(Just like) Starting over

I was the director of the Sunday Times Wellington College Festival of Education for six years.  In that time it grew from something medium-sized to something very big indeed. There were many reasons for this: it became increasingly well-known, we brought in a professional event management team, and Wellington, under the headship of the charismatic and determined Sir Anthony Seldon, remained totally committed to supporting it.  It also remained true to one of its original ideas: namely, that it would be serious and fun.  I made no apologies for including various Secretaries of State and Katie Price (talking about raising a child with learning difficulties) on the same list of speakers. And if Tinie Tempahfoe_day2-621-690x4_3492471k-large_transqvzuuqpflyliwib6ntmjwfsvwez_ven7c6bhu2jjnt8 wanted to talk to young people about why education is so important we were happy to provide him with a platform.  I’m delighted to see it continues to go from strength to strength, this time with a new media partner. 

But anyone who has been involved in running a big event that takes place (mostly) outdoors in this country knows that making it a success often depends as much on luck as judgment. As the Festival approached I used to watch the sky as fearfully as Chicken-Licken.

The last Festival I was involved in had Carol Dweck and Ken Robinson headlining (with Guy Claxton, left, mercifully wearing a lanyard), as well as several hundred other speakers.  By then I knew that I was moving on because I’d accepted a new job at Bryanston School, and it seemed like a good time to stop doing events and actually begin attending things like researchED without worrying about whether everyone had a complimentary pencil in their complimentary bag, and were wearing lanyards (that said, if I go to any event nowadays and I see someone not wearing a lanyard I get a little bit panicky and wonder if I should tell the organisers).  I must admit that the prospect of not running an event again filled me a degree of liberation I have not felt since I put down my pen on my last A level History paper.

So why am I doing it all over again?  Part of the reason is that I realised how much I missed bringing teachers together to debate and discuss issues that really matter to them and their students.  And there is a particular sense of reward about organising something in our divided school system that attempts to build bridges across sectors.  I also like listening to interesting people talking about stuff they know a lot about.

And so on June 7th Bryanston will host its first Education Summit.  The theme, or rather strapline, is ‘delivering world class education in turbulent times’.  It was an idea that I had decided upon before Donald Trump had been elected President, but it now seems particularly appropriate.  This event will bring some inspirational speakers together with school leaders and teachers from independent and state schools to discuss what might lie ahead. It will be more intimate than the Education Festival, but smaller scale has innate advantages.
edfest2I’m delighted that Dylan Wiliam is going to be giving a keynote speech on the day, and that other speakers confirmed include, AC GraylingDavid Didau and Martin Robinson (pictured), as well as Tom Bennett and Lucy Crehan. Many more will join.  Just like the Education Festival it will be an event run by teachers for teachers and held in a school.  And there will be lanyards, of course, lots and lots of lanyards.






Farewell Mr Burree…

St Michael’s was at times a pretty hard school in the 70s and 80s.  Being caned (whether you were a boy or a girl) was so routine it was barely commented on.  I still remember the Headmaster’s collection of canes, and how he occasionally lingered over them before selecting one that he felt suited the ‘crime’. And then the holding out of the hand, the flash of wood, the smack on skin, the sudden, stabbing pain. As well as the mandatory bullying in most year groups, there were also fights between us and the kids from the local comprehensives (these were occasionally pre-arranged in some no-man’s land between the schools, but I’ve no idea who organised such events, or how, or why come to that).  Staff threw board dusters (and sometimes chalk) books, pens, and whatever else they could get their hands on, at children who were talking, or misbehaving in some other way.  But nobody seemed to complain, least of all our parents, who seemed to take the view that if a child was caned, or punished in any way, it was the child’s fault, not the school’s. Today the school is transformed, and is considered one of the best independent schools in Wales.

