24 February 2017

Turbulent times

This week we welcome our Deputy Head (Academic), Dr David James, who explains why we are hosting our inaugural Education Summit later this year.

We live in turbulent times. Every day seems to carry a strapline of ‘what fresh hell is this?’ And the politicians, who are charged by the public to provide answers, seem at best stunned into inaction by the speed of events or, worse, actively conniving to make things more chaotic. WB Yeats’s lines from The Second Coming seem especially apposite at this moment in time:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
It is easy to see how prosaic matters, such as education, slip down the Government’s To Do list. But I have argued elsewhere that, for schools, there is only one thing worse than a busy, conviction-led Secretary of State at the Department for Education, and that is not having one. And there is no doubt that ever since Michael Gove was defenestrated by a Prime Minister who wanted to win the last election, schools occupy fewer headlines, and probably take up less discussion time in cabinet, than they used to.

This can lead to drift, and drift in turn can lead to uncertainty, which in turn can store up problems for society in the future, because the issues affecting schools (such as academic underachievement or poor behaviour) are rarely contained behind the school gate. There are worrying trends developing in the maintained sector: it is estimated that four out of ten newly qualified teachers leave the profession within their first year of teaching; at the other end of the career ladder there is a retention crisis, with record numbers of headteachers stepping down, or taking early retirement. With so much talk about the crisis in the NHS this winter it is understandable that the challenges facing schools are overlooked, but they are there, and this is something that the National Funding Formula seems to be exacerbating, with some headteachers warning of a ‘bleak’ future for schools.

You will no doubt have noticed that I have decided not to discuss new GCSEs, with their still-to-be understood new grading system, as well as the death of AS examinations and the new, more rigorous A level with high-stakes terminal examinations that nobody, including our more selective universities, has total faith in.

It would be easy to be cynical. But of course there is much good happening in schools: students continue to excel beyond their own expectations, and regardless of what happens to the courses they study, or how they are assessed, thousands of inspiring, committed teachers will continue to do their best for the young people they teach. Public trust in teachers is second only to doctors (and considerably higher than politicians and estate agents, which is reassuring). To paraphrase George Eliot, it is because of the ‘unhistoric acts’ that teachers do every day that the ‘growing good of the world’ is added to. Or I like to think so anyway.

In such a climate we felt it appropriate to run an event that addressed some of the major issues facing schools today. And so, on 7 June, Bryanston is hosting its first Education Summit, which will bring together some of the most influential and knowledgeable voices in education today. Among those speaking is Lucy Crehan, whose book, Cleverlands, has been rightly praised as providing us with a startlingly clear insight into how teachers in other national systems achieve outstanding results with their students. It has been described as ‘audacious’, but mandatory reading for all those designing future education policy. Other contributors include Professor Dylan Wiliam, a seminal figure in education, consulted by leading companies, universities, and governments. There are few who know more about teaching than Dylan. And he is joined by Professor AC Grayling, one of this country’s leading intellectuals and academics. Toby Young and Claire Fox are also going to be asking difficult questions, and no doubt provoking strong responses. Other confirmed speakers, such as Ian Fordham, Microsoft’s Director of Education, will be focusing on the role of technology in the classroom; and others will be discussing the importance of partnerships to schools, and new developments in teaching and learning.

Why run an event like this, especially at the end of a tiring term? Because we believe that by bringing people together from across the education sector, to establish new connections, we can begin to find solutions to issues that affect everyone involved. It would be easier to not do this, to sit back and passively accept the slings and arrows hurled at us daily by opinion-formers and policy-makers, or to hunker down, and retreat into a bubble, hoping that the changes happening will sweep over us, leaving us untouched. Both approaches are unwise, especially as there are challenges and issues for all schools, including those like Bryanston. Both are also inimical to Bryanston’s ethos which actively promotes in its pupils an active engagement with the world around them. It is better to shape the debate than to be talked over and ignored.

This is not an event for teachers only: it is for everyone, including parents, who are interested in education today. Do join us, and take part in the debate.

For more information visit www.bryanston.co.uk/educationsummit.
More speakers will be confirmed nearer the time, and please do keep checking our website for further details, as well as following the summit on Twitter (@bryedusummit).

3 February 2017

Creating the right environment

One of the most difficult questions I have faced as Head came about ten years ago, during a Blues’ (prefects’) meeting.

“So, what do you do as a head then?”

I think the boy was rather surprised, firstly that the words hadn’t just rolled around inside his mind but had actually come out of his mouth, and secondly by the moment’s profound silence with which all his fellow Blues had met his earnest enquiry.

