Principal's Blog Sept 2016 - April 2017
24th April 2017
“These boys and girls are to be asked to wield the royal sceptre; we must therefore give them the souls of kings and queens. Otherwise it may be said of us that we took the ordinary person from the shadows of history and set them in the fierce light that beats upon thrones and they were blinded and ran away”. Nye Bevan
"THE COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTES REQUIRES THE EDUCATION OF THE PEOPLE AS THE SAFEGUARD OF ORDER AND LIBERTY". Inscription on Boston library, the first publicly supported free municipal library in the world.
It feels good to be starting a new term this morning and seeing colleagues and students back to school. When I first heard the announcement by the Prime Minister in the Easter break that she would be seeking a general election in June my first thoughts were probably similar to most educators along the lines of concerns that education would actually lose the attention it needs so crucially right now in national political consciousness and debate. The secretary of state, Justine Greening, only the previous week had caused a huge furore through a major speech outlining further details on the government’s proposal to allow more schools to select students and for the further establishment of new grammar schools. The public consultation on this green paper and the national Fair Funding formula were supposed to be made known soon after Easter. However, due to the civil service purdah during the election period, both these announcements have been delayed with the possible likelihood of a new secretary of state at the Department for Education; if Mrs May wins the election and she hopes for an increase in her party’s parliamentary majority. As a keen lifelong student of politics I am acutely aware of the seismic impact of last summer’s Brexit decision on the future of the UK. However, at the same time something as important as the future of education and the very real problems schools face right now cannot be allowed to slip down the policy agenda of any political party,especially during this important general election.
Over Easter I was asked a number of times my thoughts on selection and grammar schools. I repeated what I tell everyone that the question is not a very insightful one to ask. There are too many false dichotomies and binary arguments in the debate around educational structures in England. Having worked in and with many varying types of state schools and in and with many varying types of independent schools, in the UK and abroad, the question really should be asking what type of education, access, inclusion and learning should we have in our schools for the future of our young people whatever we end up calling the school. I have worked with some pretty poor independent schools and a fair few outstanding state schools in my time. The label doesn’t mean anything if teaching is mediocre, the curriculum is narrow and dry and the wellbeing does little to develop and nurture the individual in an overall negative school culture. I honestly don’t believe the rose tinted nostalgia that often accompanies the debate on grammar schools is helpful in examining how education has got to where it is in 2017, based on a personal perspective of an individual’s school back in say the 1950s or 1960s.
The original 1944 Butler Education Act, created a post-war tripartite system based on the assumption and belief that a worthwhile education is about the best in culture not accessible to all. I love the public library in Copley Square Boston and the very American/Founding Fathers notion that an educated population is the key to a stable and functioning free society. In 2013 the then education secretary, Michael Gove, quoted the Italian Marxist Gramsci in a speech to the Social Market Foundation. Gramsci had made the argument in his “Notes from Prison” of the need for “emancipatory education” and for everyone to have the access to “powerful knowledge”. Gove also quoted the educationalist E D Hirsch and the idea of education being about “cultural literacy”. I believe Gove was right to cite Gramsci and Hirsch in developing an education policy that makes sure education is worthwhile for all students. The reality over the last few years unfortunately has been an education policy that prioritises a standardised narrowing curriculum, rigid disciplinary rules and an authoritarian pedagogy. Not exactly a framework to develop critical self-consciousness in the learner let alone an ability to pursue TRUTH in any way, shape or form.
My own rose tinted view of my own schooling in a comprehensive in a former mining town in Shropshire has obviously played a formative part on my philosophy towards education. Fairly similar to Justine Greening’s comprehensive school in Rotherham in the South Yorkshire coalfields in the 1980s but a world away from Jeremy Corbyn’s fee paying Salopian grammar school in my former county; or even why Diane Abbot chose to send her children to a selective school than a non-selective state school. My state school had a very broad curriculum that included lots of cross curricula learning, a development of critical thinking, a strong emphasis on creativity and technology, was global in outlook, full of committed student centred teachers who pushed all students to learn more and access “powerful knowledge” through exposure to higher culture. I have never forgotten the fantastic educators who developed in me and my contemporaries a love of learning that has never gone away and has only grown deeper. My teachers instilled in me the ability to think critically, to question and to want to know more. I don’t care what the school was called or what category it came under but it allowed for my social mobility and a coalminer’s son to become the first in his family to go to university, and eventually the privilege of working in education to hopefully give back something that had been given to me.
When I first read the quote on education by Nye Bevan it resonated with me immediately. This is what we need to aim for with all our students. We will only be able to do this if we allow access to a broad and rich curriculum. Where all subjects are seen as vital and important for the future wellbeing of society. Where the curriculum develops the learner’s skills as an individual to access the future economy and society. A curriculum that places student wellbeing at the centre. I believe the current debate on education needs to break free of the tribalistic echo chambers of the respective protagonists. Successful societies such as in Scandinavia, Singapore and Canada have placed World Class education for all high up on the list of policy priorities and funding. What would be incredible in this general election campaign being fought over the next 7 weeks would be an education debate not stuck on grammar versus non-selective, but a debate that went back to the question “what is a worthwhile education?”What are we teaching the next generation? Is it preparing them well for the future? We need to make sure all our students are given the souls of kings and queens and none of them run away from the light as they take their places in society as the next doctors, teachers, lawyers, engineers, nurses, builders, plumbers and so on. That they can not only cope with modern life but it allows them to enjoy that life. I know that is what my colleagues and the parents of this community want for the students of Wyedean. That is what we work towards every day.
23rd March 2017
“Bad things do happen in the World but out of those situations always arise stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things”
“The flower that blooms in adversity is the rarest and most beautiful of them all”
“You have to be at your strongest when you are feeling at your weakest”
Quotes taken from the daily signboards at various London Underground stations the day after the Westminster attacks; 22nd March 2017.
Last weekend I had the privilege of being asked to speak about international education in Manchester at the annual British Council Ambassadors’ conference which was centred on the concept of “cohesion”. The relatively new Holiday Inn hotel in the centre the conference was held at over the weekend spoke to my younger 1990s student self as it was themed around the music scene of “Madchester” and as several people commented, spending a Saturday night in the Hacienda was a dream come true. The room rather than the club I am afraid. As my eight year old daughter Evie, gently reminded me a few days ago, I am more “male, pale and stale” than ever. Choosing a room named after The Stone Roses rather than the actual seminar theme probably wasn’t the wisest thing to base a decision on though. The train going up from Bristol was absolutely packed with revellers on the way to the Cheltenham Festival and continuing up to Birmingham and then towards Manchester, where it was raining of course, people were getting on and off after finishing work or going for the evening in the city after a long week. Carriages were also full of students going home or visiting friends. Ordinary people going about ordinary lives. As I walked around Manchester on the weekend I remembered one of the last IRA acts of terrorism was the bombing of Manchester centre in 1996, just before the historic Good Friday Agreement finally brought a peace and an end to The Troubles. One of the architects and classic terrorist turned statesman, Martin McGuiness died only last week. I was a very young teacher back then and had started to make my history lessons less abstract by using “revolutionary” video conferencing with schools in Germany and Russia in the late 1990s and saw the learning power of international education even then. What happened in London on Wednesday was another random and senseless act of terror where people were going about their daily lives; tourists walking across Westminster Bridge, a mother running late to pick up her children, an American husband celebrating his wedding anniversary with a trip to London and a policeman, with a wife and young kids, doing his duty to the very last. My theme for the Year 8 assembly on Thursday was already based on “Tolerance and Understanding”. Just as my generation grew up used to the acts of terror from the IRA, this generation is also sadly growing up in such a world. What inspired me in Manchester, what always inspires me, is talking to and listening to people who continue to work hard in classrooms, in society and in their homes to ensure that the narrative for our kids is one of hope and that the World contains infinitely a lot more good in it than it contains bad. As a school we held a reflection for the victims of Wednesday and in tutorial colleagues discussed the events with students.
I once worked in a school where non-uniform days and specific charity days like today’s “Red Nose Day” were symptomatic of what a group of researchers from Groningen University in Holland called “blind activism”. Students paid a pound but had no idea why. I am happy to say having walked around the campus at break and lunchtime today and seen Wyedean students enjoying the Red Nose Day events in the sunshine and why it is exactly we are working together in a cohesive way to make sure we understand issues and why it is a key part of our values to assist and support other people.
