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Principal's Blogs September 2018 - July 2019

This Heart Shaped Land: Principal’s blog


13 December 2018

School Leadership for the 2020s, what should it look like?

The greatest danger in times of turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic” Peter Drucker

If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans” Woody Allen

I recently had the pleasure of meeting and having dinner with a group of international school founders and IB school principals. The conversations were wide ranging especially around the issues of what international mindedness and a holistic curriculum looked like in practice in their schools. What has been left more in my mind, as I reflected later on, is the discussion we had around school leadership and the development of future school leaders, especially looking ahead to the challenges and changing landscape of education in the coming 2020s. A school founder, who was new to investing in education, made the point in the discussion that in her mind a school leader, whatever the national context and culture, needed to have the following approach for now and the next new decade: a commercial CEO’s mind, an intellectually curious soul and an educator’s heart. A stimulating discussion and a delicious meal aside, I have been pondering this last point for a few days since the meeting and not only wondering as a school leader in a more commercial independent school setting rather than a state/public school setting but also questioning whether this is the case or not at all for all school leaders regardless.  Finally, will school leadership be markedly different in the 2020s?

School leadership here in the UK and in similar education systems around the World, has been transformed on all levels since before the start of the Millennium. The strong emphasis on more autonomy in the role coupled with a significant increase in accountability and responsibility means the job description and role I have today as Wyedean principal is a lot different from the very first Wyedean principal, and probable role model for JK Rowling’s “Dumbledore”, my predecessor, Ken Smith. I have often looked around my room and wondered what all four of my predecessors must have thought at various times as they faced the challenges of their stewardship leading Wyedean School. The managerial and operational heavy role of my predecessors is more obvious when I look at documents like the old school log book and they certainly didn’t have the senior and middle leaders to support them as I am very fortunate to have now in 2018. There are many aspects of the role of leading a school community that have remained timeless including the very crucial task of being the person who leads and guides the whole school community.  When I first took up the role as principal it was this very fact that seemed the most daunting.  My good friend and colleague in the US, Dr Cherif Sadki, a very wise and experienced school leader, likened being principal to being mayor of a small town.  Cherif went onto say, everyone wants a piece of you and there is never a moment to yourself.

One of the reasons I wanted to write a blog on school leadership looking ahead to the 2020s is partially down to the fact there is a real concern that there are not enough school leaders emerging through the system but also the calibre of school leaders who can deal with the challenges in leading a school is also an issue. I will state quite clearly here, being a school leader and principal of Wyedean School is an absolute privilege and it is my honour to be able to have the trust of my school community and the wider community to lead their school and serve in this role. But it is also fair to say that it is not without its challenges not least adapting and preparing for a more challenging, changing, dysfunctional, fluid and unpredictable educational landscape. When I think back to my very first job interviews as a young history teacher and inevitably there was the final question along the lines of “Where do you see yourself in say four/five years?” I certainly didn’t answer “Headteacher”. My ambition was always to be a good teacher and enjoy what I did as a teacher of history and politics having an impact on the students I taught.  I was very fortunate to have worked for and with so many inspirational school leaders that as my career become more established and I began the route into middle and senior leadership as a head of history, IB coordinator, director of 6th Form, I found I enjoyed the ability to lead and have a positive influence over a wider range of educational areas from curriculum to pedagogy. One of the crucial lessons that has stayed with me all of my career is that in education we have to have a love of learning and a continuing interest in learning.  The best schools are those that have these remarkable professional learning communities in operation characterised by the absence of formal titles as individuals lead and instruct developing the learning community.  This is one of the strongest features of Wyedean School and the director of Teaching and Learning, Julie Smith, herself studying for a PhD, has been instrumental in the drive behind this especially using the Lesson Study programme for staff professional development.  Both OfSTED in January and Challenge Partners in November strongly recognised the “re-professionalisation” of teachers at Wyedean and the autonomy and trust they have been given.  The notion of a positive school culture is something I am responsible for and I get to establish what that will look like and directly influence day to day culture as principal.  I can influence the curriculum, learning in the classroom and the pastoral care but the organisation, systems and individuals in school all operating in a climate of professional trust and responsibility emanating from me as the principal is something that is timeless for effective school leadership.  It was a feature in the best schools of the 1970s and it will be a feature of the 2020s.

