A school is not a school without its community

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much

Helen Keller

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?

Martin Luther King

Tomorrow the morning will be clear and happy. This life is beautiful. Heart be wise

Anna Akhmatova

The “nine men of Madeley” story is rarely known outside of my own Shropshire village and certainly in terms of numbers doesn’t compare to the loss of life in similar mining disasters in towns such as Gresford in 1934 or Senghenydd in 1913. What they all have in common though is the impact and response on those tightly knit mining communities when the feared loss of life dreaded by all families at the start of a working day confirmed wives, mothers and their children’s worst fears when the colliery hooter sounded, or the shouts of people could not be ignored any longer and there had indeed been a pit accident. In 1864, in the small Salopian mining town of Madeley, nine men and boys, the youngest was only 12 and the eldest 52, were being lowered down the 220-meter shaft of the Brick Kiln Leasow Crawstone Pit by a crude rope and hook system when at half way down, about the height of Big Ben;  the central hook came undone and all nine men plunged to their death smashing to the bottom of the shaft below. The nine men were laid to rest side by side by their families and their community in the churchyard of Thomas Telford’s imposing Madeley church.  I remember as a child seeing the communal victim’s tomb and being fascinated with this story, especially as my own father was doing pretty much the same job 120 years later in the same mines that had been the mainstay of the area since Medieval times. The deep coal mining industry has long gone in Britain and the few ex-miners left like my father are all happily and safely retired, and deservedly so. The communities in these areas that are left from Lanarkshire, Durham, Yorkshire, Lancashire, the Midlands, Kent, the South Wales valleys and our own Forest of Dean, where coal is an integral part of the story of the Forest, still contain something of the spirit and ties that made these places pull together so strongly and effectively when times were good and not so good.

I can’t remember anything or anyone referring to the importance and strength of support of the wider community to schools when I undertook my Masters in educational leadership, and certainly nothing about the positive impact it could have from when I studied for my NPQH as I wanted to move further up into school leadership. No current research or any particular academic were recommended and in fact the whole shift in English education with the academy programme/Multi Academy Trusts (MAT) away from the local authorities in the last decade has seen a strange hybrid local education relationship develop where governance and school leadership often have very little in common with the very communities they are supposed to serve. Interestingly enough my NPQH was through the Cabot Learning Federation which originally served as a MAT for only schools in East Bristol and it is the legacy of the now national schools’ commissioner, Sir David Carter. These schools work closely with and serve the very communities their young people come from equipping and instilling in these students a sense of pride, aspiration, service and life long learning in order that they enrich their community as adults. More importantly, they can give something back to inspire the next generation of young people. In the recent December 2017 annual OfSTED report it is in fact these very Bristol schools that are now being applauded and recognised for this very work where once Bristol schools languished at the bottom of most educational tables. I have met Sir David on a few occasions and Wyedean was very fortunate to work with him and be in his “Race to Outstanding” group of SW schools in 2015 when I first started as Head at the school. Sir David is a very inspirational educator who has very much “walked the walk” as a headteacher in Gloucestershire and Bristol.  His whole educational philosophy and approach is about raising standards and aspirations in schools to allow their very communities to thrive through this ethos.  So much has recently been said about social mobility and the perceived lack of it for so many young people and yet if schools do not offer aspirational education, full of opportunities and a rich curriculum then this educational apartheid will be further entrenched.  When I first started looking at the International Baccalaureate (IB) from my then Bristol school back in the early Millennium, as much as I was bowled over by the phenomenal education offered in UWC Atlantic College, it was in fact places using the IB like Broadgreen International School in one of the poorest parts of Liverpool, under the great school leader, Ian Andain, that impressed me most.  Ian took the IB, an international curriculum rightly associated with rigour, intellectual development and holistic education of the individual, but wrongly associated with elitism, and used it to raise aspirations and standards within his community in his area of Liverpool.  The IB has always contained the very “community” section in the CAS element that underpins the whole baccalaureate structure of the IB, as much as the subjects, essay and theory of knowledge components.

I have been very fortunate in my career to only have worked in schools that valued the relationship and support of the local community. I stood with my then Sixth Formers, along with the whole town, on too many occasions on the High Street in Wootton Bassett watching the corteges of fallen service personel being brought back from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to RAF Lyneham and their families and communities. In Crickhowell, as a deputy head I experienced daily the wonderful support and relationship the community gave to its school, and this extended to the way secondary schools worked together in collaboration and partnership wanting to only raise standards and create educational opportunities for the rural communities they served. I have appreciated deeply when I reflect on these experiences the significant role the positive relationship with the local community has played when the school and community are engaged and working together for the common good of the young people and each other. I despair when I hear school leaders talk and openly advocate fewer ties with their local community almost as if the school doesn’t quite belong to the very area it is supposed to serve. I have often wondered if the “Klondike” rush to national MATs in the last few years has encouraged the remoteness in certain school leaders; often the ones parachuted in and parachuted out again as a quick fix solution to deeper educational problems and doesn’t appear to work longer term along with the “hero Head” model, once favoured more than it is now in the DfE – thank goodness. I don’t think a great deal of educational research needs to be undertaken to show it is obvious that is the very team of school leaders, plural, and all staff that make the difference in a school.

