The First Term

In the hiatus between Christmas and New Year, there is a pivotal point that exists, permitting a moment of reflection. It comes just after the noise of the past term has abated and just before thoughts and preparation for the new term take hold with renewed vigour. Granted, we have the social milieu that surrounds us at this time of year and the much needed personal, family time is the most significant focus. Yet, if we want to stop and take a look around once in a while, then this is as good time as any.

It is in that moment that I find myself. At the start of September I left the independent schools sector after 23 years, 10 as a Head, and took up a role in the state-funded sector as the Principal of a Free School. The move has meant adjusting my own preconceptions about involvement in public education whilst facing the challenge of applying 20+ years in teaching and school leadership in the private sector.

I admit apprehension. Questions troubled me in the months beforehand: what would be required to make the transition from one role to another, from a Sussex country prep school to an urban Hertfordshire Free School? How would I get to grips with the regulatory challenges that appear to swamp schools? And what is the truth behind the media hubbub that has coloured the perception of free schools, let alone created such negativity about the lot of state education in England? However, in answering these questions through the term, I am left with an overwhelming sense of contentment. I have been able to rise to the challenge (so far!) and the myths and biases that I had possessed have been so very securely dispelled and dismissed.

So through reflection at this point in the school year, the pathways of the past 16 weeks can be looked upon from a convenient perspective. These are the ‘lower foothills’ of the term as a whole; the summit will be reached later in July! The experience has renewed my interest in and passion for what schools can be. The opportunities have shown me clearly that commitment to a leadership style enabling and empowering colleagues actually does work.

So, up to this point, these lesson I have learned:

Relationships work. Communities are built on a sense of belonging; on recognising that we are collectively part of something that is greater than ourselves. I make no apology for believing that this must lie at the heart of excellent schools. The cynical among us may call it internal marketing or PR, but a child and their family need to feel that they belong to a place, a group, a community that has their interests at heart and values their contribution. Building relationships, and more importantly sustaining them, was my first task on arrival in September and will remain a key to further success. Whether these relationships encourage participation or gain feedback, in permits an understanding of the people in your organisation and how to reach them. Even, and especially, the more reticent.

Governance matters. Excellence in governance is about being well informed but mindful of who makes key decisions and has the most public accountability; who has to lead staff, parents and children on a daily basis – and that’s not only the Head. It is about possessing a humanity and compassion for the people, the human beings, in an organisation and it is being knowledgeable about the evidence – in all its forms – and being clear on the narrative. Finally, it is about knowing the leaders and responding to their needs with guidance and good counsel.

Teamship & Leadership by turns. By and large colleagues know what they’re doing. They are grown ups, professional people with a vision for what they want to achieve, whether in the classroom, their department or the school as a whole. As a Head you own the vision for the whole organisation and you ensure values are shared; you articulate “why” and you can show “how” but the “what” is up to your colleagues. They are the ones at the chalk face so need the support, training and awareness to put the vision in to practice through the values that you all share. Therefore knowing when to take a step back and let others lead, to trust their skills (developing or secure), results in a greater sense of cohesion and confidence. Allowing colleagues to show you how they interpret the vision and values you have established can be an incredibly powerful force for a truly collaborative school system.

Schools are about children. Strangely, in my experience, an occasionally overlooked fact! Regardless of socio-economics, location, professional status, source of income or educational background, parents all essentially want the same successful outcomes for their children: to be happy, well-educated and a decent member of the community. Of course this is extremely complex and much ink, digital or otherwise, has been spent on trying to define the meaning of education. However, what is patently clear is the question that should drive any school’s development: “so what?” The impact of any initiative, CPD, leadership approach or development plan has to have at its heart the impact on the community of children. And this is true regardless of how a school is funded, whether from public or private sources. The key is accountability.

As we move into the Spring Term, we have a clearer sense of identity and purpose. We have agreed and shared values and we have a critical and transparent view on the progress made by the children. I am now looking forward to putting it all together and building the cohesion that our sense of purpose enables.


“Globally Competent Individuals & Leaders”

From the archives.  I found this blog post in my drafts and, although from a couple of years ago, the theme of global competencies continues to grow in importance in the development of young people.

