of Dean/West Gloucestershire school leaders about the area being one of the SW RSC’s “priority areas”. As an oversubscribed “Good” school we already work with a number of schools through partnership to ensure we have excellent education across the area. I am speaking at the same meeting about Wyedean’s school improvement network with Challenge Partners as a model of good practice. It’s also Full Governors Board meeting next week where I present the half termly “principal’s report”. The Core Year 11 mocks have just finished this week and I am really pleased to see how the Year 11s have been preparing themselves for the summer exams. Not long for them or Year 13s now and we have been ensuring that we focus on good wellbeing for the students throughout this time.
The last weekend in March is always the switch to better months as the clocks spring forward and we celebrate “mothering Sunday”. It’s my wife’s godfather’s 80th birthday this weekend and we are celebrating with him on Saturday. He was the former chief engineer on Concorde so he always has a few good stories. I don’t mind spending a Saturday this way but unfortunately being away I missed the family outing to the cinema last weekend to see “Beauty and the Beast” J My TED-University Illinois forum continues on Sunday and last week it was looking at immigration and education. Fascinating to hear from colleagues in Southern California, Texas and Armenia about how they deal with related issues to ensure these kids get stability and an education. It’s a privilege and it is humbling to work with such educators. I think we definitely do need to remember we are at our strongest when we are at our weakest.
6th March 2017
Dear Mr Ford; Please can you pass on our thanks to Mr Thomas and all the those involved in organising another brilliant ski trip. It amazes us how your teachers & support staff continually go above and beyond. Not just the ski trip but the music tour and all the other opportunities you provide the students. Just about every week something exciting seems to be going on at Wyedean. As parents & a family we so appreciate this. Thank you and your inspirational staff. Kind regards, Lindsey & Alan Tyrrell.
To: Headteacher – Subject: Thank you – Sent: 21 February 2017 14:48
I read this weekend an article in The Leadership Project by a writer called David McQueen entitled “Leadership isn’t about being great, it’s about enabling others to be great”. It resonated strongly with me not least because of the kind words from the Tyrrells in the email they had sent me after half term echoing exactly this idea. I think I have been very fortunate to have worked in schools and with school leaders who practice this approach daily. In fact McQueen goes onto say in the article two important things all education leaders should note:
1) Success will follow if you believe in the ‘possibility’ of people.
and quoting Aristotle
2) ‘excellence is not an act, but a habit, we are what we repeatedly do’.
I was really fortunate last week to be part of a team of Challenge Partner reviewers led by a very wise and able OfSTED HMI, David Powell, reviewing Hove Park School on the south coast. Having reviewed schools for Challenge Partners before you never lose the sense of privilege it is not only work with a school leadership team on self-improvement but also getting to observe colleagues teaching and to meet with support staff and students. In the conversations we had with the leadership team over the three days it was obvious that this underpinned the culture and ethos of Hove Park School. One of the greatest things I love about being in Challenge Partners is this opportunity for collaboration across a huge network of some of the best schools in the UK. There are always lots of things to bring back to your own school but also plenty of other things to make you appreciate what your school is doing.
All school leaders want to enable their staff to be great educators because that means the opportunities and learning of students goes exponential. Wyedean staff and governors have worked tirelessly to ensure our school communities across the borders of Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire have a school committed to compelling learning stretching and challenging the mindset of all students. Wyedean School is now officially oversubscribed with Year 6 parents receiving the news last week of their first choice secondary school. It is astonishing but not unsurprising based on the number of parents and potential students we have had through the door over the last year wanting the education we are offering them. On Saturday the Sixth Form College at Wyedean hosted a “taster morning” for close to 100 external Year 11s looking to undertake their Post 16 at Wyedean. ALPS have just confirmed the “outstanding” success of progress in Sixth Form results at Wyedean as the school has been consistently in the top 25% nationally for three years running. The range and scope of global learning at Wyedean goes from strength to strength and the visits before half term and last week of Japanese partner schools re-enforced that commitment to global learning and languages. The Spanish MFL visit to Barcelona was such a rich cultural experience for this students in that lively Catalan city. I presented to transatlantic educators through a TED and University of Illinois forum on the 26th February about the development of global learning and critical thinking at Wyedean. This job has some very proud moments but when a group of educators in the mid-West of the USA ask you if your students are specially selected and the school must be private you know we are doing something right in this corner of the World. I have the British Council Ambassadors’ conference in Manchester in two weeks and will certainly be sharing this one with colleagues.
