May 10

The exciting future of international school leadership

The annual COBIS conference in London is always an inspiring event, where leaders in British international schools gather together to share good practice and be inspired by innovative ideas for forward-thinking education. This year’s theme has been ‘Transformations’, and in listening to the many speakers interpreting this theme in different ways, it struck me just how exciting a time it is to be engaged in international school leadership.

The world, as we know, is in a state of flux and fluidity, which may appear daunting at times, but is actually a gateway to a phenomenal range of opportunities. In amongst this melee of opportunity, English medium international schools are flourishing: the latest figures from ISC Research indicate that there are now 4.61 million students studying worldwide in 8,646 English medium international schools (up from less than 1 million students in 2,584 schools in 2000). English – and an international education – is in huge demand, and this demand is growing. In part this is because English continues to provide a gateway to personal success for students all over the world, and in part it is because international schools often offer a high quality, forward-looking education which students, quite rightly, crave. When this education also takes them on to an international stage, or into a state of mind where they appreciate the real and immense value of connecting across national boundaries, it takes them to a place where they are best empowered to make a collective and positive difference in the world.

All schools have the ability to make a difference in the lives of young people; high quality international schools (like the COBIS-accredited schools who attended this most recent conference) have the ability to make a high quality, international difference in these lives. And what an exciting education this can be! With schools pushing the boundaries in technology, in staff development and in student-centred, personalised learning, this is a time like none before to be involved in education on an international level. Education opens minds and hearts; for leaders in international schools, who are entrusted with the keys to this education, it can be one of the most satisfying – and important – endeavours they ever engage in.

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Mar 25

Social mobility, global mobility – why navigating the world is so important for young people

I have had a whirlwind few weeks, with a distinctly global focus. In the second week of March I attended the British Schools of the Middle East conference, where Heads of British schools gathered to hear Professor Yong Zhao remind us that in a marvellously connected world, where we can reach anyone we want, then young people can truly be whoever they are, and can (and should) develop their passions, because someone, somewhere, will want what they can do.

Then – after a brief venture back in London where I was amazingly fortunate to be invited to the astonishing last night performance of Sleeping Beauty at the Royal Opera House, which made my spirits soar – I travelled to Hong Kong for a curriculum summit of the new Dalton School Hong Kong, a deliberately child-centred, dual language primary school due to open in Kowloon in August 2017, and on whose board I sit. The work that is going on in preparation for this opening is impressive, underpinned by a powerful understanding that children learn best when they are enabled to discover for themselves, and when teachers respond to their individual needs.

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Finally, I travelled on Wednesday back to London to present at the BECSLink conference in Wimbledon, which was run in conjunction with the Tim Henman Foundation, and focused on how business, education, charities and schools can work together to facilitate social mobility for children who start life with one hand tied behind their back. Together, the message was clear, we can make a real and visible difference for these children.

My contribution to the BECSLink conference focused, unsurprisingly, on the importance of global mobility for young people, and I sought to energise the participants in thinking about why this mattered, and how we could all do something about it. The adult decision-makers of today have grown up in a very different world from the world in which young people are growing up, and we need to be very aware that we do not – consciously or unconsciously – inhibit the global potential of young people by not recognising the limitless opportunities they have at their fingertips through the digital medium, through cheap travel, and through the immense social and business networks which span the globe and touch us all.

(Where are you today, as you are reading this? Where was your phone or laptop assembled and programmed? With a tap or a click, how many people, in how many parts of the world, could you reach out to?)

The truth is that today, young people are literally only a second and/or a click away from the other 7 billion human beings on this planet. The opportunities that they have to connect, to work, to learn, to experience the world … these exist as never, ever before in our history. They can use these opportunities to discover and do what they are most excited by in their lives – their prospects for work are vast.

But they cannot do this alone. If they tune into the subliminal messages from the adults in their lives that the wider world is foreign, strange and physically hard to access, and if they don’t see people going out and connecting with ease, relishing learning new languages and experiencing different cultures, then they are effectively slashing the scope of their horizons. We have to help them build cultural resilience together with a spirit of curiosity and invention, and we have to show them pathways that others have taken to become globally confident.