Although it charged fees, St Michael’s had a very broad intake, both geographically and socially: it shipped pupils in from towns as far afield as Carmarthen, Llanelli and Swansea; and the sons and daughters of barristers and doctors would sit side-by-side with the children of shopkeepers, farmers and manual labourers.  This was a time when a  private education was in the reach of the aspiring, lower middle classes. I can’t really remember how good the teaching was: no doubt some was good, some mediocre, some poor.   But I liked the school: I had good friends, and learned a lot, and regardless of its failings (and mine) I went on to university, did a PhD, and have done okay professionally.  Most of those I know who went there speak warmly of the place, and all seem (outwardly at least) well-balanced and successful.  The school has to take some credit for this.

And one teacher takes particular credit for moving me on academically. Nick Burree – who joined the school when I entered the Sixth Form – taught me A level Politics and History.  I got good grades in both.  I found out this week that he died last month and, more than once since I heard the news, I found myself reflecting on what made him a good teacher. His death reminded me of how fortunate I was that at that pivotal time in my development he happened to be there.

To be honest, when he first walked into our classroom he didn’t seem likely to be transformative.  He was unprepossessing, shy even, overweight, and seemed to perspire rather a lot, regardless of the weather. His hair stuck resolutely to his forehead at all times, and he wore oversized, thick-framed glasses. He would sit at the front of the class, often hugging his brief case, but he would…discuss things with us, and he did so in a way that allowed this rather unappealing collection of adolescents to feel they were his intellectual equals, and that he respected their views.  He also knew his subjects very well. He was a Liberal Democrat activist in an area which was deeply Labour, and this political allegiance perhaps allowed him to indulge those pupils who were nascent Thatcherites, as well as those who were exploring Marxism (and everything else in between, including apathy).  Above all he listened, and debated, brought in articles ‘that I thought you would like’, lent us books, and if he didn’t know an answer to something he would admit it, and find out by the next day what it was (and this in the days before Google).

I regret now that I never went back to say ‘thank you’ to him for teaching me so well, for sparking a lifelong interest in politics and history.  Too late now.  But I hope that he did realise how much of a difference he made, and that he did hear those words said to him by others. There is always enough time to acknowledge one’s gratitude, no matter how long ago it was, and that is something I’ve learned as a teacher, because it is such recognition by students that is one of the profession’s quietest, but greatest, rewards. Rest in peace, Mr Burree.


Another post on independent learning

I recently wrote a blog on independent learning, but I wanted to explore my thoughts on it still further.  And so I wrote this:


Independent learning is the holy grail for teachers.  All of us seek to somehow shape that imaginary figure: the student who listens and learns from us, and, over time, goes forward, guided by our occasional words of advice, through the gilded gates of A*s (or 7s), and onward, out into the world, but always hungry to learn throughout their lives. I’m sure such students exist, but the process isn’t always as easy as what I’ve just described. Independent learning – the phrase itself or the move towards less prescriptive ‘chalk and talk’ pedagogy – can be found in the most traditional of schools, to the more outre.  It’s a little like taking the stabilisers off a bicycle: when is the safe time to do it? When can they get there without us? What if they crash?

Of course, some do crash, and some crash so badly that they never get on that bike again, refusing to gain the qualifications they need to go on to university or equivalent.  And because education is nothing if not messy, and complex, and ‘human, all too human’, teachers have to make such judgments all the time, about developing individuals who, sometimes, don’t even know what they know or how to articulate it.  An 18 year old may be less capable of taking responsibility for his or her own learning than a 14 year old…it depends on who they are.

Independent learning has been debated for many years, and was always considered A Good Thing by those who might be said to come from the more progressive wing of education. But things started to change under Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph (with the introduction of the National Curriculum).  It fell in and out of favour at the Department for Education until Michael Gove began to question its value, favouring more ‘traditional’ forms of teaching.  And when articulate, passionate voices such as Daisy Christodolou openly rejected the reification of independent learning in Ofsted’s inspection framework, people began to re-evaluate what was being done in the classroom, and to debate if and when independent learning can quickly turn into a dereliction of duty by the school.  Teacher bloggers, such as David Didau, asked questions that remain relevant and, very often, unanswered.