I am very conscious that I demonstrate that I am constantly involved in learning as the principal. I undertook my Masters in educational leadership as I moved to senior leadership, before becoming a Head I passed the very administrative heavy NPQH here in the UK, a very practical course but an important part of my training and I have continued to be a student of global learning, history and politics with various online courses through a range of universities worldwide. There is an interesting debate always about the integrity of the principal in a school in terms of “walking the walk” by being an accomplished teacher and demonstrating that constantly. To be able to “look colleagues in the eye in a Monday morning briefing”.  My personal belief is that a school leader to be effective in education has to have a background in teaching but I am no way the “best teacher” in my school.  I see so many colleagues teach and I am in awe of just how good they are in the classroom.   I think it is very difficult to understand what you are leading in schools though by not having this direct classroom experience.  Conversely, it is a very “British” idea for the Headteacher/Principal to be in the classroom more whereas in the US senior leaders are not in the classroom.  The most important role for me is to be able to allow the teachers to teach in a well-run organisation with a strong educational vision and climate.  The students are their number one priority but in order for that to be the sole focus a school leader for me has to make sure the organisation is effective, efficient and has a plan to where it is going. When I have spoken to aspiring Heads/Principals I have illustrated the importance of being highly visible and energetic but in terms of walking the walk there are so many ways that can be achieved through scheduled assemblies, some classroom teaching, intervention groups and mentoring, covering colleagues, taking on some specialist classes/clubs outside the formal curriculum. Just knowing the kids and not the ones who get sent to you for contravening the behaviour code.  It is up to the individual school leader but to undertake this role outside of the daily joy of working with young people, sharing their trials and tribulations, sharing their success and failures and just being there for them to ensure they have certainty and guidance is part and parcel of the fundamentals of why being involved is the only way.

One of the more frequent debates I read is about “moral or ethical leadership” in schools. I find it astonishing that this has to be explicitly made because for me it is obvious that if you work in education and you are fortunate to be entrusted with the progress and development of young people then your leadership couldn’t be anything else but moral and ethical.  Working in education is not for the faint hearted nor is it a career that you go into lightly.  It is a vocation and from Day 1 it is apparent that this is like no other job.  The rewards are incredible and the lows can leave you reflecting a long time after the event. Well-being, the perceived isolation and our sheer resilience as the roles grow more complex as much more support is needed for school leaders is something I hope the 2020s continues to develop more in depth as this is much needed from the current position.  School leaders are not machines, we have families and we do occasionally get things wrong. Shock horror!  Back in the 1970s I am fairly sure my predecessor Ken Smith didn’t contend with social media and the proliferation of daily life being played out online in the way we have to think about now both in our individual lives and in public.  This will only increase in the 2020s but so will our ability to use it in a positive way and close down the abuse and negative way it is used. And we are very much human when all said and done.

Which brings me back to my posh dinner with the school founders/owners and IB principals. One of the facets of being a school leader, I came to realise very early on in my career, is that a good commercial mind was key to understanding and leading a complex organisation.  I was fortunate to see and experience this in the US with American counterparts running their schools this way and in the independent school system in the UK. The school leader of the 2020s has been reading articles in publications such as Forbes and the Harvard Business Review for a number of years.  In the US and UK a school leader is much more responsible for a whole range of areas outside of just leading teaching and learning ranging from Health & Safety, marketing, public liability, safeguarding, legal, financial management and accounts and the list goes on.  As budgets in the public purse shrink further astute commercial skills are needed to look at how additional income is generated to support the core business of the school – students and their learning. This is also why it is crucial to be an outward facing school and use a range of partnerships and networks that bring benefit and value to the organisation.

The “educators heart” is something that is timeless and the best school leaders never lose sight of why they came into teaching and that thrill of the classroom introducing a new topic or idea and watching fires being lit, rather than the pails filled or the shape of the spoon being taught. The best times of the day and week are these moments especially if I am grappling with a complex issue around educational law or the budget. My Year 13 Critical Thinkers did exactly this for me on Tuesday as we held our weekly class and there was no better place to discuss the extraordinary developments happening in Westminster this week than with my A Level Politics classes. I think the point in the discussion about the skills of the modern school leader going forward in the 2020s became more heated when we talked about a school leader having an “intellectually curious soul”.  For the school founders and owners this seemed to be almost a luxury add on at best and at worst an irrelevant quirk more suitable in the time of Mr Chips or even Dumbledore. Naturally, anyone immersed in the IB philosophy would disagree and to love learning and ideas is the very essence of education.  The point was well made that we were all arguing that three aspects were needed in a “holy trinity” for the school leader and each on their own would not have the same level of success and effectiveness. One colleague summed this up best when they said this was about always wanting to learn and not dismissive of new ideas or even being satiated with what we already know.  I have to say, it has been a long time since I have heard any colleague disparagingly say to a struggling class or student, “well, I have my GCSES and A Levels”.  I am never sure how apocryphal this story is but I have always liked the idea that the future famous Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, was skipping school in his hometown of Swansea and got caught by his Headteacher. “Where are you going Dylan?” the Head asked, to which Dylan replied “I am going home to write poetry”. To which the Head replied, “hurry up then before you get caught”. Dylan Thomas’s father of course was the Head of English at the school. My other similar story but converse is of the New York high school principal who told a very young John McEnroe not to miss school to play tennis because it would never amount to anything.  What do educators know anyhow?