The school celebrated World Book Day on Friday and there are some great photos on Twitter from the event. I know social media has seen debates about the expense of costumes but spending a lot of money to dress up is unnecessary and the homemade affairs were brilliant. At the heart of World Book Day is the idea of getting students aware of and more into reading. Even I donned my D’Artagnan costume (I can live with the jibe about Oliver Reed and Athos but Henry VIII really?) and talked about why Dumas’s “The Three Musketeers” had caught my imagination as a young avid reader. The Science department at Wyedean never ceases to amaze me with their incredible STEM work and Year 9s were absolutely captivated by the talks on Friday in the Colston Hall Bristol by Robert Winston. My colleague, Katie Macer Wright has been working with local primary schools through transition developing young enquiring and analysing minds for the future. The Wyedean Science Twitter account has some of the best clips I have seen of a whole range of experiments and students just enjoying their learning. Year 11s have mocks before the end of this term and a group of them recently visited Cardiff University Law School to look at study and careers in Law. My whole hearted thanks to a great day planned and prepared for the students by Cardiff University Law School.
ASCL and other teaching unions are asking schools and educators to trend on social media under the hashtag #whatwouldyoucut to highlight the breaking point schools now face with reduced funding and falling budgets. I sat with a colleague over lunch at Hove Park School one day last week, a MAT CEO from somewhere in the South East and I spoke about the approach to curriculum, holistic education and 21st century learning at Wyedean we take with our aim of becoming an IB World School in the next couple of years. She seemed a great leader but snorted at what I was describing in her words as “bells and whistles”. I kept my own counsel and thoughts because there wasn’t a great deal to gain arguing what she thought was the right approach and no doubt operates in her schools to what I know is working for Wyedean. When I read the emails from parents like the Tyrells, talk to our fantastic students, see the great leadership from individual staff and see daily the compelling learning going on here which is why we are oversubscribed, “bells and whistles” are definitely not unaffordable “add ons” or frippery. A commitment to languages, creativity, arts, music, history, maths, science, literature, sport, technology, computing etc are what makes up a meaningful education that stretches, challenges and engages students to prepare them for their next stages. Excellence isn’t an act at Wyedean it has become habit.
13th February 2017
“We had simply the best day ever with your BARK team of students, thanks for all your preparation and all help to date. It was lovely to work with you and share ideas for the future. On our initial brainstorm meeting we did think your chosen group were mature, enthusiastic and were about to bring a great deal of creative skill along to this project.
Today I could say that their behaviour was exemplary, but that simply would not describe all that they were! We witnessed a desire to learn with complete engagement from the start. Autonomous learning was evident in all students, which resulted in Tom our artist commenting that it was brilliant to see young people able to make their own progress working independently where possible but also being able to communicate development needs in a clear way asking all the right questions at the right time.
Students worked in teams well but it was remarkable to see the whole group support each other as a complete unit. Any individual who was not as confident was soon scooped up by the group and mentored in skills and made to feel a part of it all. Artistic skill aside for a moment, your young people are a huge credit to Wyedean full of empathy and consideration for others in such a positive and encouraging way. And boy did they all have fun in the process with confidence and energy all channelled in the right direction”.
Email to Wyedean School, 7th Feb, 2017, Susan and all at JGC BARK Team
It’s actually difficult where to start to describe a “typical” week in Wyedean at the moment. It’s the end of half term, the middle of February, still cold and gloomy, Friday was an INSET for the students and staff working on key school priorities and all were waiting for the end of the day when the half term break began and colleagues can then enjoy a well-deserved break with their families. My colleagues in MFL, led by Beky Simpson, have just touched down in Barcelona for their KS4 visit to that amazing Catalan city as part of their Spanish studies and the annual Ski trip, led by Dai Thomas, are off to Austria with students to catch the winter slopes. My thanks to colleagues for giving their holiday time to ensure students of Wyedean get these opportunities to enrich their learning and build their experiences. There are already some really lovely Tweets on the PE, MFL and Wyedean Twitter accounts.
We had Ritsumeikan High School, Japan, with us all week topping off an unusually rich global education week even by Wyedean’s standards for compelling international learning. The staff and students from our partner school in Japan have really made themselves at home in our school and some of the events and opportunities over the last few days have been just wonderful days in learning. As it should be. Again, pictures and videos of their visit to Wyedean are on the school social media sites. I had a fair few Japanese students come and join us for tea and coffee on Thursday for Critical Thinking with Year 11. We had a really interesting discussion about wellbeing for young people and whether or not a “finishing line” exists anymore as pressure intensifies on students to achieve. It was interesting to talk about the experience of the Japanese education system compared to the English one and I remember from my own time working with schools in SE Asia the long hours, the endless assessments and overall pressure young people seemed to be under in these education systems. A wellbeing balance needs to found somewhere and I used the American movement “Beyond Measure” and the recent book-film by Vicki Ableles to illustrate how this is changing.