Another area of community activism has been the national and our own school campaign to stop the current proposal on the Fair Funding Formula especially as Wyedean would be the worst off secondary school in West Gloucestershire despite being one of the most successful. My thanks to parents, staff and governors who have contributed to the national consultation. I have been in correspondence with our local MP, Mark Harper, and Mark kindly agreed to visit the school on the 7th April to talk with leadership and governors on this issue and wider school funding. Wyedean School does not advocate taking funding away from any school to “fair fund” but it seems completely irrational that the Chancellor’s budget this month found several £100millions for Free Schools and Grammars when the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the OECD, all professional associations and others predict that nearly 100% of state schools will be in chronic deficit by 2020 with an average of a £300k deficit to fund. This will equate to 6 teachers being lost on average, larger class sizes, a narrowing further of the curriculum and for some schools being only open for 4 days a week. Wyedean School is exactly a beacon of educational excellence and opportunity on both sides of the border needed in this area. We are over subscribed for September for new Years 7 and 12s and we are being invited regularly to national and international conferences and fora to show case the work that goes on here. I think it is called a no-brainer. I’m hoping eventually the DfE see it that way too.
I was really encouraged as a school principal to hear the new chief of OfSTED, Amanda Spielman, make curriculum one of her priorities as she spoke at the ASCL conference:
“We know that there are some schools that are narrowing the curriculum, using qualifications inappropriately, and moving out pupils who would drag down results. That is nothing short of a scandal where it happens. Childhood isn’t deferrable: young people get one opportunity to learn in school and we owe it to them make sure they all get an education that is broad, rich and deep.”
Reading that makes my educator’s heart beat just that little bit faster. This is why having the resources to realise it and less capricious fads from the DfE is vital. Over the next few months one of my key priorities at Wyedean is to look at us becoming an IB World School and offering genuine aspirational and challenging World Class 21st Century learning to the communities we serve on both sides of the border. The school’s social media and new website continues to show daily the quality of the compelling learning that is the hallmark of Wyedean School and our commitment to outstanding education for our students. This week alone the work of our Duke of Edinburgh scheme was recognised with a substantial grant to allow it to expand further, Joshua Thomas in Year 9 was runner up in the FameLab finals in Cheltenham, the gospel choir performed and competed in the Somerset Music Festival and our sports successes for the Wyedean Warriors in Netball and Football in particular add to a great year for our sports teams this year. I am particular proud of the school’s partnership work on LGBT+ and it is a focus for our priority meeting as a staff next week as we continue to work with Jonathon Charlesworth and Stonewall on challenging homophobic and transphobic behaviour as we aim to be a trans-inclusive school under a collaborative partnership with the DfE.
Next week the South West’s Regional Schools’ Commissioner, Rebecca Clark, is speaking to Forest of Dean/West Gloucestershire school leaders about the area being one of the SW RSC’s “priority areas”. As an oversubscribed “Good” school we already work with a number of schools through partnership to ensure we have excellent education across the area. I am speaking at the same meeting about Wyedean’s school improvement network with Challenge Partners as a model of good practice. It’s also Full Governors Board meeting next week where I present the half termly “principal’s report”. The Core Year 11 mocks have just finished this week and I am really pleased to see how the Year 11s have been preparing themselves for the summer exams. Not long for them or Year 13s now and we have been ensuring that we focus on good wellbeing for the students throughout this time.
The last weekend in March is always the switch to better months as the clocks spring forward and we celebrate “mothering Sunday”. It’s my wife’s godfather’s 80th birthday this weekend and we are celebrating with him on Saturday. He was the former chief engineer on Concorde so he always has a few good stories. I don’t mind spending a Saturday this way but unfortunately being away I missed the family outing to the cinema last weekend to see “Beauty and the Beast” J My TED-University Illinois forum continues on Sunday and last week it was looking at immigration and education. Fascinating to hear from colleagues in Southern California, Texas and Armenia about how they deal with related issues to ensure these kids get stability and an education. It’s a privilege and it is humbling to work with such educators. I think we definitely do need to remember we are at our strongest when we are at our weakest.
6th March 2017
Dear Mr Ford; Please can you pass on our thanks to Mr Thomas and all the those involved in organising another brilliant ski trip. It amazes us how your teachers & support staff continually go above and beyond. Not just the ski trip but the music tour and all the other opportunities you provide the students. Just about every week something exciting seems to be going on at Wyedean. As parents & a family we so appreciate this. Thank you and your inspirational staff. Kind regards, Lindsey & Alan Tyrrell.
To: Headteacher - Subject: Thank you - Sent: 21 February 2017 14:48
I read this weekend an article in The Leadership Project by a writer called David McQueen entitled “Leadership isn't about being great, it’s about enabling others to be great”. It resonated strongly with me not least because of the kind words from the Tyrrells in the email they had sent me after half term echoing exactly this idea. I think I have been very fortunate to have worked in schools and with school leaders who practice this approach daily. In fact McQueen goes onto say in the article two important things all education leaders should note:
1) Success will follow if you believe in the 'possibility' of people.
and quoting Aristotle
2) 'excellence is not an act, but a habit, we are what we repeatedly do'.
I was really fortunate last week to be part of a team of Challenge Partner reviewers led by a very wise and able OfSTED HMI, David Powell, reviewing Hove Park School on the south coast. Having reviewed schools for Challenge Partners before you never lose the sense of privilege it is not only work with a school leadership team on self-improvement but also getting to observe colleagues teaching and to meet with support staff and students. In the conversations we had with the leadership team over the three days it was obvious that this underpinned the culture and ethos of Hove Park School. One of the greatest things I love about being in Challenge Partners is this opportunity for collaboration across a huge network of some of the best schools in the UK. There are always lots of things to bring back to your own school but also plenty of other things to make you appreciate what your school is doing.
All school leaders want to enable their staff to be great educators because that means the opportunities and learning of students goes exponential. Wyedean staff and governors have worked tirelessly to ensure our school communities across the borders of Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire have a school committed to compelling learning stretching and challenging the mindset of all students. Wyedean School is now officially oversubscribed with Year 6 parents receiving the news last week of their first choice secondary school. It is astonishing but not unsurprising based on the number of parents and potential students we have had through the door over the last year wanting the education we are offering them. On Saturday the Sixth Form College at Wyedean hosted a “taster morning” for close to 100 external Year 11s looking to undertake their Post 16 at Wyedean. ALPS have just confirmed the “outstanding” success of progress in Sixth Form results at Wyedean as the school has been consistently in the top 25% nationally for three years running. The range and scope of global learning at Wyedean goes from strength to strength and the visits before half term and last week of Japanese partner schools re-enforced that commitment to global learning and languages. The Spanish MFL visit to Barcelona was such a rich cultural experience for this students in that lively Catalan city. I presented to transatlantic educators through a TED and University of Illinois forum on the 26th February about the development of global learning and critical thinking at Wyedean. This job has some very proud moments but when a group of educators in the mid-West of the USA ask you if your students are specially selected and the school must be private you know we are doing something right in this corner of the World. I have the British Council Ambassadors’ conference in Manchester in two weeks and will certainly be sharing this one with colleagues.
The school celebrated World Book Day on Friday and there are some great photos on Twitter from the event. I know social media has seen debates about the expense of costumes but spending a lot of money to dress up is unnecessary and the homemade affairs were brilliant. At the heart of World Book Day is the idea of getting students aware of and more into reading. Even I donned my D’Artagnan costume (I can live with the jibe about Oliver Reed and Athos but Henry VIII really?) and talked about why Dumas’s “The Three Musketeers” had caught my imagination as a young avid reader. The Science department at Wyedean never ceases to amaze me with their incredible STEM work and Year 9s were absolutely captivated by the talks on Friday in the Colston Hall Bristol by Robert Winston. My colleague, Katie Macer Wright has been working with local primary schools through transition developing young enquiring and analysing minds for the future. The Wyedean Science Twitter account has some of the best clips I have seen of a whole range of experiments and students just enjoying their learning. Year 11s have mocks before the end of this term and a group of them recently visited Cardiff University Law School to look at study and careers in Law. My whole hearted thanks to a great day planned and prepared for the students by Cardiff University Law School.