What also connects this “holy trinity” together is the ego of the leader, or rather the lack of one. It’s been a while since headlines have shouted about “Super Heads” or “Hero Heads” and what is more and more apparent in modern times is that whilst there is no denying that the principal does play a decisive role in the leadership and culture of the school to ignore or not allow other leaders to also flourish and operate is very detrimental to the organisation. Lots of people can bring so much more to the table and the worst organisations, be it schools or private companies, flounder if they build their leadership model on the skills and the talents of one individual’s ego, no matter how good they have proven themselves.  It is not sustainable and it goes when they leave.  Without a constant flow of leadership talent and a systemic approach towards not only enabling actual real leadership, with real decision making ability and trust, but also developing the leadership capacity and succession planning, the organisation is only as good as the ego it is built on. School leadership in the 2020s will reflect increasingly this model of leadership rather than a thin veil of paying lip service to ideas like distributed leadership when the reality means control and power is in the arbitrary hands of one person.  Leadership in the 2020s will reflect the times we are in and what may have worked in the 1970s or even the early part of the Millennium, certainly won’t be the approach in the 2020s. In the UK we can already see this in the once sacred shibboleths of graded lesson observations, punitive quality assurance models, performance management linked to conduct and capability and a whole host of dumb practices that have led to so many good educators leaving the profession in droves. To go back to Dr Sadki’s idea of the school principal being akin to a mayor of a small town, this implies that the mayor is an elected servant of the people, listening and acting for the people with a wide range of stakeholders and communities to serve.  Not an authoritarian ruler leading in a capricious way.

In “The Pepper Effect”, US principal Sean Gaillard, makes the compelling case for creativity, collaboration, and innovation being at the centre of education going forward as well as communication and critical thinking making up his “4 x Cs”. Gaillard places great emphasis on his role as principal not only setting the right culture and vision people can aspire to in the school but how central developing leaders and the notion of the professional group working together collaboratively towards the common and shared vision is the core idea in this model. Wyedean School had its annual visit from the Challenge Partners Review team at the end of November and the report is available from this link: please click HERE.

Our membership of Challenge Partners is about being in a dynamic network of schools that is outward facing but also central to drive up standards in education and allow the development of leadership to flourish in the school. The educationalist, Tim Brighouse, famously wrote about the stages of leading a school and he said the 3-7 period is where a leader is established and really flourishes.  It is downhill after 7 years though.  Well, I thought about Brighouse a lot when I read the third annual report from Challenge Partners this week.  I hope this doesn’t read as my vanity but I was so proud to see what the review team had picked up and had observed the school culture and strategy here at Wyedean. Reading it I felt that the strategy and hard work we had all spent throwing out a previously toxic culture and replacing it with professionalism, trust, a positive school culture, a learning community, a rich curriculum, a caring environment and leadership everywhere had been established and embedded in Wyedean. This is what leaders should be achieving now and for the 2020s through the mind-set, right approaches and skills:

“The strong ethos for learning and the collective and collaborative culture that supports students and staff “the Wyedean Way” is palpable. Leaders are determined to make sure that each individual achieves highly and benefits fully from the many opportunities offered. Wyedean is a very strong community, where expectations are high, learning is for all and engagement is the norm. Students and staff feel strongly supported and are rightly extremely proud to be members of the Wyedean family”.

“Leadership is distributed widely and opportunities to develop leaders are seized upon”.

 “Leaders have a very good understanding of the school’s strengths and areas for improvement. They are highly reflective and use the individual and collective strengths of the team well to address priorities swiftly but thoughtfully”.

“The leadership of teaching and learning is high quality”.

“Middle leaders are strong, enthusiastic and confident leaders. They feel empowered to develop their own ideas and innovate and value highly the unstinting support and collaborative approach of the senior team”.


 Extracts from the Challenge Partners Review report on Wyedean School, Nov 2018

Finally, school leaders in the 2020s will need to keep at the front of their minds the need for balance, family, rest, retaining a sense of humour, a break from routines, perspective and a hinterland, especially when the inevitable pressure points bite in the academic year. As the old lags will tell you in the staffroom, this is a marathon not a sprint.  Modelling this to aspiring colleagues who will take over one day soon in leadership roles is crucial.  It is why I enjoyed seeing my own daughters in their nativity play this week and why other colleagues are doing the same as we get to the end of this very busy but rewarding term. I am hoping for holiday time in my cabin to read the new book on school leadership “Nuance” from my great hero, Michael Fullan, fingers crossed there for Christmas (hint hint family) alongside the great historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book “What it takes to lead in turbulent times”. I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and best wishes for 2019. The 2020s will only be 12 months away when we return in the New Year and after this decade I think we are more than ready for the promise of the new one.

Rob Ford


8 November 2018

“Our ability to change a child’s life is beyond imagination” Sir Anthony Seldon. Why our education system always rests on Hope and Optimism even in the most challenging of times.

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence” Helen Keller

In Manchester last week, the British Council asked me to give the keynote talk at the start of their two-day Connecting Classrooms conference to a variety of organisations involved in global education ahead of the launch of the new version of this programme to schools in the UK. I was not feeling particularly optimistic though after a long day in school to deliver in the words of the organisers “an inspiring talk about Wyedean and global learning”. This was the first week after the half term break, all thoughts of autumn and Halloween with family in mid Wales diminishing fast, the clocks going back and the convoluted long train journey from Bristol, across to Newport, up through the Marches to arrive in Manchester late at night in the rain. As I stumbled tired around Sainsbury’s at Piccadilly station to get a bottle of water it was the very patient shop assistant, with the broadest and friendliest Coronation Street accent that put me back on track ready for the talk the following day. It really is the smallest acts of human kindness and decency sometimes that makes all the difference.

