Into Headship Spring Conference

On Thursday 10th March, I had the enormous good fortune to attend the Into Headship Spring conference in Glasgow. The aims of the conference were:

  • To support Into Headship participants in their preparation for, and understanding of, headship.
  • To develop local authority coordinators in supporting Into Headship
  • To provide an opportunity to learn from a variety of key speakers who will share their leadership experience and expectations of head teachers in line with the GTCS Standard for Headship.
  • To provide an opportunity to share learning and impact from the programme to date and support development of creative local and regional arrangements for participants.

For me, the most important outcome was the third one. I learnt an immense amount from all of those who spoke….but as well as an opportunity to learn, it was an opportunity to be hugely inspired.

It was also very re-assuring for me that much of what the speakers talked about on Thursday chimed with my developing values and vision for educational leadership; it was validating to hear that these values and vision are shared by those who have clearly succeeded as leaders. I have to confess that I have struggled in recent weeks and months with the idea that there might be a mismatch between the (perhaps overly idealistic?) vision and values that I have developed and the reality of everyday life! Hearing the testimony of leaders who have taken difficult situations and moved them on by having aspirational values and vision was affirming and important for me at this stage.

Key themes of the day that were touched on again and again were communication, relationships and values. I have written in several other posts about my fundamental beliefs that, as leaders, we have to put relationships with staff, pupils and families at the heart of what we do (, that we have to communicate clearly and honestly in all our relationships, that we have to wear our values and moral compass on our sleeve and walk the walk and talk the talk every day.

Another key theme that was referred to several times was that of authenticity; the need to know oneself and be oneself as a leader. I have used blogging as an attempt to find my authentic self and to explore the ideas and issues that matter to me as a person and a leader. I have sometimes wondered whether this is a form of self-indulgence (see my post from yesterday but I hope that it is part of a process to help me explore my strengths and weaknesses in order to be the best version of myself.

So, do I think that I have what it takes to be a head teacher?

Amanda McMillan spoke of the need for us to conquer our inner ‘chimps’ or the negative chatter in head if we are to succeed as a leader. Can I do that? I am trying, but sometimes I am not sure. If the worries and responsibilities get bigger, will I cope?

She also mentioned the need to be ‘on stage’ all the time and to accept that thinking about the job, even at weekends, is a normal part of leadership. Do I want that? Is there a real risk that my family life and/or health will suffer irreparably if I allow this to happen? But then again, given the type of brain I have which rarely switches off, is it better to accept what I can’t control and use my endless energy and questioning to best effect?

Is my ladder against the right wall? (See below for elaboration of this idea). I‘m not sure. But I do know that I need to make a difference to the lives of children, young people, their families and teachers and that it is more of a need than a want…


I took copious notes during the day and have typed them up and include them below. This makes for a relatively bland blog post but I hope that it may be of use to my fellow Into Headship participants as an aide-memoire.

CAVEAT: I apologise for any misquoting or misunderstanding of issues on my part and would welcome hearing from anyone who wishes to correct me.

Where particular statements or ideas particularly appealed to or resonated with me, I have underlined them.

Dr Alasdair Allan MSP–Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages.

There is nothing more important than the future of our children”

Alasdair talked about the importance of the National Improvement Framework and the need to achieve excellence and equity through raising achievement and closing the attainment gap, regardless of background or additional needs. Literacy, numeracy and health and well-being will be the focus which will unlock learning; this will be part of learning for life and work. The December OECD on CfE report gives a clear recommendation as to how Curriculum for Excellence should move forward. The report commends CfE but talks of “a watershed moment”. It states that in science and reading Scotland is above international standards; in maths Scotland is at average standard, according to PISA testing. The report has recommendations that will be taken forward and talks of an opportunity to lead the world. Above all it wants elimination of the attainment gap. Alasdair went on to speak of the need for consistent robust and transparent evidence to help us close the attainment gap. He said that professional judgement is essential and valued and that nothing will trump this. He said that there is now a resource pack which gives the next steps for taking the framework forward. He explained that next year we will collect data using current CfE levels and that this will be extended to include information from the early years and post school. In 2017, new standardised assessments will add to this data. The OECD recognises that Scotland’s trust in professional judgement is admirable and bucks the trend within many other systems. He also spoke of a report on the professional development opportunities for teachers that was hot off the press from an evaluation done based on questionnaires. He talked of a doubling of the money for the Attainment Challenge which will be increased to £160 million. He also mentioned that the government has invested in SCEL, showing a commitment to teachers and leaders. He said leaders and teachers do make a difference.