ASCL and other teaching unions are asking schools and educators to trend on social media under the hashtag #whatwouldyoucut to highlight the breaking point schools now face with reduced funding and falling budgets. I sat with a colleague over lunch at Hove Park School one day last week, a MAT CEO from somewhere in the South East and I spoke about the approach to curriculum, holistic education and 21st century learning at Wyedean we take with our aim of becoming an IB World School in the next couple of years. She seemed a great leader but snorted at what I was describing in her words as “bells and whistles”. I kept my own counsel and thoughts because there wasn’t a great deal to gain arguing what she thought was the right approach and no doubt operates in her schools to what I know is working for Wyedean. When I read the emails from parents like the Tyrells, talk to our fantastic students, see the great leadership from individual staff and see daily the compelling learning going on here which is why we are oversubscribed, “bells and whistles” are definitely not unaffordable “add ons” or frippery. A commitment to languages, creativity, arts, music, history, maths, science, literature, sport, technology, computing etc are what makes up a meaningful education that stretches, challenges and engages students to prepare them for their next stages. Excellence isn’t an act at Wyedean it has become habit.
13th February 2017
"We had simply the best day ever with your BARK team of students, thanks for all your preparation and all help to date. It was lovely to work with you and share ideas for the future. On our initial brainstorm meeting we did think your chosen group were mature, enthusiastic and were about to bring a great deal of creative skill along to this project.
Today I could say that their behaviour was exemplary, but that simply would not describe all that they were! We witnessed a desire to learn with complete engagement from the start. Autonomous learning was evident in all students, which resulted in Tom our artist commenting that it was brilliant to see young people able to make their own progress working independently where possible but also being able to communicate development needs in a clear way asking all the right questions at the right time.
Students worked in teams well but it was remarkable to see the whole group support each other as a complete unit. Any individual who was not as confident was soon scooped up by the group and mentored in skills and made to feel a part of it all. Artistic skill aside for a moment, your young people are a huge credit to Wyedean full of empathy and consideration for others in such a positive and encouraging way. And boy did they all have fun in the process with confidence and energy all channelled in the right direction".
Email to Wyedean School, 7th Feb, 2017, Susan and all at JGC BARK Team
It’s actually difficult where to start to describe a “typical” week in Wyedean at the moment. It’s the end of half term, the middle of February, still cold and gloomy, Friday was an INSET for the students and staff working on key school priorities and all were waiting for the end of the day when the half term break began and colleagues can then enjoy a well-deserved break with their families. My colleagues in MFL, led by Beky Simpson, have just touched down in Barcelona for their KS4 visit to that amazing Catalan city as part of their Spanish studies and the annual Ski trip, led by Dai Thomas, are off to Austria with students to catch the winter slopes. My thanks to colleagues for giving their holiday time to ensure students of Wyedean get these opportunities to enrich their learning and build their experiences. There are already some really lovely Tweets on the PE, MFL and Wyedean Twitter accounts.
We had Ritsumeikan High School, Japan, with us all week topping off an unusually rich global education week even by Wyedean’s standards for compelling international learning. The staff and students from our partner school in Japan have really made themselves at home in our school and some of the events and opportunities over the last few days have been just wonderful days in learning. As it should be. Again, pictures and videos of their visit to Wyedean are on the school social media sites. I had a fair few Japanese students come and join us for tea and coffee on Thursday for Critical Thinking with Year 11. We had a really interesting discussion about wellbeing for young people and whether or not a “finishing line” exists anymore as pressure intensifies on students to achieve. It was interesting to talk about the experience of the Japanese education system compared to the English one and I remember from my own time working with schools in SE Asia the long hours, the endless assessments and overall pressure young people seemed to be under in these education systems. A wellbeing balance needs to found somewhere and I used the American movement “Beyond Measure” and the recent book-film by Vicki Ableles to illustrate how this is changing.
Israeli and international jazz musician, Asaf Sirkis, very kindly came into Wyedean to deliver masterclasses to music students and my thanks to colleagues Pat Allard and Brian Ellam for arranging for students to get this unique exposure to a global performer in music. I was very encouraged to see the engagement and confidence of Year 9 students presenting in the FameLab school finals for Science-STEM and I look forward to having tea with all the finalists after half term to celebrate their success. This is a great way of building self-esteem and getting students involved in science and just wider problem solving. This is the future of education serving C21st needs and my thanks to my colleagues in Science especially Stuart Motson, for organising these events. The work and creativity of Wyedean students in Art with the BARK team, the feedback I have quoted at length at the start of this blog, illustrates again what a rich and broad curriculum should be doing in schools. Nick Gibb MP, the education minister, has recently released a DfE paper on the importance of the Arts in a broad holistic curriculum for all students and yet at the same time the funding is being severely cut in education and even Andreas Schleicher, education director of the OECD, warned the UK that not investing in education would damage the future prosperity of Britain. Let’s hope someone listens. On Thursday, we held a non-uniform day collecting for research into prostate cancer and what was unusual about this charity collection is that it came from one Year 10 student’s leadership; Amyleigh Brice, motivated because of a close family member’s battle with this cancer. The future is in very good hands with students like this showing exactly the sort of skills, empathy and leadership needed for a successful global society and economic.
I had a very interesting conference last week at Cheltenham Race Course for Gloucestershire school leaders focusing on a “Road Map to Outstanding” which wasn’t exactly how the Regional Schools’ Commissioner for the SW, Rebecca Clark, much to the consternation of school leaders in the room, saw the county right now and said so in her speech. In fact, we also found out the Forest of Dean is a priority area in the South West and we discussed at length at the West Glos’ School Group a couple of days later what this actually means for education in the Forest. I think we all agreed that a strategy including further collaboration, partnership, sharing of good practice and professional network support was the way forward for students and families of the Forest of Dean. Simon Rowe, OfSTED HMI for Gloucestershire all spoke at Cheltenham and was the lead inspector last time for Wyedean in November 2014. When I spoke with him he did point out “Wyedean must be due soon”. All I can say for Wyedean School is we can be looked at by anyone at any time and as Challenge Partners found in the autumn the quality of education and the high standards continue and every member of staff is committed to the very best educational experience and outcomes for all of our students. At the regular Full Governors meeting before the break this is what we shared with governors and also reflected on how being involved in the school improvement network Challenge Partners had significantly impacted Wyedean’s journey to outstanding as a high performing school. Looking forward to showing OfSTED this in the autumn or potentially any day before. In England, the inspection system is a lot more rigorous and is not geared up to allow schools 6 or 7 years to the day until they are seen again.
I am speaking at the annual ASCL conference in March for the British Council showcasing the work we are doing at Wyedean and I am now involved in a special weekly TED global education conference lasting until May. This is through the University of Illinois and involves a small of group of educators in Europe and North America working collaboratively online each work looking at comparative education systems and essentially what is that we need to be teaching students so they are learning the right things for the C21st and how we should be doing that. It really is a privilege to have been chosen to represent Wyedean and our school community in this global education forum and I took part in the opening session this weekend.
I am looking forward to time with my wife and kids, not walking Dylan, my dog, at such an unearthly hour for a week and getting away to see family in mid-Wales in Llanidloes. I am not even going to mention the rugby at all in this blog after Saturday. I know all exam groups are starting to feel everything moving up a gear or two but hopefully plenty of rest and downtime this break to prepare for the next few months ahead. There is a finishing line in education and it is the responsibility of all of us; educators, parents and students to make sure we don’t lose the essence of meaningful and effective learning in the race to get to that line. More weeks in education as we enjoyed in Wyedean last week. My great Canadian leadership hero, Michael Fullan, once wrote a book about “What’s worth fighting for in education?”. A week such as last week and many others and the education system being allowed to focus on teachers and support staff providing these opportunities. Students coming home to tell parents, unprompted “guess what we did today in school?”. That’s what is worth fighting for in education. Have a good break.
