wyedean School

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Principal's Blogs September 2017 - March 2018

28 March 2018

What does an effective learning environment look like in a school?

 “Nine tenths of education is encouragement” Anatole France

 “The freedom to make mistakes provides the best environment for creativity. Education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don't” Anatole France

 “When educators model extraordinary passion and enthusiasm for learning, it causes students to value the learning too”  David Geurin

I had the privilege earlier this month to be invited to speak at the launch of the Cabot Learning Federation’s (CLF) new teacher training and leadership centre at the City Academy in Bristol. Over the last few years a considerable number of aspiring and existing school leaders from Wyedean have matriculated here on the NCTL’s national leadership qualifications, and this has had a considerable impact not only on the professional development of those individual school leaders but also on the change in the leadership culture and ethos of the school. It has also led to an exposure to different school cultures and learning environments along the M4 and in Bristol for so many Wyedean colleagues. I undertook my own NPQH as I prepared for Headship a few years ago from the CLF and have been invited back on a number of occasions to Bristol to speak to subsequent cohorts of aspiring Heads and Principals about my experience and the impact it had on me as school leader. When I spoke at the launch to an assembled audience of the “great and good” of the South West’s educators, school leaders and policy makers it was with complete belief that my own training, the training of colleagues and the wider association with the CLF has made a significant impact on the success of Wyedean. We are very proud to be associated with the good narrative around education in Bristol and the South West that is a result of so much hard work by passionate and dedicated people working in education here. One of the most important lessons I have taken away from working with the CLF is their strong belief in an effective learning environment in schools. When I first heard the original founder of the CLF and now National Schools Commissioner, Sir David Carter, speak a few years ago he placed the very strong emphasis on having a purposeful and consistent school culture that sets the effective environment in schools for students to learn.  This echoes strongly with a New York City principal’s message from a lecture in the States which I attended a while back. She made it very clear to her students when they came to school from all sorts of tough and challenging backgrounds that the one consistent was going to be that here in school they get the chance to learn and gain an education.  She was uncompromising on that but one of the most compassionate school leaders I have ever come across.  She went on to say how her students were told by her directly that she couldn’t change skin colour, or backgrounds or put families back together again but in school she could teach them how to be confident, have ambition and self belief and resilience, to be articulate and develop their skills and knowledge that would take them on further out of poverty and into colleges, universities, careers and to develop into decent human beings with strong values and a desire to give back to the very communities they had left.  If I get asked what exactly the “transformative power of education” means I think about this speech from a New York High School principal and the incredible work of educators in Bristol giving the children of their communities hope. This all springs from an effective learning environment both within the school community and out to the wider community supporting each other in partnership.

Reflecting back over this term all the way back to January with the Easter break just around the corner I have been thinking a great deal about the importance of the learning environment of school not just in the context of what the atmosphere feels and looks like in corridors and classrooms but also about the relationships between everyone associated with a school. I know that one of the significant factors in the way Wyedean has changed is the emphasis on positive school culture and ensuring relationships are positive in school and the wider community.  This is not always easy especially when we have such a large community.  For example, we were hit this March with an unprecedented two “snow days” due to an unlikely alliance of the “Beast from the East” and “Storm Emma”.  Deciding to close the school is probably more stressful than the OfSTED “24 hour notice call”.  Well, certainly up there for school leaders.  You are never going to please everyone and the ultimate balance in the decision-making is between not losing precious learning time against the safety of students and colleagues travelling through snow and ice unnecessarily.  They certainly do not teach you much about this on the NPQH course.  Social media and more immediate communications makes the snow day call easier on one level but also it means there are hundreds of messages on Facebook and Twitter when the first flurries arrive.  What I appreciated in March when we had to close the school for the snow in the Forest of Dean, South Wales and even over Bristol was how supportive, patient and helpful the entire wider school community were as we made the decision not to be open. Digital learning was particularly helpful to extend the learning environment as work was set for all students on ShowMyHomeWork.  I am sure all students resisted going outside and playing in the snow and settled indoors to work.  Although, departments set some really interesting pieces of work for example Art suggested on their Twitter feed for students to go outside and take pictures of the landscape, whilst Maths, looked at the geometry of snowflakes.  Much as I wanted to sit in my warm cabin-study at home and read the books suggested by the English department, I took my three young children sledging on Pomphrey hill along with the rest of North Bristol.

We were lucky enough to be asked by the British Council if they could come to Wyedean in January to see the school and hold a photoshoot showing the learning environment and our global learning in action. Unfortunately, our OfSTED call in January meant this was postponed and instead they came on a very bright and sunny day at the end of February.  It also coincided with the visit of our partner school from Japan, Reitaku Junior High School, near Tokyo and a Skype classroom session with our great colleague, Tatiana Popa and her wonderful students from Heritage International School, Chisinau, Moldova.  I see the learning environment at Wyedean every day and I see other schools so I know what we have in Wyedean.  We do not believe in our students walking in deadly silence down corridors to class or students sitting in rows learning in rote.  That isn’t an effective learning environment in Wyedean.  I stand at the foot of the main stairs in the school, with other school leaders, at the start of the day, lesson change over, breaks and walk around the school and I adore the fact that  our students smile, say hello,  tell you what they are studying or ask you if you have seen a particular teacher.  At the end of the day as the buses, cars and bikes leave the campus they wish you a good evening or a good weekend.  We are an effective learning community because we believe  in the transformative power of education and a positive school culture.  This was all put into sharp focus to separate the mundane from the profound with yet another school shooting in the States in March. What parent or educator has not been proud and moved to tears at the wisdom, courage and leadership of the students of Parkland, Florida following the senseless shootings of their teachers and classmates a few weeks ago. I know arming teachers in a school is definitely not part of an effective learning environment and these young people are right to challenge the people who make laws and decisions at the national level about the basic fundamental right of being safe in school. 

When John Rolfe and his colleagues came to visit Wyedean in February, this is what he had to say about Wyedean and our learning environment: 

…just a few lines to say a huge, and greatly appreciated thank you, for such an enjoyable, interesting and inspirational day at your wonderful school! It was great to be able to meet the students, visit classrooms and the wider school environment to learn more about your fantastic inclusive vision for education and to see so much high quality and motivating teaching and learning. Rob, we are all so proud and delighted to work with you and to learn from you and your profound commitment to outstanding and inclusive teaching and learning and we want to warmly thank you and everyone at wonderful Wyedean for being such a great hub of excellent work; it was particularly inspiring to be part of the critical thinking class and the VC with Moldova…    Thanks for all your time Rob; and for your commitment, energy, brilliant professionalism and for being such an incredible Headteacher…” 

John visits a huge amount of schools in the UK and abroad and was recently honoured by the Queen for his services to education and global learning. We were very flattered and pleased that John saw our community at work, experienced our learning environment, and wrote such kind words about the school. John’s words reflect what the OfSTED inspectors saw in January and the Challenge Partner reviewers saw in October and what the governors, parents, visitors and prospective students for Year 6 and 12 that they see every day they come to visit Wyedean - an effective learning environment in a vibrant inclusive school community. This is what I proudly told the CLF audience in March and how the leaders and leadership culture work relentless around the school to make sure students want to come to school, are engaged and enjoying the challenge and the opportunities available in their educational offer.  These are the characteristics of an effective learning environment. 

I have been reading a lot recently about the Finnish education system and in particular the work of the great educator, Pasi Sahlberg. Sahlberg’s work is heavily based around looking at how establishing the right learning environment and culture in schools is not just about linking this to attainment, but more importantly the wellbeing of young people and our colleagues. Put crudely, if schools get this aspect right then upward trajectories of attainment and progress will naturally follow. Finland’s record in education as measured by the OECD/PISA speaks for itself. Sahlberg despairs of the tired educational leadership mantra he has encountered in many school systems as “…if you push the system harder, it will move” (1). This is characteristic of the approach towards schools by politicians of all the main parties in the UK for the last 20 years.  Sahlberg goes onto say, “…how many politicians have such a narrow and technical view of education and how to improve it in a comprehensive, systemic way”.  To go back to another of Sir David Carter’s mantras “it’s not the structures but the outcomes”.

We have had a very long term through the winter and at last, we have made it down to Spring and a break for the next couple of weeks. I had a look through the school twitter feed as we finished the Spring Newsletter for Wyedean – copy of the link below. The richness of school life just flows and encapsulates a creative, innovative, engaging and compelling education we are all contributing towards to give our students the best life chances as possible.


Rob Ford


6 February 2018

What will educational success look like going into the 2020s?

“What I enjoyed best at my Any Questions? evening was chatting to the Sixth Formers at Wyedean School. Thoughtful, open to ideas, undogmatic…just at present, I wish our country was in their hands”.

 Journalist and broadcaster, Matthew Parris, writing in his Times column after his visit to Wyedean School on the 12th Jan 2018 for the BBC’s “Any Questions?”

 “Education breeds confidence. Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace.”Confucius

 I first need to put a disclaimer at the onset of my blog before going any further. I don’t know the answer to the question I pose in my blog title and there certainly isn’t going to be any panacea to what could even be agreed amongst educators, academics, employers, parents, students or anyone else connected to education to what “educational success” looks like in 2018. No one of worth wants to be peddling any educational version of snake oil where educational success definition is concerned and like most school leaders, anyone willing to promote as such, in a self-styled moniker of “guru” I avoid like the plague. But sitting here on a cold and grey February day in my study in school, with the snow coming down fast over the Wye Valley and the Forest of Dean, I realise it is something I have been thinking deeply about consciously all of my educational life. None more so now as the principal of Wyedean School directly responsible for the education of 1100 students with essentially young children starting with us at the tender age of 11, to them leaving us to go onto university and careers at 18 as adults. That is a phenomenal amount of growing, learning, developing, maturing and succeeding for these adolescents in our duty of care. It would be useful for them to know what is it they are all working towards and when they will know they have got there in their educational lives.

