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Chasing the ace

ace bet business cardThis year, the annual SSAT national conference has a timely and uplifting theme: Pure imagination. Taking place over two days at the ICC in Birmingham, I was delighted to be invited to kick off the conference with a nine-minute talk. This is what I said:

Imagine if, after all this time we’ve been chasing the wrong ace. And imagine if the ace we should have been chasing is so powerful that if we were able to play it, it would trump everything. What if I told you that we all hold that ace, but do so in a deck that’s been shuffled so many times – often beyond our control – that we’ve lost sight of it. We no longer know it’s there.

Flip it

Before I share with you what I believe that ace to be, imagine if as leaders we could flip the system. We need to take back control of the agenda as system leaders and define for ourselves what we mean by sustainable school improvement. We need a system that operates from within – an inside-out approach – where schools and their community work together to decide what their core purpose is and how best to evaluate this. We no longer need to rely on being told what is best for our pupils from forces beyond our schools.

Can you imagine if we could look at our schools through a different set of lenses that enabled us to perceive our schools in a better way. Our beliefs are simply perceptions of reality, and so by wearing these lenses it allows us to see clearly what we believe to be right and proper, regardless of whatever somebody else may think from outside the organisation. For too long, we’ve been forced to look at our schools through the lens of an external regulator, and as a result, our perception of reality has been skewed. It’s time to recalibrate.

Imagine if we really could transform our schools by flipping the system and that we could do so in a way that is wholesome, values-led and worthwhile, without giving two hoots about Ofsted. I wrote a book about this once and in it I concluded that the best leaders understand the need to wear a number of very different lenses. I’m going to share one of them briefly with you now.

Wear the right lens

It’s called the telescopic lens, and is perhaps the most important one of them all, for this is the lens that will help you reveal the ace. I would put it to you that we’ve all been looking at our schools through a telescope for a number of years, but unfortunately through the wrong end. As a result, we’ve been reduced to seeing our world through a narrow hole and are focusing on the wrong things. We are not seeing the big picture.

Flip the lens around, and your perception of reality changes. When used correctly, a whole new vista opens up. As with any telescope, if you use it indoors in confined spaces when things are too close up, reality will look blurred. Your perception will become distorted. A wise leader knows this and so strives always to climb high and scans not only the distant horizon, but also penetrates deep into the surrounding local community a lot closer to home.

And it is here where we’ll find the elusive ace. As a headteacher for almost two decades, I was sick of being judged as to how good I was based solely on my ability year-on-year to eke out an extra half of a percentage point here or there. There must be a better way.

Thankfully, I believe that there is, and although it starts from deep within our schools, the solution lies out there in the heart of our school communities.

The ace, revealed

It is called social capital, and this, colleagues, is your ace. By increasing the amount of social capital (or resources) each of our family members own, in so doing we increase their power and agency. The more social capital a parent has, the more connections they make and their sense of belonging within the community increases. They become more advantaged.

More importantly, they become less disadvantaged. This is important, as it now gives them a much-needed foot onto the social ladder so that they can make better choices and appear more desirable to trade with. For many of our parents – especially those new to the country, seeking asylum and unable to speak English – this represents a huge step. The problem we find in a number of schools though, especially in more deprived areas, is that quite often, parents don’t even have a ladder to climb in the first place. Therein, lies the challenge.

Imagine the difference it would make having families that engage meaningfully with the school? Not just participate and take part – things such as assemblies and school productions, but deep, meaningful engagement at an emotional and intrinsic level.

Imagine what you could do as a teacher, if every child came to school highly motivated and wanting to learn, who were supported and encouraged at home by family members, who valued the importance of education and bought in to the school’s vision.

Imagine if these families themselves then became released from the poverty trap because your school increased their social capital. Imagine if these parents were then able to get jobs as a result of greater self-esteem, confidence, power and agency. Imagine how this would impact on the children that come to your school.

Social breakdown?

But it’s not that simple. According to a recent New Policy Institute report, one in five of the population are living in poverty. This is a shocking and damning statistic. This means that at any one time, six children in a typical classroom are living in poverty. Just think about that.