And they remain unanswered because independent learning is, like differentiation, not understood or defined.  It isn’t just a student going away, reading loads of books, and coming back, transformed overnight into a leading expert on inorganic Chemistry or the Battle of Hastings.  It has to happen gradually, and be modelled by the teacher.  I recently observed two lessons by very different teachers: one allowed the students to work in silence on a task for a specified period of time; the other set a task, but kept interrupting the class with advice on how to solve the problem. Both teachers are outstanding, but I felt the students in the first class had to think harder, for longer, on their own, and as they gave voice to their thoughts it was clear that they had progressed because of the task the teacher had set up, and the clear advice given at the start.  They then learned from each other as they listened (a neglected quality in many schools) to each other. They moved forward (as no doubt did the other class, but perhaps not as fast, and perhaps more tentatively).

‘Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.’ – James Baldwin

In Angela Duckworth’s latest book, Grit, she quotes approvingly of James Baldwin who wrote that ‘children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.’ Teachers (and parents) know this to be true, but it is often ignored in schools (and at home). Independent learning can happen in the silence between the spoken words, and in moments of real research undertaken by the student over a meaningful period of time.  But teachers have to model that behaviour, and ensure that any task set as something to be done autonomously by the student is as rigorous and demanding as something studied in class.  If the wheels come off the bike the teacher, like a parent, has to be there to pick them up (in every sense) and say: ‘what did you learn from that? And what are you going to do differently?’  Whether they choose to take our advice is, of course, both a point of frustration but (also) can be a source of joy, for pupil, teacher, and parent.

A view from the States

This is my second blog, for the TES, on my experiences of teaching at Riverdale Country School in New York City.

When was the last time you heard a debate in the UK about private education, on television, on social media, or in the press, which was not shot through with numerous prejudices, and varying degrees of snobbery (of the old school type, as well as the liberal-left inverted kind)? Indeed, when was the last time you saw a picture of a British politician (other than Michael Gove) taken at a leading independent school extolling the many strengths of a sector that is the envy of many – across the world – who aspire to sending their children to such schools? Good news stories about independent schools often go relatively unreported.

The British have a sclerotic relationship with their private schools, and it becomes even more obvious when you step outside the system, as I did, and view it from the other side of the Atlantic.  Although they produce some of our leading scientists, writers, artists and innovators, Britain’s independent schools are more often caricatured as incubators for Tory politicians (which, for some, is a term of abuse in itself).  

I sometimes wonder if going to a private school in the UK instills in their students (and staff) a degree of grit, or character, by stealth: we pick up on the often pejorative language that otherwise reasonable, liberal and tolerant people use to describe them, ranging from ‘toffs’ and ‘snobs’ to, well, much worse, not to mention the guilt that we are supposed to feel from being associated with such institutions.

Although you only have to pick up certain tabloid papers in the US to see how far up the agenda the ‘income inequality’ movement is, the debate surrounding private education feels different there, and less focused on the perceived negative influence of private schools on society, and more on the social issues that contribute to the gaps in attainment. In an attempt to raise standards in state schools the ‘common core’, and the methods for evaluating learning, have been introduced, but have proven divisive. To some extent charter and KIPP schools have sought to remedy  this perceived failing; furthermore (and in a move which might be be a foreshadowing of what might be to come in the UK) big business has stepped into school funding.  Again, not without controversy.

I’ve visited a number of independent schools around the US, as well as public (state) schools, and such issues although there, are different.  Every conversation I had with New York taxi drivers taking me to and from Riverdale Country School when I was the Zagat Global Fellow, every casual conversation I had with people from all walks of life there, revealed less resentment directed at fee-paying schools than you will find in the UK and a respect for the work those schools do and the young people they turn out.  