It seemed to me a perfectly decent question (though somewhat unexpected in the context of the meeting). I muttered something in reply, about welcoming lots of prospective pupils and parents, dealing with lots of current pupils and parents, watching matches every Saturday, the odd bit of Latin teaching, and - my least favourite activity of all time - attending meetings. And, worse still, meetings about meetings. I have often mused subsequently that none of this did justice to Jonathan’s question.

A head’s job is frankly a rather barmy one. You have what one of my governors once described as a large number of different client stakeholders. There are, of course, pupils and prospective pupils, parents and prospective parents, current staff, former staff, former pupils, governors past and present, and other members of the extended Bryanston family. There are also relations to be maintained with other schools, particularly, but not exclusively, prep schools (I and other members of staff govern at a wide range of them) and we may even be involved in an academy school too. But that is still not enough of an answer to Jonathan’s question. It’s just the transactional stuff.

I spend a good deal of my time on the above, it’s true, and my diary looks like a piece of cake some days and a merciless assault course other days. And that despite the careful ministrations of clever and kind PAs. If you’re not careful you can spend too much time in your study and not enough time out and about. I struggle to escape sometimes. And having started my career as an unimpressive articled clerk to a notary public, I’m a bit allergic to being stuck behind a desk.

The truth is that the job of a head is not a job at all. It’s a vocation. And the thing that drives me, and I believe all my colleagues in all schools of different shapes and sizes, is the physical and mental wellbeing and intellectual and spiritual growth of all the pupils in our care. It’s what gets us out of bed every morning. It’s what takes me from D chapel on weekday mornings (not often enough, I’m ashamed to say) to A3 discussion groups on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. It’s what draws me to the touchline, to the theatre, to the art studio and the concert hall. There is a joy and energy, which frankly can only be gained from spending time in the company of talented and interesting pupils and staff. It can’t be found from behind a desk. In fact, it’s hard to imagine it can be found in many other walks of life.

I believe my job is to create the right environment. One in which our pupils and staff can thrive and enjoy teaching and learning. It’s what I aim for. Sometimes that seems a ridiculously ambitious aim. Other times the world spins perfectly on its axis and everything seems to be swept along in this joyful endeavour. The real reward, of course, is in seeing our young people leave school at 18 ready to take on the world with confidence. That’s when you really know you’ve done your job as a head. And that, I hope, at long last, goes at least some way to answering Jonathan’s question.

20 January 2017

Take a digital pause

This week we welcome Dr Preetpal Bachra, who reminds of the need to take a break from our digital devices. 

The iPhone recently celebrated its tenth birthday and in those ten years many of us have become dependent on our smartphones. They help us stay in touch, organise our day, capture and share memories, remember things, generally, manage our lives. But are we in danger of allowing technology to dictate our lives too?

I can see all the positives of digital technology; the increased ability to reach out to people, interact with family members and friends who are further away, learn something new and buy things quickly and conveniently. The downside to this is that organisations collect your data and can work out your preferences. They can sell you products or tempt you with things you never realised you needed. In short, it can seem that technology is using us, rather than the other way around.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t use technology, BUT it should be on our terms. We should all be able to do the things we want to do and that means we have to take responsibility for ourselves. How many times can pupils get distracted because someone has messaged them, or a notification has popped up? It seems like we are allowing other people to have an impact on our lives, that they are always calling our name through messages and notifications, and we are letting them.

Why do we let digital communication take control of us, though? It’s reminiscent of something from my childhood – stickers. I grew up wanting stickers to ensure I completed my Panini 1984 Division 1 Football Sticker Album. It still applies with my FitBit and achieving badges. You may see others walking around constantly checking their wrists thinking, “How many more until I reach 10,000 steps?” For pupils, the equivalent might be getting likes on Facebook or maintaining streaks on Snapchat.

It is all about approval. What would you do for a sticker? Well, the result is increasing levels of anxiety, mental health issues and social tension not social cohesion. A sense of competitiveness can emerge to have the most likes, followers or shares, or even the most picture-perfect online presence. The pictures and messages posted on Snapchat, Instagram or any other social network don’t always tell the whole story – they tend to be the ‘best bits’ that have been edited and filtered to portray a particular image. Quite often we see what appear to be the perfect lives of others online and compare these to our own lives without the same positive filter. The result? A poor comparison in most cases.

So, my advice to pupils, and indeed us all, is our phones or laptops should not adversely affect our learning or our lives, but enhance them. Leave it in the house, turn it off, but let go of it for a while. Write things out if you can, but if you use a laptop then use it just for that.

Read … slowly.

Go for a walk … slowly.

And take the time to interact face to face.