I have to confess that when I first arrived to take up my post at Wyedean School I wasn’t aware then just how crucial the role of the wider community supporting the school was going to be, especially as we have gone through some very challenging times with the current dire financial situation for schools as well as the pressures on schools to form or get into MATs. It’s easy to start with the governors. As a colleague of mine once said, they are the trustees of the school and are from the very community the school serves and whose children we educate.  Wyedean has phenomenal governors who freely give up so much of their time as volunteers to support the school.  Their role ranges from sounding boards for leadership, wise counsel, practical support, business/volunteer organisation expertise and ready to pitch and support everything from the PTA to open evening.  We are really fortunate as a school to have such critical friends as stewards of Wyedean.

Over the last few months of this busy term I have had parents contact me to offer a range of support from advice, sofas for the common room, Christmas trees, plants, donations, talking to students from an industry background, flooring for the top corridor, the list goes on. I see it when I sit in the ancient beauty of St Mary’s priory church and parents, governors, community members are all there supporting/sponsoring our awards evening, carol concert, careers events etc.  The recent “snow day” which saw the Forest of Dean look absolutely beautiful as it does and even more so in the snow, but it meant students and staff could not get to school because of the ice and snow on the roads.  Parents were superb in their support over social media and together we made sure everyone was aware, decisions could be taken with as much full knowledge as possible and above all our students and staff were safe. The Year 11s have about 5 months left before the summer exams and have already put their applications in for Sixth Form, local college or apprenticeships. I work with many dedicated colleagues and the Head of Year 11, Claire Rush, as a senior pastoral leader is just incredible in her devotion and support of the year 11s in her care.  Claire made sure the mocks were treated as the real thing to prepare the students and even on Thursday morning, they had the results given to them as if it was the real thing.  When I spoke to them in their assembly with Claire it wasn’t about stressing them out, but building them up.  This extended to the parents’ evening for Year 11 on the penultimate day of term.  So many of our parents coming into school to work with teachers and students to get the best results for our young people.  It made me very proud as Wyedean principal looking around the school gym on a cold December evening with everyone wanting Christmas to get here and yet the partnership between home, school and community there in action. It is the same year group that has been working with the Forest of Dean Baby Bank since the summer helping with the donations to families in the Forest to support their infants and young families.  It epitomises the school and community working together.  Some students approached me this week and asked if the beautiful Christmas trees we had in the Sixth Form café and school hall could be used again and be donated to local care homes.  I am so proud of the community and civic minded students we have at Wyedean.  These are moments you know the future is definitely not all doom and gloom as some would have it.

We celebrated the wide and varied achievements of Wyedean students in St Mary’s priory church on the 6th December and one of those very former young people who once attended Wyedean, Mr Neill Ricketts, came back as our guest of honour.  Neill is the founder and CEO of Versarien PLC and his own story as a Wyedean student and the support and influences he had was very inspirational to hear especially as he was passing that hope and sense of journey as an alumnus of Wyedean to the next generation. Neill announced he is very generously going to refurbish some of the science laboratories in honour of a teacher who influenced him, John Nettleship.  John is the acknowledged inspiration for another famous Wyedean student, JK Rowling, and he is the basis of Snape in the Harry Potter books.

As the old year of 2017 comes to an end and most people I know seem to be breathing a sigh of relief after an often tumultuous year at many levels I personally feel there is so much to feel optimistic and hopeful about 2018. Baroness Jan Royall, Forest resident, former Leader of the House of Lords and now principal of Somerville College, the University of Oxford, wrote to me and other schools wanting to actively create more opportunities for our young people to get exposure to education and experiences offered by Oxford. We also start off the year with the BBC “Any Questions” being broadcast from Wyedean School on the 12th January.  For a school that prides itself on its culture of critical thinking, open-mindedness, inclusivity and holistic education this is a fitting start to the year. My hope for 2018 is not anchored in a meaningless vacuum but in the very real knowledge that we have not only survived extremely difficult years in education, but we have continued to build and develop the right education needed for the communities we serve here in the Forest of Dean and the Wye Valley which allows these young people to develop into adults and access successfully their global World and society proud of where they are from in their community.


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