3rd February 2017
“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it but that it is too low and we reach it” Michaelangelo
I had quite a humbling moment last Thursday at the British Council in London when I got into a long conversation with the Education Minister from Ethiopia, Dr Tilaye Gete Ambaye, just before I was due to speak at the World Education Forum. We were talking general concerns that I faced as a principal of a school in England and of course I went through the TES’s standard Friday issue list of articles from funding cuts, Progress 8, MATs, grammar schools, new qualifications this summer in English and Math and so forth. Dr Ambaye then responded by talking through the issues schools in Ethiopia face. When I spoke to the very distinguished audience my focus came back to the comparative nature of education around the globe. The similarities in terms of engagement of learning, technology, pedagogy, stretch and challenge, are all there whenever you talk to any educator from anywhere in the World. The differences become apparent when resources and finances come into the mix. Dr Ambaye certainly “closed shut” my TES list as he went through what schools, communities, parents, teachers and students face daily in Ethiopia. But he made sure I got his last point that education was valued above all else and all had high expectations and aspirations no matter what the classroom looked like or how many students there were to one teacher sharing so few battered text books. One of the sights that still stays with me from my time in Bandung, Indonesia is the bamboo shack accommodation at the back of one of the schools that housed dozens of 14-16 year old students being looked after by a “nanny” because these students wanted to continue with education after compulsory education finished at 14. They were away from their families and villages in the hills around Bandung and were enduring this situation because they wanted to learn so desperately and they needed to continue their education to break their cycle of poverty in West Java. I cannot think of anything more humbling as an educator when I think back and it certainly left its indelible impression on me as a teacher when I think about the duty of care and responsibility we have towards our young people. I sat in the Gloucester Heads meeting the next day after the conference in London listening to the various discussions and one of the most pressing discussion points for the county schools is the government’s proposals on the national funding formula. I want to say now no school leader wants to take money off a school struggling in another part of the country. It has been raised by school leaders and organisations this week about the £385 million allotted in May 2016 to developing more MATs that has suddenly disappeared back into the Treasury. When schools across England are struggling with real term funding cuts of 10% over the last few years and reducing quality education in their schools back to the minimum why can’t this money be found to fund a World Class education system? Surely the reason why China, South Korea, Singapore, Canada et al fund their education so well is to ensure that the next generation are not only good citizens but they are building the skills for the economic wealth for the future prosperity of society.
My Monday this week started off as it normally does with answering emails at 7am at my desk in my study in school, writing up the weekly briefing for staff for the 8:35 meeting, holding the daily operational meeting at 8:10 with the leadership team, say good morning to sleepy (eager to learn…) students starting school after the weekend and on the with another week. This week, same routine only at 9am the Lions Club of Chepstow came into school to present Trinity Jones in Year 11 a special award for her recent exceptional progress and a £75 Amazon voucher. As we had a photo taken at the front of school I noticed she was beaming. Rightly so. Her school principal was bursting with pride at the same time. I was also extremely proud looking at the tweets from the University of Bristol on Wednesday as Lucy Roberts, our Latin and Classics coordinator, spoke to a special conference in the Wills memorial building about the developments and huge impact here of the subjects. The Wyedean Warrior sporting success also goes from strength to strength and earlier this week the badminton teams in the county finals in Stroud acquitted themselves well. I have invited them to have a celebratory lunch next week to mark their success. Nice to be a proud principal.
In the week the British Parliament voted to allow the government to trigger Article 50 next month and start negotiations to leave the EU I held a wonderful Skype Classroom talk with staff and students of partner school Gheorghe Asachi High School in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. My thanks to the brilliant educator and eTwinning Ambassador, Tatiana Popa, and her wonderful students who spent over an hour talking about their favourite books, President Trump and his first actions in the White House, the EU and Brexit as well as Moldova’s own delicate relationship as a former USSR republic with Putin’s Russia. There are moments in this role when you occasionally question your sanity and what you are doing and there are moments when you are engaging with young people like the students 3000kms away on the other side of Europe and you are just bowled away by their hope, intelligence and their faith in education. I need more of these opportunities in global learning.
One more week until we break up for half term. I know this is a shorter term after Christmas but it is astonishing how much work gets accomplished and how many important decisions get taken now that have a huge impact later in the school year. Henry Adams once said: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops”. Lucy and Tatiana will no doubt be enjoying a deserved rest this weekend but despite being on the opposite ends of Europe in two very different countries they have both given opportunities and compelling learning to their students that will resonate and influence long after this particular time in February at the start of the year has been forgotten. As Dr Ambaye said in London to me, the hope he has for his country whatever the state of the world, lies in the optimism of education and its transformational power of good in the lives of ordinary people.
Global Learning in the 21st Century – Guest blog posted for Show My Homework/Satchel
23rd January 2017
"We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope" Martin Luther King Jr
The words of MLK could apply to any number of situations not least a strong resonance to anyone gearing themselves up for the start of the Six Nations at the start of February. Wyedean Warriors have enjoyed some New Year success with the Year 10 Boys football team winning the district football tournament last week. Netball, Badminton and hockey teams are in action this coming week. I spoke to Year 7 on Friday morning about this time being a moment in history with the inauguration of a new president as well as the UK government’s position on what sort of Brexit becoming clearer ahead of Article 50 being triggered in March. These momentous World events are providing an interesting back-drop to the everyday life of the school but it is precisely the everyday that is moving us forward. The Year 9s went through their Options Evening on Thursday and this coming Thursday Year 11s have their consultation evening. The Sixth Form applications closed formally, even though we are still taking more applications, and we topped over 200 applying to come to Wyedean for this September. Linked to the recent news on nearly 200 first choice applications for new Year 7s this autumn it is a strong endorsement from our students and community in Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire that the curriculum, learning, achievement and education at Wyedean school fits in with their aspirations for what they want from their school. As I walk around the school daily I see this in every classroom and how hard my colleagues are working to deliver quality education for the young people in our care.
Part of the strategy for Wyedean School over the last couple of years is not just re-engagement and strengthening the ties with our community but also as an academy being able to develop our own partnerships for school improvement, transition and developing further compelling learning opportunities. We are pleased to have become a strategic secondary school partner in the West Forest Primary Group of schools and last week, Martin Jenkins, vice principal for pastoral, attended the regional conference for Challenge Partners with our fellow CP schools in Portsmouth. The Music department has been involved in an incredible collaboration project with the Gloucester Vocal project that is currently running a special masterclass stretch and challenge programme with Year 8 throughout the next 10 weeks. The wider enrichment of music in this school and our commitment to music in the curriculum is sadly something disappearing in so many schools with the ongoing budget cuts.
I have the huge honour of speaking at the World Education Forum in London on Thursday at the invite of the British Council to talk about the curriculum, community involvement and global learning work of Wyedean School to an audience which will include education ministers and policy makers from around the World. Getting the opportunity, in the words of Quaker George Fox to Oliver Cromwell, to literally speak truth to power. The DfE released official figures last week for the 2016 summer examinations using the new accountable measurement of Progress 8 and Attainment 8. This is also the summer where English and Maths are undertaking the new specifications with the numerical grading. Wyedean is in a fairly unique position because only around half of our Year 11 are included in the figure because of a sizeable chunk of our students coming to us from Monmouthshire. Statistically we did fine, still with room for improvement but interestingly a lot of the debates between educators and parents on social media focussed on the magnitude of the Government reforms now hitting schools linked to the real term spending cuts of around 10% linked to a perceived confused DfE strategy for education. I did highlight this to my leadership team as we discussed at length the curriculum model for September 2017 onwards against this backdrop and actually trying to keep true to what our students need in terms of skills, knowledge, education for the 21st Century. Wyedean School is working with the International Baccalaureate with the aim offering IB programmes linked to the school vision of global education. Education in schools at all Key Stages has to be much more that a narrowing set of foundation skills being offered in state schools. If Theresa May’s vision for Britain is to be more “global” as she said last Tuesday, in a fragmenting multi-polar world with economic power shifting eastwards then a dynamic knowledge economy is the way schools should be developing their curriculum to allow a breadth and depth of sorts of skills and knowledge to equip young people for the challenges their generation will face in this century.
I even shared with my Leadership Team an overlooked paragraph in the DfE’s circular this month on Progress 8 which I will share in full here:
The performance measures are designed to encourage schools to offer a broad and balanced curriculum with a focus on an academic core at key stage 4, and reward schools for the teaching of all their pupils, measuring performance across 8 qualifications…Schools should continue to focus on which qualifications are most suitable for individual pupils, as the grades pupils achieve will help them reach their goals for the next stage of their education or training.
The great champion of Pupil Premium, John Dunford, wrote a great article in the TES on the 17th Jan extolling schools to remember; 'Despite the avalanche of change, it is still possible for schools to develop a curriculum fit for the 21st century'
I heard John speak to Gloucester Heads last year and he is always worth listening to especially on this issue. I think the infinite hope has to be that despite some despondency and disappointment in what has been allowed to happen to education under all colours of recent governments, we can still ensure the curriculum and education excites, captures and grows the minds of our young people still resonating as they progress long after their school days are over. But by then they have become lifelong learners and good global citizens in the process.
10th January 2017
"January is like the Monday of the months"
"Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year" Ralph Waldo Emerson
It’s not even close to the supposedly worst day of the year, Blue Monday, which takes place on the third Monday of January. Personally I have never had too many issues with the month of January and the first day back after the break students and staff seemed fine with being back in school and picking up where we left off just before Christmas. Year 11s have just completed their Sixth Form taster days in school and Year 12s are beginning their formal mocks. This term sees a lot of reporting and follow up consultation evenings and it is a great opportunity to meet and discuss with parents the progress of their child as well as what we can all do work together to further support students.