Quite rightly, Amanda Spielman has raised some serious concerns earlier this week, about the lack of support children are getting from home and are coming to school overweight and unprepared for learning. This is nothing new. Only five years ago, Sir Michael Wilshaw made similar claims. We were on the verge of ‘social breakdown,’ he said. And yet here we are in 2018 saying the same thing all over again.

Nothing has changed, and it’s only going to get worse. We need to act now.

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The lost generation

These parents it seems have become a lost generation and they need our help. For many of them they are socially immobile. We perhaps only need to take such decisive action the once; the next generation I believe are all accounted for, as we have them safely tucked up in our schools. We know that these young people are well-placed to become future changemakers. Their social mobility is, by and large, locked in and assured, providing of course we are able to release the social capital for their parents.

But for our very youngest children, those starting out in primary school especially, in times of great uncertainty and austerity, never before has there been such an urgent need for schools to step up and stand out as the key driver for social change.

So here is my challenge to you: Imagine if our children came to school loaded with social capital. Mums, dads, aunties, uncles, all massively in credit and willing and able to exchange resources with each other, especially trading it up for cultural capital.

Grasp the nettle

Research has shown time and time again that when it comes to increasing a child’s life chances at school, it’s often what goes on outside the classroom in the local community and family home that has the greatest impact. Yes, I accept that a lot of this is beyond our control. But that must not detract us from trying.

It takes a bold leader to grasp this nettle and goes against all that we perceive to be true as we become entangled with an inspection framework that often detracts us from doing the right things. To many of us, our logical brain tells us that the only ace worth chasing is the one to do with inspection judgements. After all, it’s often only by wearing the right Ofsted badge that we are guaranteed a job.

But thankfully colleagues, when it comes to making bold and imaginative decisions, logic doesn’t always come into it. As a certain Albert Einstein once said, ‘Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.’

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Thanks to Andrea Stephens (@andream656) and Paul Foster (@pjf_paul) for the pics.

You can read more about my thoughts on social capital in a previous post here. I’ll be following this up in the new year with some practical examples of how schools can release social capital.

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Live from the 15:17 to Newport

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I’ve never done a live blog post before. I usually craft them several days in advance. But not this one; to mark the occasion of my 60th post this one is coming to you ‘live’.

The fact that you are reading this means that it’s uploaded okay, but as I type I’m hurtling south on a rickety Arriva Train through Wales from Ludlow on the 15.17 to Newport. From there I have a quick five-minute platform dash to jump the train to Paddington and the Heathrow Express to Terminal 5.

It’s then early to bed before I board the noon flight to Austin, USA. The 10-hour flight gets me in mid-afternoon Texan time tomorrow (Sunday) so I have the evening free – jet lag permitting – to explore what the city has to offer.

As state capitals go, Austin is the self-proclaimed ‘live music capital of the world’. One of my favourite ensembles performed there several times last week and it would have been lovely if it coincided with my visit. Never mind though, I’ve got tickets for May. (Google ‘Brassneck’.)

According to Austin’s own tourist board website it’s also a city that prides itself on embracing alternative cultures, hence the ubiquitous bumper stickers that I’m determined to search out that read ‘Keep Austin Weird’. It sounds like my kinda place, although we have been warned to not be too concerned at the fact that almost everyone carries guns (which at home I don’t) and wears huge cowboy hats (which I do). Most importantly though – and apropos to nothing – it’s the state that bears the name of the opening chapter (‘The Texan’) of probably the greatest book ever written, Catch-22.

But here’s to the point of this post – Austin is also known as ‘Silicon Hill’ on account of the many technology companies that are based there. In the 1990s, more than 400 high-tech companies, including IBM, Dell, Motorola, and of course Texas Instruments, made the city their home.

Apple have recently moved in as well, opening a brand new ‘flagship’ store in northside Domain and it is to here that I shall be first heading.

During the next week or so, I’m joining a number of UK colleagues on an international leadership study visit organised and led jointly by Apple and SSAT.