I think there are essentially two reasons why this question has come back to prominence in my daily thinking as a school leader for the start of 2018. Firstly, thanks to my colleague in science, Stuart Motson, we were very fortunate to start the new year and term back in school with Wyedean hosting BBC Radio 4’s long standing current affairs programme “Any Questions?” with the brilliant Jonathan Dimbleby as host. As expected in the climate we now live, Trump and Brexit dominated the discussions and the programme was well attended by our local wider community to hear the panel discuss the issues of our age. It is also an important part of the school culture and ethos at Wyedean to be outward looking and hosting such a programme of national and international standing by the BBC was a real coup for the school. It was the after show event on the Friday evening I really enjoyed in the Sixth Form’s “Big Bean Café” where Jonathan Dimbleby and the panel members kindly came and spoke at length with governors, staff, parents and of course students. It was Matthew Parris’s comments in The Times after the event that has really stayed with me though and I have quoted them here at the top of this blog. This famous journalist, writer and broadcaster, who definitely has a reputation for calling it as it is, felt generous enough to take time to convey in print such an optimistic view of how our young people at Wyedean are seen and what we should be aspiring to always as educators in terms of how we develop our students. It is often levelled at the state education system in the UK that the accountability and inspection system of standards, favoured by all shades of governments over the last couple of decades, has led to an education system where public examination results have often emerged as the only important benchmark of recognition of educational success. Ensuring our young people have the necessary qualifications is an essential part of the role of schools but it is not to the exclusion and detriment of the holistic educational development of our young people to prepare them for the challenges and rewards of their later young (and old) adult lives. The best schools see academic success intrinsically linked to holistic individual development through wider education. That is what we need to get back to in our schools and educational ethos to develop further as we approach the next decade. These twin ambitions for young people are not diametrically opposed as the goals of the education system of any country. Therefore, why do we let this happen in the name of raising standards when in reality we are continuing to narrow the curriculum, lose good educators and add to the mental health issues of young people?

The second reason is the very thing all school leaders in England fear the most – the dreaded OfSTED inspection call on a Monday morning. We knew as a school our three years were up in November since we were last seen and rated “Good” for our standards and our safeguarding.  Two weeks ago on a Monday morning, just before midday, I had a phone call from Sharon.  Sharon from OfSTED. And then Iain. Iain was going to be leading the inspection the very next day.  Hard as it is for some of my global colleagues to comprehend, in the English system of school inspection they really do turn up with less than 24hours notice and your school’s future is decided on that one day of intense rigorous scrutiny of the quality, safety and standards of the education you provide.  Your ultimate accountability as a school leader. This was my first leading a school and I have been through similar inspections in the USA, SE Asia and even closer to home in Wales with the system under Estyn.  When I first experienced this at my then Welsh school, it was astonishing that this inspection had not been undertaken for 6 years. We knew weeks in advance and the whole thing missed so many things OfSTED would have pulled apart having just been through the process in England at a school that became the first 11-18 school to be “outstanding” in every category under that framework.  However, does that make it an educational success? Well, in the case of both my former schools the level and quality of the holistic education and curriculum enrichment and breadth on offer really does make both schools places delivering an outward looking level of education preparing students for the next decade of the 21st century. They were also places educators and leaders could grow as well under forward looking and moral leadership.  I am pleased to say that my sleepless night on Monday two weeks ago, followed by my routine more than normal contemplative 5am dog walk in the pitch black cold around fields in North Bristol with my dog Dylan, saw the OfSTED team recognise the amazing work of Wyedean staff and students we see every day. Moreover, we are good to carry on with strong recognition for the leadership, rich curriculum, learning, effective safeguarding and Post 16 education. A link to the report and my letter to parents is here:


We have been open to scrutiny and challenge by anyone as a key element of our school improvement from Day 1 of me being principal, and that is what any good school does not only to confirm its educational success but also how to continue to develop itself further with external verifiers and their advice for improvement. It is why we are on the Challenge Partners school improvement network of over 400 schools of such a diverse and range but all striving for educational success with openness and an outward facing culture at the heart of their ethos.  In addition, it is led by the very schools involved and school leaders and not some top down bureaucracy with a “one size fits all” politicised approach against any autonomy.  I knew I would be back to snake oil pushers again in this blog.

So what is educational success going to look like going forward and the 2020s not too far away? I believe it has to be similar to days like today.  My Year 12 critical thinking group started the morning debating the issues around equality in the C21st as part of the 100th anniversary of women in the UK first being given the vote. I kept thinking of Matthew Parris’s words in The Times about Wyedean students as I watched the intensity and passion of the dialogue and debate around this issue in my study this morning.  It is about celebrating the sporting success of our students and being proud as I felt when I posted the success of Lily Crawley through to the national indoor athletics championship in Sheffield later this month. It may well be viewed as the Progress 8 and Attainment tables released a week ago in England.  It puts Wyedean in a strong light but that is only a fraction of the educational success of this school. It could well be the innovative use of digital learning and weekly Skype Classroom sessions we hold with schools connecting classrooms and global citizens in India, Canada, Belarus, Italy to name but a few. It was great to talk to my colleague Bindiya last week in Genius School, now there is a name for a school, in India. An aspirational educator as any I have had the privilege to work with globally.  It definitely is Wyedean’s completed and accepted application by the International Baccalaureate Organisation last week to be an IB World School aiming to offer the IB from September 2019. It is so exciting to be joining this incredible family group of several thousand diverse schools around the World developing and delivering the IB and its philosophy in our curriculum and as a key part of our ethos. The IB is 50 years this year and it is hard to think of any comparable education system that has stood the test of time and modelled such an aspirational vision of educational success free from the interference from national politicised policy makers. The IB is so much more than a qualification and I have always designed any curriculum I have been involved with as a school leader or advisor from the point of view of the IB’s “Learner Profile”.  What do we want our young people to become at the end of their school years?  Stressed out exam factory fodder or something way more and relevant to develop global society for the better? True international education is the latter always and does not pay mere lip service to the notion either. Educational success should not be trite short termism in the 2020s and will continue to be led and defined by educators who believe completely in the moral purpose and transformational nature of educational success.  It was a real honour to be in the landmark OECD PISA 2018 Asian Society Global Competences publication for this type of education launched at the World Education Forum in January – Wyedean is on P31 looking at the importance of school leadership in education:


We need to keep moving the debate on as educators from the narrowness of only defining success through our public examinations. We need to educate the public and policymakers to not only see qualification outcomes as the end result of education systems. I work with an extraordinary colleague in the British Council called John Rolfe.  Direct descendent, via Yorkshire, of the John Rolfe who married Pocahontas in the early 1600s at the Jamestown Virginia settlement. John has been a passionate and ardent advocate of global education his entire career as a dedicated public servant supporting schools and in the Queen’s New Year Honours list he was rightly awarded an MBE for his services to education.  We need more people like John supporting an alternative narrative to a narrowing curriculum and to develop further, what a “Global Britain” will mean for educational and career opportunities for schools in the UK in the 2020s. Students will always need knowledge and skills and we should not put these two elements of educational outcome against each other in a binary zero sum way.  They are not diametrically opposed but we do need to keep looking at what is compelling and engaging learning in our 21st century classrooms and learning is essentially Socratic even in the 2020s. The age-old question, more than 2500 years later, is how do we keep our students hooked in?

You know your students have had an extraordinary day not just in education but also in their lives when they go to look at Oxford University like mine did today and inspirational Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai incredibly shows them around. This is what happened to my students at Oxford University. I have a remarkable assistant principal and director of Post 16 in Johnathan Lane who will continue to deliver this level of education that will earn commendations like Matthew Parris’s description of Wyedean students.  This is where the bar has to be when we define as school leaders and educators how our educational success should look going into the 2020s. Moreover, yes, I am deeply regretting not going to Oxford today, meeting one of the 21st century’s remarkable and humbling World figures who has done so much fighting for Human Rights, and ensuring girls and people in poverty in some of the poorest places of the World, just have the right to an education.  That in itself is an outstanding measure of educational success through such struggle and we should not forget the distance we have come in modern education in the 21st century.

 Rob Ford

 8 January 2018

An effective school’s ethos and values are in true alignment with its every day positive culture and practices.

“I’m advocating for a new vision for education and childhood. If we truly want to improve the educational experience of our children, our focus should not be hinged on competition with other nations; it must begin with conscious parenting and education practices that address the development of the whole child – their intellectual, emotional and physical well-being. They centre on developing creativity and critical thinking through project-based learning and fostering student engagement through collaboration. They support a model of parenting and education that encourages children to discover their individual talents and pursue their true passions. They don’t demand perfection. They don’t involve assigning more homework, prolonging the school day, or increasing assessment tests. Our schools need to be community institutions that nurture and inspire children.”

Vicki Abeles; writer, producer and director of “Race to Nowhere” and “Beyond Measure”.

