“I’m advocating for a new vision for education and childhood. If we truly want to improve the educational experience of our children, our focus should not be hinged on competition with other nations; it must begin with conscious parenting and education practices that address the development of the whole child – their intellectual, emotional and physical well-being. They centre on developing creativity and critical thinking through project-based learning and fostering student engagement through collaboration. They support a model of parenting and education that encourages children to discover their individual talents and pursue their true passions. They don’t demand perfection. They don’t involve assigning more homework, prolonging the school day, or increasing assessment tests. Our schools need to be community institutions that nurture and inspire children.”
Vicki Abeles; writer, producer and director of “Race to Nowhere” and “Beyond Measure”.
A few days before Christmas, I had the pleasure of hosting a Skype Classroom session from my cabin study in my Bristol garden for Canadian teacher Julie Mackenzie and her class at Mildmay Carrick School in Ontario. The class asked me a whole host of questions about the UK, which taught me a lot about Canada and some were even surprised that in Britain we shared the same Queen as Canada. It is a nice role to have as a Microsoft Educator and Skype Classroom facilitator not least because it is a unique window through digital learning on classrooms all over the World. During the whole session with Julie and her students, despite the cold and snow outside their school and the end of term hours away, the class were lively, inquisitive and engaged. They exuded everything their school and local school board states, about the vision and values of the education in their various mission statements and policy documents. Julie herself came across as one of those teachers you wished and hoped all students would have the privilege of being taught by. No one seemed to be struggling to get to the end of the term, it made me think about the last few days in school at Wyedean, and how positive and engaging the school learning environment seemed, despite how long the term had been since the start of September and the seemingly permanent dark cold days of December. I am now looking forward to working with Alexandra Nedbalskaya and her students in Minsk, Belarus, before the end of January.
One of the other reasons I am fascinated by working with schools around the globe is there is such a huge variety of school cultures, educational priorities, organisational structures/systems, values, ethos all reflected in a myriad of school mottos. I think there is a gap in the market for someone to just simply collect and publish school mottos. One of my personal favourites is a school dear to my heart, Gar-Field High School in Virginia: “School of Champions”. Taken to another extreme a school I worked with in Tomsk does not even have a name, it is simply School 56. The motto is almost as stark: “Students come to learn”. Here is the thing about these two examples about mottos aligned to ethos and culture in these two very different schools, in two very different countries. In Gar-Field HS, students believe they are actually champions. Teachers believe it and so does the community. The celebration of learning and success is the best in any school system I have seen. There is an incredible culture of coaching, partnership, support and high aspirations for all. It is infectious. Similarly, when I spent time working with the staff and students of School 56 the commitment, importance and transformational value of an engaging learning culture pervades everywhere. Siberia is a tough place especially in winter as I well remember. It is in schools such as these you see the integrity and authenticity of a school’s ethos and culture permeating everywhere in the whole school community. In Thailand, I saw in many of the schools I worked with not so much an individual school motto but the Buddhist mantra repeated, “No happiness surpasses peace of mind”. Two things struck me about the school culture I saw in Thai schools; firstly, their progressive approach to LGBT+ issues was way ahead of anything I had seen in a UK/Western school at that point, this was 2007-9. Secondly, these Sukhothai province schools were huge, often averaging around 3500 students, yet they all practiced the most effective well-being and self-discipline I have seen in any school system. The strong influence of Buddhist culture of balance and harmony had a tremendous impact on these school cultures and despite their huge student population, they were really joyous and happy campuses to be on as a student or staff member. The positive and supportive school environment also linked naturally to engagement in learning and achievement for the students.
I went into the Christmas break impressed with how my colleagues responsible for exam cohorts had planned the mock examinations, supported the students, ensured the importance and value of the mocks and prepared students effectively. It demonstrated how important at Wyedean we believe in our own motto and school culture of working together to achieve. I told all my colleagues going into the break to switch off from school, enjoy the rest with their families and friends. Human beings are not machines. I am more and more convinced of the French approach to banning emails outside of work hours. Promotion of a positive work/life balance has entered mainstream workplace culture to the point that even OfSTED now rightly question school leadership teams what they are doing to ensure a healthy work/life balance culture in schools. At the start of 2018 figures released by the DfE showed the significant drop in teacher recruitment and at the other end retention of teachers is at crisis level. Pay has not kept pace with inflation and the standard of living, but the main reason teachers are leaving the profession is the poor working environment, the unrealistic accountability, the burdensome bureaucracy and frankly, the very love of learning and shaping young minds is just not the daily experience of colleagues in schools across the country. Many school leaders will say loudly they believe in good staff well-being and at the same time find it impossible to speak to staff without mentioning OfSTED or inspection. The cultures of these schools become full of fear and inspirational leadership disappears to be replaced by reactive process driven management. The late, great education writer and academic, Ted Wragg, in his weekly TES column, had fictional “Gradgrind Academy” as the school where all the dreadful practices took place, full of poor school leaders, oppressed teachers, out of control stressed kids and capricious fads on a weekly basis. Back in the early noughties, Gradgrind Academy was then only fiction and at least did what its name and motto promised. It continues to concern me on what I come across as a school leader, unfortunately all too often about the enormous pressure on young people to succeed through endless assessment and the subsequent exponential increase in poor mental health issues for our students.
Last week when we returned from the Christmas break, I asked the Head of Year 11 what theme she wanted me to talk about for her first Monday assembly in 2018. I actually suggested two choices – examinations or motivation. She chose the latter, which is why she is an outstanding pastoral leader and Wyedean is lucky to have her. I have thought a lot about the work of the inspirational parent and educational campaigner in the USA, Vicki Abeles, which I first came across a few years ago. One of the comments that struck me from American teenagers in her interviews in schools was this: “there seems to be no finishing line anymore”. In the extract, I have quoted here from Abeles at the start of this blog I would find it nearly impossible to find a school leader, education policy maker, governor, teacher, parent or anyone who worked in education to disagree with the vision she sets out about learning, skills and curriculum. Schools around the globe, but especially in this country, have this vision set out in some form or other and believe this is what the everyday culture of their school actually is when it delivers curriculum, learning and education to students. The reality unfortunately is the latter few sentences of the extract in too many school examples where the focus is on an increase in assessments for their own sake, the longer school day, a reduction of the curriculum and a reduction in genuine support of an individual. There was even a report in the TES last week suggesting that actual student well-being will now be measured as an accountability measurement like attainment and progress data. I did come across one education writer who said this week, “You don’t grow taller just because you take a height measurement”. What Abeles and others are campaigning on now is how we approach the pressures that we put on young people at home and in school. To look at the reasons why we are assessing a student and how we are assessing. To look at the balance in the curriculum, the educational experience and the culture of our schools in how we develop our young people to cope and succeed as young adults as they leave schools. How we get them to use technology in a wiser, balanced and less addicted way. As a school leader, I do not want to pay lip service to a school culture that suggests it is about the individual and progressive supportive development of a meaningful education when the reality is the day-to-day experience is gradgrind and intolerable unnecessary pressures for staff, students and home. Therefore, a resolution for 2018 going forward into a new year is to continue working on the positive school culture we have created at Wyedean and to continue innovating to ensure compelling and engaging learning is not only what we believe in but it is what our students experience daily. Delivered by their teachers and support staff who believe in the power of transformative holistic education with supportive and collaborative leadership that allows them to do what they came into education for: to work with, and improve the lives of the young people in our care. We need to continue to ensure that we align what we say with what we do as schools and educators, or else we will continue to lose our teachers and more generations of young people. This is what I see increasingly as the challenge in education for 2018 and beyond.