I was invited to a meeting in Bristol on Friday with a small number of principals and CEOs across the South West to talk with the National Schools Commissioner, Sir David Carter, and the SW Regional Schools Commissioner, Rebecca Clarke. Sir David is an astonishing educator not just because of his work at Cabot Learning Federation or as the RSC for the SW but the work he has done at a national level on school improvement. Someone told me recently that Sir David was “the smartest person in the room”. As I listened to him make sense of current education policy in a very honest but positive way on Friday I thought to myself he is probably the smartest person in every room. It was a real pleasure and privilege for Wyedean School to be invited to this round table dialogue. As I left the busy Friday afternoon city centre and drove home up the M32 to North Bristol the thoughts in my head from the dialogue kept echoing around how much we are doing on the right things at Wyedean to improve education and life chances for all of our students.
My colleagues in the Music department were phenomenally busy throughout December participating in events throughout the community and this week they are involved in a special ten week masterclass course for Year 8s through the music hub initiative based in Gloucester. It is sad to hear of schools where the curriculum has been reduced really to a set of basic skills and no real breadth of curriculum in exciting and creative subjects because they no longer exist for that school. Students need all sorts of intellectual challenges and wider curriculum exposure and I am proud to say that Wyedean School has been asked to speak about its global education and learning at the World Education Conference in London on the 26th January. This is the largest gathering of education ministers and policy makers from around the World at a special event sponsored by the British Council. On the 1st Feb we will be speaking at a Classics/Latin conference at the University of Bristol about the development of the subjects in the curriculum at Wyedean School – not a normal thing for a state school and my colleagues, students and parents know the enrichment and intellectual curiosity this has brought since we started the initiative. On Saturday 7th January Y12 student Joshua Hicks competed in ‘Champions of Tomorrow 2017’, a national Latin and Ballroom championships in Blackpool’s Winter Gardens. Year 12 student, Joshua Hicks, and his new partner, Sophie Hayward, competed in the U35 Novice Latin and Ballroom championships – winning both. To win both disciplines at national championships is a huge achievement - something that hasn’t been achieved for a decade. Joshua and Sophie were the youngest competitors in the U35 category, aged just 16, and from score sheets they were unanimously the judge’s champions. As a result of their achievements Joshua and Sophie are now part of Latin and Ballroom history – Roll of Honours. To add to this triumphant achievement Joshua and Sophie, who are part of the Dance Associations National League (NL) are currently top U35 Ballroom and Latin dancers in the league. Due to this Joshua and Sophie will compete in the National League Championships in July, hoping to take the NL title. This is by invite only – top 12 in the country will compete.
I have Spanish friends from a school I work with in Barcelona who have a tradition as the clock strikes midnight on the 31st December to eat as many grapes (or olives) as possible within the bongs to gain as many wishes for the coming year. I was very tempted to try this one out this New Year’s Eve looking at the prospect of 2017. My wife nearly bought “I survived 2016” t shirts. The long walk with the dog, family and German visitors on the first day of the year made me think though more about what I hoped and wanted for from 2017. Trump and Brexit are two things that we are going to live with and get used to so I have decided not to dwell too much on this. It was the words of Michelle Obama that gave me hope as an educator in her last public speech as First Lady when she said:
“Lead by example, with hope not fear” and she urged young people to work hard and get a good education. Abigail Adams and Eleanor Roosevelt, add another to the Pantheon. Over to you Ivanka.
I know education funding will get worse, not better and that education policy will continue to be confusing as schools and educators try to see the strategy around MATs, academies and grammar schools. I hope we really do see the development of a “shared society” as the UK goes forward. But leading with hope and not fear means continuing our day to day education in this small corner of the borders that challenges and equips our young people effectively to deal with their ever changing complex World. That’s my 2017 resolution. Have a great year ahead.
16th December 2016
“My idea of Christmas, whether old-fashioned or modern, is very simple: loving others. Come to think of it, why do we have to wait for Christmas to do that?” Bob Hope
I spoke to a group of colleagues a week ago who seemed to sum up my own feelings about this term; so much good has happened over the last few months at Wyedean School that we don’t want the term to end but at the same time staff and students are exhausted and cannot wait for the break for Christmas to re-charge batteries ready for January 2017. Both the Year 6 and Year 11 Open Evenings this term have been opportunities to again show off Wyedean School at its best to our local communities both sides of the river Wye. The huge increase in student applications is testament to the excellent teaching, the educational opportunities and the nurturing/caring learning environment at Wyedean School. This was validated completely with the Challenge Partners Review visit over 3 days in November as they looked at all aspects of the school. My English and Latin colleague, Julie Smith, contributed a significant article in December to the Times Educational Supplement (TES) on the development and approach of ongoing teacher training here at Wyedean. Baroness Royall, the former leader of the House of Lords, came to speak to students a few weeks ago and complimented them for being “confident, articulate and could challenge in a good way”. This incredible model of developing student leadership has been evident in a range of ways this term from the BTEC students who have set up and are running a commercial café in 6th Form, to the students who took part in creating the study/learning garden at the start of December to the critical thinking students who have debated Brexit, Syria and Trump with students in schools around the World over Skype and sat in Windsor Castle alongside eminent business and academics for the day in October debating a positive narrative for their generation.
The various Wyedean Warriors sports teams have enjoyed considerable success this term and you can read more in the school’s Dec 2016 newsletter on the website. The Music Dept has been heavily involved in the community supporting a range of concerts and events with their choirs and bands. I sat and watched them in St Mary’s Chepstow this week and was just amazed at the depth of talent and confidence our young people of this school have. Hearing John Denver’s “Country Road”, a particular family favourite of mine, being performed beautifully on the harp in that beautiful church will carry me through the cold and winter gloom of the January and February days when we return in 2017.
I know a lot of people who will be glad to see the back of 2016 for various reasons, a few reasons already referenced above. The national education picture both in England and Wales is probably one of the worst I can remember as an educator in terms of the funding crisis, PISA results in Wales and the recent green paper on education for England to name but a few. But I only have to walk around the school and see the energy and optimism of the staff and students. I know that the focus will continue in 2017 to be on giving these young people in our care the best educational environment to support and nurture their development to take their place in the World with hope and confidence. I invite you to see some of the things that your children have been doing this term in the December 2016 newsletter to see what I mean. We also post on Twitter, Facebook, school website etc daily the learning and enrichment that together with the curriculum makes Wyedean a beacon of educational excellence. In early January I have been invited to a special meeting with the National Schools Commissioner, Sir David Carter, to talk about the experience of Wyedean and at the end of January I have the huge honour of being asked to speak in London at the invite of the British Council at the Education World Forum which is the world’s largest gathering of Education Ministers and policy makers. There will be plenty to talk about at both. We all need a positive narrative for 2017.
I wish you and your families a restful, enjoyable Christmas and a hopeful 2017.
25th November 2016
"Following a period of turbulence when the school was in special measures and staff felt very pressurised, the new Headteacher has worked tirelessly to develop a culture of openness, transparency and trust. In particular, leaders have been empowered and are enjoying the freedom to innovate. As a result, the school now has a clear vision and is a harmonious place where everyone feels valued. This is helping to drive school improvement because all stakeholders are pulling in the same direction."
Challenge Partners Review Report: Wyedean School, Nov 2016
"Really enjoyed my conversation with sixth form @WyedeanSchool on Friday. Confident, articulate youngsters, we didn't always agree - healthy."
Baroness Royall after her visit to Wyedean 25th Nov
The progress markers of the school year are flying by right now as this long term suddenly starts to show an end in sight with the glitter of Christmas holidays starting to infect a lot of conversations in hallways and classrooms. We have our Sixth Form Open Evening here on Thursday 1st December. As much as this is the evening to show our community just how good Post 16 Education is at Wyedean I also have a sneaking thought that it is also a good excuse to get Christmas trees, real NOT fake, from the Forest of Dean up and decorated around the school to remind us the holidays are not far away. For the Year 11s this probably cannot come too soon and they finish their two week formal mocks at the end of the fortnight. I would say most of Year 11 are already in the mind-set of looking at life beyond GCSEs and have spent most of the autumn term looking at schools and colleges for their potential post 16 futures. We were very fortunate to host Baroness Royall on Friday as she spoke to Sixth Form and upper school students. Lady Royall was Labour Leader of the House of Lords under Gordon Brown. In a “post-truth” World it is refreshing to know young people are debating issues with politicians like Jan Royall, disagreeing, having debate but all engaged in respectful dialogue.
