Navigating a new academic year in a dysfunctional educational landscape through leadership

“That one is never ready for the next step in life’s journey, we learn what we need to know on the road itself” Quaker Faith & Practice 22-33, Elsie Boulding

“The pupils from this school, will leave with a lifelong sense of hope, a feeling for community, a passion for social change” “Let your life speak”, Parker J. Palmer

There was a Monday in August where I woke early even though it was the holidays due to the sound of the sea crashing against the granite rose coast shoreline.  It was so compelling to listen to especially combined with a spectacular sunrise due to the bay in this part of Brittany where my father in law lived facing east. Like anyone connected with education, the summer break and the changing of routines was very welcome particularly after another full-on academic year at Wyedean including the January OfSTED inspection. Lunch at a French family friend’s house turned into a Gallic feast lasting four hours on one day. I think the average educator in a school is lucky to grab four minutes to wolf a sandwich down. But this is what the summer break is for in many respects, to break the routines, reflect, repair and take stock ready for the new academic year in the autumn. It is hard to completely switch the mind off school and I am not sure I have ever gone away at the end of July to not even think about the year just gone and the year to come.  I have found as a school principal, like the police, one is never really “off duty” and although the day to day changes for a few weeks, social media and the two sets of exam results for Year 11s and 13s means it is never a six-week absence without so much as a glance over the shoulder. There are three phases of the summer holiday for an educator; the beginning is where most brave the traffic jams on the motorways and the queues at ports and airports because in a few hours there will be a completely different environment and humanity slowly returns.  My children commented how much more relaxed my face looked by the second week in France. Then there is the middle section of August with results and then at the end the preparation for the new academic year ahead.  I enjoy all sections of the school break.  The very precious time with family and recuperating; the sharing and celebrating success and being a support for students and parents on results days and now this final section of reflection and looking ahead.

My colleagues from the Music department gave up the first few days of their break to take the school orchestra and choir to Tuscany as they were performing in a number of concerts and events. At a time when this summer the status of creative subjects in the curriculum in most schools is looking critical as the arts are squeezed more out of schools in pursuit of a narrowing of the curriculum, music and the arts are flourishing at Wyedean. This was demonstrated in the very strong exam results obtained this summer and the numbers taking these subjects.  The same goes for languages at Wyedean where the results and numbers opting for KS4 and KS5 are successful. They are a key part of the broad holistic curriculum we believe passionately in at Wyedean. The quote from Parker J Palmer is in my cabin study at home and I aspire to this belief when I look at the priorities for Wyedean School.  There were two brilliant examples of the school culture and ethos living up to Palmer’s belief about the purpose of education and the mission of schools. Two sixth formers, Laura Willingham and Beth Garland are members of the Gloucestershire National Citizen Service and this summer raised over £1k to help towards funding of the Opportunity Centre in Coleford.  I am so proud of these two for what they are doing for children in their Forest of Dean community. The other example this summer is Lotte now going into Year 10.  Lotte raised money in school at the end of last term for the Newport charity supporting people living on the streets, The Wallich, in aid of homeless people. I cannot wait for this generation to be leading their communities and country. In this last week three sixth formers, Matt, Stuart and Haydn, were given a unique opportunity to further their digital learning and cyber skills with a work experience with Cyber Security Associates Ltd as part of the school’s links to the National Cyber Security Centre.  These lads had an informative summer placement and the company praised how proud they were of them. In between pushing out the “Stretch and Challenge” reading lists for potentially bored students who need something to occupy them that could be useful, it has been a busy summer. I even read and “enjoyed” a number of anticipated books including Madeline Albright’s book “Fascism” and Julian Jackson’s biography on de Gaulle.  Mental note not to talk about de Gaulle and Macron in the same breadth in certain circles in northern Brittany and Paris again.