A few days before Christmas, I had the pleasure of hosting a Skype Classroom session from my cabin study in my Bristol garden for Canadian teacher Julie Mackenzie and her class at Mildmay Carrick School in Ontario. The class asked me a whole host of questions about the UK, which taught me a lot about Canada and some were even surprised that in Britain we shared the same Queen as Canada. It is a nice role to have as a Microsoft Educator and Skype Classroom facilitator not least because it is a unique window through digital learning on classrooms all over the World. During the whole session with Julie and her students, despite the cold and snow outside their school and the end of term hours away, the class were lively, inquisitive and engaged. They exuded everything their school and local school board states, about the vision and values of the education in their various mission statements and policy documents. Julie herself came across as one of those teachers you wished and hoped all students would have the privilege of being taught by. No one seemed to be struggling to get to the end of the term, it made me think about the last few days in school at Wyedean, and how positive and engaging the school learning environment seemed, despite how long the term had been since the start of September and the seemingly permanent dark cold days of December. I am now looking forward to working with Alexandra Nedbalskaya and her students in Minsk, Belarus, before the end of January.

One of the other reasons I am fascinated by working with schools around the globe is there is such a huge variety of school cultures, educational priorities, organisational structures/systems, values, ethos all reflected in a myriad of school mottos. I think there is a gap in the market for someone to just simply collect and publish school mottos. One of my personal favourites is a school dear to my heart, Gar-Field High School in Virginia: “School of Champions”. Taken to another extreme a school I worked with in Tomsk does not even have a name, it is simply School 56. The motto is almost as stark: “Students come to learn”. Here is the thing about these two examples about mottos aligned to ethos and culture in these two very different schools, in two very different countries. In Gar-Field HS, students believe they are actually champions. Teachers believe it and so does the community. The celebration of learning and success is the best in any school system I have seen. There is an incredible culture of coaching, partnership, support and high aspirations for all. It is infectious. Similarly, when I spent time working with the staff and students of School 56 the commitment, importance and transformational value of an engaging learning culture pervades everywhere. Siberia is a tough place especially in winter as I well remember. It is in schools such as these you see the integrity and authenticity of a school’s ethos and culture permeating everywhere in the whole school community. In Thailand, I saw in many of the schools I worked with not so much an individual school motto but the Buddhist mantra repeated, “No happiness surpasses peace of mind”. Two things struck me about the school culture I saw in Thai schools; firstly, their progressive approach to LGBT+ issues was way ahead of anything I had seen in a UK/Western school at that point, this was 2007-9. Secondly, these Sukhothai province schools were huge, often averaging around 3500 students, yet they all practiced the most effective well-being and self-discipline I have seen in any school system. The strong influence of Buddhist culture of balance and harmony had a tremendous impact on these school cultures and despite their huge student population, they were really joyous and happy campuses to be on as a student or staff member. The positive and supportive school environment also linked naturally to engagement in learning and achievement for the students.

I went into the Christmas break impressed with how my colleagues responsible for exam cohorts had planned the mock examinations, supported the students, ensured the importance and value of the mocks and prepared students effectively. It demonstrated how important at Wyedean we believe in our own motto and school culture of working together to achieve. I told all my colleagues going into the break to switch off from school, enjoy the rest with their families and friends. Human beings are not machines. I am more and more convinced of the French approach to banning emails outside of work hours. Promotion of a positive work/life balance has entered mainstream workplace culture to the point that even OfSTED now rightly question school leadership teams what they are doing to ensure a healthy work/life balance culture in schools. At the start of 2018 figures released by the DfE showed the significant drop in teacher recruitment and at the other end retention of teachers is at crisis level. Pay has not kept pace with inflation and the standard of living, but the main reason teachers are leaving the profession is the poor working environment, the unrealistic accountability, the burdensome bureaucracy and frankly, the very love of learning and shaping young minds is just not the daily experience of colleagues in schools across the country. Many school leaders will say loudly they believe in good staff well-being and at the same time find it impossible to speak to staff without mentioning OfSTED or inspection. The cultures of these schools become full of fear and inspirational leadership disappears to be replaced by reactive process driven management. The late, great education writer and academic, Ted Wragg, in his weekly TES column, had fictional “Gradgrind Academy” as the school where all the dreadful practices took place, full of poor school leaders, oppressed teachers, out of control stressed kids and capricious fads on a weekly basis. Back in the early noughties, Gradgrind Academy was then only fiction and at least did what its name and motto promised. It continues to concern me on what I come across as a school leader, unfortunately all too often about the enormous pressure on young people to succeed through endless assessment and the subsequent exponential increase in poor mental health issues for our students.

Last week when we returned from the Christmas break, I asked the Head of Year 11 what theme she wanted me to talk about for her first Monday assembly in 2018. I actually suggested two choices – examinations or motivation. She chose the latter, which is why she is an outstanding pastoral leader and Wyedean is lucky to have her. I have thought a lot about the work of the inspirational parent and educational campaigner in the USA, Vicki Abeles, which I first came across a few years ago. One of the comments that struck me from American teenagers in her interviews in schools was this: “there seems to be no finishing line anymore”. In the extract, I have quoted here from Abeles at the start of this blog I would find it nearly impossible to find a school leader, education policy maker, governor, teacher, parent or anyone who worked in education to disagree with the vision she sets out about learning, skills and curriculum. Schools around the globe, but especially in this country, have this vision set out in some form or other and believe this is what the everyday culture of their school actually is when it delivers curriculum, learning and education to students. The reality unfortunately is the latter few sentences of the extract in too many school examples where the focus is on an increase in assessments for their own sake, the longer school day, a reduction of the curriculum and a reduction in genuine support of an individual. There was even a report in the TES last week suggesting that actual student well-being will now be measured as an accountability measurement like attainment and progress data. I did come across one education writer who said this week, “You don’t grow taller just because you take a height measurement”. What Abeles and others are campaigning on now is how we approach the pressures that we put on young people at home and in school. To look at the reasons why we are assessing a student and how we are assessing. To look at the balance in the curriculum, the educational experience and the culture of our schools in how we develop our young people to cope and succeed as young adults as they leave schools. How we get them to use technology in a wiser, balanced and less addicted way. As a school leader, I do not want to pay lip service to a school culture that suggests it is about the individual and progressive supportive development of a meaningful education when the reality is the day-to-day experience is gradgrind and intolerable unnecessary pressures for staff, students and home. Therefore, a resolution for 2018 going forward into a new year is to continue working on the positive school culture we have created at Wyedean and to continue innovating to ensure compelling and engaging learning is not only what we believe in but it is what our students experience daily. Delivered by their teachers and support staff who believe in the power of transformative holistic education with supportive and collaborative leadership that allows them to do what they came into education for: to work with, and improve the lives of the young people in our care. We need to continue to ensure that we align what we say with what we do as schools and educators, or else we will continue to lose our teachers and more generations of young people. This is what I see increasingly as the challenge in education for 2018 and beyond.

Rob Ford

 18 December  2017

A school is not a school without its community

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much

Helen Keller

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?

Martin Luther King

Tomorrow the morning will be clear and happy. This life is beautiful. Heart be wise

Anna Akhmatova

The “nine men of Madeley” story is rarely known outside of my own Shropshire village and certainly in terms of numbers doesn’t compare to the loss of life in similar mining disasters in towns such as Gresford in 1934 or Senghenydd in 1913. What they all have in common though is the impact and response on those tightly knit mining communities when the feared loss of life dreaded by all families at the start of a working day confirmed wives, mothers and their children’s worst fears when the colliery hooter sounded, or the shouts of people could not be ignored any longer and there had indeed been a pit accident. In 1864, in the small Salopian mining town of Madeley, nine men and boys, the youngest was only 12 and the eldest 52, were being lowered down the 220-meter shaft of the Brick Kiln Leasow Crawstone Pit by a crude rope and hook system when at half way down, about the height of Big Ben;  the central hook came undone and all nine men plunged to their death smashing to the bottom of the shaft below. The nine men were laid to rest side by side by their families and their community in the churchyard of Thomas Telford’s imposing Madeley church.  I remember as a child seeing the communal victim’s tomb and being fascinated with this story, especially as my own father was doing pretty much the same job 120 years later in the same mines that had been the mainstay of the area since Medieval times. The deep coal mining industry has long gone in Britain and the few ex-miners left like my father are all happily and safely retired, and deservedly so. The communities in these areas that are left from Lanarkshire, Durham, Yorkshire, Lancashire, the Midlands, Kent, the South Wales valleys and our own Forest of Dean, where coal is an integral part of the story of the Forest, still contain something of the spirit and ties that made these places pull together so strongly and effectively when times were good and not so good.