Arne Duncan’s special message to NAFSA, the Association of International Educators, providing support for the work that is done to promote global learning that develops the skills and competencies to play an effective role in our rapidly changing world.

A global education is part of everything we do in schools.  The interconnectedness of the world is such that we have now more effectively moved beyond the boundaries of the classroom in the development of values that will enable our children, and ourselves, to live more carefully and more curiously now and in the future.

Towards a global literacy.

It is a journey and, if it hasn’t already (which it probably has if you think about it), I suggest 3 simple steps that can be taken to further develop understanding of the world beyond our borders.  This is a global literacy.  Equipping our young people (and ourselves) with the language, knowledge and understanding to reach out and make the most of the world in which we live.

  • Scratch the surface.  Even in leafy Hertfordshire, a class discussion on family trees or around traditions – particularly interesting at Christmas, Easter or Diwali – will often quickly uncover relatives who were born overseas.  Naturally, care needs to be taken over children’s stories, yet carefully handled, family history, traditions and culture can help children recognise the diversity that exists amongst themselves.
  • Fly the flag.  A flagpole is great, but any public display space can carry a regularly rotating image or a flag.  Whether, linked to a school’s own international projects or simply for developing general knowledge, a flag makes a fantastic talking point – see Roman Mars on for example.  You will also know what vexillology means!
  • Use the enthusiasm of others.  Not only within your own staff team, but also connect with what teachers are willing to do in other locations.  Making links through the British Council Connecting Classrooms initiative very quickly, in my experience, returns contacts from schools in other countries.  The enthusiasm and sheer will that I have discovered in school teachers and leaders is humbling.  With just a little organisation, some ICT, photos and letters children can come face-to-face with each other in very different locations.  In addition, I have found that just by starting this process, the interest of colleagues in travel has emerged, voluntarily, to support the physical connections that make linking schools so much more effective.

As a start (or rather, the continued promotion of global education) these are just a few of many simple things that can kick start discussion and development at school.  Once these conversations start, whether they are in the classroom or between colleagues, the motivation and momentum will increase.  And you will probably find yourself nominated global learning coordinator.  Now wouldn’t that be a good thing!


I forgot I wrote this.  Twelve years ago I was Deputy Head at Berkhamsted Collegiate Prep School (now Berkhamsted Prep School).  I was writing a blogpost on a site I created for a group of us who had met at an IAPS Aspiring Heads conference.

The post was written at the time when “Citizenship Education” was being discussed as the next thing to introduce to young people; aiming to develop character and values that would provide them with firm foundations in their lives ahead.  It was this point – the impact on the children’s lives in the future along with the need to develop whole school culture that lead me to ask the questions:…/civilising-subject

How are we to educate for future responsibility? My Year 6 classes or my 1W RE form are not simply the 6- or 11-year-olds in front of me now. They are the voting 20-somethings or parents with purchasing power in 10 or 20 years time. So these future-adults must be able to participate in an environment which instills core values of kindness, care, humility and self-confidence. Surely school management issues and not merely to be stuffed away as a subject within the curriculum?

Throughout my career, from Environmental Education in Florida to Prep School Headship, I have sought ways to manifest a social and environmental responsibility in school curriculum and culture.  Having established the principles of Education for Social Responsibility in IAPS 5 years ago, I was delighted to find this post.  I was equally delighted to realise that I have remained consistent in the intervening dozen years or so with this from January 2017…

What we are aiming to do is to equip children – or perhaps more accurately the future adults who these children will become – with the mental tools to feel confident, capable and unafraid.  Happy to learn to cope with and overcome any challenge that they face; to enjoy, and above all relish, the opportunity to try something easy as well as hard.

Now, after 12 years, it is a pleasure to be working in schools that fully embrace the development of virtues, values and character and its impact on outcomes.  ‘Twas ever thus, of course, yet the time for antipathy and derision is over.  We understand instinctively that focusing on behaviours and attitudes to learning leads to improvement.  I am delighted that we can now give full vent to our passions and create schools and school systems that grow stronger and more successful communities.


Is it all a question of balance?

Since September, every Wednesday evening bar the holidays, we hold Dads’ football in the Sports Hall.  From 8.00pm to 9.00pm, all are welcome.  We even have a couple of friends of Pennthorpe dads who enjoy the opportunity to run around (and out of breath) for an hour or so basically kicking a ball into a goal – or relishing the attempt.  We have had as many as 15 and so encouraged are we that now actual fixtures against other prep school dads’ football teams are being mooted!

