Thoughts, reflections & hopes for This Heart Shaped Land

Dear Rob,

Bravo. Belated but very warm congratulations on your appointment. This is wonderful news for you, your family and the school in Moldova. You are a fantastic head teacher and you have expanded the horizons of Wyedean and all of your pupils in a wonderful way. You will be sorely missed. As you know, I share your passion for international, innovative and transformational education and I know that you will do great things in your new school, and in your role as a British Council ambassador. If there is anything that I can do to assist you with your future tasks, I would be delighted to. With regards to Wyedean, please assure your successor and your colleagues that I strongly support the school and look forward to the continued success of the school and pupils. I very much hope to welcome at least one of them to Somerville in the not too distant future. I would be so proud.

Warm regards, Jan.

Email (4th April 2019) from Baroness Janet Royall, Principal of Somerville College, University of Oxford and former Leader of the House of Lords.

“This school is amazing on so many levels”

Tweet sent to Wyedean (2nd April, 2019) from Penny Rabiger, Educational Consultant and Advisor: Lyfta

At the third attempt, my Year 10 critical thinkers still couldn’t master goodbye in Albanian, as we sent the students at Shaban Jashari school in Kosovo, into shrieks of laughter over Skype on Wednesday morning. This was the first time we had ever worked with a school in Kosovo and, thanks to the hard work of our colleagues there, Leonora Gucati and Shkendije Gucati, we were spending a wonderful global learning morning connecting two classrooms either side of Europe. The confidence and fluency in English of the Shaban Jashari school students was very impressive. We had to pull it back somehow, for the honour of Wyedean. I turned to the Year 10s, we nodded in unison and played our best card. “Do you know what famous children’s author was a student here?” You can only play with the cards you are dealt and JK Rowling’s association with Wyedean has never failed to impress schools and students, from Kosovo to Japan, from Canada to India, over the four years we have been connecting to classrooms from our corner of the Forest of Dean. This partnership will be another, new & exciting link to develop for this outward facing school at the confluence of the Wye and Severn flowing to the sea and the Atlantic.

A few weeks ago we linked up again with my future students and colleagues at Heritage International School to celebrate English Language and Global Learning Day. We covered a huge range of topics with the students in Chisinau and my Year 10s in Wyedean made the point that next time we Skype, I will be on the other side of the screen in Moldova. One of the most hopeful, reflective thoughts I have from this Heart Shaped Land, after four years, is this; the brilliant, engaged, eager and curious 21st century students in classrooms as far apart as Kosovo, Moldova, Indonesia or Canada, will have brilliant global teachers like Tatiana Popa or Leonora Gucati or Beky Simpson, who will continue bringing the World into classrooms and making real our global society on a daily basis using technology & pedagogy. The thrill of working together across countries and continents, finding out about the differences and similarities in our individual and global societies, never gets to be a routine.

That Wyedean has placed this in the centre of the curriculum and the school ethos, linking it to global issues such as cyber security, STEM, sustainability and climate change, has meant learning has never been abstract, but transformative and engaging. We don’t have a “jump on the next best thing” approach in the school and we reject the false binary “either/or” approach of a lot of national curricula. We are very proud that our students can learn about both Coding and Classics as subjects. The educational climate of Wyedean that we have created around this continues to be proudly showcased both nationally and internationally.

My colleague Emma Williams, in partnership with the NCSC, continues to develop some of the most exciting and innovative learning for Wyedean students in cyber education. Emma is in demand to share her work and ideas with audiences around the country for the NCSC and her integrity rests completely on the fact she is working daily with her students in the classroom.

Another reflective thought that gives me complete hope as a school leader, is the way in which the strategic development of individuals has been such a success and has released the talents of so many of the phenomenal educators that it has been a privilege to serve and work with at Wyedean. Emma is a perfect example of this approach. This belief in people, a positive school culture, proactive and meaningful wellbeing is a legacy I am very proud to be leaving, particularly in contrast with the toxic cultures, climates and fake gimmicks masking the “control freakery” that so many organisations in education still seem to be mired in.

Teaching should have the very best, they should be beating the door down to join the profession. We should not be in the dire retention and recruitment crisis we are suffering in the UK.

One of the best moments of the week for me is the Wednesday teaching & Learning briefing. The incredible Director of Teaching & Learning, Julie Smith, has crafted a culture of teaching & Learning that underpins the educational success of Wyedean. She reflects the old idea that attitudes are “caught, not taught” and every teacher at Wyedean has been released from toxic & punitive cultures of old, reprofessionalised – acknowledged as the experts in their field and actively encouraged & allowed to do what they came into this profession for: to teach and to inspire.