What the British Council continue to do in supporting schools and global education gives anyone in education working with them hope and optimism. The same case can be made easily for the remarkable work of DfID and the government’s aid spending commitments around the globe as well as the incredible range of organisations in the conference last week who are working with schools to support and inspire them as they develop international education. I had asked my Year 10 and Sixth Form Critical Thinking groups at the start of the week if they could provide a short-film discussion for me to share with the delegates. I used this in my talk at the start to ensure there was not a disconnect with the aims of the Connecting Classrooms programme and the very young people here in the UK and around the World who we want to fill with hope, optimism and empowerment. The film link is here on YouTube: Critical Thinking Group on Global Learning

It is funny sometimes the connection you can have with a place without realising it and Manchester for me is one of those places. As a young undergraduate in the early 1990s, I remember going to see the now late Labour leader, John Smith, in Whitworth Hall at the University of Manchester, give one of the most compelling cases of hope for Europe and cooperation in the post-Soviet World, this seems a very long time ago now in all respects.  In my talk last week, I used the example of how teachers inspired me as a young person especially instilling a love of learning and desire to find out more about the World.  I was very fortunate to be on an A Level History school trip to Berlin when the Berlin Wall came down and I was able to clamber up the Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate to get a photo in the newspapers just before the DDR border guards, kindly eased back us all down onto the Western side of the Iron Curtain.  I used this illustration in the conference as an example of hope and optimism in education and the power of committed and inspiring educators.  This hope and optimism was still there when John Smith spoke in 1992 to me in the audience, only this time as a university student, about the collapse of the USSR and the new post-Soviet Europe and World we needed to build for the fast approaching Millennium, this seems such a long time ago. The connection with Manchester has led to a number of talks and opportunities to speak in that great historic industrial northern city about global learning to all sorts of audiences over the years.  In 2017, I was asked to speak for the British Council’s Ambassador Conference on the Saturday afternoon as the post lunch “pick up” – no pressure. I remember quoting a line from Virgil I had read in the Classics lesson in Wyedean the week before as it just seemed to be so apt at a time when hope and optimism were fading fast; “durate et vosmet rebus servate secundis” – carry on and preserve yourselves for better times.

I thought of this quote when I watched the new BBC2 documentary “Schools” on the funding impact which was filmed literally just across the eastern side of the Severn from Wyedean. Knowing what we have had to do here over the last few years to ensure that we removed a significant budget deficit, which meant tough efficiency decisions, grow the school in a falling roll and kept true to our mission about our educational principles with the students centre stage as always. My heart went out to colleagues going through the same process in South Gloucestershire as they reduced their capacity to meet reduced funding: BBC documentary Schools episode 1

The “competition” culture in the English state system makes me really miss the collaborative one I left behind in Wales but at least the hope from the broadcasting of “School” and the raw honesty and despair in that MAT produces more of the empathy and support seen on social media during and following from the education community. It may even speak some “truth to power” to help us all. The uncertainty around funding and the general dysfunctional educational landscape that requires skilful, resilient and resourceful leadership is something I spoke about at length in Manchester.  I walk into Wyedean every day and give thanks for the colleagues, teams, governors, parents and community we are so fortunate to have this side of the Severn supporting Wyedean students. I do not know even where to begin when a Chancellor of the Exchequer tells the House of Commons in a budget speech that he is making a one off payment to struggling schools after years of austerity for the “little extras”. More money for filling in potholes than financing schools adequately. Words fail especially when the brilliant vice principal for Business and Finance Jodie Howells and her financial team get the school on a balanced budget that still keeps a broad curriculum and Wyedean true to compelling learning and enriching opportunities. This is before we are hit unexpectedly for pension contributions and an underfunded pay award that knocks out a delicately balanced budget.

However, Sir Anthony Seldon is absolutely right. Our ability in education to change young people’s lives through transformative education keeps us optimistic and gives us hope even in the most difficult of circumstances and this is what keeps people working in education going. This extraordinary commitment and dedication is what most schools are now barely running on, as there seems no end in sight to the better times we are preserving ourselves for, according to Virgil. I cannot think of any time when I have been an advocate of what my great American friend and colleague from the Old Dominion calls “Macho BS leadership”. Unfortunately, it does exist, in too many organisations but it achieves very unstainable short-term gains and is always toxic. My talks this year ranging from working with colleagues in Heritage International School Moldova, META, Eastern European Foundation, COBIS, HET and the British Council have been loosely around the mission and culture of Wyedean as an outward facing global school. The questions I use with audiences are what I regularly ask of my school community and myself as we keep away from a certain type of toxic leadership but keep our leadership always hopeful, optimistic and focussed on the mission as a positive school culture:

  1. How narrow and inward are we as educators?
  2. Are we more about the mission or more about politics in schools?
  3. Are we preparing our young people for a global society and the challenges for the 2020s?
  4. Where does our leadership fit into all of this to challenge a “negative narrative” that seems to be gaining ground?
  5. How vital is a culture of professional collaboration in supporting schools?