The question I gave to my Year 10 critical thinking group this week was "does the means justify the ends?" I thought about this as like all schools we received our data analysis (RaiseOnline) for the Key Stage 4 2016 results. This is the first year of the changes on accountability measures with all English schools being measured by "Progress 8" as schools no longer report on how many students received five GCSEs above C including English and Maths. The current Year 11 will also be the first cohort in England to undertake English and Maths qualifications using the new numerical grading with other GCSE subjects to follow. It’s been a difficult one for all schools to plan, implement and undertake some of these fundamental changes especially if you include KS3 "assessment without Levels" changes. Don’t get me started on education funding. The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, said nothing about increasing education funding in the Autumn Statement which the Institute of Fiscal Studies has reported earlier this year that education has suffered a real terms cut of 8%. When I meet other school leaders as I did the other Friday at a meeting at Royal Wootton Bassett Academy the only conversation around the room is about where are you saving money and which further cuts will you have to make? In all of this the demands on more from the education system grows. It will be interesting to see the PISA findings next month as England is compared to other leading education systems. For Wales, it is predicted PISA will only show even further decline in key standards of English, Maths and Science.
For Wyedean School the report from Challenge Partners on our school has been a fantastic validation of the work we have done to make sure not only is the school fulfilling its core function, meeting DfE requirements, balancing the budget but we are also being innovative and creative in the educational outcomes and opportunities for our young people in Monmouthshire and the Forest of Dean. I will be sharing the report with all parents and will put this on the school website. This review/inspection by Challenge Partners is a way of making sure that even though the school can expect OfSTED in 2017 the school still knows where it is and what it has to do to be even better. I found it very odd when I worked in Powys that an inspection could be over 6-7 years between inspections, to the day, and no such group of school improvement network like Challenge Partners exists west of Offa’s Dyke no matter what Cardiff has tried to emulate. It is not the original Challenge Partners that grew out of the highly regarded "London Challenge" group.
A group of senior leaders here met with a senior representative from the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IB) to talk about how Wyedean potentially becomes an "IB World School" offering programmes such as the IB Diploma and MYC. One of the reasons why being an academy is a good thing is precisely because it is the school that gets to lead on areas such as what type of curriculum and education philosophy it should be offering rather than following the diktats of the local authority or a narrow national educational agenda. The principal is a leader rather than a manager of somebody’s agenda remote from the school. Wyedean sits on the confluence of the Wye and Severn and looks out to the wider World. This is increasingly reflected in the World Class education we have in this corner of the borders. And best of all it is what our parents and students know is the right education for the 21st Century. If statisticians want to measure education by calling it "Progress 8" then that is fine but when visitors judge students as "confident and articulate" and staff as “committed and innovative” then we know Wyedean School is doing the right thing for the communities it serves.
11th November 2016
“I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but the wise men ever rule under this roof” John Adams
When Founding Father and second US president, John Adams, entered the newly built but largely undecorated White House in 1801, it is alleged he said these words as he walked around the executive mansion of the very young republic that had come into being as the United States of America officially in 1787. It was a quote beloved by a lot of subsequent US presidents and it was President No 32, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had it inscribed on the fireplace in the state dining room of the White House. For many, it gave people not only something to think about in the caliber of their president but also the sense that the White House, unlike say a Head of State’s residence such as Buckingham Palace, was their “House”. Well, as with the British people with Brexit in the summer, earlier this week “We the people…” the American people had spoken as the Founders intended them to every four years. And very much like Brexit, at least sort of spoken. But did politicians understand what they had been trying to say? I fell asleep around 1am trying to stay up for the results on Tuesday into Wednesday and then my American friend started messaging and calling around 3am so we talked over the couple of hours as it became clear that the “blue firewall” was not holding and when Pennsylvania was called for Trump it was all over. I am sure it’s C17th Quaker founder, William Penn, would have loved the irony. People discuss the idea of “leadership” all the time in all sorts of contexts; business, political, educational, sports etc, but on Wednesday morning leadership was visible in all the major players involved and that is why there is also hope. There is always hope and every leadership theory has that in it as a component as well. “Reservoirs of optimism” I was once told, is a key element in the mindset of the school leader. You can say that again.
John Dunford, the pupil premium champion, has written a very timely helpful article in the TES on the back of the US Election results for educators; 'In these troubling times, teachers have an essential role in countering prejudice and hate'. John is right. Part of our role as educators is not only developing understanding and reasoning alongside society’s liberal values in young people but it is also to allow a forum where dialogue with students allows them to make some sense of their World. This week we had the school being reviewed by a team of fellow school leaders as part of the improvement network we are a member of, Challenge Partners. It went really well, English Learning Area was rightly confirmed as an “Area of Excellence” and the reviewers validated the changes, the positive culture at Wyedean as well as the things we need to do to continue to be a high performing school moving to “outstanding”. On Wednesday morning a group of my Year 11 Critical Thinking group turned up at my door desperate to talk about the US Election and President Elect Trump. If I hadn’t been on my way with the lead reviewer to watch my colleague Julie Smith teach Year 12 English Literature I would have stayed and spent the morning analysing the results and the likely consequences. This is probably the most important event of their lives and they are ironically the generation sandwiched between 9/11 and 11/9. I was fortunate enough to be on a History trip to West Berlin as a student when the Wall came down and standing on the Wall by the Brandenburg Tor as the DDR crumbled and people hugged and cried as soon to be united Germans, The strength of that emotion has never left my mind. Will Trump turn back the clock and start building his Wall? When I did meet my Critical Thinking group officially on Thursday morning for discussion over tea we were finally able to let rip as they say. It’s interesting the significance of the 9th Nov in German History: the day the Kaiser abdicated in 1918; the Munich Putsch in 1923; Kristallnacht in 1938 and of course the Wall coming down in 1989. And now Trump. And his family is German on his father’s side. Make of that what you will.
Standing in the silence in Tutshill this morning with the local community as we all were remembering those who fought for our freedoms I did think about how events are caused as I questioned in my mind do we appreciate at the time of the consequence of the moments like the shot at Lexington “heard around the World” or the fateful one in Sarajevo 140 years later. Did the lads of Tutshill or Sedbury understand this when World events impacted their small corner of the Forest in 1914 or 1918 or 2001? Right now there are a fair few people wondering about the magnitude and potential consequences of the events of 2016. I know a number of people will be much happier when 2016 is over. With Halloween and Bonfire Night gone the run down to Christmas is certainly on and the cold and shorter days are definitely apparent. I’ll say it again, we should adopt “Thanksgiving” at the end of November in the UK. Even just for the cornbread. I have been very lucky to have spent a few Falls in North America and taken part in some very special Thanksgiving events with American friends. It’s the America I adore and is still in the Founders words “The shining city on the hill”.
Wyedean held its Academic Mentoring Days yesterday and today and it was a real pleasure to talk with parents and students about their progress and how to support students further in their learning and development. Year 11 Mocks are at the end of the month and our Sixth Form Open Evening is on the 1st December. I have my assembly ready for Monday on the theme of “Time” hopefully not to send Year 11 to sleep with. But first, after the week of Challenge Partners, Trump’s election, Wyedean Staff at Gloucester TeachMeet (Julie Smith doing a brilliant job), Beachley Barracks to close in 2027 and Academic Mentoring it’s time to at least enjoy a quiet weekend. Can I go weekend without reading/listening/watching the news? I blame the rise of social media. For a lot of things.
21 October 2016
"Why do we commemorate so many things? Because we are a people who remember" Father Michael St.Clair speaking at the anniversary of Aberfan
I walked my children to school this morning in the bright autumn sunshine. I dropped them off, hugged and kissed them, wished them a good day in class and watched them skip into school with their friends to be greeted by their teachers. It’s hard not to weep reading or hearing any of the testimonies from the tragedy that happened to the Welsh mining community in Aberfan fifty years ago today, as raw now with emotion as it much have felt then. I read about one rescuer who had found the body of the deputy head teacher, Mr Beynon, "He was clutching five children in his arms as if he had been protecting them”.