The education of our young people by brilliant educators should be a national mission of any government.

I have had the pleasure of meeting so many great candidates over the last few months, wanting to come to teach a range of subjects from music to science at Wyedean, because we have created a positive school culture and an outward facing school.

One of my favourite historians is the American, David McCullough. I picked up again his outstanding biography on the second US president, John Adams, the other weekend, whilst me and my dog Dylan, were taking a break from the hot weather in my cabin. John Adams didn’t see being President as the pinnacle of his life. His influence on everything in public life in that period is astonishing: from the appointment of Washington as the army commander, to Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence, to John Marshall being made chief justice. Adams is also the author of the oldest continual written constitution in the World, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As we look at our current crop of politicians, the stagnation in public policy and the continual chronic underfunding of schools destroying our very educational framework, it is worth politicians noting this from an 18th century Founding Father: Adams deliberately specified not only the importance of education being a public good and right, but also the importance to be able to study subjects such as literature and the sciences. Adams stressed the vital importance of education to a functioning democracy and an educated citizenry for the protection of our rights and liberties. A message never more needed in the times we live in right now. As educators, our mission is to provide this for our communities.

If I have taken anything from the past four years here at Wyedean, it is the absolute importance of the trust and partnership with parents and families. Education is always about the future and it is always about hope. Watching Year 8 science students talk over Skype to Dr Karl Kruszelnicki from Sydney University last week in my room, thanks to the constant dedication and efforts of my colleague, Chris Jones, epitomised exactly this. My colleague in science, Stuart Motson, has also been relentless in getting students into STEM, and providing wider learning opportunities.

Never one to exist in the intellectual abstract, I had the honour of being invited, a couple of weeks ago, to contribute to an All Party Parliamentary Group roundtable discussion in the Palace of Westminster with MPs and Lords as the only UK secondary principal involved. The discussion was part of an eventual report on global learning, languages and Europe for Britain post Brexit. My great friend, colleague and primary school principal, Jo Speak, was also there and once John Baron MP opened the discussions we had a very fruitful discussion and exchange of views over the course of the next couple of hours. What is clear, and what we made clear in Parliament, is that “Global Britain” is just Orwellian doublespeak, if, in a spate of nationalist petulance and short-sightedness, we “close the Channel” to our closest friends and neighbours in Europe. The power of global learning is self-evident from student engagement, careers, identity and understanding of a globalised World. The demise of languages in this country is frankly, a disgrace. Britain needs to do more to engage with the World and not less. I am not sure four English clubs competing in the finals of Europe’s highest club footballing tournaments for the first time should be taken too much out of context, but watching the remarkable and moving scenes at Anfield where Catalans and Scousers joined in unison to sing Gerry and the Pacemakers’ Liverpool anthem after a thrilling match with footballers from around Europe and Africa showing what a globalised society looks like approaching the 2020s. I am fairly sure Catalans and Scousers are more than proud of their local identities: Jurgen Klopp is just a German Bill Shankly after all, who was also Scottish.

Wyedean’s global learning and commitment to languages continues and these two new British Council films promoting global learning and the BC’s programmes are testament to the school’s development of this integral part of 21st century education in any school in any country. My mission in Moldova and Eastern Europe after 31st May is to continue to develop concepts such as international mindedness and global learning in the remarkable young people of my new school.

Our school’s international journey”

How we brought the world into our classroom”

It has been bandied around a lot by certain self-styled educational gurus on EduTwitter recently, to coincide with the release of OfSTED’s new framework with a sharper focus on curriculum, that the English state system needs to be able to provide more “confidence and polish” for young people. I am sure the Headmaster of Stowe had this in mind when he gave his interview to The Times last week about the “threat” and the inequity of the state system on the independent system. Having worked in both I think it falls under the category of false binary, polarised viewpoints again. One of the hopeful thoughts I keep coming back to is the incredible work of my colleagues Tom Rugg, Jodie Coggins and Rachel Barbato in their work on putting sustainability and changing our entire school approach towards this key SDG focus in education.

Tom has also created a hugely successful Duke of Edinburgh outdoor learning programme in school that benefits so many students. My thanks to all the staff who supported the Bronze practice walk in the beautiful Wye Valley in the sunshine last Sunday.