I can’t remember anything or anyone referring to the importance and strength of support of the wider community to schools when I undertook my Masters in educational leadership, and certainly nothing about the positive impact it could have from when I studied for my NPQH as I wanted to move further up into school leadership. No current research or any particular academic were recommended and in fact the whole shift in English education with the academy programme/Multi Academy Trusts (MAT) away from the local authorities in the last decade has seen a strange hybrid local education relationship develop where governance and school leadership often have very little in common with the very communities they are supposed to serve. Interestingly enough my NPQH was through the Cabot Learning Federation which originally served as a MAT for only schools in East Bristol and it is the legacy of the now national schools’ commissioner, Sir David Carter. These schools work closely with and serve the very communities their young people come from equipping and instilling in these students a sense of pride, aspiration, service and life long learning in order that they enrich their community as adults. More importantly, they can give something back to inspire the next generation of young people. In the recent December 2017 annual OfSTED report it is in fact these very Bristol schools that are now being applauded and recognised for this very work where once Bristol schools languished at the bottom of most educational tables. I have met Sir David on a few occasions and Wyedean was very fortunate to work with him and be in his “Race to Outstanding” group of SW schools in 2015 when I first started as Head at the school. Sir David is a very inspirational educator who has very much “walked the walk” as a headteacher in Gloucestershire and Bristol.  His whole educational philosophy and approach is about raising standards and aspirations in schools to allow their very communities to thrive through this ethos.  So much has recently been said about social mobility and the perceived lack of it for so many young people and yet if schools do not offer aspirational education, full of opportunities and a rich curriculum then this educational apartheid will be further entrenched.  When I first started looking at the International Baccalaureate (IB) from my then Bristol school back in the early Millennium, as much as I was bowled over by the phenomenal education offered in UWC Atlantic College, it was in fact places using the IB like Broadgreen International School in one of the poorest parts of Liverpool, under the great school leader, Ian Andain, that impressed me most.  Ian took the IB, an international curriculum rightly associated with rigour, intellectual development and holistic education of the individual, but wrongly associated with elitism, and used it to raise aspirations and standards within his community in his area of Liverpool.  The IB has always contained the very “community” section in the CAS element that underpins the whole baccalaureate structure of the IB, as much as the subjects, essay and theory of knowledge components.

I have been very fortunate in my career to only have worked in schools that valued the relationship and support of the local community. I stood with my then Sixth Formers, along with the whole town, on too many occasions on the High Street in Wootton Bassett watching the corteges of fallen service personel being brought back from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to RAF Lyneham and their families and communities. In Crickhowell, as a deputy head I experienced daily the wonderful support and relationship the community gave to its school, and this extended to the way secondary schools worked together in collaboration and partnership wanting to only raise standards and create educational opportunities for the rural communities they served. I have appreciated deeply when I reflect on these experiences the significant role the positive relationship with the local community has played when the school and community are engaged and working together for the common good of the young people and each other. I despair when I hear school leaders talk and openly advocate fewer ties with their local community almost as if the school doesn’t quite belong to the very area it is supposed to serve. I have often wondered if the “Klondike” rush to national MATs in the last few years has encouraged the remoteness in certain school leaders; often the ones parachuted in and parachuted out again as a quick fix solution to deeper educational problems and doesn’t appear to work longer term along with the “hero Head” model, once favoured more than it is now in the DfE – thank goodness. I don’t think a great deal of educational research needs to be undertaken to show it is obvious that is the very team of school leaders, plural, and all staff that make the difference in a school.

I have to confess that when I first arrived to take up my post at Wyedean School I wasn’t aware then just how crucial the role of the wider community supporting the school was going to be, especially as we have gone through some very challenging times with the current dire financial situation for schools as well as the pressures on schools to form or get into MATs. It’s easy to start with the governors. As a colleague of mine once said, they are the trustees of the school and are from the very community the school serves and whose children we educate.  Wyedean has phenomenal governors who freely give up so much of their time as volunteers to support the school.  Their role ranges from sounding boards for leadership, wise counsel, practical support, business/volunteer organisation expertise and ready to pitch and support everything from the PTA to open evening.  We are really fortunate as a school to have such critical friends as stewards of Wyedean.

Over the last few months of this busy term I have had parents contact me to offer a range of support from advice, sofas for the common room, Christmas trees, plants, donations, talking to students from an industry background, flooring for the top corridor, the list goes on. I see it when I sit in the ancient beauty of St Mary’s priory church and parents, governors, community members are all there supporting/sponsoring our awards evening, carol concert, careers events etc.  The recent “snow day” which saw the Forest of Dean look absolutely beautiful as it does and even more so in the snow, but it meant students and staff could not get to school because of the ice and snow on the roads.  Parents were superb in their support over social media and together we made sure everyone was aware, decisions could be taken with as much full knowledge as possible and above all our students and staff were safe. The Year 11s have about 5 months left before the summer exams and have already put their applications in for Sixth Form, local college or apprenticeships. I work with many dedicated colleagues and the Head of Year 11, Claire Rush, as a senior pastoral leader is just incredible in her devotion and support of the year 11s in her care.  Claire made sure the mocks were treated as the real thing to prepare the students and even on Thursday morning, they had the results given to them as if it was the real thing.  When I spoke to them in their assembly with Claire it wasn’t about stressing them out, but building them up.  This extended to the parents’ evening for Year 11 on the penultimate day of term.  So many of our parents coming into school to work with teachers and students to get the best results for our young people.  It made me very proud as Wyedean principal looking around the school gym on a cold December evening with everyone wanting Christmas to get here and yet the partnership between home, school and community there in action. It is the same year group that has been working with the Forest of Dean Baby Bank since the summer helping with the donations to families in the Forest to support their infants and young families.  It epitomises the school and community working together.  Some students approached me this week and asked if the beautiful Christmas trees we had in the Sixth Form café and school hall could be used again and be donated to local care homes.  I am so proud of the community and civic minded students we have at Wyedean.  These are moments you know the future is definitely not all doom and gloom as some would have it.

We celebrated the wide and varied achievements of Wyedean students in St Mary’s priory church on the 6th December and one of those very former young people who once attended Wyedean, Mr Neill Ricketts, came back as our guest of honour.  Neill is the founder and CEO of Versarien PLC and his own story as a Wyedean student and the support and influences he had was very inspirational to hear especially as he was passing that hope and sense of journey as an alumnus of Wyedean to the next generation. Neill announced he is very generously going to refurbish some of the science laboratories in honour of a teacher who influenced him, John Nettleship.  John is the acknowledged inspiration for another famous Wyedean student, JK Rowling, and he is the basis of Snape in the Harry Potter books.

As the old year of 2017 comes to an end and most people I know seem to be breathing a sigh of relief after an often tumultuous year at many levels I personally feel there is so much to feel optimistic and hopeful about 2018. Baroness Jan Royall, Forest resident, former Leader of the House of Lords and now principal of Somerville College, the University of Oxford, wrote to me and other schools wanting to actively create more opportunities for our young people to get exposure to education and experiences offered by Oxford. We also start off the year with the BBC “Any Questions” being broadcast from Wyedean School on the 12th January.  For a school that prides itself on its culture of critical thinking, open-mindedness, inclusivity and holistic education this is a fitting start to the year. My hope for 2018 is not anchored in a meaningless vacuum but in the very real knowledge that we have not only survived extremely difficult years in education, but we have continued to build and develop the right education needed for the communities we serve here in the Forest of Dean and the Wye Valley which allows these young people to develop into adults and access successfully their global World and society proud of where they are from in their community.  

Rob Ford

22 November 2017

Trying not to sweat the small stuff in leadership and knowing when a hill is worth taking a stand on as a leader.


From: Lynes, Rob (British Council) Sent: 21 November 2017 08:23 To: Robert Ford

Dear Rob, thank you. It was a pleasure to meet you and thank you for your excellent contribution to the discussion.  I would love to visit Wyedean at some point. Colleagues speak very highly of the fantastic work you do there. Best wishes, Rob

Rob Lynes | Regional Director UK, British Council,

Email regarding the British Council Policy Forum dialogue in London on Friday 17th November.

Dear Rob and all staff at Wyedean School,

…I wanted to send a short thank you note for your hospitality and time through your Challenge Partner Review. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and left feeling proud of Wyedean and the journey it is on. Wishing you and your team the very best for the future – I am keeping up to date on Twitter, Jamie Wordsworth, Deputy Headteacher, St James School, Exeter. Nov 2017

Like many school leaders in England today I am anxiously waiting to hear what the Chancellor has to say in the budget statement regarding any increase in school funding from the chronically underfunded situation schools have had to cope with now for too long. I know I will not ask already hard-pressed families in my school community to contribute to school funding to assist in buying the very basics, as I know a number of school leaders have been forced to do already. We completed the 2016-17 annual appraisal cycle a few weeks ago and I know of some of my school leaders not taking their well-deserved and thoroughly merited pay progression awards because of the current financial situation in the school. Linked to a national public service pay cap that has been kept at 1% and way below inflation for over 7 years now means real term incomes have kept falling. The additional high costs that schools have to meet are making already delicately balanced budgets for the year without a reserve to help when colleagues fall ill or a boiler breaks in winter tip these budgets dangerously closer to an abyss that too many schools are now facing. This is why there is huge momentum around a national campaign for fairer funding in schools and only last week headteachers marching to Downing St with a letter calling for fairer school funding supported by 1000s of schools.

Wyedean School has a strong projected financial trajectory over the next few years because of all the hard work and necessary difficult decisions undertaken in making cost efficiencies and savings as well as the strong promotion of the outstanding education. This has grown the school back to being oversubscribed with nearly 1100 students in two years from a low of close to 900. This is in an official falling roll area as well. Innovations in the curriculum such as Latin, Classics and Mandarin have come about because we have been very proactive in bidding for these specific funds from outside agencies and we believe strongly in broader and unique educational opportunities. However, every time a colleague tells me they have personally paid for their classroom posters or provided prizes for a competition or not claimed a travel expense or contributed personally to make an educational visit viable I wince at the damage being done fundamentally to this noble profession and vital sector of our society and economy. In no way is this sweating the small stuff and educational funding is definitely a hill many educators, governors, school leaders, students and parents are making a stand on now. Education is not attracting enough of the next generation of teachers needed to take the sector forward into the new ways of learning, new technologies and the skills challenge we are facing as a society over the coming decades. If they do make it, into teaching, they certainly are not staying long as the demands of the role and the often poor work-life balance in difficult educational and financial conditions becomes all too apparent. There is an interesting recent article in the Guardian worth a read about what we should do to convince teachers to stay in the profession: https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2017/nov/16/to-stop-teachers-leaving-the-profession-lets-help-them-make-a-difference

By extension the high calibre skilled school leaders sorely needed are not emerging in nearly enough numbers to take on the very demanding role of taking educational learning communities forward with hope and making sure educational opportunities and standards are the very best we can offer our young people and keep so many communities hopeful for the future. This is definitely not the small stuff in educational and national leadership.