My father was a coal miner and I came from a coal mining community. These communities were always particularly resilient and supportive as communities go and if there is hope in such a tragedy it was to read and hear about how the community of Aberfan have supported each other constantly for 50 years despite having had a generation wiped out. Some of those who lost children and family members only now being able to speak about their loss in 2016. When I first started teaching and I worked in a school in Bristol there was an old Welsh Maths teacher, Nigel Bowen, who told me with tears streaming down his face, that he was one of the first on the scene. All they could do in the mayhem of the avalanche of coal waste slurry that had engulfed Pantglas school and the surrounding houses was dig frantically with their bare hands and hope to find someone alive buried below. The fact that the now defunct National Coal Board refused to acknowledge until 1997 responsibility for the waste tips they had piled high above the village makes this injustice hard to take. The people of Aberfan had to use the money kindly donated from around the World to clear up their town, rebuild their houses and bury their dead. The then Welsh Secretary of State, Ron Davies, did the honourable and decent thing and changed this finally in the first year of the Labour government under Blair in 1997.
The minute’s silence was observed across Wales and other parts of the UK linked to mining like the Forest of Dean this morning at 9:15. I know in my old school of Crickhowell, where the sense of community and the school’s part in the community is one of the strongest I have known, the school came together to remember and commemorate the awful events of Aberfan 50 years ago.
In 2004 I remember the events in Beslan particularly as I had just started working in Russia with schools in Siberia when that southern Russian town should have been celebrating the first day of an academic year and instead gunmen and gunwomen took the school hostage. In the resulting chaos hundreds of young and innocent lives lost for no reason. My French friend told me this week they had just had the first of their “terrorist lock down” drills in her lycee in southern Paris and it didn’t matter how many times I saw it in the IB schools I worked with in Virginia, heavily armed school security and police guards in high schools with airport style security frisking students was something I could never get used to as a person or an educator.
I was very fortunate on Monday to be invited to take part in a unique forum at St George’s House, Windsor Castle, at the kind invitation of one of Wyedean’s parents, Mike Peckham, and the CEO of Virgin Money, Jayne-Anne Gadhia, who had sponsored the conference. The theme is something Mike has been working with the school on since the summer when we took the year 10 critical thinking group to East London to work with the local mosque and Forest Gate school in Newham. The conference had a range of participants from all spheres to talk about the impact of recent events such as Brexit, radicalisation both religious and political as well as the impact of globalisation on communities across the UK and the World. Having watched the US presidential debates this autumn and reading about the situation in places like Mosul and Aleppo, it is hard to find at times the optimism to explain these situations to your own children let alone your students. The conference on Monday was inspirational for me to not only hear about how people have remained optimistic and focussed from a range of examples from the Troubles in Northern Ireland to ethnic minorities combatting racism but also made clear there are alternative narratives to challenge what often appears a spiral of despondency in the World.
Schools have always been and always will be places of incredible hope and optimism. I gave my Year 9 assembly on Wednesday with this being reflected in what I need to be able to offer the young people in my care as their headteacher. I followed this straight after with the opening ceremony of a special event for the whole 6th Form organised by the assistant director of 6th Form, Sam Bishop, and Gloucestershire Road Safety, called “Drive for Life”. There are moments in life when you can be really humbled and on Wednesday the dignity and courage of a mother who had lost her 18-year-old in a road traffic accident was immense as she spoke to the entire 6th Form. The job of school is to teach a curriculum, to be able to pass exams and to obtain qualifications recognising that process. But holistically education is and should be so much more than this and on Wednesday at Wyedean this is what the young people in the 6th Form experienced. My thanks to all visitors and organisers who put on this unique event for the school and as ever there are photos and links on our Twitter feed. Staff have very kindly given up their break to take students to visit Auschwitz in Poland and the WWI battlefields in Belgium. On Monday the school held an inset/twilight training around building leadership and why staff go the “extra mile” for students. Wyedean has the best teachers and support staff I have known for both aspects and I have worked in some pretty good schools.
The school broke up for half term on Wednesday and we held a non-uniform day to support the local foodbank in Chepstow with donations and food to deliver for Harvest Festival. We return on Monday 31st October with darker and colder days to face and the long slog until Christmas. The school is hosting a Challenge Partner Review team in November for several days as we bring in external verifiers who can look at what and where the school is doing well. Also what we need to do to be even better and a way to improve the school to continue to be a high performing beacon of excellence for our communities in the Forest of Dean and in Monmouthshire. I will let parents know the date for the school’s first “coffee morning – town hall meeting” in late November as part of this dialogue.
I am looking forward to a few days away in mid Wales with my wife, kids and dog Dylan at my family’s place in the middle of no-where near Llanidloes. Possible trip to the sea and Aberystwyth for fish and chips as well as long treks up mountains with the dog and my daughters. And no wifi for their tablets there as well! I wish all our staff, students and families a very good rest and break.
7th October 2016
"Small minds are concerned with the extraordinary, great minds the ordinary" Blaise Pascal
The follow up to our school Open Evening on the 27th September has been overwhelming and there is nothing ordinary about choosing your child’s next secondary school even if for them it feels as such. I have spoken to a wide range of parents over the last week on their follow up tours around the school with Wyedean students and I have been immensely proud of the feedback comments about our young people as ambassadors for the school. We currently are working on the “Taster Days” from the 10th October to welcome for the day Year 6s from schools like The Dell, Thornwell and Undy to come and see the school working on a normal day. There is no such thing as a “normal day” in any school and they should all be extraordinary in the very ordinary things they do. I have had a number of extraordinary moments at Wyedean just in the last few days and none more so than being invited by the English Learning Area to have a celebration lunch with the Year 9s who were successful in their summer IGCSE examination. I am going to speak to the NPQH cohort of senior leaders at the Cabot Learning Federation on the 12th October and will certainly be using the examples of this half term alone of some of the great moments in this job as a Headteacher.
Thank you for all the emails and conversations about Show My Homework. As a school we are more than surprised already at the impact in learning, stretch and challenge, individual organisation and home support it is having as a key element of our approach towards effective digital media. The first half term of this academic year is nearly through and it is astonishing to think we are only a week and a bit away from the break. There are many things students can be doing to extend their learning and if it incorporates a walk outside in the autumn air even better. Living in the Forest of Dean and the Wye Valley, as many of our staff and students do, this should be the perfect excuse for a walk. There are a lot of studies around at the moment looking at wellbeing and mindfulness of both students and staff and the conclusions are not surprising about rest and work/life balance. As a parent I am very keen to ensure my children use technology in a constructive and positive way even if it does mean reminding them not to be using an iPad when we have a meal together. A report out this week looked at how teenagers were suffering from lack of sleep because they were addicted to mobile devices receiving messages and updates throughout the night. The technology cannot be dis-invented but we construct ways we can avoid the distractions of modern life and balance how we live with our phones and tablets.
I met with the school’s LGBT+ group on Friday to discuss some of the issues they would like to see addressed in the school this academic year. I know I am getting older (wiser?) because I reminded them when I first started teaching it was still the era of Section 28 when educators couldn’t even discuss LGBT+ issues. It was nice to see there is progression in society even if sometimes it didn’t feel as if there was. The leadership of students on issues like LGBT+ always impresses me and it has been commented upon constantly by the parents visiting Wyedean to see the school over the last few weeks.
The grammar school debate rumbles on with the Green Paper out for discussion and apart from a few emails asking me as Head about things like a House system introduction there are probably more important things to pay attention to in staffrooms and leadership teams up and down the country right now. I will leave the last word to former Head girl and Wyedean alumnus, Joanne Rowling. She tweeted recently in response to an article from education correspondent, Nicola Woolcock, supporting the reintroduction of a “grammar school ethos” in state schools: “Just for the record, the comprehensive (state school) I attended had four houses, too”. We did and it works very well still in schools like Redland Green Bristol where it supports students. Which is why we would look at re-introducing a possible House system at some point on the basis of a system of wider student community support and enrichment opportunity rather than an attempt to revisit yesteryear. And as an “ordinary” part of school life. Elvis aside, the 1950s were very overrated, according to my father.
23rd September 2016
“It takes a whole village to raise a child” African proverb
My room here at Wyedean often witnesses a whole range of interesting conversations, meetings and dialogues through the course of a week and I can only imagine what has been said between these four walls over the decades from my four predecessors. It wasn’t my first choice of location for a Head’s study when I was first appointed but in a very short space of time I couldn’t imagine where else it should go especially as it is located on the main corridor with the windows facing straight out onto the school yard. Basically I get to see the school daily at work and play. I remember a school in Bristol I worked at a long time ago where the Leadership Team housed themselves down an isolated corridor with a coded door. Not sure what the intended message to staff or students was from that gesture but definitely the wrong one. My Year 11 Critical Thinking group, over tea in my room, tackled the concept of “forgiveness” this week, inevitably Donald Trump managed to get a cameo in the debate. This morning I hosted Year 11 sports ambassadors over tea and cookies as they individually spoke about the sports they had represented their area in and in some cases their country. Achievement like this never ceases to amaze. As there were several female international footballers in the room and my 7 year old daughter has just started with her local club I did manage to get a promise of a coaching masterclass in the near future.