Amanda McMillan.

Amanda is a chartered accountant by training who worked in Diageo before moving into airport management. She is now the head of Glasgow Airport. She explained that her career has been a gradual learning process throughout which she has had to join the dots. She grew up in Linwood and Hillman Imp car production was at the heart of the community where she grew up. The community was hugely shaken when the industry went under and she remembers the impact. She remembers school fondly and said that “teachers play a massive role in people making decisions about their life”. She explained that at school she hoped to become a teacher; however her own teacher had told her not to! She looked around for female role models and found it difficult to find any. In fact the only female role model of the time was Margaret Thatcher and it wasn’t really an option to look up to her when you lived in Linwood and an industrial area. Eventually she turned to Brookside, the Channel 4 TV soap opera, and found a female role model played by Amanda Redman. The character of Heather Haversham was an accountant; Amanda decided to follow the same path. She went to university and to start with, she had significant self-doubts. She felt that she lacked in confidence in comparison to those around who had come from private schools. At that point she was sabotaged by what she later came to refer to as ‘the chimps in her brain’; the voices that would try to undermine her and challenge her confidence. In her early days at university she constantly felt that someone would catch her out and discover that she shouldn’t have been there. She later learned, however, to value herself and to realise that she was as good as the others around her. At that point she learned the key message “don’t limit yourself, don’t stick with what you think is safe. Lean in and try”. She gained a good degree and left university to go to her first job at a chartered accountancy firm. It was a very good job and potentially she could have retired then as the salary was better than the salaries that her parents had ever earned! However she was not happy in the environment and felt it to be quite stuffy. She felt at the time that she would never fit in… however she has since acknowledged that, had she stayed, she probably would have fitted in….but at the time the chimps in her head were once again at play. So at that point she left and took on her first job in industry. Following this she decided to pursue her dream of teaching and went to a lecturing position in accountancy. However she felt quite lonely in the post and decided to return to business and to a job with Diageo. It was in that post that she learnt significant amounts about leadership. Also at that time she had a family. She could have gone to the USA to a promoted post at that point but chose not to. She wanted to be in Linwood, near to her family. She then got the post at Glasgow Airport. And since then she has taken on Southampton and Aberdeen.

She told us “who you are is a massive part of your leadership style; you need to be yourself and develop a toolkit for developing great people in your team”. She said that you have to ask yourself a key question:

Do you want to lead? It is okay to say no!

A leader needs to be:

  • a lover of people
  • visionary
  • passionate
  • a decision-maker
  • receptive to change
  • open to learning.

It is not enough to just want it as a next step on your career ladder. You need to ask “what if the ladder is against the wrong wall?” Being a leader is relentless. You need to ask “are you happy to be scrutinised all the time?”

She also said that it is it essential to control your inner chimp. She explained that even before coming to speak at the Into Headship Spring Conference, the voices in her head were saying “what do I know? What will they think? There’s going to be a Minister there! What do I know about CfE?”

You need techniques to control the chimp or it will eat away at you. Even worse, however, is if you think you don’t have a chimp to ask some of those critical questions.

You need to be open and aware of the impact that your personality and leadership will have. Amanda spoke of you as a head teacher being the “cultural architect of your school.” She said that you are on stage at every minute. She explained that she is quite energetic but that not everyone is. She spoke of the need to look in people’s eyes to judge your impact on them. She said that “you need to be humble enough to admit when you have something wrong. You need to be gracious enough to seek forgiveness”. You need to constantly keep working on leadership. She said that she gained her best bit of leadership advice when she was working at Diageo and as part of the coaching programme. She was told “be authentic, don’t be what you think you need to be.” If not you will not cope.