So what does this look like at Wyedean? Not in any particularly order, the following is a flavour of why walking through the doors here first thing every morning over the last few weeks continues to fill us all with hope and optimism in our positive school culture at Wyedean. We welcomed our latest batch of around ten new teacher trainees from our partner universities for this term’s placement with us. This gives me hope that teaching is still attracting good people into our ranks. We have just been through the annual appraisal cycle with all staff, setting objectives to continue to develop careers and contribute to the school. This is such an important part of making sure people are valued and treated as professionals in the organisation. We are currently preparing for our annual Challenge Partners Review and the team are here as critical peers from the 19th-21st November. This is a key part of our school improvement, quality assurance and ensuring we are involved with over 400 of the best schools in the UK in this outward looking dynamic network and partnership. We are preparing in school to commemorate at the end of this week for the 11th November the 100th anniversary of the Armistice and Remembrance Day with our community. Thanks to the extraordinary generosity and faith in Wyedean School by a member of our local community, we have been able to use their donation to commence building the Study Garden that will provide a designated outdoor learning space and an area for quiet wellbeing. This gives me so much hope to see this work underway although I do feel for the builders in the cold wet rain right now. Before the half term break, the entire school community celebrated the life of former student Tirion Ray and raised money for the Lily Foundation to honour our late student. We have been working with several community organisations including collecting for the Chepstow Foodbank and Year 7 students have produced amazing artwork as part of the 70th celebrations of the NHS to brighten up the X-Ray dept. in Lydney Hospital. The community has also given back to us so much and we have promises of donations of several Christmas trees ready to be decorated at the start of December to make sure Wyedean looks festive. Also in time to welcome Year 11s from Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire to see the incredible success of our Post 16 education for Sixth Form Open Evening on the 29th November. The strong relationship with the University of Bristol and the school has led to a number of opportunities over the last few weeks including a widening access scheme aimed at securing places for students supporting social mobility and lectures at the university for students especially for science and geography. We are currently working with the University of Oxford to get Year 10s from Wyedean and other local Forest schools to visit and raise future aspirations for these students who may not see this particular path at this point of their lives. The University of Gloucestershire has been brilliant in their support of Wyedean especially assisting Sixth Form students write university applications. Cardiff Met University have also been in school last week working with students interested in careers in Law. The phenomenal work of my colleague Emma Williams continues in the development of digital and cyber education at Wyedean through the partnership as a cyber-school linked to the NCSC. I would recommend anyone to view this on the @WyedeanICTComputing twitter feed. We do not fear the role, power, and technology in the lives of our young people now and for their future and a key part of our job is preparing them well for all of this, especially getting more girls into STEM subjects. It is also why banning mobile phones is not the answer for us in our school. It is so counter-intuitive to digital learning. It has been wonderful to continue World Class global education over the last few weeks with Mary Murphy and her colleagues in Colorado and the brilliant Narattama Shama and her students at BSP Pilani, Rajasthan. Happy Diwali to all of our Indian colleagues and partner schools.

As I stood last week in Manchester watching my own students on the screen in the conference hall speaking to the delegates about their World, their aspirations and their hopes I felt so much pride as their school principal and the privilege we hold in education to potentially change lives beyond imaginations. The reason so many people and organisations were brought together for two days by the British Council is to ensure by “connecting classrooms” in the UK and around the World, we ensure these global learning opportunities continue and transform communities through hope and optimism. From the Forest of Dean and Welsh borders to the mountains of Colorado or the suburbs of Chisinau. We are starting to see narratives being challenged everywhere again and this is where our hope and optimism for the 2020s and the longer term future needs to make sure we are preserved as we carry ourselves forward. From the hundreds of thousands of people marching in the London sunshine recently to the lines of queues standing patiently to vote in the US mid-terms, there is hope and optimism that our young people are not apathetic or indifferent to what is going on in their society. They will challenge and call out hate and they will replace it with hope. I read recently, not to shout louder in an argument but to make the argument more effective. We need debate and dialogue to get back to being able to disagree without being disagreeable. The young student who stood on the Berlin Wall stunned because he thought it would never come down and the one who listened to the hope John Smith spoke about for the 21st century all those years ago knows as a now older educator and student of history that nothing remains the same forever. If this time has a purpose maybe it is to have taught us to value more what we have always had. Whatever colour the poppy, the symbolism of the poppy being worn and displayed in November for me is as much about remembrance, as it is about looking to the future with hope and optimism that things will improve and get better. Hope is knowing there are better times; optimism is how we get back to achieving them through the transformative change power of education. Even in the most challenging of times, we cannot lose both in our schools and in society.

Rob Ford  

 9 October 2018

 What does a ‘good school’ actually look like and mean in practice?