Next week the school holds its Open Evening on the 29th September throwing open the doors to all our prospective students and their parents to come and see what makes Wyedean School so special. The school essentially has open day every day and it is one of best features of Wyedean School that parents and children are around the school visiting all the time. I have been invited by old friends and colleagues from the British Council to visit Abbeyfield School in Wiltshire next week as we celebrate some of the best practice in international learning in the UK at a special event on Tuesday. I spoke to colleagues in Stryn, Norway this week about the possibility of their leadership team coming to Wyedean next year to look at teaching & learning, pastoral care and other aspects of school life. This is a school I worked with over 10 years ago and to be able to share and swap ideas with educators around the globe is one of the best things for me about international education.
I was very impressed to see the student leadership from Year 10 boys as they took control of the other half of the old pastoral block to turn it into the their common room. The plan is to have a dedicated Key Stage 4 area on that side of school for Years 10 and 11 to look after. Hopefully there are plenty of sofas on Freecycle to go between them and Year 11. The 6th Form café has been up and running this week and it is the student leadership driving the initiative that is impressive. Plus a lot of hard work from Mrs Lewis and her team.
My Norwegian colleague made a comment this week that made me really think about what’s at the heart of a “good” school – relationships. She mentioned the old African proverb about it takes a village to raise a child and how in a small town like Stryn tucked away in the mountains of Western Norway it is the whole community that ensures an effective partnership between home, school and the community exists to benefit the child. This week I spoke with a parent about what we had to do to ensure that the child gets through a difficult patch in life right now and it was the willingness to work together that made me drive home back across the Severn Bridge knowing her child will come out the other side and be fine. We have good relationships working here at Wyedean between school, home and the community and the more engagement we have the better for the student.
16th September 2016
"Enjoy the little things in life because one day you`ll look back and realise they were the big things." Kurt Vonnegut
Well the first signs of the new academic year are manifesting at the end of only the second week back – coughs and colds. I have had a sore throat this week but I am fairly sure that it is the amount of talking I have been doing after a near monk’s like silence in comparison through the summer holidays. I am sure I read once that in the course of an average school day an educator will speak and interact with around 200 people. It is one of the absolute pleasures of the job to be able to speak to students, staff and parents daily so I am more than happy to risk a sore throat for the weekend. Besides my children will be pleased as it means I can’t nag them to tidy their rooms on a Saturday morning. Walking around the campus this week I have seen great learning across the school this week although slightly disappointed at missing the smells and explosions in Science as I dropped by. Early days in the autumn term yet though. I have seen a lot of parents this week over a number of issues and I do need to say thank you to the parents who have donated sofas for the Year 11 common room. More still needed please. This week we also saw the school’s case study for significant improvement and excellence in the annual “Parliamentary Review” report (follow the link below) on education published. There is a link to the press release on the school’s website:
In school the new Year 7s and 12s seem to be more than established at the end of the second week of the academic year. The Learning Areas when they are not involved in the day to day of teaching are preparing their analysis reports from the summer results ahead of the meetings with the Leadership Team over the next two weeks looking at what went well and what we need to do to improve as part of our school improvement plan. I had a really good meeting with one of our new art teachers as we discussed ideas for the next phase of developing Creativity in the school and I am pleased to finally see flags of the World up in the school’s assembly hall as we continue to develop as a centre of excellence for global learning. As a part of our digital learning strategy “Show My Homework” is now the online platform for all home learning. In conversations with parents the overwhelming consensus is they absolutely love Show My Homework. Homework can be seen that has been set, if it has been undertaken by the student and it also allows more stretch and challenge as well as independent learning. To the Year 10 boys who had a moan to me this week about it meaning they now have to do their homework and can’t “get out of it” – in the words of Socrates “tough”.
The “great debate” in education rumbles on following the Green Paper last week and the proposal in introduce more grammar schools and allow schools to select. One education leader has asked “what happens when all schools can select? What happens to those students not selected? Where do they go?”. It was commented upon in Parliament this week that as a policy proposal it has united more or less the teaching profession including the ex-Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, but not Michael Gove. And was it coincidence that David Cameron quit Parliament on the same day as the announcement? I am curious to see where the debate will develop following the new incoming head of OfSTED, Amanda Spielman’s signalled intentions to consider scrapping the top inspection rating because she was “quite uncomfortable” about “some of the effects I see it having in the system”. How many schools, including this one, have set their aspirations to be “outstanding”? For Wyedean School this label always means “high performing” in all that we do for the best possible outcomes and opportunities for our students. Hopefully we are always aware that the little things are the big things right now – especially in our school.
9th September 2016
"Everyone must take time to sit and watch the leaves turn" Elizabeth Lawrence
Hard to believe it is Friday already and the first week is out of the way. The Year 7s I have been speaking to this week, especially the ones at lunchtime today, appear to have had a really good first week. And they like the new dress code! All the year groups seem to have grown taller over the summer and speaking to students in the various assemblies as we welcomed them back to school this week and a new academic year ahead all seemed ready for the challenges that lie ahead. Year 11 are appreciating the trust of a new common room and when it is finally finished the Sixth Form have a brand new cafe/coffee bar in the Sixth Form Centre.
Driving around Bristol this summer I did seem to get stuck behind the same bus advertising Sidcot School and their slogan "We are more than an exams factory" which made me think for the latter part of August about what I would say to my colleagues on the first day back. Qualifications are extremely important, especially as they are the means to access the next stages of education and a way into careers as well as proof of a student’s attainment. But the best schools do this but much more and I haven't met an educator who doesn't want aspirational educational opportunities for all the students in their care. The two of the most joyous days in the school calendar, even allowing for the disappointment tears, are the ones in August when staff, parents and governors get to share and see the success of the students. There are some wonderful photos on the school's website from this August and I am very proud of the achievement of the students of Wyedean School in my first year as Head. I used various social media quotes in my welcome back talk to all staff on the 1st September that illustrated the appreciation of our students and parents for the hard work of the staff at Wyedean School. As I sat in my cabin study this summer thinking about what I would say to staff on the first day back and the Sidcot bus quote floating around in my mind I also put together a collection of some of the photos from the school year just gone to show we are also definitely more than just an exams factory at Wyedean School and educating the whole student is a core purpose here. We need education to be celebrated more and often.
I have been asked several times over the summer what I think about the proposals, confirmed today, about the Prime Minister’s roughly outlined Green Paper on allowing all schools to become grammar schools and select their students if they wish. I am starting my 23rd year in teaching this autumn, having experienced a fair few secretary of states for education and five prime ministers. All I know is there has always been a lot capriciousness in educational politics, and always will be, but the basics remain the same. Schools need to be places people can be proud of to attend and say "that's my school". Strong identity, culture and ethos is way more than a uniform or a slogan. Schools also need to be a safe learning environment that allow students to be nurtured, challenged and ultimately to grow in their wider knowledge and understanding through compelling teaching and learning in order to take their place as citizens and in 2016 global citizens at that. If educational policy allows educators to achieve this with the right funding and framework and to get on with the job then as with most political debates, along with my colleagues I will wait to see what emerges in the detail. The last educational White Paper was launched only in May 2016, a month before the Brexit vote. That now seems to have been largely shelved. It’s fair to say 2016 has been a seismic year for the UK so far which is why more stability is needed in fundamental areas such as the educating of our young people.
The school has its Open Evening on the 29th September and again this gives Wyedean School the opportunity to showcase to our community the success and achievement of the educational experience at Wyedean. The summer exam results in GCSE, BTEC and A Level are some of the best in the history of the school but there is so much more as well to this school to see.
Today the school said goodbye to Dave Burgess, the business manager, who is retiring after 13 years of fantastic service to the school. Dave leaves a very big hole as a colleague and a friend. Dave epitomises the dedication and passion in all staff at the school who only want the very best for the young people in our care. Wyedean School wishes Dave, Jean and his family a long and happy retirement together and thank you for everything you have done for the school not least for this rookie Head helping him navigate the challenges of his first year. May the wind always be at your back and the sun shining on your face.
So we made the weekend and even with the sun shining it feels autumnal. "Last Night of the Proms" this weekend so it is definitely the end of summer. Instead of ploughing through the T.E.S or my ASCL briefing paper to try and fathom educational policy that can wait for now I am going to take the kids and the dog out walking to find the leaves turning. A much better use of time.