What is “typical” in any school?

13 March 2019

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted countsAlbert Einstein.

“I wanted to thank you so much for taking the time to give me such a wonderful tour of Wyedean School. It really gave me a great idea of what it is like to attend your school. The whole day was thought provoking, inspiring and a joy. As a principal and global educator, you should be proud of the culture you have developed at Wyedean

Barbara Anne Zielonka, Global Educator/Global Teacher Finalist

 The Danish school leaders from Herning, seated in the British Council boardroom that overlooks the whole of Whitehall, asked a very simple question to me over skype as I concluded my presentation to them about Wyedean; “so, what is a typical day, week, month like at Wyedean?” Not so simple a question. I told them no day or week or month are the same in school as I reflected over just the last few days. Last week I was sitting in the very same building, a non-descript office block just off Trafalgar Square at the bottom of The Mall. I was there with one of my Year 13s to take part in a guest panel being broadcast live around the globe as part of the British Council’s “Schools Now!” online conference talking about how we have developed resilience in schools for our young people.  The other school on the panel was Kingsford Community School from East London. Two very diverse and almost polar opposite schools but both invited to talk about the challenges and programmes we have developed around resilience. It is always a deep honour to talk about the education at Wyedean School to any audience but especially to a worldwide one.  The remarkable Headteacher of Kingsford is Joan Deslandes.  Joan, like every other Headteacher in the country, works tirelessly for the school community she leads, combining those key virtues of compassion, vision and tough love as she finds a path through the increasingly dysfunctional education landscape and chronic underfunding in schools. Listening to her remarkable Year 10 student Belinda, speak about her student leadership to support other students was humbling enough but when Joan spoke about members of her school community stabbed, senselessly murdered for no reason other than the attacker wanting to prove his ability to be accepted into a gang then the thought of “typical” pales into insignificance.  Joan spoke about how she has to continue to bring her community together in the most adverse circumstances and keep a sense of hope, optimism and belief in the transformative power of education on young lives. Those armchair commentators and politicians who blame underfunded schools for every ill that tragically blights too many young lives need to know there are so many astonishing educators working hard daily for their students in this country to ensure there is no such thing as a typical day in learning.

A “typical” day, week or month does exist in terms of the cycle of the academic year. Right now as we leave the winter behind, although the very warm week experienced in February was a stark reminder why so many young people around Europe and the World are protesting for Climate Change Action, and Storm Gareth batters the UK, students are preparing for summer exams, curriculum leaders are working on staffing and timetable with our World’s best timetabler, Senior Vice Principal, Gwennan Jeremiah, for the new academic year, parents are meeting teachers, Year 6s have received their school places for September, Year 11s have interviews for Post 16 courses, School Improvement Plans get reviewed and on it goes. Schools are places of certainty for our communities and need the positive learning and nurturing environment to support our young people progress through their education. When I talk to educators from Canada to India to Indonesia, these things remain the same, unaffected by rapid changes in technology, or new fleeting trends in fashion, music or scary characters popping up on Peppa Pig.

Wyedean School has had more than its fair share of visitors over the last few weeks including a film crew to show case the school and a British Council team with Wyedean’s great supporter and brilliant champion of the British Council’s work with schools in the UK and across the World, John Rolfe. John came in on a “typical day” at the end of February and met again with the Year 13 Critical Thinking group, still Brexit and Trump popping up frequently, they are hoping less so in the 2020s as undergraduates. John saw Year 11 English students take part in a video conference with their ETwinning partners in Heritage International School in Chisinau as they spoke about the Moldovan and Romanian traditions of celebrating spring with martisors. My Welsh students spoke to their counterparts 3000kms away about St David’s Day and the tradition of Eisteddfods. Both sets of students on opposite ends of Europe are proud of their identity, using technology and sharing their global citizenship. Later on John witnessed another group of Year 8 students talk about SDGs with colleagues and students in the snowy Rocky Mountains at Mesa Middle School in Douglas County. This is a typical day for Wyedean.  This is innovative and compelling education allowing young people to engage with their counterparts around the World to discuss the issues that they are concerned about and want to find solutions to. John spoke to year 12 and 13 Spanish students later in the day who had just returned from working with younger students in Coleg Lestonnac in Vallodolid as part of an EU funded Erasmus programme connecting young people in Europe.  The experiences they have gained are astonishing and that clearly came out in the interviews with the film crew. My colleagues, Head of MFL Beky Simpson and Molly Stephens, gave up their break at half term with their families to ensure this opportunity took place in Spain for their students.  The annual ski trip had a very successful visit to Italy, successful apart from colleague Mark Brooks breaking his leg and coming back a bit later.  Again, these hard working colleagues, led ably by the assistant principal, Dai Thomas, missed time with their families, so students could experience this great opportunity.  It isn’t typical for teachers to find the energy and time to ensure all this enrichment and wider learning is taking place and I made this clear to the panel in London, the wise words of my American mentor, Bill Bixby, when I became a principal, positive school culture is everything. When government figures show 90% of graduates have left teaching who started in 2010, the “typical” days, weeks and months in school are in serious jeopardy along with the compelling and challenging education we need to give to our young people.  MFL and languages for example, in schools, is an absolute crisis and still no clear strategy emerges.

