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Inside the infinite loop

I am writing this in an Apple conference room in Cupertino, California as I await a transfer to San Jose airport. The past four days have been exhilarating to say the least. I’d even be so bold as to say it’s been the best PLD experience I’ve ever had. I am very grateful to be invited by Apple and SSAT to be a part it. It’s not every day you get invited to spend a week behind the curtain with Apple at their HQ.

As I await the long flight home, I’m trying to use this time to reflect and make sense of all that I’ve seen. My head is spinning.

Further, more in-depth posts will follow. Such as how impressive an organisation Apple are when you get to the core. It’s been such a privilege to be allowed behind the curtain and go places very few have been. To have walked the same corridors as Steve Jobs and to maybe have sat in a room where his team of ultimate disruptors changed our perceptions of everything, is very humbling.

For now though, three things that have really hit home for me:

1. Apple are not a company that sells tech. Instead they exist to make us think differently about what we perceive education to be. Technology is merely a means to that end. One particular comment from one of the Austin store retail managers stands out for me: ‘What we do as employees of Apple we do first for ourselves and then for the world. Our soul is our people … people who shine a spotlight on you to stand outside it.’

2. Education in England is exceptional. What we are currently doing in our schools in terms of student collaboration, innovation and creativity is top drawer. When you have the privilege to visit other high-performing schools in other countries, it reaffirms your faith in all that you believe in and that as a profession we are well ahead of the game.

3. Culture is king. And at the heart of any successful culture is simplicity. We are all guilty of over-complicating things. If we want to tell our story in a way that is compelling, engaging and authentic, then we need to strip it right back. Always begin with the ‘why’. Everything else then falls into place.

It’s been an absolute honour and privilege to learn with so many inspiring colleagues who themselves are all facing the same challenges back in their schools. But the schools and communities they serve are in safe hands because I’ve seen first hand – up close and personal – how passion stokes the fire in their bellies.

I’m looking forward to spreading a bit of that warmth around my own colleagues on my return. For now though, I’ll spend the flight home mulling over even more how I intend to change the world.

An education worth having

 

 

IMG_2218The chances are you may not have heard of the Whole Education Network. It’s been going strong for several years now and grew out of the RSA in 2010. If you haven’t come across them yet, then you really should have, so read on (3 minutes reading time).

Consisting of over 200 members (and 21,000 Twitter followers), the network is a dynamic partnership of schools all with a shared passion: That all children deserve an engaging and rounded education that supports academic achievement, but also develops the skills, knowledge and qualities needed to thrive.

Anyone can join. So long as you buy-in to the key principles and are committed to collaborating with like-minded schools who embrace innovation and world-class thinking, then you’re in. You also need to sign up to the concept of – as the name suggests  – a ‘whole education’. In other words, you ensure that your pupils take complete ownership of their learning through a relevant, engaging and worthwhile curriculum. Only then can we truly guarantee an ‘education worth having’. (Those of you who have read my book will know what I mean.)

You can find out more about the Whole Education Network on their website, such as leadership impact initiatives, research and focus groups, webinars, conferences and peer review. As a member you can connect with schools at the cutting edge of best-practice up and down the country. For example, there are currently school-led interest groups exploring flipped learning, spirals of enquiry, project-based learning, digital fluency and so on. What’s perhaps most exciting is the ability to influence change on a national and international scale. Chaired by Sir John Dunford, the board and executive are well-placed to open doors and bend ears of ministers, influencers and international movers and shakers.

As the executive headteacher of a Whole Education Network Partner School, and all-round advocate for a whole education, I’m looking to establish a regional primary hub in the Midlands. Hubs are already well-established in some parts of England, such as the one in the North-West led by Sharon Bruton, CEO at The Keys Federation in Wigan. I hope to galvanise enough support to create a Midlands powerhouse where schools are able to create synergies and collaborate and share best-practice. Never before in our schools has this been more relevant, with the growing pressures on the arts, creativity, culture and the importance of a rounded and balanced curriculum, both implicit and explicit.

If you want to find out more then we are holding a Whole Education launch event at Rowley Park Academy (Stafford) on 15th May from 11.00am to 1.00pm. Look out for more details next week. You are all invited, regardless of whether or not you are an existing Whole Ed member. There’ll be an opportunity to learn more about what we do, meet key staff from the Network and agree a way forward as a regional hub. Rowley Park is a classic example of a school that has benefited from a whole education. In 2014 it was in special measures and is now a school bursting with innovation and creativity. Feel free to stay on for a tour of the school and have a look round.