There are schools that put mission before politics” David Barrs, Headteacher Anglo European School

The education system the World over is still teaching for the 20th century” Sir Anthony Seldon, Chancellor of the University of Buckingham

The American educator from Colorado on the other end of the Skype conference call asked me a very simple but at the same time complex question last week when we met; “How would you sum up your school?” As a principal, I spend a great deal of time “summing up my school” and it means I have to think about the purpose and mission of Wyedean School constantly. My governors, colleagues and parents would argue I should, I am the principal after all. It does not mean I am complacent about it or do not reflect upon it as a leader. The International Baccalaureate consultant asked me the very same thing on Friday when she came for two days to work with my colleagues, as we get ready to implement the IBCP in our curriculum and become an IB World School. I drove home over the Severn Bridge wondering if my answers were exactly the same or had I left anything out. We have the label “Good” from OfSTED following our formal HMI inspection in 2014 and 2018 but what does it actually mean? A couple of weeks earlier I had spoken to prospective Year 7 students and their parents and carers for the Year 6 Open Evening about not necessarily why they should choose Wyedean for their secondary school but what Wyedean School’s education, ethos and values meant for the holistic development of our young people in our care in our community. I spoke about three key aspects of the Wyedean mission: 1) Positive School Culture; 2) The outward facing school and 3) 21st century education.

I read something on Twitter on the weekend that summed up the role of the principal with regard to the importance of positive school culture and the influence on the school community climate. “The school takes on the personality of the principal. If the principal is mean, the staff will be mean to one another and the kids, and the kids will be mean to one another. If the principal is full of energy, excitement, and enthusiasm, the teachers will be energised to teach and the students will be excited about learning. The principal can either be a flame of positivity or ignite a flame of hope. The principal is responsible for the culture and mood of their school”. I think this is true of any school Head or Principal even in a system where they are less autonomous say in a MAT or in more centrally controlled education systems as in Wales. The first aim in Wyedean school’s priorities is to believe in people.  If we do not, then we have a negative school culture characterised by high staff turnover, fear, overzealous rules and effectively compliance rather than true-shared learning and belief in the transformative power of education. I often feel so fortunate to have worked for and with so many inspirational colleagues, leaders, parents and students that to not believe in people just feels so wrong.  Every “good” schools believes in its staff, its community and most of all its students.

The “competitiveness” between schools is one of the worst aspects of our modern day education system and it is not what we should be doing as places of learning. However, it exists. It was interesting to see this week that Singapore, an education system Lucy Crehan used in “Cleverlands”, is abolishing school ranking: “Learning is not competition”. A mission statement for any department of education. To listen to David Barrs speak at the RSA seminar in London to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the IB and hear him remind the audience that there were still good schools who focussed on their mission and not politics was a refreshing reminder that education doesn’t have to be this way. The most powerful models that drive school improvement are when organisations and educators network, partner and collaborate. That is why Wyedean is working to be an IB World School in a global network of 5000 schools. It is why we are in Challenge Partners working with over 400 schools in England. It is why we are a British Council Ambassador school working with phenomenal schools and teachers in the UK and around the World and it is why we work with schools closer to home locally in the Forest of Dean and Gloucestershire formally. The border between England and Wales as far as education is concerned has become an unnecessary hard border and the only alignment now between two very diverse national education systems is that we only share the same names for qualifications. I fear the hardening of more borders going into the 2020s around the globe.  I pray that I am wrong.  It is a real shame when schools are forced to compete instead of collaborate.  Students lose out.

Good schools share good practices. Gloucestershire is a selective county with grammar schools and when Gloucestershire Heads meet this divide is often apparent especially around funding and resources. It was therefore encouraging a couple of weeks ago at a meeting of county secondary Heads to see unanimity against the further detrimental cuts in educational funding to school budgets. This is where working together matters as schools face the gravest challenges with the funding forecast getting even worse. This is why normally apolitical school leaders marched on Downing Street in September. It is why the UK Statistics Authority taking to task the DfE’s repeatedly misleading stats on school funding is a step in the right direction on the biggest challenge and crisis facing England’s schools.  It was the former Secretary of State, Justine Greening, who recently pointed out the inward mind-set of policy makers when she said, “The Treasury sees education as a cost not an investment”. Even the most forward looking, high performing, high achieving schools are struggling facing a future where funding has been reduced, according to the respected IFS think tank, of around 8%, and more costs like underfunded national pay awards and pension contributions are being pushed onto schools about to or now running at a deficit. Education is not a burden; it is an investment in the country’s future.

