Turning strategy and leadership into a positive culture and climate.

The strong man holds in a living blend strongly marked opposites.   Not ordinarily do men achieve this balance of opposites.  The idealists are not usually realistic, and the realists are not usually idealistic.  The militant are not generally known to be passive, nor the passive to be militant.  Seldom are the humble self-assertive, or the self-assertive humble.  But life at its best is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony.  The philosopher Hegel said that truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis that reconciles the two.

A tough mind and a tender heart, sermon by Martin Luther King Jr.

Despite the fact, I have lived in Bristol for just over 20 years it is to my shame and embarrassment that I have never once been inside the mighty St Mary Redcliffe church. From the harbour, it seems more like a cathedral with its soaring spire looking down at the same Bristol docks and the Welsh Back from where the likes of Cabot sailed from in 1497 to discover Newfoundland; five years after Columbus, Cabot’s fellow Italian sailor, first sighted land and claimed the ‘New World’ for Spain. By chance, last Friday I finally found myself inside one of England’s largest parish churches during the lunch break of the European education conference which I was attending in Bristol; the hotel and venue was just opposite on the other side of the road. I am hoping my Moldovan school partner, Tatiana Popa, didn’t mind the excursion either but it did seem a good opportunity for a visit.  My American friend and colleague from Virginia, was also in the UK with his IB students.  Looking at their photos of their trip on Twitter reminded me of a comment he made to me years ago when we first started to work collaboratively as global educators, back in the days when we were young idealistic trans-Atlantic IB coordinators together. He told me he loved Britain simply for the fact there was so much history packed into such a small space.  Which made sense coming from an American and most of his country’s history is packed into just the Old Dominion itself where he hails from. I have always appreciated his remark and thought about it when I came across the armour, memorial and tomb of one Admiral William Penn. Penn died in 1670 but King Charles II still owed him a huge amount of money. Charles Stuart handed over to Penn’s son, also called William, a huge tract of land from the Americas, which is now modern day Pennsylvania, and Delaware. I have always been more interested in the Mid-Atlantic States and have spent many hours walking around the Quaker capital that is the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia. Not necessarily for the run up the “Rocky Steps” or the impressive visit to Independence Hall and not even for the Liberty Bell, but definitely for a Philly cheesesteak in South Philly at either Geno’s or Pat’s.  I have never been able to decide which of the original claimants to this hot sandwich I have preferred, but I am always struck by the sign at the counter window at the Italian-American, son of refugees Geno’s that reads “If you can read this sign, thank a teacher.  If you can read it in English, thank a Marine”.

To find Admiral William Penn buried in Bristol struck a real chord in the history student in me, especially as it is a sort of place of pilgrimage for a certain type of American visitor. His son, William Penn, is definitely worth reading up on.  As is the son’s remarkable second wife, Hannah Callowhill Penn. A Quaker from my part of Bristol originally and one of the first female leaders in the colonial period only really being recognised now for leading and building Pennsylvania for six years after her husband’s death.  The colony of Pennsylvania that was developed by William and Hannah as a tolerant Quaker colony in contrast to the slave colony of Virginia and Puritan colony of Massachusetts, served as the inspiration for the United States constitution. Unfortunately, infamous Bristol sons like Edward Colston and the city’s heavy involvement in the slave trade of the C17th and C18th is a more unsavoury connection between the city and the southern colonies and Deep South.  It was also no coincidence that Pennsylvania became one of the most prosperous colonies in the British Empire and the place for the fledgling USA to declare independence, commencing one of the most fascinating experiments in modern government.  Geno’s counter sign and President Trump being very much part of that democratic pluralism the Founders envisaged. I have always liked the Welsh connection with Pennsylvania too and there was a time during the 18th century when there were more Welsh language newspapers and books printed in Philadelphia than actually in Wales.  One of the oldest Welsh language societies established in the city in 1729 is still going very strong to this day. Penn’s vision, leadership and strategy for Pennsylvania is nothing short of inspirational and so I felt humbled to be staring at his father’s tomb in a Bristol church last Friday, having spent the last 24 hours in a conference of several hundred European educators from all across the continent.

