1378-david-puttnamOK, this should wrap it up.  The first day afternoon session for this year’s Whole Education Conference was a discussion again between David Crossley and Tony Mackay, but with the additional input of Professor Dennis Shirley from Boston College via videophone, and David Puttnam in the hall with us. Whilst David Crossley and Tony Mackay provided context, it was the two others who really began to shake – and comfort – our thinking.

David Puttnam reminded us first off of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s famous quote:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

We are struggling in this time of monsters, of morbid symptoms. There is an interregnum in which all sorts of possibilities, benevolent and malevolent, can arise. We have 20% unemployment amongst our young people, and this country is relatively well off for Europe in this. We have an issue, and we have to deal with it or come to terms with the desperate consequences. Showing the charge scene from the movie War Horse, he reminded us that the machine gun was invented 15 years before the outbreak of the first world war, yet it was at the moment when it could massacre mounted troops that it came of age and made the horse obsolete as a war animal, a liability in battle. Photo: David Appleby - DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC. (Do NOT COPY even with credits)For us the analogy is clear. The time of average progress, average intelligence, average attainment – all these are over. Everyone has to have an above average education, and teachers need to prepare for that. David Puttnam predicted that this year’s PISA results would show that the gap between the highest-performing jurisdictions and the rest would widen. He remarked that when Shanghai teachers have 70% of their work in contact with students, and 30% used for lesson preparation, professional development and familiarity with new technology, and when fully 30% of disposable family income in many Asian countries is used to ensure that their children learn all that they can, it is no surprise that the societies that value education would be those that were best educated. He quoted General Vo Nguyen Giap, victor of Dien Bien Phu and the Tet Offensive, who said just before his death in October “The 20th century was a century when others – the Chinese, the French, the Americans, fought wars and we suffered. The 21st century is the century when we win the wars we fought”. The countries that win are those that are prepared to make the sacrifices. David Puttnam recently spoke to the head of the Prudential in SE Asia, where it is huge, who told him that fully half of all policies sold in SE Asia were Education Endowment Policies, taken out by parents so that their children will have the chance to study in an overseas university, usually in Western Europe or North America.

In the face of this strong social and educational pressure in “competitor countries” (we will come to that later), he said that the teachers of today are the only possibilty we have of navigating our way to the end of the 21st century with any hope at all of success.

DShirleyDennis Shirley then appeared on the screen in the hall via Skype, and immediately thanked all present for the work that we did. He spoke of the longstanding challenges to teaching and learning that we find in our schools. We lived, he said, in a world where the inspirational has to live alongside the prosaic, pressure-filled approach that most of our accountability frameworks bring. We are bound by strategic choices – limitations we have already made for ourselves, that stop us going forward;  policies that complicate our work, mostly from our jurisdictions; and the need to move forward in a humane fashion. The three problems that we face amongst the teaching community are the unholy trinity of short-termism (doing things for the immediate future and immediate gain, rather than sowing for the long term), privatism (the approach that shuts the door of the class and wants to be left alone, without seeing what impact our work might have on others), and conservatism (where we manage classes rather than facilitate learning). Of course, we have a need for compassion when we see teachers in this sort of place, but must acknowledge that in no way will that compassion help us.

  • Strategies against short-termism include seeing that our careers are a story in which we have visited many periods of best practice, to be used for today, for the students we see before us.
  • Strategies against privatism include the creation of humane environments, where teachers want to ask help from colleagues; where we acknowledge that trust, often carefully scaffolded, is of use to everyone iin building collaboration.
  • Strategies against conservatism are about remembering what was good in the past and refashioning it for use in the present and the future; they include remembering that we are leaners, and that our own learning might be a place of joy and excitement – these in turn enabling young people to be curious and interested.

These strategies have to be owned and socialised into our schools. Recent policy initiatives have confused and complicated that which we know makes for high-learning, high-innovation education. In particular:

  • Autocracy is a problem – we rather must create openness and trust. That means that as leaders we build a buffer so that the autocratic framework we wokr in does not impact on the work of our schools.
  • Technocracy is a problem – we need to take control of technology, rather than being led by it. Technology is currently used in many jurisdictions to control schools, not to liberate them.
  • The resource focus on English and Maths is a problem – it leads to an addiction of teaching these subjects. Every discipline is a “gateway discipline”, not just English and Maths.

Looking beyond the current context we could begin to create networks and find good inspiration across those networks; engage communities coming to our shores to find out about interdependence – it’s wonderful to have mixed communities, so let’s welcome them rather then seeing them as a threat; create climates in our schools where every person matters, and where the personhood of people is what is most important about them; get into strategic abandonment where we learn to give things up that do not impact on children’s learning; accept we have a degree of compromise with the monster of accountability. Keep innovating, acculturing even while you m ake sure you keep the scores up.

David Crossley, summing up after these two presentations, said that when leading change:

  • Don’t get into a victim mentality
  • Don’t pass on the oppression we feel onto our staff
  • Take a counter-intuitive approach and work with those who want the same things we want – children’s good. Find ways of engaging trust from the government, even whilst you feel tat their agenda is different from yours.
  • Unleash the creative designer in each of us, into the curriculum.
  • Keep searching for the balance between autonomy and accountability. Be more confident in making the choices, and thus find a way of investing more in our staff, unleashing their creativity.

Thus ended a very good day, the content of which has filled my mind for a week, and hopefully will continue to fill it. There are lots of areas to explore:

  • how we might set staff on fire – what does this mean in terms of the dreams we dream and the hard work we do……….
  • how we might plan for a school we want in the long term, with its attributes and ways of working………..
  • how collaboration and working for one another might transform our relationships………..
  • how technology can be made to assist us in gaining what our children need to be do and be………..
  • how might we imagine the as yet unimaginable……

The path is perhaps clearer, yet where it might lead is less so. That’s the fun of it.



About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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