The outward facing school is a good school for lots of reasons not least because it means bringing the community and World into the classroom. My first assemblies across all year groups this half term have been around “Languages” and I have focused them on the three aspects of learning more than one language, the vocabulary and communication we individually have as well as the importance of non-verbal communication.  I always liked the quote “Everyone smiles in the same language”.  Another sign of a “Good” school when everyone walks around the campus smiling and greeting one another. The “happiest” and the most smiles in schools I have ever seen was working in Indonesia, tragically now dealing with the aftermath of last week’s tsunami that hit Sulawesi. I am following the developments of the new OfSTED framework due next year not because I slavishly watch everything OfSTED does and base Wyedean’s direction on an external inspection system but because the curriculum is going to feature heavily in the new framework.  A good school does not narrow the curriculum and approaches the curriculum from the point of view of holistic learning using a broad and rich curriculum.  Someone said recently in most schools now the curriculum is just simply the syllabus studied in order to take an exam at the end.  Maybe this is the case in some schools.  One of the main attractions for Wyedean looking at the IB is because their approach to the curriculum and developing the learner is the opposite of an exams factory educational approach.  Hearing Sir Anthony Seldon speak at the same RSA-IB event as David Barrs, stating the majority of education systems are still teaching for the 20th century reminded me why even in 2018 we have to talk about the 21st century as if educators and policy makers were unware we are in this present century.  Last week when I had the pleasure of talking to Mary Murphy of Douglas County school board Colorado to plan collaborative work between our schools around global citizenship, the United Nations SDGs, all using a Microsoft learning platform it made me think again about the potential we have in our schools every day for transformative learning.  When I worked with the positive and energetic students of Heritage International School in Chisinau, Moldova, and their brilliant global educator, Tatiana Popa, for European Day of Languages through Skype last week, it brought home the compelling international learning we have in our schools. Every day, my colleague Emma Williams, is pushing the boundaries of learning with the work she does with Cyber and Digital learning in Wyedean.  The author, Sarah Franklin, author of the WWII book, “Shelter”, set here in the Forest of Dean, came into school to work with Year 11 students for National Poetry Day.  The English department and our JK Rowling library work tirelessly to develop literacy and a love of reading in students. They are always holding an extra opportunity for further involvement in reading and their daily lessons are just superb to see walking around. I see the caring and nurturing work of the Wyedean pastoral teams daily to ensure that in a World where mental health problems for young people are on the increase with resources scaled back, my dedicated colleagues stay late, work early and do all they can to support students to cope and deal with complex issues. My assembly this week to the Sixth Form is on Mental Health Awareness and I will make it very clear that not all adults over 30 castigate young people as “Millennial snowflakes”.

A “good” school is not an OfSTED label. A good school is a school where the people who work there would gladly put their own children on that school’s roll to be educated.  A good school is a school where the climate and culture is completely based around learning and young people.  Maybe this is the time of the year where the “open evening” and the marketing of a school does bring into focus the question of “how would you sum up your school?” and allows school leaders to reflect on exactly what the school stands for and equally important, what it doesn’t stand for. A good school should also stand for certainty in uncertain times so that we are sure that the complex global problems we face in our common humanity have future leaders who know who how to work towards solving them.  When reports appear in newspapers like the respected Washington Post stating we have around ten years to solve climate change through a collective drive on sustainability and give the planet and the generations to come a good future. We also cannot afford to lose sight of our mission in good schools for the sake of short-term narrow politics in the education of our young people.

Rob Ford


3 September 2018

Navigating a new academic year in a dysfunctional educational landscape through leadership

“That one is never ready for the next step in life’s journey, we learn what we need to know on the road itself” Quaker Faith & Practice 22-33, Elsie Boulding

“The pupils from this school, will leave with a lifelong sense of hope, a feeling for community, a passion for social change” “Let your life speak”, Parker J. Palmer

There was a Monday in August where I woke early even though it was the holidays due to the sound of the sea crashing against the granite rose coast shoreline.  It was so compelling to listen to especially combined with a spectacular sunrise due to the bay in this part of Brittany where my father in law lived facing east. Like anyone connected with education, the summer break and the changing of routines was very welcome particularly after another full-on academic year at Wyedean including the January OfSTED inspection. Lunch at a French family friend’s house turned into a Gallic feast lasting four hours on one day. I think the average educator in a school is lucky to grab four minutes to wolf a sandwich down. But this is what the summer break is for in many respects, to break the routines, reflect, repair and take stock ready for the new academic year in the autumn. It is hard to completely switch the mind off school and I am not sure I have ever gone away at the end of July to not even think about the year just gone and the year to come.  I have found as a school principal, like the police, one is never really “off duty” and although the day to day changes for a few weeks, social media and the two sets of exam results for Year 11s and 13s means it is never a six-week absence without so much as a glance over the shoulder. There are three phases of the summer holiday for an educator; the beginning is where most brave the traffic jams on the motorways and the queues at ports and airports because in a few hours there will be a completely different environment and humanity slowly returns.  My children commented how much more relaxed my face looked by the second week in France. Then there is the middle section of August with results and then at the end the preparation for the new academic year ahead.  I enjoy all sections of the school break.  The very precious time with family and recuperating; the sharing and celebrating success and being a support for students and parents on results days and now this final section of reflection and looking ahead.

