Why our education system always rests on hope & optimism, even in the most challenging times

“Our ability to change a child’s life is beyond imagination” Sir Anthony Seldon. Why our education system always rests on Hope and Optimism even in the most challenging of times.

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence” Helen Keller

In Manchester last week, the British Council asked me to give the keynote talk at the start of their two-day Connecting Classrooms conference to a variety of organisations involved in global education ahead of the launch of the new version of this programme to schools in the UK. I was not feeling particularly optimistic though after a long day in school to deliver in the words of the organisers “an inspiring talk about Wyedean and global learning”. This was the first week after the half term break, all thoughts of autumn and Halloween with family in mid Wales diminishing fast, the clocks going back and the convoluted long train journey from Bristol, across to Newport, up through the Marches to arrive in Manchester late at night in the rain. As I stumbled tired around Sainsbury’s at Piccadilly station to get a bottle of water it was the very patient shop assistant, with the broadest and friendliest Coronation Street accent that put me back on track ready for the talk the following day. It really is the smallest acts of human kindness and decency sometimes that makes all the difference.

What the British Council continue to do in supporting schools and global education gives anyone in education working with them hope and optimism. The same case can be made easily for the remarkable work of DfID and the government’s aid spending commitments around the globe as well as the incredible range of organisations in the conference last week who are working with schools to support and inspire them as they develop international education. I had asked my Year 10 and Sixth Form Critical Thinking groups at the start of the week if they could provide a short-film discussion for me to share with the delegates. I used this in my talk at the start to ensure there was not a disconnect with the aims of the Connecting Classrooms programme and the very young people here in the UK and around the World who we want to fill with hope, optimism and empowerment. The film link is here on YouTube: Critical Thinking Group on Global Learning

It is funny sometimes the connection you can have with a place without realising it and Manchester for me is one of those places. As a young undergraduate in the early 1990s, I remember going to see the now late Labour leader, John Smith, in Whitworth Hall at the University of Manchester, give one of the most compelling cases of hope for Europe and cooperation in the post-Soviet World, this seems a very long time ago now in all respects.  In my talk last week, I used the example of how teachers inspired me as a young person especially instilling a love of learning and desire to find out more about the World.  I was very fortunate to be on an A Level History school trip to Berlin when the Berlin Wall came down and I was able to clamber up the Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate to get a photo in the newspapers just before the DDR border guards, kindly eased back us all down onto the Western side of the Iron Curtain.  I used this illustration in the conference as an example of hope and optimism in education and the power of committed and inspiring educators.  This hope and optimism was still there when John Smith spoke in 1992 to me in the audience, only this time as a university student, about the collapse of the USSR and the new post-Soviet Europe and World we needed to build for the fast approaching Millennium, this seems such a long time ago. The connection with Manchester has led to a number of talks and opportunities to speak in that great historic industrial northern city about global learning to all sorts of audiences over the years.  In 2017, I was asked to speak for the British Council’s Ambassador Conference on the Saturday afternoon as the post lunch “pick up” – no pressure. I remember quoting a line from Virgil I had read in the Classics lesson in Wyedean the week before as it just seemed to be so apt at a time when hope and optimism were fading fast; “durate et vosmet rebus servate secundis” – carry on and preserve yourselves for better times.

I thought of this quote when I watched the new BBC2 documentary “Schools” on the funding impact which was filmed literally just across the eastern side of the Severn from Wyedean. Knowing what we have had to do here over the last few years to ensure that we removed a significant budget deficit, which meant tough efficiency decisions, grow the school in a falling roll and kept true to our mission about our educational principles with the students centre stage as always. My heart went out to colleagues going through the same process in South Gloucestershire as they reduced their capacity to meet reduced funding: BBC documentary Schools episode 1

The “competition” culture in the English state system makes me really miss the collaborative one I left behind in Wales but at least the hope from the broadcasting of “School” and the raw honesty and despair in that MAT produces more of the empathy and support seen on social media during and following from the education community. It may even speak some “truth to power” to help us all. The uncertainty around funding and the general dysfunctional educational landscape that requires skilful, resilient and resourceful leadership is something I spoke about at length in Manchester.  I walk into Wyedean every day and give thanks for the colleagues, teams, governors, parents and community we are so fortunate to have this side of the Severn supporting Wyedean students. I do not know even where to begin when a Chancellor of the Exchequer tells the House of Commons in a budget speech that he is making a one off payment to struggling schools after years of austerity for the “little extras”. More money for filling in potholes than financing schools adequately. Words fail especially when the brilliant vice principal for Business and Finance Jodie Howells and her financial team get the school on a balanced budget that still keeps a broad curriculum and Wyedean true to compelling learning and enriching opportunities. This is before we are hit unexpectedly for pension contributions and an underfunded pay award that knocks out a delicately balanced budget.