If you can’t make the 15th, but are still interested then do contact me either through LinkedIn or Twitter @AndrewDMorrish. You can always contact Natasa Pantelic at Whole Education (Natasa@wholeeducation.org or on 0207 2585130).

Finally, if you know of any schools or colleagues that might be interested in joining the network, please pass this on.

 

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The ultimate oxymoron

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There is no such thing as rapid improvement. The two words simply don’t belong together. Rapid alterations, yes. I can live with that. Rapid change, possibly. But rapid improvement? Absolutely not.

Part of the problem is knowing what we mean by ‘rapid’. It was a phrase that was used many a time by HMI whilst doing our level best to move along a school that was stuck. No matter how hard we tried, no matter how impressive the changes, it was never rapid enough. So as a head I gave up bothering because I soon learnt that if I played the game and gave them ‘rapid’, they left me alone. But it was never going to stick. No sooner had I moved on to the next matter in hand, rapid turned into vapid. There was nothing there, it was meaningless, bland.

I raise this because we are fast approaching day 75 of sponsoring a new academy (working days only). In another 25, we reach the mythical 100-day milestone and by then research tells us that we should have made a difference. In reality this is just over half a school year, so whether it’s reasonable or not to see rapid improvement – with real demonstrable impact – is debatable.

We’ve hardly been pulling up trees during the first one hundred days at school. This mustn’t be mistaken for complacency or lethargy. On the contrary; we’ve been fervent in all that we do. But what we have been doing is watching, observing, listening and talking. This ensures that we lay firm foundations for long term systemic change. In turn the hope is that this will secure the deep-rooted improvements that we yearn.

Having found myself in this position a number of times in different schools throughout my career, what I’ve learnt is this: Horizontalism is the key. This means that leaders see the process of change not as a vertical upward trajectory akin to launching a rocket, but as a sideways segue, perhaps more like the meandering of a submersible as it probes beneath the surface.

The first one hundred days are indeed vital, so use them wisely. Don’t be rushed or hurried. Embrace the fact that rapid improvement is very much a slowburner and can only take off once you’ve been through three distinct phases:

ONE | Stabilise: This is where you need to show that as a leader things are simply not as bad as people may think (even if they are). You need to slow things down, calm things down. It’s crucial during this period that you are able to assess the situation critically and dispassionately and not get drawn into the politics or hubris of a school in crisis. Unless the seas are calm, turbulence prevails and meaningful change simply won’t happen. Creating such an illusion begins and ends with you.

TWO | Prioritise: Once you have turned the illusion into reality and established a sense of calm and stability, it becomes a lot easier to decide what your first important priorities are. With a steady ship you are able to recalibrate the compass. As a team, it is time to create a plan of action in the short, medium and long term. Together, you need to have a strong sense of OST, being clear of your new destination (Objective), how you are going to get there (Strategy) and who does what on the way (Tactics).

THREE | Visualise: This is the most powerful phase. In your mind’s eye, you need to be able to see the school that you want to create. You need to bring the OST to life by giving it a sense of mission, so that all stakeholders know not only where you want to go, but most importantly, why. To visualise therefore is to rationalise. This is where your vision and values come in to play, and by now, staff should know these inside out. Once you’ve achieved this, you are all set to take off and really make a meaningful difference in a way that will stick.

There could potentially be a fourth phase. If this were so, it would be this: Minimise. This is actually quite crucial as it reminds us that less is more. It really ought to operate alongside each of the phases above, which is why I’m inclined not to include it separately.

Minimising is about being clear of what the main thing is and sticking to it relentlessly. The best leaders ask the question, ‘what is it that we need to do less of?’ This ensures that our OST remains to the point, is purposeful and at the same time being both specific and realistic. Leaders that understand this have a strong sense of USP. They know what their school’s unique selling point is and how this relates to the community that they serve. Above all, they keep things simple.

 

You can read more about some of these ideas in The Art of Standing Out: School Transformation, to Greatness and Beyond published by John Catt in 2016 and available on Amazon.

