How do you improve a system that works?

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” Martin Luther King, Jr. “Don’t be pushed by your problems. Be led by your dreams.” Ralph Waldo Emerson.

An old Spanish friend from university (or should that read Catalan friend? She claims both labels as well as a European and citizen of the World) is spending the first Monday of October not only cleaning up her school in the northern suburbs of Barcelona today but also making sure her colleagues and school parents are ok following the violence yesterday across Catalonia. As for her students, there are a few hurt following Sunday’s events and the response from the police to people trying to vote. As an educator, she will also find the time and words to sit down and try to explain to her students what could possibly happen next for their country. Last Friday here in school just before I left for a meeting of Gloucestershire Heads I spoke with the staff of the Spanish school visiting from Catalonia who are with us for a few weeks with our students, about the possible outcomes of the vote on Sunday. There are often so many moments in school where educators are in the difficult position of explaining difficult events in a way that is not patronising or shying away from unpalatable issues but at the same time students understand and are then left in the position where they can ask the right questions to further that understanding. One of the reasons the Spanish students from Vigo are in Wyedean School now is because we believe as a school our students and school community should be actively engaged and exposed to a wider world. I have a skype session this week with the British Council and some of our Year 10 students are talking to a student from Kazakhstan who has won a STEM competition to come to the UK and meet Professor Stephen Hawking. I have a number of thoughts as I drive across the old Severn Bridge either home to Bristol or to school at Wyedean. Three that have been floating around in my head for a couple of weeks now since I spoke at an international conference in Poland. So, in no particular order: 1) The Finnish education system is not as great as everyone thinks it is; 2) Educators are impotent and 3) Students exposed to internationalism will not necessarily become “global citizens”.

The conference in Poland was an interesting gathering of largely Nordic and Eastern European educational academics who have been meeting on an annual basis since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was also a nice excuse to be back in Cracow especially as in a previous role as head of history I took A Level and IB students there regularly as part of a wider school tour of history and politics. It struck me on a very warm September afternoon in a Polish primary school watching students my daughter’s age perform their national songs and dances to a small group of international educators how political education really is. This moved from theory to fact when I spoke to a number of Polish academics and educators about the hard nationalist movement sweeping through Polish politics and society. In textbooks on history, in hardening social attitudes where it was once progressive and an academic from the auspicious and august host university, Copernicus’s own alma mater, Jagiellonian, founded in 1364, said hundreds of school leaders had been dismissed that summer because they did not tow the government line of education. The keynote speaker on the Friday night in the historic senate room of Jagiellonian, Professor Maria Mendal of the University of Gdansk, warned of the dangers of following the neo-liberal model too far in schools where the focus of education is lost to a business model that treats children and educators as a business commodity. Whereas this has been part of the landscape in the UK and USA for some time, it is a model, with all its faults and excesses, being rolled out across the former Warsaw Pact eastern European countries. I found myself challenging a speaker in one of the lectures to outline precisely when he believed was this “golden age” of education, what it looked it like and where did it exist now? It got a good applause as a question but not an answer. I am not sure I could get an answer to that question and when we had the Open Evening here for Year 6 last Thursday I tried to answer my own questions from Poland just before I spoke to parents.

I mentioned there were three questions I carried home from the conference and I was very fortunate to have had a short but illuminating conversation with Eeva-Kaisa Ikonen, superintendent of education from Helsinki. Eeva’s talk was fascinating because it started asking, “How do you improve a system that works?” in relation to Finland who tops OECD studies and PISA rankings regularly. The challenge for Finland, Eeva told me, is to anticipate the changes in skills, pedagogy, leadership, society, neurology, and technology that are happening now and almost future proof the education system even if that means dropping down the PISA rankings and suffering short term politically. My heart beats faster just to contemplate the leadership and vision involved in such a farsighted ambition. I am definitely taking Eeva’s invitation to go to Helsinki to see what her and her colleagues are planning for in their vision of education. But then in another talk looking at the Anthropocene era we are now in I did come away feeling very pessimistic as the speaker loudly boomed in what can only be described as a Polish-East Ridings of Yorkshire accent, “educators are impotent” in the face of these huge societal challenges and preparing young people to lead on them. Which brought me to my own talk on the Saturday afternoon on global learning and what we are doing at Wyedean School. Besides the fact, I spoke too fast for the translation and used far too many Americanisms; it really made me think when I was asked in the Q&A about whether exposing students to international education made them any more of a global citizen or less. I did think of a 101 examples of when I was on the British Council’s International School Award panel and I would cringe at the clumsy but well intended global learning opportunities in schools around the UK. We live in a very global society in 2017 but this very globalisation and fast-paced change linked to the extraordinary advances in technology has left so many communities and societies around the World grasping to make sense and keep up or simply to dis-engage. My dear friend in Moldova wrote to me this morning, on WhatsApp of course, about the horrific shooting at a concert in Las Vegas following the dreadful violence in Catalonia, the floods in the Caribbean, the removal of the Muslim population of Myanmar and the murders at Marseilles train station on Sunday. She is a wonderful optimist but she wrote, “The World seems to have gone crazy”.

It does seem that way sometimes and yet last week I sat with a great friend and parent of Wyedean School, Mike Peckham along with his son Ashraf, to plan the South West and Wales conference we are holding here on the 9th December entitled “Making Sense of the World now”. I am a little bit worried that the aim of the conference maybe promising too much on the back of this weekend’s events but at the same time the line-up of speakers and workshops for 16-19 year old students are tackling a range of topics from fake news and the media, religion in the C21st, to identity and democracy. It made me feel hopeful and think of the MLK quote starting this blog about giving students the opportunities and ability to question and think critically. I wish I were at the University of Bristol this week as Wyedean School Year 12 debaters Matt Ward and Hannah Purcell have been selected to take part in a special event looking at the implications of the Brexit vote and process and what the future of the UK may well be according to the young people who will lead it one day.

Emerson was right to warn of not being pushed by problems and sometimes it is all too apparent the barriers and problems we face along the way. As we get further into autumn and the weeks of this term are ticking by until half term break I want to be focused on and led by dreams and ambitions more as a school leader. I get it from the buzz in the corridors; the Wednesday teaching and learning briefing; my school teams; the kind emails from parents; the energy of the kids out in the school yard at break and lunch; seeing the school showcased at open evening and the daily flood of pictures on Twitter highlighting compelling learning with the knowledge we are in the best job in the World to face the future with confidence. We are educators in the business of education after all.


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