The conference was over several days and it was an opportunity to listen and talk to a wide range of educators and policy influencers from across Europe. I think the main thing that struck me throughout as I reflected on Saturday night in a field in Wiltshire watching with my family and Moldovan partner a huge bonfire and fireworks display, was the optimism that exuded from so many different school stories.  I listened to a remarkable teacher from a small village school in the mountains of Croatia describe the leadership and vision she had to ensure the students of that school connected to others from across Europe as a meaningful and regular part of their education.  The school barely had heating or materials and the local farm animals would come and drink out of the school’s pond during the day, but this educator’s strategy ensured she engaged her community with the education of their children. Because of her tenacity, this tiny mountain village school had won European awards and was being showcased in Bristol to hundreds of European educators. There were many similar examples throughout the conference. After four years of working with Tatiana Popa, I finally got to meet this remarkable Moldovan educator who is one of the most inspirational teachers I know.  Showing her proudly round Wyedean School on Friday morning where she was able to spend time with another remarkable educator Wyedean is fortunate to have in Lucy McManus, the Year 10 English class were able to meet the teacher they have been speaking to over Skype and reading poems to their Moldovan counterparts in Chisinau. Tatiana believes passionately in the transformative power of education, languages and learning. Where she teaches in one of Europe’s poorest countries she sees it as vital that the students in her care are able to use their education to improve their opportunities and life chances. The culture and climate of her classrooms resonate this aspiration and it is very humbling to work with such an educator.  She epitomises hope and a positive role model for young Moldovans. I found myself in several debates around the future of Europe and whether or not the opportunity for the UK to engage in such a European forum would exist in the near future. I am currently working on my talk for the British Council policy forum and dialogue in London on the 17th November.  I have been asked to speak to policy makers about global learning and leadership in schools in this uncertain educational and political climate. I know what Wyedean School’s ambitions are for World Class 21st century learning, but it is even more clear following the weekend’s conference and my discussions with school leaders that I am fortunate to be able to determine to a large extent this direction for the school as principal with the support of governors, staff and community. Although having seen a few posts on social media from colleagues I worked with on the weekend from Greece, Bulgaria and Croatia I did have to point out that I am not “the principal of the Harry Potter School” and I don’t have the powers to change what is already the fine school name that is Wyedean.  Hopefully no governors were offended or even our most famous former student, JK Rowling. I did twitter this in response immediately.

In this context, I was looking at the draft Challenge Partners report from the Review Team for Wyedean School that took place a few weeks ago. My eyes focussed immediately on these lines below as I thought about the leadership and strategy that had developed the positive school culture and climate in the school.

  • There is an uncompromising drive by school leaders to improve and maintain the highest levels of achievement and personal development for all students.
  • Evidence of the impact of leadership at all levels can be seen in the school’s impressive recent performance, especially in the enhanced rates of progress for English and mathematics.
  • The principal is passionately committed to the school and ensures that the well-being of staff and pupils is at the heart of the school’s work.
  • The principal and staff place a great emphasis on the importance of a sense of community.
  • The school has a shared vision of where it wants to be and how to get there. This is regularly articulated and re­visited so that all staff understand the importance of continuous improvement.
  • The school has a strong moral purpose, which is clearly and passionately articulated by all staff. The school’s ethos is rooted in strong values and high levels of mutual respect amongst all members of the school community.
  • The very positive relationships that exist between leaders, staff and students ensure that every student has the best opportunity to achieve. Evidence of these warm relationships were manifest during learning walks and observations throughout the review.
  • There are new senior and middle leadership teams in place after a period of uncertainty and significant change. School leaders confirm that they feel fully empowered to make decisions and that they are listened to.
  • The enhanced role of middle leadership is integral to the school’s success. Middle leaders have been given very helpful support, training and coaching. As a result, the middle leadership team is now successfully driving the school’s quality assurance process forward.
  • All leaders are reflective practitioners who are constantly striving to improve their own leadership skills, teaching ability and learning outcomes for students.
  • The focus on strengthening teaching and leadership capacity across the school is demonstrated by the very strong commitment to continuing professional development (CPD). Wider networking is a significant strength of the school and staff talk confidently about the projects that they have led on within school as part of this process.

The gala meal for the conference was held on Friday night in the wonderful Bristol City Museum, my own children’s favourite museum, and the scene of many a good Saturday afternoon after a burger and milkshake at Rocotillos opposite on Queens Road. This Victorian museum donated by the tobacco magnate Henry Wills, which houses so many eclectic collections with all sorts of artefacts and exhibitions looted, stolen, borrowed and bought from across the old Empire and the wider globe, hosted a dinner of several hundred forward looking European educators, all passionate and committed to the power of learning and education. It was hard not to think of the words about Wyedean from the Challenge Partners report, and the hope that this conference has given me in terms of optimism looking forward in education. What MLK referred to as the “creative synthesis of the realists and the idealists” can be seen on how we use leadership to turn strategy into a positive educational climate and culture and therefore there is always hope where educators and education is concerned. I watched a few Danish and German teachers dance rather too enthusiastically to Abba’s “Waterloo” under the 1910 Bristol Boxkite hanging from the vaulted ceiling of the museum. I also witnessed less “fruitful harmony” in the groovy Nordic moves but at least they were letting their hair down in a foreign city which even teachers are allowed to do now and again. The fact they did not fall over proved there is always hope with educators.


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