A rallying cry for the arts

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One of the more pleasurable elements of my job is my role as a strategic board member (and chair) of a regional Arts Council Bridge Organisation. Based at the mac (formerly the Midlands Arts Centre) in Birmingham, Arts Connect is responsible for the delivery of the arts and culture offer across the region. Although it is operated by The University of Wolverhampton, it is entirely reliant on funding from Arts Council England. Without the funds, schools across the region would be unable to participate in Artsmark, Arts Award or enjoy any of the experiences provided by local Cultural Education Partnerships.

But I fear for our future; not so much for Arts Connect as an organisation, but the arts in general. It can’t have escaped your attention that the future of school funding is perilous to say the least. For the first time this millennium, heads are going to have go through their budgets line by line to make savings, and significant ones at that. Across our MAT alone (6 schools) we anticipate a shortfall in the hundreds of thousands, and that’s just for starters. Factor in the increased pension contributions that we all face and the future does not look rosy.

Never before has the need to issue a rallying cry to save the arts been more apparent as it is now. When it comes to making difficult budget issues, because the arts are often seen by many as icing and not cake, there are no prizes as to what’s likely to get the chop.

Figures shared at today’s board meeting show that across the West Midlands (14 local authorities covering 2600 schools), less than one in ten are involved with Artsmark (8%). Across the country the figure is close to 15%, almost double. Compare this with Arts Council England’s target of 50%, and we have a very long way to go. Factor in the new National Funding Formula, and you can see why that target is looking increasingly unlikely.

At the heart of the work of Arts Connect is a fundamental belief that arts and culture can enhance learning and transform lives. I believe in this and I hope you do too. I sincerely hope that as a teacher or leader in your school you will fight tooth and nail to protect the arts as well. Unfortunately, when it comes to the pressures of accountability – Ofsted included – the arts can be the first to be marginalised. I say this gingerly because I don’t actually believe it to be so, although sadly, in reality the pressures of inspection invariably mean that the arts end up taking a back seat. The lead performers will always be English and maths, with art and culture playing very much a supporting role.

The curriculum that we offer our young people must be riddled with art and cultural experiences. Without it, we cannot make sense of the world or ourselves. How can we expect children to embrace cultural diversity for example, if we don’t provide opportunities for them to engage with the world through arts and culture? (I feel at this point that I should take a moment to extol the virtues of the arts, but if I had to do that then the battle is already lost. We may as well all go home.)

School leaders are under ever-increasing pressure to show return on investment (ROI). This can only be demonstrated through impact in terms of outcomes and achievement. It’s the ‘So what?’ question. The problem primary schools face of course is that it’s very difficult to demonstrate how the arts (as opposed to art) have made a difference to young children’s lives because it’s almost impossible to measure in a meaningful way. I’ve always believed that if you stumble across something that is difficult to measure then it’s probably a good thing to do. Take SMSC, character education or social and emotional aspects of learning for example. The arts are the same; the minute we start to test it… well, heaven forbid.

Unfortunately, the very fact that it can’t be tested is often the reason why it gets marginalised and may ultimately be its downfall. Unlike with maths and English, it’s very difficult in a SES or headteacher’s report to governors to produce charts and tables that show how pupils are achieving in the arts. Even if we did (and a number of schools are doing exactly that with increasing aplomb), it would only be a matter of time before we’d then be expected to show how we compare with other schools.

Over the years, schools have learnt to play the game. Heads know only too well that a positive inspection outcome can be achieved without any arts, so long as outcomes are strong. I recall on several occasions as an inspector under previous frameworks, examples of schools that we’d graded as good or outstanding without seeing an ounce of arts, despite the children telling us that they were crying out for it. It was extremely frustrating, but our hands were tied by the inspection criteria, attainment especially. That said, the current framework is much-improved, particularly in regard to how well pupils thrive. The difficulty of course is how you go about proving it on the day in such a short space of time. (This is why I am a fan of peer review as it allows colleagues – in the words of Mary Myatt – to dive deeper and linger longer.)

I urge you to stand up for the arts. I urge you to resist the pressure of ditching the trips and visits and partnerships you may have with existing creatives and arts organisations. Rather than see them as inevitable victims of austerity, instead be wise, be brave and build your curriculum around them. If you haven’t already done so, contact your regional Bridge Organisation and see how they can support you, perhaps through Artsmark. It’s a much-improved beast to what it once was and is now based very much on whole-school self-evaluation and improvement.