Preparing for the new year ahead is one of the key tasks for all school leaders, it comes with the territory of leading, and I know how colleagues must feel as they want to welcome back the school community and get the new year launched and underway. Even finding feet and easing back into routines is hard enough for staff, parents and students.  Definitely no four-hour lunches and especially no Sancerre to go with it. I have sat in the audience of the first day back in September and watched a few “state of the union” addresses from varying degrees of school leaders. The best ones don’t try to solve the minutiae of the summer results with the uncomfortable “blame game” and certainly don’t bombard with too much detail of every line of the school improvement plan.  The best ones celebrate the success, reflect and allow the new year to unfold with the key messages succinct for everyone. It’s also the time when you look around the room at colleagues you haven’t seen for six weeks, see new faces and make sure they feel welcomed as we all started somewhere new once and as a community you miss those colleagues who left or retired in July. The strategic launch and ambition in school soon gives way to the operational day to day and the glorious stretch of the new autumn term, hopefully with an Indian summer, moves without warning to less daylight and the cold weather.  Students are joining us for the first time in Year 7 and I always think how they must feel coming up from primary school.  Most seem very confident and a good school community ensures they are part of it from day one. But not all settle straight away and therefore the nonsense around “not smiling before Christmas” has hopefully gone the way of “brain gym” and other “gems” of education. I believe passionately in the power of the school community at Wyedean and why having a positive school culture that believes in all people is key to the school’s success. The autumn Open Evenings for the Year 6s and Year 11s wanting to join us next year is where we begin the fundamentals of this relationship between home, school and the student.

I start my 24th year in education since I first began at Bootham School York all those years ago as a teacher.  I would like to say it has got easier especially with experience and the advances in pedagogy and technology.  I have tried to avoid looking at national educational headlines this summer, but it is hard not to when education has two central days in a slow news month like August with the results focus. Bootham School was only a year in my career but knowing the brilliant Head and educator there at the time, Ian Small, and the school community he led based on a positive school culture, achievement, respect and aspiration for all, has stayed with me. I hope some of his leadership is something I try to emulate as a principal now.  In particular his focus on what was best for the school community of Bootham linked to preparing the students for global citizenship as individuals with a decent set of shared common humanistic values and qualifications and skills to lead and live happy fulfilling lives.  That challenge has never changed for any educator or school leader, but it is a challenge that seems to become increasingly difficult in an increasingly dysfunctional educational climate. As I prepared my talk for my colleagues at Wyedean over the weekend I noticed I was reaching deeper into my leadership well of optimism as I read more and more about the educational climate we now operate in.  I stopped reading, took a long walk with the dog, had a cup of tea and then a quote from Stephen R Covey caught my eye:

I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decision

Despite my disgust at the reduced funding situation for schools, the deliberate narrowing of the curriculum, the cut in SEND budgets, the false link to grammar schools aiding social mobility recently made, the sheer hours of exams and stress young people face as guinea pigs only to be sneeringly referred to by some as “millennial snowflakes”, as well as a whole host of looking into the abyss situations such as the dire recruitment crisis of teachers and the growth of inequity and corruption stories around certain schools and MATs, I can choose to be a product of the decisions I make for Wyedean School. That is my role and duty as a school leader. I am the lightning conductor that can soak up most external pressures and create the culture for my colleagues to ensure the students of the communities we are proud to serve as their local school can ensure compelling learning and unique opportunities that launch leaders like Lotte, Laura & Beth on their way to find their path in life with the skills and experiences we expose them to and embed so they “… will leave with a lifelong sense of hope, a feeling for community, a passion for social change”

This is how we learn to navigate the dysfunctional educational landscape of 2018-19 by repeating frequently our belief in the power of transformative education, supporting one another in a positive culture and using leadership to make sure success happens for all our young people. That is what I will be telling my colleagues when I stand before them for the first time this week and we launch another academic year together. As ever, I will be smiling from day one in September because I am privileged to lead a remarkable group of educators and support staff with our brilliant young people’s futures in our sacred care as we work with the families and communities we are so proud to be a part of day in and day out. We continue to work tirelessly for what is best for Wyedean.

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