The main aim of the trip is to ‘give education leaders unique insight into the work of one of the world’s most successful organisations and learn leadership lessons to apply to their school context.’ When I was first invited to take part, I didn’t need a great deal of time to think about it. It was an opportunity to good to miss for an old hack like me.

The 15-strong delegation meets up in Austin on Monday morning, kicking off with a session called ‘Engaging with Intention’. We then have the honour of visiting the Eanes School District that, according to Apple, will ‘raise your expectations for technology and the role it can play in your schools’. We then debrief before flying up to silicon valley and spending the next three nights in California where hopefully I can bag a load of Apple freebies.

I love California. I’ve had the privilege of going there a number of times and have driven up and across most of the state, including San Francisco to LA and down to San Diego and across to Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and up to Yosemite. I’ve never been to Cupertino (San Jose) though, a short drive from San Francisco, so I’m looking forward to this, despite it being strictly for business. Even more so as we are based at Apple Park, the international headquarters of Apple Inc. It only opened last year and is the fifth most expensive building in the world coming in at a cool $5 billion.

Known as the ‘spaceship campus’ the new HQ replaces the previous ‘One Infinite Loop’. With almost 15,000 employees based there, the 175-acre site, is impressive indeed. And although it may seem extravagant at five billion, in real terms this knocks barely 2% off the company’s gargantuan annual cash reserves. By means of comparison, to a small SME in the UK worth £100k (10-50 employees), this would be the equivalent of building a new office for only £2,000.

Sessions for the rest of the visit look like this, spread across two days:

Why mobility matters (understanding the role of a leader in a rapidly changing environment)

The importance of culture (how Apple make it stick and lessons to be learned in education)

Managing change (discovering how Apple approach the complexities of change)

Implicit Promise (intriguingly billed as a ‘special session’ with Apple University)

Apple in enterprise (how as leaders we should approach rapid transformation)

Productivity with Apple (reducing workload and saving time with tech)

Evidence and impact (how to measure your vision for learning, impact and teaching.

Elements of learning and leadership (what Apple have learned about innovation and change)

I shall remain as cynical and optimistic as ever as we get to grips with each of these, using a number of diagnostic digital leadership tools developed exclusively by Apple.

Finally, on day four, we wrap the whole thing up in a strategy session identifying how best to work through specific tasks, formulating actions and next steps for back in our schools. It’s then the San Jose to LHR redeye on Thursday, hopefully arriving in time for tea on Friday evening, 25 hours of flying time later.

So, dear reader, although I don’t expect any sympathy from you, I am going to be working hard whilst I’m out there in the sun. Don’t forget as well that I’m losing a week of my holiday also, and whilst it’s a great opportunity on my part, I am going to miss being with my family. (And if any of my two boys are reading this, “Get back to your GCSE/A-level revision now! You’ve got exams in a few weeks!”)

Whether I get to blog whilst I’m out there depends on how much free time we get as I’m going to be awfully busy. I guess I can’t blame the dodgy Wi-fi for lack of posts, being in silicon valley. (Heck, the hotel even has its own robotic butler (called Botlr) that delivers to your room via your smart phone!). And, I’m going to miss the Champions’ League second leg as well on Tuesday lunchtime, so I hope you appreciate the sacrifices I’m making for the cause.

(16.07, Abergavenny Station, two minutes ahead of schedule.)

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So here’s to the ultimate Catch-22: Assuming I get no freebies, if I come home with a ton of over-priced Apple goodies, I’m screwed for being a sucker and paying over the odds, and if don’t, then I’m screwed because my kids will kill me as I assured them that me and Tim Cook ‘are like that’.

Anyway, I’ll worry about that later. Next stop Cwmbran, so I’d better start packing away as Newport is looming and I have only 3 minutes at the station to get the connection so I need to be lively. Despite having only one bar of 4G, I’m going to hit ‘publish’ now and hope for the best. Here goes…

 

(PS The guard has just told me someone has cut through the power on the Swansea – Newport line and all trains are cancelled. So I guess I really am screwed, good and proper.)

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