However, Sir Anthony Seldon is absolutely right. Our ability in education to change young people’s lives through transformative education keeps us optimistic and gives us hope even in the most difficult of circumstances and this is what keeps people working in education going. This extraordinary commitment and dedication is what most schools are now barely running on, as there seems no end in sight to the better times we are preserving ourselves for, according to Virgil. I cannot think of any time when I have been an advocate of what my great American friend and colleague from the Old Dominion calls “Macho BS leadership”. Unfortunately, it does exist, in too many organisations but it achieves very unstainable short-term gains and is always toxic. My talks this year ranging from working with colleagues in Heritage International School Moldova, META, Eastern European Foundation, COBIS, HET and the British Council have been loosely around the mission and culture of Wyedean as an outward facing global school. The questions I use with audiences are what I regularly ask of my school community and myself as we keep away from a certain type of toxic leadership but keep our leadership always hopeful, optimistic and focussed on the mission as a positive school culture:

  1. How narrow and inward are we as educators?
  2. Are we more about the mission or more about politics in schools?
  3. Are we preparing our young people for a global society and the challenges for the 2020s?
  4. Where does our leadership fit into all of this to challenge a “negative narrative” that seems to be gaining ground?
  5. How vital is a culture of professional collaboration in supporting schools?

So what does this look like at Wyedean? Not in any particularly order, the following is a flavour of why walking through the doors here first thing every morning over the last few weeks continues to fill us all with hope and optimism in our positive school culture at Wyedean. We welcomed our latest batch of around ten new teacher trainees from our partner universities for this term’s placement with us. This gives me hope that teaching is still attracting good people into our ranks. We have just been through the annual appraisal cycle with all staff, setting objectives to continue to develop careers and contribute to the school. This is such an important part of making sure people are valued and treated as professionals in the organisation. We are currently preparing for our annual Challenge Partners Review and the team are here as critical peers from the 19th-21st November. This is a key part of our school improvement, quality assurance and ensuring we are involved with over 400 of the best schools in the UK in this outward looking dynamic network and partnership. We are preparing in school to commemorate at the end of this week for the 11th November the 100th anniversary of the Armistice and Remembrance Day with our community. Thanks to the extraordinary generosity and faith in Wyedean School by a member of our local community, we have been able to use their donation to commence building the Study Garden that will provide a designated outdoor learning space and an area for quiet wellbeing. This gives me so much hope to see this work underway although I do feel for the builders in the cold wet rain right now. Before the half term break, the entire school community celebrated the life of former student Tirion Ray and raised money for the Lily Foundation to honour our late student. We have been working with several community organisations including collecting for the Chepstow Foodbank and Year 7 students have produced amazing artwork as part of the 70th celebrations of the NHS to brighten up the X-Ray dept. in Lydney Hospital. The community has also given back to us so much and we have promises of donations of several Christmas trees ready to be decorated at the start of December to make sure Wyedean looks festive. Also in time to welcome Year 11s from Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire to see the incredible success of our Post 16 education for Sixth Form Open Evening on the 29th November. The strong relationship with the University of Bristol and the school has led to a number of opportunities over the last few weeks including a widening access scheme aimed at securing places for students supporting social mobility and lectures at the university for students especially for science and geography. We are currently working with the University of Oxford to get Year 10s from Wyedean and other local Forest schools to visit and raise future aspirations for these students who may not see this particular path at this point of their lives. The University of Gloucestershire has been brilliant in their support of Wyedean especially assisting Sixth Form students write university applications. Cardiff Met University have also been in school last week working with students interested in careers in Law. The phenomenal work of my colleague Emma Williams continues in the development of digital and cyber education at Wyedean through the partnership as a cyber-school linked to the NCSC. I would recommend anyone to view this on the @WyedeanICTComputing twitter feed. We do not fear the role, power, and technology in the lives of our young people now and for their future and a key part of our job is preparing them well for all of this, especially getting more girls into STEM subjects. It is also why banning mobile phones is not the answer for us in our school. It is so counter-intuitive to digital learning. It has been wonderful to continue World Class global education over the last few weeks with Mary Murphy and her colleagues in Colorado and the brilliant Narattama Shama and her students at BSP Pilani, Rajasthan. Happy Diwali to all of our Indian colleagues and partner schools.

As I stood last week in Manchester watching my own students on the screen in the conference hall speaking to the delegates about their World, their aspirations and their hopes I felt so much pride as their school principal and the privilege we hold in education to potentially change lives beyond imaginations. The reason so many people and organisations were brought together for two days by the British Council is to ensure by “connecting classrooms” in the UK and around the World, we ensure these global learning opportunities continue and transform communities through hope and optimism. From the Forest of Dean and Welsh borders to the mountains of Colorado or the suburbs of Chisinau. We are starting to see narratives being challenged everywhere again and this is where our hope and optimism for the 2020s and the longer term future needs to make sure we are preserved as we carry ourselves forward. From the hundreds of thousands of people marching in the London sunshine recently to the lines of queues standing patiently to vote in the US mid-terms, there is hope and optimism that our young people are not apathetic or indifferent to what is going on in their society. They will challenge and call out hate and they will replace it with hope. I read recently, not to shout louder in an argument but to make the argument more effective. We need debate and dialogue to get back to being able to disagree without being disagreeable. The young student who stood on the Berlin Wall stunned because he thought it would never come down and the one who listened to the hope John Smith spoke about for the 21st century all those years ago knows as a now older educator and student of history that nothing remains the same forever. If this time has a purpose maybe it is to have taught us to value more what we have always had. Whatever colour the poppy, the symbolism of the poppy being worn and displayed in November for me is as much about remembrance, as it is about looking to the future with hope and optimism that things will improve and get better. Hope is knowing there are better times; optimism is how we get back to achieving them through the transformative change power of education. Even in the most challenging of times, we cannot lose both in our schools and in society.



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