As Mental Health Awareness Week draws to a close, it is gratifying to see the school’s new study garden is already being used by all sorts of groups, especially in the exam season, where a quiet reflective area of the school is essential for good well-being. The pressure on young people, the lack of a clear finishing line, mental health anxieties, are all things that, unfortunately, will only increase going into the 2020s in schools. There are many good examples we can use and share in the educational community to mitigate and lead by example. I watched the Year 11 and 13s leave last week to start study leave and the work dedicated heads of year like Laura Crum, and Sixth Form leaders like Sam Bishop and John Lane, do with their teams, day in and day out, preparing and supporting our young people makes me proud of our approach to the pastoral welfare system. We stand on the shoulders of giants here at Wyedean, with the past examples of Martin Jenkins and Claire Rush as just two great pastoral senior leaders who cared for and supported so many cohorts through their school years. I see the legacy in the Year Heads bringing their groups through now, especially Marie Groucott and Anna Jones as the respective Heads of 9 and 10 and the daily issues they are constantly facing and supporting our young people and families with. We don’t always get this right, it is always a work in progress, particularly as societal demands change rapidly, but I am very proud of the model we have at Wyedean for looking after our young people so they can achieve academically and develop as individuals.

I sat for the last time in my now empty room with my Year 13 critical thinkers for our final session together before they left that day for study leave and to hit the books that afternoon… It occurred to me that this group has been with me from Day 1 for four years every Tuesday, more or less, as we have discussed ideas, politics, society’s ill, hopes, the future, as well occasionally Trump and Brexit. We looked at the idea of “What makes us an adult?” which started off well but went onto the very deep, intellectual and erudite topics of chest hair and males carrying handkerchiefs. These are remarkable young people and they have kept my sanity and feet anchored as an educator for the whole of my time at Wyedean. I am very proud of all my students and it reminds me daily why we are in this wonderful profession.

My greatest friend and mentor, Les Jones, has given me many lessons over our 35 years of knowing one another, and still continues to do so, but when I was 14 he inscribed a book for me with the words “Carry the flame, defend the weak”. These get recalled often as an educator, even more so as a school leader. I looked over my presentation to governors from four years ago and one of the points I had underlined on my cue card was this: “Good leaders see around corners”. I think I have been trying to do this throughout my career. My friend and colleague from Virginia, Bill Bixby, gave me this advice as a new principal: “Be highly energetic, be highly visible and always read the tea leaves”. All three crucial, all three getting harder. Global educator and friend of Wyedean, Barbara Zielonka, very kindly sent me Andrew Marotta’s book “The Principal – Surviving and Thriving”. I have found the “survive and thrive” approach has effectively been the school improvement strategy in this constant dysfunctional education system. I have never believed in a leadership theory of the “hero Head”. All staff, academic and support, have made the school the success it is, with a governing body who are from the community and provide real, critical friendship to the team and school. I have the privilege to work with an extraordinarily talented group of senior colleagues who I will miss dearly. Wyedean is in very safe hands with this leadership team, supported ably by Mel and Tina, and my friend and colleague Gwennan Jeremiah, proudly to be the school’s first female principal. I do hold the honour though, of being the first one not to retire. Gwen epitomises the very best of dedicated school leadership, public service and skills set, second to none. She is supported ably in pastoral by Dai Thomas as vice principal and in finance and business by vice principal Jodie Howells. Three people who I would walk through the gates of Hell with and the colleagues you would want by your side in a crisis and to celebrate the incredible education we offer daily here at Wyedean.

I know I am going on to work with a visionary founder in Moldova and great school leaders who I am working with now already but I will miss the Wyedean team and their ethos of being student centred, willing to take risks and always looking for a way to engage and offer hope for our young people. The ultimate question of interview; “are they Wyedean?”

I want to close my final blog, there will be a new one from Moldova, to say I will reflect and be hopeful always because of the incredible families and communities here in the Forest of Dean and Welsh borders. I hope I always live up to the very warm and generous words of Baroness Royall at the start of this blog post. It hasn’t always been easy conversations and we are dealing with 1100 individual young people developing and becoming young adults in our school community. Our community has supported the school and worked in real partnership delivering education for our young people. I am fortunate to have always worked in schools with similarly great communities and families and I know I go to Heritage International School with exactly the same supportive, involved and collaborative community as Wyedean, as Bootham, as Ridings, as Wootton Bassett as Crickhowell.

Dennis Potter once famously said of the Forest of Dean/borders:

“A strange and beautiful place, with a people as warm as anywhere else, but they seemed warmer to me”

They do to me too, and always will. It’s been a privilege and a pleasure to serve Wyedean.

Rob Ford



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