You can find more information on how to find your nearest Arts Council Bridge Organisation here. All ten are currently putting in bids to Arts Council England for funding for the next four years and it’s unlikely that it will continue beyond that. There’s £10 million up for grabs each year, divvied up amongst the ten and so I urge you to fill your face and have your cake whilst you still can.

 

My latest book, The Art of Standing Out, is available on Amazon.

 

Care why, try hard

Guest post by Lisa Worgan, Director of Curriculum Innovation @VicAcademies

“Where are we going? How are we going to get there? And why are we doing this? Because if people don’t care, they won’t try as hard…”

@DavidBreashears, film-maker and climber, Inspiring Leadership conference, Birmingham ICC, 2016

The week of the Inspiring Leadership conference was an interesting moment on reflection in both my role and in life more generally. I spent much time thinking about what drives people to make a difference in the world around them and why this is ever more important in the world we live in today.

My thoughts started with a particularly interesting meeting with a group of children from one of our Trust primary schools. I was probing them around what felt important in their learning and how engaged they were in it. The responses that I got from these children were astonishing. They told me about how much difference they felt they had made in their last term’s Learning Challenge (called ‘Catastrophes) and that they had realised that ‘catastrophe’ wasn’t just about massive world disasters.

They had realised that families in their own school and community were going though catastrophe every day of their lives. That they didn’t have money to feed their families, or means to get clean and washed. And so these children researched and planned how they could help, working alongside the food bank to generate over £500, and using this to purchase a large amount of personal items to help families accessing the food and resource.

These children passionately articulated the difference they had made to their community, to how much they had learnt, but actually the pride they had in what they had achieved.

Children who care about the world are the future of this world. A world where not everyone is kind hearted and wants to make a difference. A world where children, adults and family go through suffering every day.

I continued to reflect on this during the conference whilst listening to author and humanitarian, Zainab Salbi tell her story of growing up in Iraq in a world of oppression and suffering and how she used this experience to motivate her. She knew that she wanted to change the world for women all around who were struggling in difficult circumstances and has spent so much time since planning opportunities for helping them to do this.

But much deeper than this, she has  taken the time to understand why this was important for her do this – how her own personal story has helped her go on to clearly help her make a difference.

And then, at the exact same time as I sat listening to the inspiring Zainab, the news of the death of Jo Cox, MP came through over the news feed. A woman who spent her short life being incredibly clear about her ‘why’. Her actions through speeches in Parliament and campaigns in constituencies and her active charity work demonstrated a very clear cause – to allow immigration to have a positive effect on communities. Jo believed in a better world and fought for it every day.

Our children are the future leaders of our world. We can help them be the kind of people who care and want to make a difference. Taking the time to plan for having a clear purpose in learning and helping them know why they are doing something can really change the meaning for children in our classrooms. This is about finding an ‘authentic’ real rather than ‘pretend’ real too – allowing children to really plan an event to bring communities together or to fundraise to buy that piece of rainforest.

Whatever it is, the learning should actually make an impact and not be falsified to feel real but be created to feel like this rather than actually existing in the world.

By creating a curriculum full of these learning experiences, we are helping children make the world a better place and giving them the learning process that shows that they have the power to change the world, but only if they care why and try hard…

@LisaWorgan

How do you continue to innovate?

A guest post by @LisaWorgan

When I first started my post with Victoria Academies Trust, I was given an interesting job title: Director of Curriculum Innovation. In some ways this filled me with excitement and enthusiasm; I would be responsible for working with the 5 schools in the Trust to ensure that their learning is real, immersive, and purposeful. Having spent time with all of these schools so far this academic year, it is clear that all of them are fulfilling many of these aspects in variety of engaging ways, and our plans to continue to build on this are becoming ever clearer.

And so then I come to the second part of my job title; Innovation. And this is the bit that continues to raise questions in my thoughts…

  • Question 1: When a school is already undertaking a number of innovative practices, is it right to continue to ask them to try new developments?
  • Question 2: Is innovation actually about new things, or is it about really deepening practice to solve problems?
  • Question 3: How much should innovation be led, or is it about giving space for teachers to lead their own practice and therefore bring about innovation?