Global mobility, social mobility … the two are inextricably intertwined, and the sooner we can embrace this, the quicker our young people will benefit.

 

Mar 07

‘International Women’ – focusing on the international on #IWD2017

International Women’s Day this year focuses on women in the changing world of work, with a goal of equality in the workforce by 2030 (in line, of course with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals). In many ways this is a perfectly straightforward vision, in line too with all the work that has been done over the past few years (decades, even), to help develop and sustain equality across the globe, in all aspects of life, so that we eventually reach a stage where all human beings are valued equally.

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What struck me this week as I travelled internationally, on a plane travelling to Bahrain for an education conference, was that we are absolutely missing an opportunity to pursue this vision if we do not think more ambitiously about the ‘International Women’ in International Women’s Day. For most of us, we recognise Women’s Day on 8 March as International because – amazingly, if you think about where we have come from over the past years – it is celebrated across the world, with women (and men) standing in unity and a shared commitment to gender equality and normalising this equality in local and national contexts across the world. We have come so far, in such a short space of time, in fact … and while there is much more to do to tackle bias (unconscious and conscious), International Women’s Day is also a celebration of what we have managed to achieve.

There is something missing from the dialogue, however. Much of the celebration and focus on 8 March is country-centric, and yet we live in a world which is globally connected as never before. Digital technologies give us the opportunity to work with anyone, anywhere in the world, at a moment’s notice; our transport infrastructure means that it is easier, quicker and cheaper than ever before to travel internationally. The financial and economic hurdles to our global understanding are smaller than they have ever been, and the global opportunities are greater than they have ever been. When we become truly international, we learn to embrace others as they are, and to appreciate both difference and essential sameness. International understanding is a foundation stone of global understanding, and it presents countless opportunities that can break cycles of poverty, and emancipate individuals and systems.

We know that opportunities are meaningless unless they are grasped, and if we are to encourage our next generations of women to go beyond where they currently are, and grasp the opportunities which are now available to them, then we need to set an example now. International women – women who think internationally, act internationally and live internationally … this is who we can become if we stretch ourselves and make the effort to break down the social, emotional and practical barriers that stop us from being internationally minded role models.

And in doing so, we will make the life pathways of our daughters – across the world – just that little bit easier.

 

Feb 09

Diversity – a blindingly obvious choice?

Listening to Jayne-Anne Ghadia last week was a refreshing experience. Ms Ghadia – CEO of Virgin Money and author of the 2016 Ghadia report into women and finance, ‘Empowering Productivity: Harnessing the Talents of Women in Financial Services’  – was speaking at an event in Edinburgh aimed at demonstrating to private sector companies why board diversity makes economic sense; this was a message supported by the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who also addressed the assembled company – and it was a pleasure to reinforce this myself when I presented at a session later in the morning in my capacity as a Trustee of Changing the Chemistry, alongside our esteemed CEO. The message of the morning was clear – diversity makes fundamental sense, and as Ms Ghadia said, quite straightforwardly, ‘Diversity is about success for men and women. It’s obvious.’

Picture from Diversity on Boards eventThe thing about diversity on boards – or on any decision-making group, committee or body – is that once you have seen how it makes a difference to have a range of voices around the table, there is no going back. In fact, once you have experienced the breadth of often unexpected perspectives that come from people with different backgrounds, skills, life experiences and world views, you will find it hard to accept the group-think that often masquerades as thoughtful decision-making amongst people tasked with such responsibilities. Most of us think that we are broad-minded enough and sufficiently capable of careful reflection to be able to see issues from all angles, but the truth is that we aren’t, and we should stop assuming that we are. Each of us brings our own unique understandings of the world to the groups in which we are involved – each of us brings our own diverse part – but we can only ever be a part of a much bigger picture, and the sooner we embrace this, the better. All the emerging evidence now points to the fact that diverse companies with diverse boards perform more effectively, and if the social argument of the importance of representing your customer base doesn’t win you over (and it should), then maybe the hard financial success facts will.