I spent the other weekend in Bristol with my old and dear friend from Prince William County Schools in northern Virginia, Brian Bassett. Brian is one of the most inspiring advocates of the International Baccalaureate in the Americas and an exceptional school leader and IB coordinator. As we walked across Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, with thankfully one of his students ensuring my three young daughters were not being too silly, we talked about the difficulties schools face financially in the UK and USA. We also spoke at length about the increasing difficulties in the relentless, often pointless educational initiatives that school leaders try to grapple with whilst balancing the very core of education with a focus on compelling learning, all very well intentioned, but still capricious and short term depending on the office holder. Even over fish and chips in my kitchen on Saturday evening, we still could not believe how something as inspirational and necessary for 21st century education & World Class curriculum like the IB has all but disappeared from UK state schools in the last ten years because of government short sightedness and short termism. We did break off as we got the fish and chips from Downend chippy as I pointed out where W G Grace once played his cricket – the English version of Babe Ruth helped make it clearer for Brian. His IB student, originally from El Salvador, coped admirably not only with her first battered haddock but was very polite about the bright green mushy peas. She did point out this was not something common in Latin American cuisine. My four-year-old singing John Denver’s “Take me home” as we drove back along the M4 to their hotel late on a Saturday night before their Sunday flight home made the frustrations with education disappear for now. Brian has been a champion of international learning for so long now and has been recognised by the British Council for the developed work around IB curriculum he and his colleagues have undertaken with a number of UK schools over many years. Educators like Brian that give us all hope in these times. I found his tweet @ibatgf, his school IB Twitter, for Thanksgiving, worth a read especially when we waste time sweating the small stuff:

“I am thankful for…the taxes I pay because means that I am employed; The clothes that fit a little too snug because it means I have enough to eat; A lawn that needs be mowed, windows that have to be washed, and gutters that need fixing means I have a home; All the complaining I hear about our government means I have freedom of speech; The huge pile of laundry and ironing because it means my loved ones are nearby; The alarm that goes off early in the morning because it means that I’m alive”.

The hills I have decided to make a stand on as school leader are the ones I believe worth fighting on... This is simply ensuring that the students, staff and community know that every day at Wyedean School we are focussed on our core purpose of supporting our young people, delivering compelling learning, exciting education and that we are preparing our students for the future as global citizens. Even an uncertain one. After all, this a job far too important for a process driven technocrat who is more concerned with salary and status rather than the transformational power of education a good committed leader can wield effectively that can change societies for the better

If I look through the last few days alone to illustrate what has happened at Wyedean to develop our positive culture: Friday I skyped in the morning with staff and students of Heritage International School, Chisinau for international education week; the Christmas International Card competition delivered outstanding entries from students from across the school; The students and staff raised over a £1000 for Children in Need and Chepstow Foodbank; the year 10 students who help on a Thursday at the Forest of Dean Baby Bank have been commended and will appear on a BBC news story; we started our approved Erasmus + partnership with MFL and Spanish schools; MLF started working officially with Ecuadorean students this week; Year 7 students came 5th in the British Schools Orienteering Championships on Sunday; our Oxbridge applicants are going up to Cheltenham Ladies’ College to work with them on interview techniques as we work together as two schools; the PE dept played fixtures against various schools and took the teams to watch Newport County play in the evening; we held a safeguarding peer review with a local partner school, Dean Academy; one of our students, Pip Winter, finished just outside the top ten of 50 in the show jumping championship; Sixth Form Open Evening on the 30th Nov; The International Christmas Fair on the 4th Dec; Celebration Evening on the 6th Dec …and on it goes on top of the day to day incredible learning seen in every classroom as I walk around this wonderful school daily.

Leadership is not only about inspiring others but also finding ways through the problems and breaking down the barriers. I always think of the outstanding school leaders I have been privileged to work with and I remember what characterised their leadership style and approach and for all of them it was not that they sweated the small stuff. Ian Small, Rob Gibson, Lindsey Hewson, Eric Lyne, Pat Firth, Norman Lowden, Chris Montacute, Bill Bixby, Cherif Sadki, to name but a few. I read an article this week where a school leader said they had looked at their three-year financial projection and it was just dire. That is what we also experienced here in December 2015 and we used our leadership to shape the future for Wyedean. As Obama once said, “Our destiny is not written for us but by us”.

Last Friday I had the honour to sit in a room at the top of the British Council in their London HQ in Spring Gardens, overlooking the whole of Whitehall through an incredible picture window. I was the first speaker opening up a policy forum dialogue between academics, school leaders, policy makers and related organisations. All participants discussing ways on how we keep the importance of global education at the forefront of education in the UK and what that would and could look like over the next few decades. The paper I presented used my experiences as Wyedean principal and my experience as a school leader heavily involved nationally and internationally in global education for a number of years to advocate the importance of global learning providing a meaningful and relevant basis for education and to enhance engagement and compelling learning. I referenced two particular influences I had read in the last few months; the chief inspector of OfSTED’s speech at Wellington around a broad curriculum and an article from Professor Bill Lucas of the University of Winchester. Dr Lucas is responsible for developing creative thinking for PISA and he not only warned about educators being caught up in the “false dichotomy of knowledge v skills” but also suggested we needed to stop referring to future educational aspirations for curriculum and learning as “21st century learning” – something I reference a lot. He made the valid point that we are 18 years now into a new millennium and Professor Lucas suggests it means we still have not worked out what they are and what is needed. Perhaps we have not and that is one of the fundamental problems in education right now. My Finnish colleague in Helsinki is leading a policy dialogue with school leaders there brave enough to break some of the more binary thinking on curriculum and learning and I am hoping I never meet another narrow minded school leader who believes the education diet in the average state school is about literacy and numeracy predominantly and everything else is frippery from arts to music to sport to languages.

I finished a long day having a glass of red wine in a plush law firm speaking to an eminent member of an international education group about exactly what exceptional World Class education should be about, what it looks like and why social mobility should be at the heart of it in a global society. Food for thought on the late train back to Bristol and walking around post-Industrial Coalbrookdale with my children looking at the UNESCO site where the Darby’s changed the World in the C18th as I visited family on Saturday back in my home county of Shropshire. I concluded that the best leaders know to avoid sweating the small stuff and which hills to stand on. My friend Brian will be with his family in the Appalachian Hills in West Virginia celebrating Thanksgiving this Thursday. I know he will be putting aside the trials, tribulations and very real problems we have to find decent solutions to in our roles and responsibilities as educational leaders no matter what our context and at the same time our effectiveness is about how we see the problems and what we do working with others to solve them. This is how we intrinsically develop the ability as leaders to avoid sweating  the small stuff and see the right hills to make a stand on.

Rob Ford


 8 November 2017

Turning strategy and leadership into a positive culture and climate.

The strong man holds in a living blend strongly marked opposites.   Not ordinarily do men achieve this balance of opposites.  The idealists are not usually realistic, and the realists are not usually idealistic.  The militant are not generally known to be passive, nor the passive to be militant.  Seldom are the humble self-assertive, or the self-assertive humble.  But life at its best is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony.  The philosopher Hegel said that truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis that reconciles the two.

A tough mind and a tender heart, sermon by Martin Luther King Jr.

Despite the fact, I have lived in Bristol for just over 20 years it is to my shame and embarrassment that I have never once been inside the mighty St Mary Redcliffe church. From the harbour, it seems more like a cathedral with its soaring spire looking down at the same Bristol docks and the Welsh Back from where the likes of Cabot sailed from in 1497 to discover Newfoundland; five years after Columbus, Cabot’s fellow Italian sailor, first sighted land and claimed the ‘New World’ for Spain. By chance, last Friday I finally found myself inside one of England’s largest parish churches during the lunch break of the European education conference which I was attending in Bristol; the hotel and venue was just opposite on the other side of the road. I am hoping my Moldovan school partner, Tatiana Popa, didn’t mind the excursion either but it did seem a good opportunity for a visit.  My American friend and colleague from Virginia, was also in the UK with his IB students.  Looking at their photos of their trip on Twitter reminded me of a comment he made to me years ago when we first started to work collaboratively as global educators, back in the days when we were young idealistic trans-Atlantic IB coordinators together. He told me he loved Britain simply for the fact there was so much history packed into such a small space.  Which made sense coming from an American and most of his country’s history is packed into just the Old Dominion itself where he hails from. I have always appreciated his remark and thought about it when I came across the armour, memorial and tomb of one Admiral William Penn. Penn died in 1670 but King Charles II still owed him a huge amount of money. Charles Stuart handed over to Penn’s son, also called William, a huge tract of land from the Americas, which is now modern day Pennsylvania, and Delaware. I have always been more interested in the Mid-Atlantic States and have spent many hours walking around the Quaker capital that is the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia. Not necessarily for the run up the “Rocky Steps” or the impressive visit to Independence Hall and not even for the Liberty Bell, but definitely for a Philly cheesesteak in South Philly at either Geno’s or Pat’s.  I have never been able to decide which of the original claimants to this hot sandwich I have preferred, but I am always struck by the sign at the counter window at the Italian-American, son of refugees Geno’s that reads “If you can read this sign, thank a teacher.  If you can read it in English, thank a Marine”.