Israeli and international jazz musician, Asaf Sirkis, very kindly came into Wyedean to deliver masterclasses to music students and my thanks to colleagues Pat Allard and Brian Ellam for arranging for students to get this unique exposure to a global performer in music. I was very encouraged to see the engagement and confidence of Year 9 students presenting in the FameLab school finals for Science-STEM and I look forward to having tea with all the finalists after half term to celebrate their success. This is a great way of building self-esteem and getting students involved in science and just wider problem solving. This is the future of education serving C21st needs and my thanks to my colleagues in Science especially Stuart Motson, for organising these events. The work and creativity of Wyedean students in Art with the BARK team, the feedback I have quoted at length at the start of this blog, illustrates again what a rich and broad curriculum should be doing in schools. Nick Gibb MP, the education minister, has recently released a DfE paper on the importance of the Arts in a broad holistic curriculum for all students and yet at the same time the funding is being severely cut in education and even Andreas Schleicher, education director of the OECD, warned the UK that not investing in education would damage the future prosperity of Britain. Let’s hope someone listens. On Thursday, we held a non-uniform day collecting for research into prostate cancer and what was unusual about this charity collection is that it came from one Year 10 student’s leadership; Amyleigh Brice, motivated because of a close family member’s battle with this cancer. The future is in very good hands with students like this showing exactly the sort of skills, empathy and leadership needed for a successful global society and economic.
I had a very interesting conference last week at Cheltenham Race Course for Gloucestershire school leaders focusing on a “Road Map to Outstanding” which wasn’t exactly how the Regional Schools’ Commissioner for the SW, Rebecca Clark, much to the consternation of school leaders in the room, saw the county right now and said so in her speech. In fact, we also found out the Forest of Dean is a priority area in the South West and we discussed at length at the West Glos’ School Group a couple of days later what this actually means for education in the Forest. I think we all agreed that a strategy including further collaboration, partnership, sharing of good practice and professional network support was the way forward for students and families of the Forest of Dean. Simon Rowe, OfSTED HMI for Gloucestershire all spoke at Cheltenham and was the lead inspector last time for Wyedean in November 2014. When I spoke with him he did point out “Wyedean must be due soon”. All I can say for Wyedean School is we can be looked at by anyone at any time and as Challenge Partners found in the autumn the quality of education and the high standards continue and every member of staff is committed to the very best educational experience and outcomes for all of our students. At the regular Full Governors meeting before the break this is what we shared with governors and also reflected on how being involved in the school improvement network Challenge Partners had significantly impacted Wyedean’s journey to outstanding as a high performing school. Looking forward to showing OfSTED this in the autumn or potentially any day before. In England, the inspection system is a lot more rigorous and is not geared up to allow schools 6 or 7 years to the day until they are seen again.
I am speaking at the annual ASCL conference in March for the British Council showcasing the work we are doing at Wyedean and I am now involved in a special weekly TED global education conference lasting until May. This is through the University of Illinois and involves a small of group of educators in Europe and North America working collaboratively online each work looking at comparative education systems and essentially what is that we need to be teaching students so they are learning the right things for the C21st and how we should be doing that. It really is a privilege to have been chosen to represent Wyedean and our school community in this global education forum and I took part in the opening session this weekend.
I am looking forward to time with my wife and kids, not walking Dylan, my dog, at such an unearthly hour for a week and getting away to see family in mid-Wales in Llanidloes. I am not even going to mention the rugby at all in this blog after Saturday. I know all exam groups are starting to feel everything moving up a gear or two but hopefully plenty of rest and downtime this break to prepare for the next few months ahead. There is a finishing line in education and it is the responsibility of all of us; educators, parents and students to make sure we don’t lose the essence of meaningful and effective learning in the race to get to that line. More weeks in education as we enjoyed in Wyedean last week. My great Canadian leadership hero, Michael Fullan, once wrote a book about “What’s worth fighting for in education?”. A week such as last week and many others and the education system being allowed to focus on teachers and support staff providing these opportunities. Students coming home to tell parents, unprompted “guess what we did today in school?”. That’s what is worth fighting for in education. Have a good break.