She went on to speak about people’s inner voice which is the voice that tells how we are really feeling. She explained her belief that schools knock it out of children and tell them not to say it out loud. She said that culturally we tend to say “it’s fine” even when it isn’t and that schools encourage children not to say what is really bothering them. She said that as leaders we have to find a time to get to people’s inner voices. We need to ask the question “are you telling me the truth or what you want me to hear?” She explained that now, each month, she makes the team tell her about them and their feelings and their inner voices. She explained that an airport is not generally a fluffy culture but that this is an important part of her approach. She talked about Stephen Covey and his idea of an emotional bank account; she talked of the need to deposit positives as well as to withdraw at other times.

Amanda went on to speak about leading teams. She said that you need to:

  • respect differences
  • recognise success
  • admit and talk about failures
  • learn together
  • have a values-based culture.

She said that as a leader you must realise that people in the team will be better than you at certain things but you can draw on their strengths.

She explained that in the airport her vision is based around 4 key elements: money, people, customers and process.

She also explained that, as a leader, you need to paint a vision and be clear about what needs to be achieved and by when. She talked about the need to lead yourself, lead individuals and lead teams to create leadership in action.

She talked about the difficulties that faced her when she took over Glasgow airport. She took over when the recession hit and her first job was to impound a plane, put a snow plough behind it and say “you don’t get it til you pay”. The chimps were going wild in her head. They told her “there is someone who could do this better than you”. She had to dig deep and look at the skills she had. It was a very hard time. She explained that she has 500 people in her team and 5000 people working at Glasgow airport.

She compared Glasgow Airport to the schools we will have to run as head teachers and she talked about needing to see our own schools as part of a wider community.

In her approach to Glasgow Airport she decided to look at it like a small town with a heart and soul.

She went on to talk about her feeling that head teachers do not tell parents enough about their vision for taking a school forward. She said that schools seem happy to just talk about homework to parents and carers but not about the wider vision. She said that she appreciated that schools are up against budget cuts but she pointed out the budget cuts are part of the real world and something that every business faces.

She talked about the need to thank people and to create a culture where people love what they do and see it as more than doing just a job. As part of her work she took actors and made a video of how they could make improvements in relation to customer services; she wanted to make things less officious. She spoke of an eye-opening moment when she was out at airport security and experienced a woman at a security check. The woman was being asked to drink her medication. She did so and after doing so almost vomited. She asked for a glass of water and when the staff questioned whether she was okay she said “yes but I usually rub that medication on my back”. This moment made Amanda realise that officiousness had gone over the top.

Amanda went to speak of the ‘tea room assassins’ in any organisation and said that she felt that we would have equivalent ‘staff room assassins’ in schools. These are the people who, after she had painted her vision and got all to agree and buy into it, would sit in the tea room and undermine what was going on saying things like “she is wrong, this is rubbish”. She said it is essential to tackle these people; she now looks for them and challenges them. They are in the minority but can have a significant impact on others around them. She says part of the job involves giving the good people enough belief to rise against the tea room assassins.

Amanda went on to speak about the need for Golden Rules that are agreed by the team. These will help new starters as part of their induction to understand the culture and ethos of the team. It also means that you can catch potential assassins on their way in! Examples of Golden Rules may be to make eye contact with customers, to high-five the stag party, to say hello to the business customers or to never pass someone looking lost, no matter how busy you are.

Amanda explained that once you have created your Golden Rules and tried them out then they can be turned into a charter.

Amanda explained that within her executive team the culture is very important and they have activities which help to create this culture. For example, they have a book club where they read key texts about management for example by Stephen Covey and Dale Carnegie. They have away-days in order to build the team ethos but they do so under a budget, for example using the Scottish ski club bunkhouse rather than the Crieff Hydro.

She talked about the need for a leader to be visible in the workplace in order to gain credibility. She believes that they have come a long way. The airport has its mojo back. 90% of people are happy to work there. Amanda said her focus is now on the other 10%. She spoke of the need to have a moral compass rather than a raft of policies. She said that values underpin what they do and this permeates the culture; for example they no longer need to ask questions like “should we send flowers to so-and-so if she is off sick?” She explained that if the values and ethos are right you will know the answers to these questions. She advised “don’t announce your rules, tell people what your values are“.

She advised that:

  • you do something you love
  • you invest in people
  • you paint your vision
  • you celebrate success
  • you never give up.