All of these questions have led to thoughts around how we find opportunities for developed leadership and giving the space for innovation for teachers within our Trust to become expert in their practice. Now it’s a question of how we do this! Luckily, we have found a friend who is an expert in just this…

Zoe Elder from Clevedon Learning Trust is passionate about Action Research. She kindly invited me to a group that she was facilitating from Weston Super Mare Excellence cluster. On a chilly January afternoon, I arrived at a quaint, but slightly dated, beachfront hotel to meet a group of teacher’s part way through their journey of innovation. From a number of different schools, the teacher’s in the room were relatively new in their practice, but all had been identified by their schools are future leaders, quality practitioners, and with a thirst for developing their own innovations.

Each teacher had identified their own Action Research question; something that they wanted to really delve into to make a difference in their classroom – whether that be for all children or an identified particular group. Being a very open group, the teachers kindly allowed me to question their ideas, discuss what they were really looking to get to the bottom of, and generally to be a little challenging!

What was refreshing and enjoyable that session (alongside the yummy piece of cake!) was that the innovations that these teachers were exploring (whether this be mind-set in the classroom, confidence through child led developments, or changing the status of being ‘learning ready’) were not being led by anyone other than what those teachers felt were important. The likelihood is that they are also identifying aspects that would be important to all teachers in their school; and thereby setting up the pilot for an innovation that has the potential to change whole school practice in time.

Bringing me back to what my role in Curriculum Innovation should therefore be…part of this needs to be not only sharing innovative practice or supporting teachers to undertake this (where this time and space can be useful from the day to day of the classroom) but to create opportunities for them to lead innovative practice.

We have started this in small steps. Across the Trust we now have 6 Social Enterprise leaders, mostly TA’s, who are leading innovations in their school – more about those another time. And we have identified 3 more teachers who are going to start their own Research projects in their own practice that they feel will be interesting innovations for the future. But in discussions with Zoe, we are interested to explore how this model of teacher led innovation, through Action Research could take place for all teachers. Much more on this to be discussed, developed and decided. But through this journey I am intrigued to find out if teacher led innovation can continue to feed our forward moving practice in schools – and hopefully not leave me without a role to play!

The Art of Standing Out is available for pre-order on Amazon and is due for publication in July 2016 https://www.amazon.co.uk/Art-Standing-Out-Transforming-school-outstanding-beyond/dp/1909717835/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1461066639&sr=8-1&keywords=andrew+morrish+standing+out

Seizing the Agenda – musings from Whole Education conference 2015

Guest post by @LisaWorgan, Director of Curriculum Innovation

After two days of reflecting on the future of education for our young people, I sat on a packed train waiting to leave London Paddington. As the clock ticked past the departure time, my thoughts were with Sir Tim Brighouse’s call to action: we must find the ‘gaps in the hedges’ in education. We must innovate, to test things out in adverse circumstances.

And as I reflected on how we are doing this at Victoria Academies Trust, the announcement came over the tannoy that the train I was sat on was cancelled and we must all get off. A metaphor, if I do say so myself, for how education policy can be the biggest stifler of the innovative spirit in our schools where we are putting our young people first.

Having recently joined the team at Victoria Academies Trust, I do feel that I now am able to really create opportunities that start as an idea and become an innovation. And the beauty of being part of an academy means that we truly can put our children and their futures first.

Take our work on social enterprise; exactly what I had been asked to share at the Whole Education conference, as part of the workshop on ‘Unleashing the Curriculum Designer in us all’. Our approach to developing social enterprise skills in the curriculum, running our own social enterprise (Ballot Street Spice) and weaving these two aspects together through our new mini challenges in our wider NICER curriculum are very unique aspects in a school – especially a primary school.

Could this be a gap in the hedge? I certainly think so! Perhaps more of our education for children should help develop these skills so as to help prepare our children for their futures and tomorrow’s world, whatever this may hold. Friday of the conference saw a room full of people discussing and believing in exactly this, so there is definitely a body of thinking that has a power in schools to see more of this work happening.

And so although I had to repack all my items, get off the train, change platforms, wait for another train, and arrive home much later than I had planned, I left feeling that any challenge that we come across isn’t going to derail our journey as innovators. Yes, there is adversity and challenge and barriers that feel like they get in the way. But actually overcoming these challenges often produces the kind of results that are right for both us and our learners – for the futures that we all face together. To harp back to Sir Tim once again; we may be moving into a fourth age in education. A time for innovations and partnerships. And that is what I plan for my work within the Trust to hold at the forefront.