Achieving diversity on a board requires thought, commitment and action. As in so many areas of our still unequal world, people with much to offer do not realise just what they can bring, often because it has never been expected of them and they can’t see enough role models, and also because innumerable hurdles stand in their way – who really wants to join a board where the culture is subtly patronising, their ideas are dismissed, and they feel uncomfortably alien? A welcoming board which embraces and respects difference is a healthy board, and while we would all like to think that this is what we do, and who we are, the reality is that without conscious and unremitting focus on the value of diversity, actively seeking out and supporting diversity, and a deep, constant challenging of our own unconscious bias, our boards will not be the diverse – and effective – places we want them to be.

So – there is work to be done, but it is eminently do-able, and the longer we wait, the longer it will take to achieve. Join with others and just do it.

www.changingthechemistry.org

Jan 05

My New Year’s resolution: to coach more international school leaders (both aspiring and in situ)

As a closet introvert, I love the opportunity to think and reflect between Christmas and New Year. So few people send emails (or expect replies), and the resulting space and time allows indulgence in delicious contemplation and rumination. Inevitably, part of this looks backwards, in a kind of scorecard of the year: what has gone well, and what has been less fulfilling; inevitably, too, part of this looks forward: what do I want the new year to bring, and how will I help make this happen, for myself and for others? And in the course of my deliberations this year, I realised just how much I have deeply enjoyed the executive coaching I have been doing with a number of international school leaders in various parts of the world – and how much I want to extend this to others.business-growth-and-personal-growth-tree

Executive coaching offers the leader being coached a space – often a challenging and very personal space – in which he or she can evaluate what needs to be done in order to ensure that he/she is the very best leader possible, able to have the greatest and most meaningful impact on, through and with others. The role of an executive coach for school leaders, I believe, is to help the leader they are coaching to identify and then succeed in what they know, (deep inside but may not yet be able to articulate), they need to do in order to align their personal and professional lives in their own very specific educational context. When they can do this, they are able to release their potential, turning them into amazing and super-effective leaders of organisations and people, and able to have the positive impact on the world and its future that they are seeking.

An executive coach is a trusted confidant, providing leaders with the opportunity and freedom to share and explore their leadership and business concerns. An executive coach is akin to a discerning thought partner or an intelligent sounding board, who stands a confidential step away from the leader’s organisation. A good coach will hold a leader to account, and will provide insightful and honest feedback. I have been enormously gratified over this past year especially to have seen the leaders I have coached grow in strength and undergo personal transformations – whether they have been seeking and preparing for new roles, or transitioning into a new job, or working out what it is they want to do in the next phase of their lives. To be able to contribute to personal and professional growth in people who are moulding the next generation of students is a huge privilege, and I now know at first-hand just how much of a difference this can make, and how this will impact positively on the wider communities for whom these leaders have responsibility.

Executive coaching works. It is now de rigeur for executives in private companies to have regular coaching, as their boards recognise that to coach them is to invest in them. Where the education system in general falls down, however – even in the generally enlightened world of international schools – is in the lack of expectation that coaching support will be naturally offered to school leaders. Appointing, sustaining and developing a school leader is one of the biggest investments that a school board can make, and it is obvious – blindingly so, one might argue – that it is absolutely worth nurturing and growing this investment with high quality external support.

I believe passionately that great schools depend on great leadership – and that a great leader is someone who is in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing for the right reasons. I know I have helped numerous school leaders to realise their personal and professional potential, and I want to help more. So … if you are interested, and want to talk more, drop me a line. I very much look forward to connecting and helping.

 

Dr Helen Wright is a highly experienced and insightful former school leader turned international executive coach and consultant. She can be contacted on helen@drhelenwright.com 

 

Nov 24

Ice, International Schools and Madame Doubtfire: a snapshot of a day, and a lesson in appreciation 

I derive great pleasure from the deep insights that come from making unexpected connections and links. Whilst I very much value (and enjoy creating) structure, organisation and routine, I robustly value the creative perspectives that emerge from changes and variations to daily patterns, because they add dimensions and layers of innovative understanding and appreciation to our world view, and they deepen – often breathtakingly – our human experience.