To find Admiral William Penn buried in Bristol struck a real chord in the history student in me, especially as it is a sort of place of pilgrimage for a certain type of American visitor. His son, William Penn, is definitely worth reading up on.  As is the son’s remarkable second wife, Hannah Callowhill Penn. A Quaker from my part of Bristol originally and one of the first female leaders in the colonial period only really being recognised now for leading and building Pennsylvania for six years after her husband’s death.  The colony of Pennsylvania that was developed by William and Hannah as a tolerant Quaker colony in contrast to the slave colony of Virginia and Puritan colony of Massachusetts, served as the inspiration for the United States constitution. Unfortunately, infamous Bristol sons like Edward Colston and the city’s heavy involvement in the slave trade of the C17th and C18th is a more unsavoury connection between the city and the southern colonies and Deep South.  It was also no coincidence that Pennsylvania became one of the most prosperous colonies in the British Empire and the place for the fledgling USA to declare independence, commencing one of the most fascinating experiments in modern government.  Geno’s counter sign and President Trump being very much part of that democratic pluralism the Founders envisaged. I have always liked the Welsh connection with Pennsylvania too and there was a time during the 18th century when there were more Welsh language newspapers and books printed in Philadelphia than actually in Wales.  One of the oldest Welsh language societies established in the city in 1729 is still going very strong to this day. Penn’s vision, leadership and strategy for Pennsylvania is nothing short of inspirational and so I felt humbled to be staring at his father’s tomb in a Bristol church last Friday, having spent the last 24 hours in a conference of several hundred European educators from all across the continent.

The conference was over several days and it was an opportunity to listen and talk to a wide range of educators and policy influencers from across Europe. I think the main thing that struck me throughout as I reflected on Saturday night in a field in Wiltshire watching with my family and Moldovan partner a huge bonfire and fireworks display, was the optimism that exuded from so many different school stories.  I listened to a remarkable teacher from a small village school in the mountains of Croatia describe the leadership and vision she had to ensure the students of that school connected to others from across Europe as a meaningful and regular part of their education.  The school barely had heating or materials and the local farm animals would come and drink out of the school’s pond during the day, but this educator’s strategy ensured she engaged her community with the education of their children. Because of her tenacity, this tiny mountain village school had won European awards and was being showcased in Bristol to hundreds of European educators. There were many similar examples throughout the conference. After four years of working with Tatiana Popa, I finally got to meet this remarkable Moldovan educator who is one of the most inspirational teachers I know.  Showing her proudly round Wyedean School on Friday morning where she was able to spend time with another remarkable educator Wyedean is fortunate to have in Lucy McManus, the Year 10 English class were able to meet the teacher they have been speaking to over Skype and reading poems to their Moldovan counterparts in Chisinau. Tatiana believes passionately in the transformative power of education, languages and learning. Where she teaches in one of Europe’s poorest countries she sees it as vital that the students in her care are able to use their education to improve their opportunities and life chances. The culture and climate of her classrooms resonate this aspiration and it is very humbling to work with such an educator.  She epitomises hope and a positive role model for young Moldovans. I found myself in several debates around the future of Europe and whether or not the opportunity for the UK to engage in such a European forum would exist in the near future. I am currently working on my talk for the British Council policy forum and dialogue in London on the 17th November.  I have been asked to speak to policy makers about global learning and leadership in schools in this uncertain educational and political climate. I know what Wyedean School’s ambitions are for World Class 21st century learning, but it is even more clear following the weekend’s conference and my discussions with school leaders that I am fortunate to be able to determine to a large extent this direction for the school as principal with the support of governors, staff and community. Although having seen a few posts on social media from colleagues I worked with on the weekend from Greece, Bulgaria and Croatia I did have to point out that I am not “the principal of the Harry Potter School” and I don’t have the powers to change what is already the fine school name that is Wyedean.  Hopefully no governors were offended or even our most famous former student, JK Rowling. I did twitter this in response immediately.

In this context, I was looking at the draft Challenge Partners report from the Review Team for Wyedean School that took place a few weeks ago. My eyes focussed immediately on these lines below as I thought about the leadership and strategy that had developed the positive school culture and climate in the school.

The gala meal for the conference was held on Friday night in the wonderful Bristol City Museum, my own children’s favourite museum, and the scene of many a good Saturday afternoon after a burger and milkshake at Rocotillos opposite on Queens Road. This Victorian museum donated by the tobacco magnate Henry Wills, which houses so many eclectic collections with all sorts of artefacts and exhibitions looted, stolen, borrowed and bought from across the old Empire and the wider globe, hosted a dinner of several hundred forward looking European educators, all passionate and committed to the power of learning and education. It was hard not to think of the words about Wyedean from the Challenge Partners report, and the hope that this conference has given me in terms of optimism looking forward in education. What MLK referred to as the “creative synthesis of the realists and the idealists” can be seen on how we use leadership to turn strategy into a positive educational climate and culture and therefore there is always hope where educators and education is concerned. I watched a few Danish and German teachers dance rather too enthusiastically to Abba’s “Waterloo” under the 1910 Bristol Boxkite hanging from the vaulted ceiling of the museum. I also witnessed less “fruitful harmony” in the groovy Nordic moves but at least they were letting their hair down in a foreign city which even teachers are allowed to do now and again. The fact they did not fall over proved there is always hope with educators.

 Rob Ford

 28 October 2017

School Improvement through Challenge Partners, the enormous impact of peer review.

Back in Devon after three brilliant days @WyedeanSchool meeting passionate staff and great students. Fantastic leadership. Jamie Wordsworth‏ @jamiew23 Oct 18

Lovely and inspiring couple of days reviewing @WyedeanSchool with @ChallengePartnr What a fab place, and such great kids. Jane Werry‏ @JaneWerry Oct 18

Tweets from two of the reviewers from Challenge Partners who reviewed Wyedean School 16-18 October 2017.

Hen Coleg is the oldest part of the University of Aberystwyth and sits right on the sea front facing the winds and sea spray head on from the Irish Sea. It is a fascinating Victorian gothic structure that started life out as a railway station and grand hotel for visitors in the 1860s. It never got that far, and instead became the centre piece of the first university college for Wales, of which a significant proportion of the funds raised came from Welsh worker subscriptions to ensure that their children could receive a university education. I think it is that fact alone that has always made me look at these buildings with awe at the power of foresight, aspiration and education. The university at Aberystwyth has certainly grown significantly since the 1860s and now sits proudly all the way up the very steep Penglais Hill. Hen Coleg’s future is uncertain as a building but I was very fortunate over twenty years ago to not only heed the advice of a wise colleague from Bootham School to get my PGCE and leave York but to also return to Wales. I have always considered the year I spent in this atmospheric university town by the sea the most important year of developing in me the love of teaching and learning in a much more formal way. My interview was an awful January day having travelled down from York on the train through a snowy and cold landscape to arrive in what I can only describe as a desolate and icy windswept place. Whenever I heard Dylan Thomas say, “bible black” in “Under Milk Wood” at the start of the play I think of ‘Aber’ on that day it was so bleak. The head of the History course was the brilliant Dr Gareth Evans, sadly no longer alive but generations of educators were inspired by this great pedagogic Gog (a Welshman from the north). It’s fair to say I have had a few interviews in my time with some tough interviewers but the yardstick has always been the day I sat in Dr Evans’ study staring out to the freezing black/brown waves and sky for several hours being genuinely grilled on why I wanted to be a teacher and why I loved history. He referred to me throughout as the “Man of the Marches”, they have long memories in north Wales, especially Corwen, and at the end of the meeting I was happy to go back to York and carry on working in a private school but as an unqualified teacher he surprised me by very generously offering me a place on the course there and then. I may have had a beer on the train home back to the north of England. The rest, as they say, was history, but I owe a lot to this place and individual as a teacher and school leader for the example it set and taught me for my career in education.

These memories came flooding back to me this half term break as if they had only just happened last week when I walked around an empty and quiet Hen Coleg showing not only my wife and kids the wonderful lecture theatre, halls and library but it was also in the company of my old teacher and mentor from my own school. Life has a funny way of coming back to starting points when you least expect it and I sat in the old lecture theatre, in the front seats where Dr Evans’ referred to the group of us as the “Pontypool front row” and amongst the reminiscing I hoped that I have lived up to the high aspirations, service, intellectual ambitions and dedication as an educator which were the hallmark of the ethos and culture of the education department at Aberystwyth. I even remembered the inscription of the first book my old teacher gave me as a 14-year-old to read, “The Road to Wigan Pier”. It read; “Carry the flame and defend the weak”. I have it here in front of me now as I write, and it still resonates deeply within me when I think of the role we have as educators in schools. Ironically on my shelves it is next to is Orwell’s other classic from the 1930s, “Homage to Catalonia”.