The focus at Riverdale is on inculcating in the young people they teach the values the school embodies.  They promote character explicitly, and with research underpinning their work.  I observed lessons which foregrounded this approach, and it was impressive. Assumptions were challenged, ideas debated, ‘failure’ was viewed as a part of life. Students do meaningful work overseas and within the US with young people who are far less privileged than they are. The school undertakes this work to deliberately disrupt their students’ normal lives and to prepare them for life in a rapidly changing global society.  For Dominic Randolph, the school’s Head, encouraging students to become more resilient is fundamental to a good education.  To promote this work across schools Randolph established, with David Levin and Angela Duckworth the CharacterLab with the aim of underpinning the work done with hard nosed scientific research to the pedagogy.  This work is now being taken up in other countries, including the UK, and it will be fascinating to see the results. But evidence has to be collected, analysed, and disseminated.

For Levin, himself a graduate of Riverdale, the combination of character and the academics is the ‘double helix’ of education: bringing them together makes sense, and in his KIPP schools students are even issued character growth cards.  Some independent schools in the UK claim that they have taught character for many years, but how much more sensible it is to invest in research that proves what works and how (and what doesn’t and why).  Perhaps if we do this we can begin to move beyond the petty mud-slinging that passes for educational debate in this country; perhaps we can learn from figures like Randolph and Levin, and from private schools here and in the US, who try to bridge equality gaps that run so deep in society so that students from all backgrounds benefit from the work they do.  If we could move the debate beyond personal prejudices this would show a degree of maturity and, dare I say it, character, from all involved.


The Zagat Global Fellowship

This term I was awarded the Zagat Global Fellowship by Riverdale Country School in New York.  This is a new initiative created to encourage educators to visit other schools around the world triverdale imageo exchange ideas, create conversations, teach…and learn. It’s a huge honour to be its first recipient, and to be given the opportunity to join, albeit temporarily, a world-class school in the USA.

Over the next couple of weeks I hope to blog about the differences I experience between two schools in two very different educational systems.  I will post them first on the TES website; I will also tweet here

Riverdale is a world class school, but it’s a very different school from the school I currently work in, and adjusting to the different context will have to be swift. Moving from here to there is a challenge, and after a hard term’s work it might have been safer, and saner, to have taken some time off.  In my own eyes, and going by my standards, I might even ‘fail’…but if I do then I hope to gain something because I have always believed that intrinsic to this profession is the teacher’s ability to expose him or herself to new ideas and new experiences, and be open to the possibility of failing.  But risk taking is becoming increasingly undesirable in today’s high-stakes, over-controlled system.

And yet in my experience, as someone who has visited a lot of schools, as an inspector, advisor, teacher, and parent,  the best schools are forward looking and confident enough to make brave changes. At every level they embody strategic, calculated risk,  and are prepared to introduce new initiatives even when the final outcomes are uncertain. They in turn attract and retain staff who find this atmosphere the most conducive to effective teaching and learning; and ideally, this produces young people who are willing to embrace constructive change, seeing it as part of their own growth. Much of this ongoing process is dependent on a profound trust in the school’s leadership, but in time it becomes a virtuous circle. Scaling such things up is, as Sir Michael Barber has so convincingly argued, essential to the complex process of creating a school-led improvement programme.Conversely, of course, the worst schools I have been to avoid change (including those that are academically very successful) believing that any adjustments might endanger what they have carefully protected over many years. They are managed, not led; they have development plans, but no vision.

Many teachers on both sides of the Atlantic (including Riverdale) are actively discussing grit and resilience, and the focus, quite rightly, is on how we can inculcate it in the young people we teach.  But surely the debate should be widened so that it includes resilience among teachers (who are often characterised by commentators as a group of miserablists who talk only about the negatives of the profession, rather than its privileges), as well as an institutional grit that embodies the robust strength of character that can only come with self-confidence. But such things might only come when the school is itself prepared to learn from failure, resembling an adult in charge of his own destiny: the physical embodiment, if you like, of the qualities it wishes everyone who works in the school to share.  But that’s another debate.  I’m off to pack for New York.