I have just returned home to Edinburgh after a day in Bath, judging the entries for the 2017 British International Schools Awards – a  really tough (but exciting) call, given the high quality and variety of the schools and the projects represented. The meeting alone, with its glimpses into brilliant teaching and learning around the world, would have given enough material for positive reflection; it nestled, however, within a day’s worth of experiences – each perhaps relatively unexceptional, but all of which reminded me of the deep value of observing, engaging, reflecting, and then sharing with our fellow human beings.

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There was ice on the cars and the streets of Edinburgh as we left – minus 6, according to the thermometer – and as I was conversing with my taxi driver about this, we came round to talking about where he had grown up in Edinburgh, and his memories of a particular shop run by a certain Madame Doubtfire. Memories of the late Robin Williams leapt to mind; this Madame Doubtfire ran a secondhand shop in Stockbridge, selling clothes, and was clearly a renowned character. Long dead, she came back to life for me in the narrative of the (now grown up) little boy who remembered her in the 1960’s and who was transporting me to the airport at 6am (his third fare of the day). For a few minutes I had the privilege of seeing a sliver of the world through another’s eyes, and of enriching my own understanding of the local area and heritage as a consequence. In the context of a day travelling to discuss what schools are doing globally to help develop young people, it was a potent reminder of the depth and potential of each and every human being, and the value of our journeys across countries and through history – countries and history which we shape by what we do and who we become.

Every day brings unexpected connections, if only we keep our eyes and ears open, and are ready to see, hear, experience, think and feel. Each of us, in our daily lives, encounters different people, different perspectives and different ideas. Not only do each of these encounters shape us, but we are shaped further by the unique combinations of these encounters. We inhabit an astonishingly complex – and, if we make it so, potentially amazingly and powerfully positive – ecosystem of people, thoughts, feelings, understandings, histories and geographies. It is without question our moral responsibility to try to make the most of this, contributing in our turn and helping others – especially our children – understand how to make the most of it too.

Begin each day with openness and appreciation, and it will take you to breadths and depths of gratitude for the world and society in which we live. And don’t forget to teach children to do the same.

 

Nov 07

“Yes, you can …”: how a single person can make a difference to the lives of thousands

Do not be misled by the title of this blog; tempting though it is to write about the American presidential election, this short reflection is instead about an independent school in Thailand, which I have known about for many years but which I visited for the first time just this morning. Bangkok Patana School was founded in 1957 by Rosamund Stuetzel – an Old Girl of St Mary’s Calne, UK – who made her home in Thailand after meeting her future husband on her travels in the region, and who decided that she did not want to send her third child back to the UK, in the footsteps of her siblings, to access a quality education. Rather – so Rosamund decided – she would create a quality education here in Thailand, and so, quite simply, she set her mind to it and made it happen.

14718690_963796973766212_1370916753319443782_nThe original school opened in the bungalow in the back garden of her house in Ploenchit Road, Bangkok, and the roll consisted of a mere 28 children. Today, the school is located on a vast and interesting campus on Soi Lasalle, Bangna, in the south-east corner of Bangkok, and educates over 2,200 students from 65 different nationalities in the British curriculum. In 60 years, the school has grown beyond recognition into a premier British international school, but its heart remains true – time spent observing students quickly reveals a warmth and supportiveness which speaks to the original family-focused intentions of the founder, all those years ago.

60 years is a long time in education – trends come and go, societal shifts happen, thinking changes – and it is almost inconceivable that Rosamund Stuetzel could have imagined what her school would look like today. What she did, however, was to turn a vision into reality, and that reality of a school has now directly and powerfully influenced the lives of thousands upon thousands of young people, and, through them, hundreds of thousands more. There are many more excellent schools in Bangkok, and I have more that I shall write on the subject; what drives me to write today is the immediacy of being reminded that one person really can make a difference in the world, for good or for bad. Rosamund Stuetzel is the absolute proof of the former.