Wyedean School had its annual review from Challenge Partners just before half term. This consisted of a three day visit by five colleagues who work as senior school leaders or with OfSTED, came into school to look at the leadership, the school improvement plans, the standards and data all centred around the quality of the learning environment and the teaching and learning.  The two tweets at the top of this blog are the comments from two of the reviewers.  I will say it again; I am so proud of Wyedean School, the students, the community and above all my colleagues who I work with. The review for me is how we should be raising standards and improving schools not just in England but in the UK and other countries.  The review team essentially do it “with the school” not “to the school” using the language of “What Went Well – WWW” and “Even Better If – EBI”. Challenge Partners is a school improvement network that came from the London Challenge and now has 400 schools in its national network.  At the heart of the collaboration, support and critical friendship is the desire to improve education and schools.  It is a model that will deliver the 21st century learning schools so badly need. The growth of leadership and teaching in Wyedean from being a member of Challenge Partners is astonishing and this was further evidenced this summer with the amazing results in Key Stage 4 and 5. The review is very thorough, but it is a conversation and I know as principal the time I spent with these external reviewers from other schools and OfSTED was invaluable in how I lead the school and take it forward.  It is also an opportunity to validate the hard work of the last few years and there was no prouder moment than the Thursday before half term standing in the staffroom for a special briefing reading to colleagues with the first initial feedback from the draft report.  My colleagues in the Applied Learning Area under the brilliant leadership of Emma Williams were chosen this year to be put forward as an “Area of Excellence” for Vocational Education and BTEC.  This is an area of the school that is not only a real strength of Wyedean in terms of teaching and results but their innovations to learning are something I am fortunate to have in Wyedean School.  They more than smashed the review over the three days and this year we have a working group looking at the IB Career related programme to implement at the school in the next couple of years.  Last year it was the fantastic English Learning Area, validated as an area of excellence, a judgement reinforced from the review again this year. The wider picture for education seems so gloomy at times nationally especially on funding but sitting in Full Governors just before the break reporting back to the trustees on the success of the school and the things we still must do to become high performing felt as if a milestone had been reached for Wyedean School.  There is so much hard work, passion and dedication from the entire school community driving this remarkable institution forward I pinch myself at times.

Looking ahead to the next 7 weeks and the run up to Christmas with the clocks going back and colder, darker days to come the vital and valuable daily work continues for the school. Year 11 have their mocks to face, the International Christmas fair is being planned for December, the Awards Evening being held in St Mary’s church for the first time on the 6th December will be a phenomenal celebration of our students in all fields and capacities, and we have the Open Evening for Sixth Form on the 30th November. I must make mention of several individual student successes we celebrated this autumn already. At the Cheltenham Festival, Year 13 student, James Robertson, was honoured with an award from the playwright and author Alan Bennett.  James has ensured that the local library in Bream has stayed open serving the community in the central Forest of Dean.  Words fail me as a principal to describe the pride I feel for James’ work. Year 11 student, Finley Wood, continued his incredible climbing success in becoming British national champion at the British Lead climbing championships.  When I spoke to him he was as modest as ever, but it is some trajectory this young man is on. I had tea in my study with Ollie Moss and Milly Connor just before the break to congratulate them on their national successes respectively in golf and dance. The incredible work of the school’s LGBTQ group has been recognised as a national case study by the Department of Education this month and staff and students have shown real leadership and transformative education in their work and support of LGBTQ in the school. I am encouraged whenever I hear the head of OfSTED talk about the importance of the wider and richer curriculum for all students and how we should be broadening educational opportunities not narrowing them.  That evening the geography teachers were taking their A Level students to a special lecture at the University of Bristol. The lead reviewer of Challenge Partners, came to see my Year 12 critical thinking group in full debate (female equality and glass ceilings the topic that week) in my room during the review and afterwards we both agreed completely that schools should be offering as much as we can to give these young people skills, qualifications, opportunities, life chances to develop and take them onto their next path as leaders in society. This is one of the reasons Wyedean School is working with Mike Peckham to put on a special conference on the 9th December for young people entitled “Making Sense of the World”.  There are details on the school website and social media and this is a free conference for young people.  There is a very strong line up of national speakers and I am really honoured that Baroness Royall and the Rt Hon Mark Harper MP, as Forest of Dean senior political figures will be there to open and close what should be a rich conference full of ideas and ways forward.  I can live with the annual reports on the unfairness and perceived bias of Oxbridge colleges because I know the education at Wyedean School is based around the old maxim of Dr Arnold of Rugby “an introduction to the very best of what has been said and thought”.  Still applicable 170 years later and even Malala jokingly said this week winning the Nobel Peace prize didn’t get her the head girl role of her school or help her with her Oxford interview.

I have a clutch of assemblies this half term coming to give for all year groups but hopefully none of the “traditional” beloved of some school leaders of the work harder, do your ties up and tuck in shirts variation. I am also lucky to be attending an EU-eTwinning conference this weekend coming up in of all the glamorous places my adopted home city of Bristol. I feel very honoured to have been invited to this conference as an ambassador for the British Council but will also get to meet and work with my partner school from Moldova.  On the 17th November I have been invited to give a talk to a special British Council conference in London about the development of international education in the current climate of a more inward-looking nationalism around Europe and the world and how global education can counter this narrative. I have contributed two pieces for books on international education and leadership for a Canadian publication from the University of Toronto and one on the impact of neo-liberalism on education for a book from the University of Gdansk.  Both books are out this December.  I am fortunate to be visiting and spending time at UWC Atlantic College as a guest of the principal Colin Jenkins this month.  A pantheon to the very ideas of international learning and the IB if ever there was one. I have teased my Vice Principal Academic, Gwennan Jeremiah, that I too was seen during the review with my Year 12 critical thinking group, she doesn’t buy it either, but I think integrity and heart as an educator is something Dr Gareth Evans was getting from me as a “Man of the Marches” all those years ago.  I have an incredible director of Teaching and Learning at Wyedean in Julie Smith, and we constantly talk about ourselves as learners and how we need to exemplify this always.  Education is no ordinary job and it is far too important to see as a mere process. It is also something that happens over a long period of time and nobody is ever sure what they may discover about themselves on the way, what they might learn and know or who they might become because of the influence of a good educator and education.  This is what makes the role so daunting but so exciting. I still feel the same as I did when I stood on the platform at Aberystwyth station clutching my letter confirming me on the PGCE course knowing that I was in the right place, at the right time and with the right people.  A feeling not changed as I type this blog nearly 23 years later.

Rob Ford

  2 October 2017

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Don’t be pushed by your problems. Be led by your dreams.” Ralph Waldo Emerson.

An old Spanish friend from university (or should that read Catalan friend? She claims both labels as well as a European and citizen of the World) is spending the first Monday of October not only cleaning up her school in the northern suburbs of Barcelona today but also making sure her colleagues and school parents are ok following the violence yesterday across Catalonia. As for her students, there are a few hurt following Sunday’s events and the response from the police to people trying to vote. As an educator, she will also find the time and words to sit down and try to explain to her students what could possibly happen next for their country. Last Friday here in school just before I left for a meeting of Gloucestershire Heads I spoke with the staff of the Spanish school visiting from Catalonia who are with us for a few weeks with our students, about the possible outcomes of the vote on Sunday. There are often so many moments in school where educators are in the difficult position of explaining difficult events in a way that is not patronising or shying away from unpalatable issues but at the same time students understand and are then left in the position where they can ask the right questions to further that understanding. One of the reasons the Spanish students from Vigo are in Wyedean School now is because we believe as a school our students and school community should be actively engaged and exposed to a wider world. I have a skype session this week with the British Council and some of our Year 10 students are talking to a student from Kazakhstan who has won a STEM competition to come to the UK and meet Professor Stephen Hawking. I have a number of thoughts as I drive across the old Severn Bridge either home to Bristol or to school at Wyedean. Three that have been floating around in my head for a couple of weeks now since I spoke at an international conference in Poland. So, in no particular order: 1) The Finnish education system is not as great as everyone thinks it is; 2) Educators are impotent and 3) Students exposed to internationalism will not necessarily become “global citizens”.

The conference in Poland was an interesting gathering of largely Nordic and Eastern European educational academics who have been meeting on an annual basis since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was also a nice excuse to be back in Cracow especially as in a previous role as head of history I took A Level and IB students there regularly as part of a wider school tour of history and politics. It struck me on a very warm September afternoon in a Polish primary school watching students my daughter’s age perform their national songs and dances to a small group of international educators how political education really is. This moved from theory to fact when I spoke to a number of Polish academics and educators about the hard nationalist movement sweeping through Polish politics and society. In textbooks on history, in hardening social attitudes where it was once progressive and an academic from the auspicious and august host university, Copernicus’s own alma mater, Jagiellonian, founded in 1364, said hundreds of school leaders had been dismissed that summer because they did not tow the government line of education. The keynote speaker on the Friday night in the historic senate room of Jagiellonian, Professor Maria Mendal of the University of Gdansk, warned of the dangers of following the neo-liberal model too far in schools where the focus of education is lost to a business model that treats children and educators as a business commodity. Whereas this has been part of the landscape in the UK and USA for some time, it is a model, with all its faults and excesses, being rolled out across the former Warsaw Pact eastern European countries. I found myself challenging a speaker in one of the lectures to outline precisely when he believed was this “golden age” of education, what it looked it like and where did it exist now? It got a good applause as a question but not an answer. I am not sure I could get an answer to that question and when we had the Open Evening here for Year 6 last Thursday I tried to answer my own questions from Poland just before I spoke to parents.