“You are educating the leaders of tomorrow; you can’t give up”.
In the question and answer session, Amanda went on to say that early in her career she learnt not to give as readily to people and not to trust everybody. One of the key aspects of her learning was to develop one to one individual conversations with staff; she bought them a diary which turned out to be a very useful technique in terms of the recording that inner voice.

She explained that of course you won’t be able to do a new job perfectly straight away but you do it to the best of your ability. She said that sometimes you have to go somewhere else to shine best of your ability; it can be hard to change culture in an organisation where you have worked for a long time.

When asked about legacy she said you need to make people love things so much that they continue to do them once you have gone and can’t remember who started it. She spoke of the need to have ‘roots to grow and wings to fly’. She said that the best coaches are the ones whereby when they walk away, the work goes on. She feels that as a leader you sponsor people in your team to be the leaders of tomorrow.

She also said that if someone works for her and she does not believe in them then she cannot sponsor them. She said that it is important to tell people how their poor behaviour or performance has made you feel and the real consequences of it; Glasgow airport cannot afford to employ people who just see it as a job. She has sacked people on this basis.

She was asked how she balances doing the day-to-day job and creating a vision and how she finds the time to think around the vision. She said that you have to do both. She said that in the early stages you will do more work on the shop-floor, talking to people and getting out and about. She said that there is no perfect recipe; you do need to stop doing some things to be a true leader. She said that having children in some ways made it easier for her she has a reason to say when she needs to stop. However she said that although she spends a lot of time with her children, it doesn’t mean she will not still get out her laptop later in the evening. She said “you can’t be a true leader if you aren’t thinking about it for most of the time”. She said she never really switches off completely at the weekend.

When asked if it is a lonely place she said that it is, sometimes. However there is a need to have people in your team with whom you can be genuine. She also pointed out that sometimes you need to with-hold information and that you can’t tell everybody everything. She said that she worked with somebody who felt a need to tell everything everybody but she made him understand that this was more about making him feel better and doing the best for them.


Panel discussion:

Graham Murray Primary Head Teacher

Colleen Swan Secondary Head Teacher

Douglas Creighton Primary Head Teacher

David Rose Secondary Head Teacher
All of these colleagues are doing Into Headship but have managed to become head teachers (acting or otherwise) in recent months. They had therefore been invited to speak about their early experiences as head teachers and the impact of Into Headship on their learning and practice.
(I found it hard to follow exactly who was speaking in this session and so I have summarised key points below and apologise that the ideas are not clearly aligned to those who expressed them.)

All spoke about their experiences and the differences between being a deputy and a head teacher. In general the feeling was that as a deputy you are much more of a doer with duties that are quite explicit and much more operational. The Into Headship programme has helped all to see the need for strategic vision. As a deputy there was always someone else to go to. The course has helped them gain confidence and self-belief. It has also raised political awareness and understanding of the need to balance operational issues and vision. Being a deputy is a lot about task completion. The reading for Into Headship has been very useful and the texts that people are reading have made them on the one hand think “I wish I’d known that before” but also helped to provide confirmation and re-assurance around certain things that they have been doing instinctively. The reading for Into Headship has been useful in giving a background and context; it has been possible to say “I’ve noticed this and I’ve also read about it”; it has provided a scaffolding and given a credibility to approaches. Ideas that were previously instinctive are now more based in research and background reading; it is possible to link the research and background with hearts and minds and young people.
It was stated that relationships are key and need to be developed early on; trust is crucial before people will buy into your vision. Leadership is about having flexibility with the roots based in research. The learning on the course around change implementation and management has been exceptionally useful and shown the importance of of needing to engage stakeholders in creating a shared vision. There also been significant learning around the emotional intelligence side of being a leader.

It has equally been useful to look at the bad aspects of leadership and exemplification of poor leadership, in order to avoid these things.

The course has also helped the speakers with some of the challenges of leadership such as I have facing very active union reps in a school. It has helped them to find educational arguments from within literature and and to see where ideas have come from politically.

It was noted that any change needs a clear rationale behind it and is not change for change’s sake. You cannot influence change unless you are credible and can articulate and formulate an educational rationale for the change. The writing down of ideas can help with the formulation of an argument. The learning and reading has helped with understanding that a head teacher can influence both the school and the whole community, building on the idea expressed by Tim Brighouse; you need to be the person there in the community, at the school gate engaging with everybody.