And maybe, now that I think about it, this might just be a blog about the American presidential election after all.

 

 

Oct 26

When the volcano rumbles … what history teaches us about our present and future

Sometimes it can feel as though we are living in unprecedentedly insecure times. The turbulent surprise of Brexit, the uncertainty of potential presidential leadership in the US, the threat of home-grown, lone wolf terrorist attacks … it can be enough to make us want to batten down the hatches and retreat. History, however, teaches us that – for different reasons, at different times, in different places – ‘twas ever thus’, and insecurity has always been a significant feature in our human journey. I recently visited Pompeii, famous for its disappearance under metres of ash after the explosion of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, and a study of the town reminds us that even after a terrible disaster, the seeds of our civilisation can still take root again and grow.

As you will know if you have visited Pompeii, there are some remarkable similarities between life in Pompeii and life today – good and bad. Some direct correlations with the modern day exist in, for example, the width of the wagon wheel tracks, which had to be of a standard size to enable the building of stepping stones across the often flooded streets, and which translate exactly into the width of modern railway gauges. The houses exhibit high degrees of culture and sophistication, with beautiful paintings, statues and mosaics. Women could inherit land, divorce and set up in business. As an unsettling prick to our modern conscience, there was an obvious disparity between rich and poor, as well as a whiff of a decay setting in, for if the leaders took time to lounge around their fountains, who was overseeing the running of the Empire? And what deprivation was really occurring in the outposts of the Empire, in order to feed the fat of the Roman cities?

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It would be foolish to pretend that life in Pompeii represents the epitome of a civilisation, just as it would be foolish to imagine that we, today, have all the answers either. Both are/were a work in progress. In the negatives, we see lessons not yet learned, while the positives act as an encouragement as we reflect on the resilience of the human spirit, and its constant striving to improve and succeed. Frozen in time as it is, Pompeii is a curiously uplifting place that connects us with our history in a way that few other places in the world can do.

And yet we should not forget one of the most powerful lessons to emerge from Pompeii: complacency in any form, about any aspect of our society or our civilisation, is something to beware, if we are to avoid the mistakes of the past – the mistakes that led to the burial of Pompeii. The central lesson of the story of Pompeii is that when seismic shudders shake our world, and when the volcano – literal or figurative – starts to rumble, we should pay heed. We live in a far from perfect world, and we have so much more to do if we are to protect, preserve and evolve what is most precious and meaningful in it. A number of volcanoes are rumbling in our times… let us not ignore the warning signs around us that some kind of action, commitment, dedication and attention is required of us. And if we can act together, we can outwit even volcanoes.

Oct 14

FanDuel meets Carol Dweck: growth mindsets in agile lives

If you dabble in gambling and sports, and you haven’t heard of FanDuel yet, you soon will, because they have taken the US fantasy sports world by storm, and are just launching in the UK. Speaking last week at ScotSoft’s Global Forum in Edinburgh, Rob Jones from FanDuel took his audience through the story of the evolution of FanDuel – the struggle to get funding, the moments where they realised they had found a gap that no-one else was filling, and the risks they had to take en route to the success they have found. His message was universally applicable to all companies starting up in their field – and he shared a slide which reminds us all of the importance of how we think about problems.

This is the slide:

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You may not be able to read the words unless you hone in on the text, but this slide very visually describes a pathway to success that is not linear, pre-determined and assured from the outset, but rather a pathway that is beset with hurdles, unexpected different perspectives, plans not falling into line, and a lack of order that mathematicians will recognise from their study of chaos theory. It will resonate strongly not only with other startups who are looking to scale up their activity, but also with anyone who has ever had a dream or ambition about anything, and who discover that the route they are taking is maybe not the route they started out on. If life teaches us anything, it is that it is not easy to predict where we will end up, and we need to learn to deal with this somehow.