My colleagues from the Music department gave up the first few days of their break to take the school orchestra and choir to Tuscany as they were performing in a number of concerts and events. At a time when this summer the status of creative subjects in the curriculum in most schools is looking critical as the arts are squeezed more out of schools in pursuit of a narrowing of the curriculum, music and the arts are flourishing at Wyedean. This was demonstrated in the very strong exam results obtained this summer and the numbers taking these subjects.  The same goes for languages at Wyedean where the results and numbers opting for KS4 and KS5 are successful. They are a key part of the broad holistic curriculum we believe passionately in at Wyedean. The quote from Parker J Palmer is in my cabin study at home and I aspire to this belief when I look at the priorities for Wyedean School.  There were two brilliant examples of the school culture and ethos living up to Palmer’s belief about the purpose of education and the mission of schools. Two sixth formers, Laura Willingham and Beth Garland are members of the Gloucestershire National Citizen Service and this summer raised over £1k to help towards funding of the Opportunity Centre in Coleford.  I am so proud of these two for what they are doing for children in their Forest of Dean community. The other example this summer is Lotte now going into Year 10.  Lotte raised money in school at the end of last term for the Newport charity supporting people living on the streets, The Wallich, in aid of homeless people. I cannot wait for this generation to be leading their communities and country. In this last week three sixth formers, Matt, Stuart and Haydn, were given a unique opportunity to further their digital learning and cyber skills with a work experience with Cyber Security Associates Ltd as part of the school’s links to the National Cyber Security Centre.  These lads had an informative summer placement and the company praised how proud they were of them. In between pushing out the “Stretch and Challenge” reading lists for potentially bored students who need something to occupy them that could be useful, it has been a busy summer. I even read and “enjoyed” a number of anticipated books including Madeline Albright’s book “Fascism” and Julian Jackson’s biography on de Gaulle.  Mental note not to talk about de Gaulle and Macron in the same breadth in certain circles in northern Brittany and Paris again.

Preparing for the new year ahead is one of the key tasks for all school leaders, it comes with the territory of leading, and I know how colleagues must feel as they want to welcome back the school community and get the new year launched and underway. Even finding feet and easing back into routines is hard enough for staff, parents and students.  Definitely no four-hour lunches and especially no Sancerre to go with it. I have sat in the audience of the first day back in September and watched a few “state of the union” addresses from varying degrees of school leaders. The best ones don’t try to solve the minutiae of the summer results with the uncomfortable “blame game” and certainly don’t bombard with too much detail of every line of the school improvement plan.  The best ones celebrate the success, reflect and allow the new year to unfold with the key messages succinct for everyone. It’s also the time when you look around the room at colleagues you haven’t seen for six weeks, see new faces and make sure they feel welcomed as we all started somewhere new once and as a community you miss those colleagues who left or retired in July. The strategic launch and ambition in school soon gives way to the operational day to day and the glorious stretch of the new autumn term, hopefully with an Indian summer, moves without warning to less daylight and the cold weather.  Students are joining us for the first time in Year 7 and I always think how they must feel coming up from primary school.  Most seem very confident and a good school community ensures they are part of it from day one. But not all settle straight away and therefore the nonsense around “not smiling before Christmas” has hopefully gone the way of “brain gym” and other “gems” of education. I believe passionately in the power of the school community at Wyedean and why having a positive school culture that believes in all people is key to the school’s success. The autumn Open Evenings for the Year 6s and Year 11s wanting to join us next year is where we begin the fundamentals of this relationship between home, school and the student.

I start my 24th year in education since I first began at Bootham School York all those years ago as a teacher.  I would like to say it has got easier especially with experience and the advances in pedagogy and technology.  I have tried to avoid looking at national educational headlines this summer, but it is hard not to when education has two central days in a slow news month like August with the results focus. Bootham School was only a year in my career but knowing the brilliant Head and educator there at the time, Ian Small, and the school community he led based on a positive school culture, achievement, respect and aspiration for all, has stayed with me. I hope some of his leadership is something I try to emulate as a principal now.  In particular his focus on what was best for the school community of Bootham linked to preparing the students for global citizenship as individuals with a decent set of shared common humanistic values and qualifications and skills to lead and live happy fulfilling lives.  That challenge has never changed for any educator or school leader, but it is a challenge that seems to become increasingly difficult in an increasingly dysfunctional educational climate. As I prepared my talk for my colleagues at Wyedean over the weekend I noticed I was reaching deeper into my leadership well of optimism as I read more and more about the educational climate we now operate in.  I stopped reading, took a long walk with the dog, had a cup of tea and then a quote from Stephen R Covey caught my eye:

I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decision

Despite my disgust at the reduced funding situation for schools, the deliberate narrowing of the curriculum, the cut in SEND budgets, the false link to grammar schools aiding social mobility recently made, the sheer hours of exams and stress young people face as guinea pigs only to be sneeringly referred to by some as “millennial snowflakes”, as well as a whole host of looking into the abyss situations such as the dire recruitment crisis of teachers and the growth of inequity and corruption stories around certain schools and MATs, I can choose to be a product of the decisions I make for Wyedean School. That is my role and duty as a school leader. I am the lightning conductor that can soak up most external pressures and create the culture for my colleagues to ensure the students of the communities we are proud to serve as their local school can ensure compelling learning and unique opportunities that launch leaders like Lotte, Laura & Beth on their way to find their path in life with the skills and experiences we expose them to and embed so they “… will leave with a lifelong sense of hope, a feeling for community, a passion for social change”

This is how we learn to navigate the dysfunctional educational landscape of 2018-19 by repeating frequently our belief in the power of transformative education, supporting one another in a positive culture and using leadership to make sure success happens for all our young people. That is what I will be telling my colleagues when I stand before them for the first time this week and we launch another academic year together. As ever, I will be smiling from day one in September because I am privileged to lead a remarkable group of educators and support staff with our brilliant young people’s futures in our sacred care as we work with the families and communities we are so proud to be a part of day in and day out. We continue to work tirelessly for what is best for Wyedean.

Rob Ford