Now, I do not wish to fall into stereotypical characterization of gender roles or deride either gender for its perceived foibles or idiosyncrasies.  Quite the opposite.   It is not for me  to explain why, or even demystify such significant and ancient rituals such as watching live sport or having hobbies involving things with engines or collections of shoes, hats or models of real life objects.

Last Friday’s item on the BBC concerning girls perception of self-worth highlights the importance we must place on balance for all children at Pennthorpe and recognition of the sense of self that each person has.

As schools we are a families, and as such we aim to provide the right pastoral care for all of its members.   And this doesn’t mean ballet for girls or rugger for boys; human beings are far more subtle and nuanced than that.  We understand that gender, personality and personal well-being all contribute to who you are as a learner – or indeed adult.   Therefore our approach to provision in the classroom, needs to recognise that need and interest vary from child-to-child, from week-to-week, day-to-day and even lesson-to-lesson.

Planning for this nuanced, tailored approach to learning is challenging yet is achievable.  It lies at the heart of how we can redefine prep school education and it is one of the keys to the excellence, academic and pastoral, that is our commitment as schools.  We do this through:

Thorough knowledge of the children and their families

Tracking and record keeping of progress both pastorally and academically

Reporting back at regular intervals

This cycle – or upward spiral – of preparation, experience and reflection propels each child forward.  As I discussed last week, the focus on happiness, coupled with the expectation to try your best in all aspects of school life and a desire to focus on the identity of each child, is what leads to successful outcomes.  We recognise shared purpose and understand that you are celebrated for who you are.  Not a lazy stereotype, but a complex, unique individual who has a great deal of potential and much to offer.


Old School Ties

I found this from way back, 28th June 2007, and thought I’d share (or re-share).  It concerns a report on 11+ schooling being the greatest indicator of future success.

The Sutton Trust have relesed the results of a survey indicating that leading professional people are more likely to have been educated independently.  In particular, schooling post 11 is the great…

Source: Old School Ties


Purpose or priority: Can the curriculum really deliver both technological & ecological literacy?

IMG_0896Whether its “a rapidly changing world” or “the 21st Century”, “children of the Millennials” or “Generation Alpha”, our curriculum design has a target audience. As educators we have always been committed to preparing the young people in our care for the world they inhabit now and for that which they will meet beyond their time in formal education.

For me, this begs the question: Can a techno-centric curriculum be reconciled with a values-led approach delivering the learning experiences for the future we want and our children will inhabit?

Curriculum design & subject leadership can come together to deliver learning that satisfies the needs of the head and the heart. It doesn’t require everyone to be immersed in systems thinking to establish a holistic approach to learning. What is needed is some straightforward joined up thinking that connects learning at school with the purpose of living a full and productive life outside and beyond it.

For example:

  • Learning to code but have no interest in programming? Understand that inside an increasing number of everyday objects (the “internet of things”) will be devices which someone somewhere has made do something really clever – for you. Its not magic, it can be understood along with its relevance to you.
  • Learning about ecosystems but hate biology? Understand that living things are interconnected and that the flow of energy, carbon, water, etc is a continuous cycle. You are a part of an enormous whole.
  • Learning about settlements but can’t wait for Games? Understand that planning for humans in an ever growing global population has to take into consideration health and well-being, amenities, parks & open spaces as well as sustainable resource management.

By asking questions, like these and others, and committing to the journey of trying to find answers, we can deliver more purposeful, exciting and dynamic learning experiences for our pupils and more interesting and relevant places to work.


On Outdoor Learning


It was a Spring day in 1994.  28 children plus assorted members of staff from a Primary school in Southampton were walking behind me through the woodland at the Environmental Education Centre in the New Forest where I used to work.  I’d walked these paths dozens of times, but this walk was different.  Each day primary aged children from a range of schools visited our woodland to go on mini beast hunts, learn about natural history and ecology and dip in our very large ponds.  This particular group had been staying at our nearby farm and residential centre where, each morning and evening, they would take turns on a rota of duties – milking cows and goats, feeding and mucking out the pigs, collecting eggs or helping in the kitchens.  Our aim was fairly unique at the time: to provide the children, whether on the residential trips or on day visits to the woods, an immersive experience.  Every opportunity we had to encourage learning was experiential – learning by doing and learning by being.  The outcomes were profound and the effects on the children were lasting.