What seems less typical in many state schools is an arts/creative dimension that doesn’t sit in the centre of the curriculum as it should but is relegated to enrichment, after school clubs or privately funded lessons. It is a privilege to see the incredible work of the Arts/Creative faculty at Wyedean and a few weeks ago their whole school production of the musical “Sister Act” was likened by a fair few to being of “West End” standard. The lead performance of Mili Robinson as Delores was just truly astonishing.  One of our best students in a school of 1100 best students.  Thanks to the hard work of my colleagues Simon Jones, Pat Allard, Sara Greener and Brian Ellam, students from across the school participated in this amazing run of performances.  Yours truly even made a cameo as the Pope on the last night bridging a gap to my last performance in upper sixth in New College, Wellington in Moliere’s “Tartuffe”.  Although one would say, every day is a performance on a stage as an educator…I know, move on.  One of the strongest aspects of the “typical” day at Wyedean is what the science dept achieve to encourage students into science and the annual STEM Fame lab competition leading to the final at the Cheltenham Science festival has done so much for KS3 wider learning enrichment combining confidence to speak to an audience about a STEM idea. This year Maya Hall won and there are some great photos here: Wyedean Science – Twitter

I was asked by the TES to write an article, which was published last month, about not letting ego get in the way as a leader – “Get over your ego if you want all pupils thrive”

I used the example of my leadership of the IB and global learning when I set up the South Glos’ International Education centre a few years ago in Bristol. I thought about how my colleague Emma Williams, has developed with the NCSC cyber learning across this school and working with other schools for all learners but in particular the success she has had with STEM and girls getting into coding. Emma’s tireless leadership, engaging with outside organisations and companies, to get the very best opportunities for all students and schools involved. It is less typical to see brilliant selfless leaders like Emma developing this incredible facet of learning.  I am really looking forward to speaking at the NCSC awards in Gloucester this week, where a number of our students will be honoured for their work.  Emma’s creativity and cross curricula work has extended to the incredible cyber learning she has established in the school’s JK Rowling library, including Hagrid’s reading hut.  I hope our famous alumnus approves especially as we are using it to promote girls into STEM.  Our World Book Day on the 7th March certainly had a great arena and cathedral of learning to celebrate, literature and poetry from around the World. My English Learning Area colleagues and our wonderful librarian, Angela Friel, have done so much to support literacy and love of reading for our students.  I went very much for World literature dressing up as “Dan, capitan de Plai” from Vasile Alecsandri’s famous Romanian poem. Thank you to the great Moldovan global educator, Tatiana Popa for the beautiful shirt and her mum for the hat! Dan, captain of the plains

So, to begin at the beginning, as the Welsh poet and man my dog is named in honour of, Dylan Thomas once said. Wyedean experienced last week an extraordinary visitor who wanted to see us on a typical day, the global educator and Varkey Global Teacher finalist, Barbara Anne Zielonka.  Barbara’s words, posted online after her visit and quoted at the start of this blog, mean more to this community than your typical official external verifier looking at standards in education every few years.  Barbara was recently named by the World Economic Forum, the forum that hosts Davos, as the most influential educator in the World.  Barbara has advocated sustainable and digital learning across the World in 1000s of schools in her remarkable career.  Barbara is an astonishing advocate of SDGs in the curriculum. She is one of the most powerful voices in education and we need more like Barbara in our national educational debate and shaping typical learning as we enter the 2020s. We did manage to surprise her at least twice.  The first surprise was when I picked her up from Chepstow station dressed now, with a quick change, as Leo Tolstoy, still in shock at how few Year 7s had heard of “War and Peace” over say “The Dork Diaries” – I blame the English department or Gove.  The second time, Barbara met our very own Moss the Wyedean dog.  This very powerful but simple idea advocated by my colleague Angharad Churches, has been a significant game changer in our student support centre and Moss helps to put at ease some of our most vulnerable and hard to reach students who need the certainty and comfort of their school the most.  This should definitely be typical in all schools as our first duty of care to ensure our students are safe, looked after and nurtured. Working with global educators like Barbara and being part of networks that go beyond a few local schools or even your country should be typical for all schools.

There is no typical day in any school. That’s why people are drawn to education and want to work with, improve, support and shape the life chances and opportunities of our young people through transformative learning. There is definitely no typical day at Wyedean but when we reflect and the school is over I do think of the famous line from the philosopher Hegel;

 “The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk” Hegel

Spring is definitely coming, warmer weather and lighter days to come.

Rob Ford


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