It has been a long week; full of the usual strains that come with leadership in times of austerity.
A couple of unsettled nights caused by irrational worry and a poorly child.
So, on Thursday morning when I woke up tired and snow was forecast, I almost gave up on the idea of driving to Glasgow after work to hear Professor Sir Tim Brighouse speak.
But I am so glad I did not give up. Two things gave me the impetus to go: the memory of living in the Outer Hebrides and feeling frustrated that I could not access events such as this without a 2 day round trip and the knowledge that Sir Tim is a partner in crime of David Cameron (the real one) who is a virtual mentor and inspiration to me.
So off I went. Initially I nearly ended up lost in the Clyde Tunnel but rerouted, got parked and made my way to one of Glasgow University’s finest old buildings.
In a wood-panelled lecture theatre I came across other colleagues who had made the trek from Argyll, albeit via ferry and train and not over the Rest and Be Thankful. After a brief much needed catch up over drinks and nibbles we took our front row seats.
The event started with a wonderful introduction and homage to Sir Tim by Professor Chris Chapman. Chris explained the inspiration that Tim provided in his role as Chief Education Officer in Birmingham in the late 90s; inspiration given to both NQTs like Chris but also to the head teachers in the authority like the transformational
Chris Owen at Barclay Green who was fully supported in her mission to appoint good people and ensure succession planning.
Sir Tim lived and modelled the idea that educational leadership is a team pursuit, not an individual approach. He knew staff and his colleagues well – and often gave personal touches that helped grow loyal teams, such as a case of wine after an inspection! He was determined to get the ‘energy-sappers’ out of Birmingham
Tim believed in defining the fundamental rights to which every child was entitled.
Chris explained with huge fondness and respect the massive impact that Tim had made in leading improvement in the most deprived schools in Birmingham and then in London with the London Challenge….and thus the scene was set for the main man.
No sharp suit or PowerPoint here. A man with a pile of notes to which he referred on occasions and said that he would email to us, (as long as the shop had fixed his laptop), sharing his email address with us all.
And no PowerPoint was needed. I have rarely heard such a natural and engaging speaker and was transfixed by his gentle tone, humour, anecdotal exemplification and sharp intelligence and honesty.
He started with a nugget for the far-travelled of Argyll, in the hope that we might get at least one useful piece of information before returning home. It was this:
Red dot marking
Put dots in margin when the pupils are working in class
Explain what the dot means
I have spotted where you could have used a better word….
Go away and find out how
Can consult with others/ phone a friend.
(I have since learned that this is to be credited to the amazing Amjad Ali.)
He then went on to speak of chaos theory, butterfly theory, his family and context-related learning with added intoxication: the relevance to schools is that doing revision in the place where kids will sit exam can be really useful.
He went on to suggest that we plot elements of work in school on a graph:
Effort across one access and impact across other
Low effort high impact and high effort low impact are most interesting to look at
Get schools to rate/ put tasks on the graph.
Some tasks could go in both eg marking can be low effort and high impact or high effort and low impact.
Words to put in the axes:
He then moved on to the title of his talk:
“Post brexit, should there be a nationally agreed set of schooling purposes, policies and practices across this (dis)United Kingdom?”
He explained that there had been 3 key drivers for his speech:
1. Fascination with school improvement and learning
2. Mistrust of isolationist nationalism
3. Fascination for finding gaps in hedges
The answer to the question in the title was a categoric ‘yes’ and that our different systems should learn from one another, pool their best initiatives and make good ideas work within individual contexts.
He suggested that there needs to be a meeting of the first ministers of the 4 nations where they address the following:
1. What are overall purposes of education?
One idea may be that children think for themselves and act for others?
Sir Tim stressed that a broad brush agreement is needed.
2. Give an analysis of:
Governance and finance
How we treat and train teachers
Assessment (maybe British bac aged 18 marked by unis)
3. Preschool/early years and college
Written like this, the ideas and recommendations seem as if they could have been written in an essay or paper, presented in black and white and simply stated.
But the magic of Sir Tim’s talk came in the storytelling that accompanied the statement of these ideas:
- The story of the sad school phobic pupil (him) from 67 years ago who changed schools and moved from a black and white world to one in colour because of a skilled and empathic teacher.
- The story of Harry Rée, English educationalist, teacher and pacifist who undertook extraordinary feats behind enemy lines in World War One, even as a pacifist, by finding gaps in hedges: good leaders at any level try and dive through gaps in hedges of difficulty.
- The history of the the decline of English education caused by over politicisation, a market-force mentality, parental choice and competition and Thatcherism – all leading to a distancing by the other nations.
Learn from one another. Play close attention to context. Decide what matters. Realise that Scotland, without academies and competitive league tables but with a strong focus on mental health and week being is ahead of England in PISA ratings.
I can’t begin to recreate the magic that Sir Tim created last night in this post. All I can say is that if you haven’t heard him speak and get a chance to do, seize it. Drive through snow. Skip dinner and fill up on drinks and nibbles. But do it.
So many thanks go to Sir Tim and all who helped to bring him to Scotland.