What will educational success look like going into the 2020s?

“What I enjoyed best at my Any Questions? evening was chatting to the Sixth Formers at Wyedean School. Thoughtful, open to ideas, undogmatic…just at present, I wish our country was in their hands”.

 Journalist and broadcaster, Matthew Parris, writing in his Times column after his visit to Wyedean School on the 12th Jan 2018 for the BBC’s “Any Questions?”

 “Education breeds confidence. Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace.”Confucius

 I first need to put a disclaimer at the onset of my blog before going any further. I don’t know the answer to the question I pose in my blog title and there certainly isn’t going to be any panacea to what could even be agreed amongst educators, academics, employers, parents, students or anyone else connected to education to what “educational success” looks like in 2018. No one of worth wants to be peddling any educational version of snake oil where educational success definition is concerned and like most school leaders, anyone willing to promote as such, in a self-styled moniker of “guru” I avoid like the plague. But sitting here on a cold and grey February day in my study in school, with the snow coming down fast over the Wye Valley and the Forest of Dean, I realise it is something I have been thinking deeply about consciously all of my educational life. None more so now as the principal of Wyedean School directly responsible for the education of 1100 students with essentially young children starting with us at the tender age of 11, to them leaving us to go onto university and careers at 18 as adults. That is a phenomenal amount of growing, learning, developing, maturing and succeeding for these adolescents in our duty of care. It would be useful for them to know what is it they are all working towards and when they will know they have got there in their educational lives.

I think there are essentially two reasons why this question has come back to prominence in my daily thinking as a school leader for the start of 2018. Firstly, thanks to my colleague in science, Stuart Motson, we were very fortunate to start the new year and term back in school with Wyedean hosting BBC Radio 4’s long standing current affairs programme “Any Questions?” with the brilliant Jonathan Dimbleby as host. As expected in the climate we now live, Trump and Brexit dominated the discussions and the programme was well attended by our local wider community to hear the panel discuss the issues of our age. It is also an important part of the school culture and ethos at Wyedean to be outward looking and hosting such a programme of national and international standing by the BBC was a real coup for the school. It was the after show event on the Friday evening I really enjoyed in the Sixth Form’s “Big Bean Café” where Jonathan Dimbleby and the panel members kindly came and spoke at length with governors, staff, parents and of course students. It was Matthew Parris’s comments in The Times after the event that has really stayed with me though and I have quoted them here at the top of this blog. This famous journalist, writer and broadcaster, who definitely has a reputation for calling it as it is, felt generous enough to take time to convey in print such an optimistic view of how our young people at Wyedean are seen and what we should be aspiring to always as educators in terms of how we develop our students. It is often levelled at the state education system in the UK that the accountability and inspection system of standards, favoured by all shades of governments over the last couple of decades, has led to an education system where public examination results have often emerged as the only important benchmark of recognition of educational success. Ensuring our young people have the necessary qualifications is an essential part of the role of schools but it is not to the exclusion and detriment of the holistic educational development of our young people to prepare them for the challenges and rewards of their later young (and old) adult lives. The best schools see academic success intrinsically linked to holistic individual development through wider education. That is what we need to get back to in our schools and educational ethos to develop further as we approach the next decade. These twin ambitions for young people are not diametrically opposed as the goals of the education system of any country. Therefore, why do we let this happen in the name of raising standards when in reality we are continuing to narrow the curriculum, lose good educators and add to the mental health issues of young people?

The second reason is the very thing all school leaders in England fear the most – the dreaded OfSTED inspection call on a Monday morning. We knew as a school our three years were up in November since we were last seen and rated “Good” for our standards and our safeguarding.  Two weeks ago on a Monday morning, just before midday, I had a phone call from Sharon.  Sharon from OfSTED. And then Iain. Iain was going to be leading the inspection the very next day.  Hard as it is for some of my global colleagues to comprehend, in the English system of school inspection they really do turn up with less than 24hours notice and your school’s future is decided on that one day of intense rigorous scrutiny of the quality, safety and standards of the education you provide.  Your ultimate accountability as a school leader. This was my first leading a school and I have been through similar inspections in the USA, SE Asia and even closer to home in Wales with the system under Estyn.  When I first experienced this at my then Welsh school, it was astonishing that this inspection had not been undertaken for 6 years. We knew weeks in advance and the whole thing missed so many things OfSTED would have pulled apart having just been through the process in England at a school that became the first 11-18 school to be “outstanding” in every category under that framework.  However, does that make it an educational success? Well, in the case of both my former schools the level and quality of the holistic education and curriculum enrichment and breadth on offer really does make both schools places delivering an outward looking level of education preparing students for the next decade of the 21st century. They were also places educators and leaders could grow as well under forward looking and moral leadership.  I am pleased to say that my sleepless night on Monday two weeks ago, followed by my routine more than normal contemplative 5am dog walk in the pitch black cold around fields in North Bristol with my dog Dylan, saw the OfSTED team recognise the amazing work of Wyedean staff and students we see every day. Moreover, we are good to carry on with strong recognition for the leadership, rich curriculum, learning, effective safeguarding and Post 16 education. A link to the report and my letter to parents is here:


We have been open to scrutiny and challenge by anyone as a key element of our school improvement from Day 1 of me being principal, and that is what any good school does not only to confirm its educational success but also how to continue to develop itself further with external verifiers and their advice for improvement. It is why we are on the Challenge Partners school improvement network of over 400 schools of such a diverse and range but all striving for educational success with openness and an outward facing culture at the heart of their ethos.  In addition, it is led by the very schools involved and school leaders and not some top down bureaucracy with a “one size fits all” politicised approach against any autonomy.  I knew I would be back to snake oil pushers again in this blog.

So what is educational success going to look like going forward and the 2020s not too far away? I believe it has to be similar to days like today.  My Year 12 critical thinking group started the morning debating the issues around equality in the C21st as part of the 100th anniversary of women in the UK first being given the vote. I kept thinking of Matthew Parris’s words in The Times about Wyedean students as I watched the intensity and passion of the dialogue and debate around this issue in my study this morning.  It is about celebrating the sporting success of our students and being proud as I felt when I posted the success of Lily Crawley through to the national indoor athletics championship in Sheffield later this month. It may well be viewed as the Progress 8 and Attainment tables released a week ago in England.  It puts Wyedean in a strong light but that is only a fraction of the educational success of this school. It could well be the innovative use of digital learning and weekly Skype Classroom sessions we hold with schools connecting classrooms and global citizens in India, Canada, Belarus, Italy to name but a few. It was great to talk to my colleague Bindiya last week in Genius School, now there is a name for a school, in India. An aspirational educator as any I have had the privilege to work with globally.  It definitely is Wyedean’s completed and accepted application by the International Baccalaureate Organisation last week to be an IB World School aiming to offer the IB from September 2019. It is so exciting to be joining this incredible family group of several thousand diverse schools around the World developing and delivering the IB and its philosophy in our curriculum and as a key part of our ethos. The IB is 50 years this year and it is hard to think of any comparable education system that has stood the test of time and modelled such an aspirational vision of educational success free from the interference from national politicised policy makers. The IB is so much more than a qualification and I have always designed any curriculum I have been involved with as a school leader or advisor from the point of view of the IB’s “Learner Profile”.  What do we want our young people to become at the end of their school years?  Stressed out exam factory fodder or something way more and relevant to develop global society for the better? True international education is the latter always and does not pay mere lip service to the notion either. Educational success should not be trite short termism in the 2020s and will continue to be led and defined by educators who believe completely in the moral purpose and transformational nature of educational success.  It was a real honour to be in the landmark OECD PISA 2018 Asian Society Global Competences publication for this type of education launched at the World Education Forum in January – Wyedean is on P31 looking at the importance of school leadership in education:


We need to keep moving the debate on as educators from the narrowness of only defining success through our public examinations. We need to educate the public and policymakers to not only see qualification outcomes as the end result of education systems. I work with an extraordinary colleague in the British Council called John Rolfe.  Direct descendent, via Yorkshire, of the John Rolfe who married Pocahontas in the early 1600s at the Jamestown Virginia settlement. John has been a passionate and ardent advocate of global education his entire career as a dedicated public servant supporting schools and in the Queen’s New Year Honours list he was rightly awarded an MBE for his services to education.  We need more people like John supporting an alternative narrative to a narrowing curriculum and to develop further, what a “Global Britain” will mean for educational and career opportunities for schools in the UK in the 2020s. Students will always need knowledge and skills and we should not put these two elements of educational outcome against each other in a binary zero sum way.  They are not diametrically opposed but we do need to keep looking at what is compelling and engaging learning in our 21st century classrooms and learning is essentially Socratic even in the 2020s. The age-old question, more than 2500 years later, is how do we keep our students hooked in?

You know your students have had an extraordinary day not just in education but also in their lives when they go to look at Oxford University like mine did today and inspirational Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai incredibly shows them around. This is what happened to my students at Oxford University. I have a remarkable assistant principal and director of Post 16 in Johnathan Lane who will continue to deliver this level of education that will earn commendations like Matthew Parris’s description of Wyedean students.  This is where the bar has to be when we define as school leaders and educators how our educational success should look going into the 2020s. Moreover, yes, I am deeply regretting not going to Oxford today, meeting one of the 21st century’s remarkable and humbling World figures who has done so much fighting for Human Rights, and ensuring girls and people in poverty in some of the poorest places of the World, just have the right to an education.  That in itself is an outstanding measure of educational success through such struggle and we should not forget the distance we have come in modern education in the 21st century.


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