Many attributes are valuable when it comes to solving the issues which pop up and threaten to derail what we are doing, and what we planned to do. Resilience, enthusiasm, optimism, clear vision, hard work … all of these matter. Above all, however, it is what we believe about ourselves in this process of solving problems that is most likely to determine our success. Developing a growth mindset, as proven and advocated by the educational researcher, Professor Carol Dweck, is, ultimately, the key to successful activity: if we believe that we can adapt, change our thinking, and grow our intelligence through the actions we take, then we will; if we believe that we can do anything if we set our mind to it, and find the right strategy, then we will.

Start-ups are challenging, but they are also exhilarating. So too, it must be said, is most of life, in whatever sphere we find ourselves. For the vast majority of us, each day will bring something unexpected, and each day certainly contains the potential for something to happen which throws us entirely off our present track. When the storm surge comes, as it will, then we are far more likely to ride the crest of the wave if we are practised in believing that there is nothing to stop us learning to surf. We may not be able to surf yet, but – as Carol Dweck points out in her TED Talk in 2014, the power of ‘yet’ is phenomenal. You think you can’t swim/ski/hoverboard/lose weight/do Maths/speak Mandarin/understand quantum theory/organise your life? You may not be able to do it yet, but you can, with the right strategies. And this is what our children really, really need us to tell them and believe and model for them.

The story of almost every start-up company reminds us that the seemingly impossible is always possible – we just have to find the right approach that works for us, in the environment in which we find ourselves.

A growth mindset – everyone should have one. And everyone can.

 

 

Oct 08

The legacy of a great Headmaster – peace on earth

I have just returned home from the beautiful memorial service held on Saturday at Daneshill School, Hampshire, for Simon Spencer, who so suddenly and tragically died on 31 July 2016. It was packed – standing room only – and testament to Simon’s charismatic presence and the role he has played on the educational stage in UK prep schools for the past few decades. Tears, laughter, moving musical performances by former pupils … it was the model of what a memorial service should be.

We sang our hearts out, and no louder than when we sang the school hymn, ‘Let There Be Peace on Earth’. This song, written originally by Jill Jackson and Sy Miller in 1955, has become an uplifting monument to the desire to make a difference in the world, and its history is equally fascinating. Sy Miller himself wrote in his own words about how the hymn came about:

“One summer evening in 1955, a group of 180 teenagers of all races and religions, meeting at a workshop high in the California mountains locked arms, formed a circle and sang a song of peace. They felt that singing the song, with its simple basic sentiment – ‘Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me,’ helped to create a climate for world peace and understanding. When they came down from the mountain, these inspired young people brought the song with them and started sharing it. And, as though on wings, ‘Let There Be Peace on Earth’ began an amazing journey around the globe. It traveled first, of course, with the young campers back to their homes and schools, churches and clubs. Soon the circle started by the teenagers began to grow. Before long the song was being shared in all fifty states – at school graduations and at PTA meetings, at Christmas and Easter gatherings and as part of the celebration of Brotherhood Week. It was a theme for Veterans’ Day, Human Rights Day and United Nations Day. 4H Clubs and the United Auto Workers began singing it. So did the American Legion, the B’nai B’rith, the Kiwanis Clubs and CORE. It was taped, recorded, copied, printed in songbooks, and passed by word of mouth.”

Well, one of its destinations was Daneshill School, Stratfield Turgis, Hampshire, and in many ways it sums up what Simon Spencer would have wanted from the children who came through his school. All our children are our hope for the future, and this hope begins with our belief that the choices that we make, as individuals, are immensely important. Each of us is different, and each of us is uniquely special; each of us also has the opportunity to make the world a better place. Headteachers do this – and Simon Spencer did this in abundance. The message of the school hymn reminds us that we, too, can do the same:

Let peace begin with me

Let this be the moment now

With every step I take

Let this be my solemn vow;

To take each moment

And live each moment

In peace eternally.

Let there be peace on earth

And let it begin with me.

 

RIP, Simon Spencer 22 January 1951 – 31 July 2016. And thank you.

 

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