There was a general consensus that the reading and study has been hard at times; it is been slightly difficult to be in the first year of the course and not really know what is ahead in terms of planning and time management. It has been a challenge to return to masters level study. The time factor sometimes been difficult however it was acknowledged that you get out of life what you put in.

Lesley Whelan, SCEL

Lesley spoke of developments within SCEL and talked about the new website which is live and interactive. The website has links to research, theory, systems and leadership at all levels. She talked about revisions to the Fellowship program which is now recruiting for its third cohort. The core focus will still be on system leadership for experienced head teachers. There are also to be seven regional network leaders aligned across the seven ADES networks. They will be seconded it for 12 days per year.

It was noted that following the Into Headship course, candidates will have an extended induction support available for when they become head teachers.

Fearghal Kelly, SCEL

Fearghal spoke of his recent work around teacher leadership. He has been seconded for six months to take part in an engagement on teacher leadership. His practice has been informed by Theory U; more information about this can be found online: (

Fearghal has engaged with over 1000 stakeholders. He has travelled the country to deliver workshops and conduct semi-structured interviews and has also gathered online feedback. His work contributes to the development of teacher leadership. The project is almost at an end and there are some very early conclusions that now need to be analysed and written up in more depth. The general feedback has been very positive and people have been very receptive.

The early indications are that there is a need for:

  • culture change
  • prioritisation of time and workload
  • opportunities for experience and learning
  • recognition
  • case-studies, networking and sharing
  • mentoring, shadowing and observation
  • valuing and nurturing of professionalism autonomy and risk-taking
  • equity of opportunity

Fearghal explained that he was nervous undertaking a project in the current climate and thought that he would be walking into the lions’ den; however he was surprised by the positivity and commitment. He found that people’s general message was that there needs to be efficiency within the hours that we have rather than necessarily more hours. There is still an opportunity to engage with the programme online.

Paul McGuigan

Paul was Head Teacher of the Year as nominated by his colleagues. He has been at St Ninian’s High School in East Renfrewshire since 2004. His presentation was entitled ‘Headship An Alternative View’; he had come to the Spring Conference thinking that her was going to say something a bit different. However, on coming to speak he had realised that his messages were largely the same as those shared by Amanda in her presentation about leading at Glasgow airport and those of the other speakers!

He explained that as a leader, communication is key and he said that you need to make time for people.

He explained that to be a successful head teacher you need to:

  • have a clear sense of what you want to do
  • have excellent communication
  • don’t take yourself too seriously
  • remember that school is not the most important thing in the life of staff. (He said that perhaps he differs from Amanda in this respect)

He said that most teachers will go along with things if you tell them about them and are clear about them.

He went on to talk about the profile of the head teacher. He said that you need to:

  • get around school
  • talk to assemblies
  • be at everything,
  • have an open door policy
  • genuinely listen
  • have a calm approach
  • be well organised and ensure that staff see that

 He said that you need to:

  • put in the hours
  • enjoy the job
  • constantly have a positive attitude
  • care about the school
  • be obsessed with what’s important

He stressed the need to try and be positive and avoid moaning. He spoke of two role models for him who were head teachers who really cared about their schools.

He went on to say “we can’t do everything so we must become obsessed with what is important”. He said relationships are at the heart of everything, not tracking progress through the broad general education.

He said that to have happy staff and pupils you need:

  • mutual respect
  • relationships
  • a calm atmosphere developed
  • attainment and achievement
  • external recognition

He said that attainment and achievement are important as they bring happiness and EVIDENCE so that we know that things are working. He talked of the need to work for awards and to celebrate achievement publicly. He talked about the importance of the school’s reputation; he said that reputation is everything. He talked of the need to have links with the community, with the parishes with the local shops, with the neighbours and to sort out issues such as litter which create a public profile. He advised “don’t be wary of the press; if they are going to do you they will do you anyway!” so you may as well work with them.

He spoke of Columba 1400 being a big influence on him; this was a leadership development opportunity based on Skye. He said that the values of Columba 1400 have been a big influence on him:

  • be your personal best
  • awareness
  • focus
  • creativity
  • integrity
  • perseverance
  • service

These values have gone on to influence his school values.