I mentioned there were three questions I carried home from the conference and I was very fortunate to have had a short but illuminating conversation with Eeva-Kaisa Ikonen, superintendent of education from Helsinki. Eeva’s talk was fascinating because it started asking, “How do you improve a system that works?” in relation to Finland who tops OECD studies and PISA rankings regularly. The challenge for Finland, Eeva told me, is to anticipate the changes in skills, pedagogy, leadership, society, neurology, and technology that are happening now and almost future proof the education system even if that means dropping down the PISA rankings and suffering short term politically. My heart beats faster just to contemplate the leadership and vision involved in such a farsighted ambition. I am definitely taking Eeva’s invitation to go to Helsinki to see what her and her colleagues are planning for in their vision of education. But then in another talk looking at the Anthropocene era we are now in I did come away feeling very pessimistic as the speaker loudly boomed in what can only be described as a Polish-East Ridings of Yorkshire accent, “educators are impotent” in the face of these huge societal challenges and preparing young people to lead on them. Which brought me to my own talk on the Saturday afternoon on global learning and what we are doing at Wyedean School. Besides the fact, I spoke too fast for the translation and used far too many Americanisms; it really made me think when I was asked in the Q&A about whether exposing students to international education made them any more of a global citizen or less. I did think of a 101 examples of when I was on the British Council’s International School Award panel and I would cringe at the clumsy but well intended global learning opportunities in schools around the UK. We live in a very global society in 2017 but this very globalisation and fast-paced change linked to the extraordinary advances in technology has left so many communities and societies around the World grasping to make sense and keep up or simply to dis-engage. My dear friend in Moldova wrote to me this morning, on WhatsApp of course, about the horrific shooting at a concert in Las Vegas following the dreadful violence in Catalonia, the floods in the Caribbean, the removal of the Muslim population of Myanmar and the murders at Marseilles train station on Sunday. She is a wonderful optimist but she wrote, “The World seems to have gone crazy”.

It does seem that way sometimes and yet last week I sat with a great friend and parent of Wyedean School, Mike Peckham along with his son Ashraf, to plan the South West and Wales conference we are holding here on the 9th December entitled “Making Sense of the World now”. I am a little bit worried that the aim of the conference maybe promising too much on the back of this weekend’s events but at the same time the line-up of speakers and workshops for 16-19 year old students are tackling a range of topics from fake news and the media, religion in the C21st, to identity and democracy. It made me feel hopeful and think of the MLK quote starting this blog about giving students the opportunities and ability to question and think critically. I wish I were at the University of Bristol this week as Wyedean School Year 12 debaters Matt Ward and Hannah Purcell have been selected to take part in a special event looking at the implications of the Brexit vote and process and what the future of the UK may well be according to the young people who will lead it one day.

Emerson was right to warn of not being pushed by problems and sometimes it is all too apparent the barriers and problems we face along the way. As we get further into autumn and the weeks of this term are ticking by until half term break I want to be focused on and led by dreams and ambitions more as a school leader. I get it from the buzz in the corridors; the Wednesday teaching and learning briefing; my school teams; the kind emails from parents; the energy of the kids out in the school yard at break and lunch; seeing the school showcased at open evening and the daily flood of pictures on Twitter highlighting compelling learning with the knowledge we are in the best job in the World to face the future with confidence. We are educators in the business of education after all.

Rob Ford 

1 September 2017

“If we cannot change the World ourselves, we might by creating leaders who can through education” Kurt Hahn.


As I look out of my cabin window where I sit writing this first blog of the new academic year it seems summer and autumn are battling to see who will prevail as the day feels like any traditional summer’s hot day in July but the dead leaves from my Siberian birch are all over the lawn and most plants are now beginning to die back ready for the change in season. It definitely is the first of September. In Russian and Eastern European countries, this day is celebrated as the “Day of Knowledge” and is a great way for students, educators, schools, parents and entire communities to recognise and acknowledge the vital importance of education not just for the future prosperity of those societies but it is about empowering the next generation to pick up the baton and carry it further forward. I am speaking at an international education conference in Poland in a couple of weeks’ time with the British Council on the themes of global learning, educational leadership and influence/impact in the classroom. I have thought all summer about what I am going to say to this prestigious audience about the impact and influence of beliefs and approaches of education on our students in the UK, Europe and across the globe as they step up to take their roles shaped by these systems and philosophies.

I was reminded of the torch being passed onto former students of mine when an old IB student and now a very successful vet got in contact recently to offer her assistance with current students who may be looking at going down the veterinary science route. Another former IB student of mine contacted me at the start of the summer to let me know he had been awarded a place at a prestigious forum this autumn to represent young business leaders at an international conference looking at the knowledge and skills needed by young leaders as the challenges of the 21st century continue to unfold and a common and global approach needs to be devised. As I reminded him, not bad for a lad from Mozambique who barely made it through the school gates for the first three years of secondary school, written off by so many of his teachers until he took the IB and now he has a phenomenal career at Apple. What these two former students epitomise for me is what I have known for my entire career to date, 24 years this year as an educator, that there is a natural cycle to education which is about people who do trail blaze putting something back to ensure there is a solid conveyor belt moving forward but more importantly to inspire the next generation onto greater ambition. And this goes way beyond the dogmatic narrowing of the curriculum and the slavish adherence to exams that so many schools have chosen to focus on. I have mentioned it before here in this blog but it is worth mentioning again as I seem to be behind the same bus around north Bristol this summer; Sidcot is an IB school in Somerset and they have the very simple but thought-provoking message for their open day advert for this month “We are more than just an exams factory”. Summing up a simple but brilliant holistic approach to educating the whole of the individual so that they are not just leaving school with relevant qualifications but also skills ranging from critical thinking to resilience that will help them navigate their next stages and life. There is something about a holistic educational approach that a few schools are still brave enough to offer despite the onslaught of the current education ideology and the students leaving these schools have far better well-being and a growth mind set to cope with the challenges and complexities of this globalised world. All education should be about this and all educators should have this in their core beliefs about why they want to work with young people.

This August my colleagues, students, parents, governors and our local communities got to celebrate again the remarkable achievement of the A Level, BTEC and GCSE results at Wyedean. I will never lose the sheer emotion of these two days as students (and staff and parents) nervously anticipate and find out their results from their hard work for over two years. This August the two cohorts were the guinea pigs of educational reforms in qualifications and curriculum dreamt up by a secretary of state long gone from the scene but schools are coping with the legacy of the sheer amount of reforms across the whole of education impacting so many areas with such a short time of implementation. My colleagues have been nothing short of heroic in their determination and resolution to ensure the students have not suffered in all of this. I look at the challenges for the new academic year and the crisis in school funding fills me with trepidation as a principal. Knowing what my school has had to do attract increased numbers, develop a broad and unique curriculum, retain the best staff and deal with ageing infrastructure because of public finances and the wider crisis of the domination of the Brexit decision at the heart of current national governance.

So as I watch the autumn creep slowly across my garden on the sunny 1st September, the Day of Knowledge, and I finish my “state of the union” address to deliver to my colleagues this coming Monday I look very inwardly at finding the optimism as a school leader to be able to look to better times and to make sure the new academic year is rich in what we want for our young people to nurture them and for our young people to enjoy and experience a year to make sure their lives are better permanently for being in our educational care. It’s the tough challenge of anyone in education and the reason why this job is a vocation. I would like to add personally though I never really expected the sports car or the playboy lifestyle when I picked up my first piece of chalk. I will tell my colleagues on Monday what an incredible job they did in the academic year 2016-17. I will share with them the success and the moments we create and celebrate daily at Wyedean with our community. I will tell them categorically that all school leaders are the lightning rods and it’s our job to soak up the fads, directives, whims and whatever else gets thrown at us to ensure they can do their jobs educating our young people for the future. I will make it clear that we will continue to develop a World Class 21st Century learning holistic learning experience anchored on creativity, digital and global learning because the century is going to need our young people to be able to adapt and change and think and reflect and build a better World for the future. And as this is the celebration of the Day of Knowledge I am going to quote a Victorian Headteacher who was way ahead of his time and still stands true when the point of education is in question. Dr Arnold said education was an introduction to the very best of what has been said and thought. We need to remember that in a globalised, technology complex world the need for knowledge and wisdom has never been more to tackle the laziness of “google information” on the individual. Today the great Anthony Seldon, one of my heroes, urged school leaders in the TES to be even more ambitious and make their schools even better as centres of education.

“Leave our 19th-century schools system behind – we should all be teaching entrepreneurship and exposing students to the arts, creativity, sport, adventure and challenge In 25 years’ time, we will look back at schools today and ask ourselves if we were stark raving mad to have let them be so narrow and so low-achieving. We need schools for the 21st century but we have a school model designed in the 19th century…”

This may be hard for individuals who have received for several years now nothing but below inflation pay awards, reduced resources and expectations of further bureaucracy and empty judgements from a creaking system but it is one challenge we must find a way around as educators this coming academic year. The quote from Kurt Hahn, has always been on my classroom and study wall throughout my education career because if I do need to dig deeper inwardly to find optimism to motivate my colleagues as their principal on Monday morning then I need to think about the likes of my two former IB students that contacted me this summer. I need to think about their incredible contributions, and countless others because of the influence of decent hardworking educators, that these former students are making to a better society thanks to their education and compassion. That is the educational challenge always and it’s not for the faint hearted or the lover of the cheap and quick reward. Hearts and minds the clarion call on Monday, like every year.

Rob Ford