Although we walked through the woods every day, when we had a residential group we would take them on one special and far deeper experience: a walk through the woods at night.  With no torches.  And not just that, the children (and staff) were left to sit alone (if they wished) or in pairs to be completely still and silent.  In fact the whole walk was taken without talking; the children and staff following quietly for perhaps half and hour, sometimes longer if the group were particularly responsive.  Again, the effect was profound.  The feedback from teachers was always one of amazement that their children had coped with so well with such a challenge, immersing themselves in an experience so decidedly alien from the lives that they usually led in the nearby towns and cities.
From that Spring Day nearly 22 years ago we can wind the clock forward and the world has developed and evolved around us.  It is far different now from anything that we, as  adults-parents-teachers, would be familiar with from our own childhoods.  Certainly the Y6 children on the walk with me that night in 1994 had a very different world to contend with – we’d only just started to hear about the internet, computers were still the size of a small suitcase and “mobile technology” generally meant carrying something heavy and expensive in a bag across your shoulders.  But even back in the 90’s we were already talking about the dearth of opportunity for children to play outdoors, health and safety regulations stemming the flow of fun in playgrounds and less and less sport played in schools.  We were also talking about human impact on our planet, the need for greater understanding about living sustainably and within our means and about the loss of natural habitats through the growth in housing and transport networks.  Messages as familiar now as they were 20 years ago.
I have now been teaching for 25 years and through this time I have witnessed the great cycle of educational innovation, fashion and revision that many of my older colleagues told me about when I first started out.  I was younger and found it hard to believe, yet now I have reached a point when I can reflect on what this has meant.   Yet, what fascinates and motivates me more, rather than the changes, is the consistency that has remained in teaching, learning and schools.  Good parenting has always embraced the idea of boundaries and cuddles.  Good teaching has always excited and enthralled, capturing imaginations and inspiring young people to excel.  And children have always been children: they are brimming with energy and limitless curiosity, discovering their world for the first time.  When it comes to the debate about the changes in childhood experience, the usual run of digital-age-related reasons can be rolled out.  Yet the “modern life” tag is overused and far too convenient – a lazy excuse, perhaps.  Children crave connection with the world around them.  They have a need to understand how it works, how they can influence it and how it influences them, from how to make friends and communicate to what happens when you poke a stick at something. As adults we are absolutely key in helping children make these connections and develop their understanding.  We have the opportunity (and responsibility) to provide them with experiences and guidance in these early years, establishing values and norms which will ensure that they are happy and productive throughout their lives.
IMG_0920The natural world is a visceral, real, messy and untidy experience, arguably well-suited to many children!  In the same way that vinyl is making a comeback, it is time to turn, or return, to the analogue world about us and find ways that children can experience the outdoors intimately, deeply and on a personal level, where it is just for them.  At the heart of this experience is the opportunity to just be outdoors with nothing more than sticks, logs, leaves, mud and perhaps a fire for cooking.  Schools have become enthralled by the Forest Schools movement, which aims to take children out into the natural world and use this as a place to develop a closer connection with the natural world, learn skills and and gain a sense of comfort and enjoyment “out of doors”.  However, true learning comes from experience and too much structure stifles creativity.  Therefore designing learning experience does not take much more equipment than a pair of sturdy boots and some clothes that can get grubby and generally protects against damp! The walks in the woods at night were amongst the most exciting learning experiences that I have delivered in my career.  There was no equipment, no learning objective or set of guidelines.  Just me, the children and the members of staff.
AIMG_0981t our school we are blessed with beautiful woodland and we try to make the most of this wonderful resource.  By playing or just being in the woods the children learn to create, to imagine and to care and the more that we can encourage this – at school or at home – the better their future will be for them.  We know that emotionally intelligent people become very successful, achieving more than those with higher IQs  Therefore, through an emphasis in learning outdoors, children develop empathy for the wider world and understanding their place in it.  It is a great way for children to grow the emotional capability to manage their life and their relationships better in the future.  They won’t know it now, but they will thank you for it later