He said that having a good reputation leads to more success as people come to you because you are successful; thus his school has attracted interest in becoming a Confucius Hub and also with Celtic Youth Academy.

Paul finished with the final quote:

The task of leadership is not to put greatness into humanity but to elicit it for the greatness is there already.” John Buchan.

Eleanor Coner, SPTC

Eleanor spoke of the need to work with parents and carers to have a shared endeavour and to have everyone with the same focus. She talked about parent councils and the Parental Involvement Act and spoke of the need to have parents and carers as key players in what we do. She said, however, that it is more than parent councils and she asked “what about the parents without a voice?”. She said that every parent has something to contribute but they need to be given ways to make that easier for them. She said it makes her sad to hear teachers and head teachers say, of some parents and carers that “they are not interested”. They are interested but parents often face barriers to engagement such as their own literacy, numeracy and confidence. She asked how many parents really know what a curriculum or assessment are. She said “it’s about relationships and people it’s as simple as thatShe said that research shows that children do best when their parents and carers are involved. She said that school leaders have two options: to keep parents out or to welcome them in. She said we need to see families as participants and critical friends not as recipients. A happy school is happy pupils, happy staff and happy families. We need different ways to involve parents and carers that suits them. We need to understand them and their capacity. We need parent-friendly initiatives such as using social media; for example a project recently took place around paired reading but used videos on YouTube to share the learning with those who could not attend in person.

Eleanor quoted Epstein and the six types of involvement (parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision-making, collaborating with the community). She encouraged us to look at the Partnership Schools Programme Scotland. She said that parents are not a tap to be turned off and on but need to be engaged with at all times.

Craig Munro

Craig is the Executive Director of Children’s Services in Fife. He used to be a physics teacher and has previously worked in Fife and Perth.

He started off by saying “your country needs you – you have the most important and exciting job that there is in Scotland”. He said that values are the be all and end all of what we do. In any class or any school you will know if a teacher cares. Compassion and interest in young people are in essential ingredient of what we do. Our job is to generate hope and optimism for pupils, parents and staff. We are constantly communicating verbally and non-verbally and must communicate optimism to children who may have been told that they have no hope. He spoke of the need to ensure equity and spoke of us needing to have inclusion at our fingertips; this is crucial. We live in a country where the system is failing too many pupils. The curriculum needs to be built around the needs of children and not the needs of staff. If you have values and young people at your heart, you will take staff with you. There is a huge untapped potential amongst the young people that we work with. He said that we as educationalists have a role to bring parents into the process. He also said that our job is to make things simple to people who need to understand them. He said that the focus in school must be on learning and teaching but we need to translate it into terms that people will understand; we need to take the fundamentals and make them understandable. He said that we need to have a horizontal and vertical understanding of the world around us. He encouraged us to embrace the media and embrace councillors not to drive them away. He said that we need passion and values in relation to what is going on in school plus a peripheral vision of the world outside. We as head teachers need to link the two worlds.

He said “be your own authentic self, do not bring persona to work and put a mask on”. He talked of a need for vision, emphasis and energy and the need to embody and personify your school as a head teacher. He said that we have enormous influence on how people bring up children in this world. He said that the best head teachers take ownership in the community and they harness initiatives to push forward values and agendas rather than having initiatives imposed. He urged us to stick to the things that really matter. He said that it ends and begins with who you are and what you stand for: do you really care that children will develop under your care?

Gillian Hamilton, SCEL Chief Executive

Summing up, Gillian commented on the huge similarities and resonances in the ideas shared by the speakers at the conference. She said that it had not been planned like this!

She reiterated her message from the last conference where she said “bring yourself to work; we don’t want to clones”. She spoke of a time when, early in her career, she bought a pink blazer with shoulder pads in her first leadership role as she thought that was that was ‘what you did’ as a leader. She has since learnt that she needs to be authentic and not do what she feels needs to be done.

She spoke of Alex Ferguson’s ideas on relationships within leadership and said that it is perpetual work. She also talked about Michael Fullan’s idea of “what is worth fighting for”, doing things because they are important and the idea that it is about changing ourselves. She spoke of the need to start small and think big and to put learning, professional culture, relationships and young people at the heart of what we do.


6 thoughts on “Into Headship Spring Conference

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