Feeling the story …

‘I wasn’t feeling that story anyway’ … so says Robert Peston in the British Airways safety video, as he dutifully demonstrates packing away his laptop, and storing it securely for take-off.

As I head to Japan (on a BA flight) for the Hakuba Forum, where I hope to learn, grow and explore, alongside other educators and leaders in their fields, I note that I have started – and abandoned – no fewer than 3 blogs over the past 9 days. I might well return to any of them – and more of my ideas that I have been processing – over the next few months, because I would love to share my thoughts and reflections about some or all of the following:

“It is raining in Tokyo”
  • enduring relationships, which was brought home to me in Sydney last week, as I picked up again, almost seamlessly, with numerous friends and colleagues, despite having been physically absent for 5 years;
  • the spread of disciplined student-centred, project-based learning, drawing on the progressive work happening in the ScotsX programme that I had the privilege to see in practice at Scots College Sydney (with thanks to Dr Hugh Chilton and former colleague Dr Ian Lambert);
  • the fractures of the past, and how they haunt our society now, unless we find ways to forgive, drawing on thoughts about the performance of ‘Stolen’ that I saw at the Wharf Theatre in Sydney, about the Stolen Generation – such a powerful performance.

But, as Robert Peston’s words encapsulate, I clearly wasn’t quite feeling any of these stories quite enough to be able to write them down succinctly and clearly – probably because everything is a bit of a whirlwind at the moment, and I had so many thoughts and reflections to draw on. A gluttony of riches, even, and my heart overflowing … What I am clear about, however, is how much I am looking forward to Hakuba. 4 days of thinking, learning, reflection with friends and new friends … what a wonderful opportunity to grow, and contribute to educational growth on a wider scale.

This is a story in the making, and it is one that I am definitely feeling!

Speak soon … 😊

Ridiculously joyful learning

I have felt ridiculously, joyfully pleased with myself several times over the past ten days. It has been amazing! At moments, I have felt like singing from the rooftops, as I have taken enormous pride in the achievements of those with whom I have worked, and have felt the glow of satisfaction for having helped bring these achievements to fruition. As a coach, I know of course that it is not about me, but about the other person, and I have, also of course, noted the wise voice in my head that cautions me to remember that being pleased with oneself is a small step away from potentially blind self-satisfaction, or the pride that can often be followed by a fall … nonetheless, though, I have over the past week or so, on numerous occasions, quite simply abandoned myself to the limitless joy of the inner child, and to feeling super-super-super-pleased with myself … and it has been such a glorious feeling!

I recognise that it is the most enormous privilege to do what I do , working with educational (and other) leaders around the world, and when I was in Dubai at the beginning of last week, it was fantastic to help facilitate two days of activity with a group of superb leaders, who are already at the top of their game, and who were on a quest to tweak their behaviours, in order to become a genuinely high performing team. Fast forward to the end of the week, and another ‘ridiculously pleased’ moment came when I had the opportunity to spend a brilliantly energetic day with a cohort of deputy heads, shifting their mindset about themselves as learners, seeding and creating ideas which will now shape the work they do with their own teams, as well as on themselves. And just look at what we did together! Shedding misconceptions (including about the perceived barrier of time), identifying personal learning styles and new habits … oh, the joy I felt in making a difference! Their energy, determination and focus was palpable at the end of the day – I was utterly, utterly delighted on their behalf … and mine! I had curated a really targeted set of materials and tasks for them, and it really worked! The pleasure that it brought me was immeasurable!!

At the heart of all of this activity last week was powerful learning. I am totally convinced that learning (and relearning) to be a learner – a curious, inquisitive human being – is utterly transformational. This is why I am so proud of the work of the Edinburgh-based charity I chair, Light Up Learning, about which I have written before, which enables young people with multiple layers of disadvantage, and who are frequently not served well by the school system, to learn to really love learning, through a process we have developed which essentially involves them in learning about what they love. The difference this makes in their lives and for their future prospects is phenomenal, and another of my ‘ridiculously pleased’ moments happened yesterday, in my regular weekly conversation with the Head of Operations (with whom I love working – Iona, you are fab!), when I was struck again by the absolute enormity of what we are achieving. Making a fundamental difference for young people and their futures through what we do as an organisation – how amazing is this?!

I know of course – rationally – that I cannot claim personal credit for all of the progress made by all the learners I engage with, because they are doing the actual work of shifting their mindsets, tweaking their behaviours, and learning to learn. Moreover, in the case of Light Up Learning, it is actually our wonderfully engaged learning mentors who walk directly alongside the young people, and the Board and I just ensure that the organisation thrives* … but releasing myself to the joy of the impact I/we are having was such a wonderful, wonderful feeling. Look at how people are growing and evolving, in front of my and their eyes! Imagine the impact they will now have on others!! Isn’t it all just so amazing?!

Back from Dubai, I am now just about to embark on a journey to Sydney – my first time back in that beautiful city since the pandemic – in order to rekindle relationships and explore some innovative educational practice. I am in learning mode myself … and ready to become even more ridiculously pleased with myself as my brain and heart expand yet further. I am so, so looking forward to the journey.

Join me in being ridiculously, joyfully pleased – and ridiculously, joyfully grateful. And then I think that we will all find that it is not ridiculous at all … Onwards and upwards!

*talking of which … Light Up Learning is actively building our network of donors; if you want to make a difference through regular giving to young people in Edinburgh and the Lothians, please contact iona@lightuplearning.org. You’ll love talking to her anyway, and hearing about what the organisation is doing – enjoy!

Female leaders in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

I have just spent a truly lovely day largely in the company of a number of wonderful female school leaders in Riyadh, ahead of the inaugural GESS Saudi Arabia conference, which takes place on 6-7 May. Today has been enormously uplifting and stimulating; I have enjoyed engaging in discussions, astute observations, and insights. Plus we laughed and hugged a lot!

I coach many successful senior female school leaders across the world, and encounter many more female leaders through the recruitment processes in which I am privileged to be involved with LSC Education; each female leader is different (as you would expect!), and each is at a different stage in their careers / lives / self-confidence / self-awareness. However, one thing I consistently notice about these female school leaders is an enhanced, acute drive to succeed in their roles by forging ahead, pushing boundaries and creating a more equal world.

Reflecting on this, I am sure that this drive will be born to a large extent of the need that many female leaders readily acknowledge, ie that they feel they must keep proving themselves to the world – not, in fact, because they actually need to do so personally, because they are already demonstrably successful, but because the world still has vestigial (and not so vestigial) memories of imbalances between men and women in leadership roles. Most of the female leaders I meet have stories of encountering unconscious bias throughout their career, and they realise that they still have to lead the way in creating and embedding new layers of expectations about what leadership can look like when women practise it.

These female leaders have for the most part discovered and developed communities of other female leaders, who are willing supporters and mentors (including the WISE programme, who have just announced their 2025 conference, this time in Seoul); they also, however, usually have an acute recognition of how much still needs to change in order to ensure that future generations of women do not encounter frustrations or limitations in their careers, many of which derive directly from prejudices born of lack of understanding that women can actually be extraordinary leaders. This awareness – and their determination to do something about it – translates into the pioneer, forward-facing drive that is almost tangible in these successful female leaders.

As you might expect, the social history and developmental curve of Saudi Arabia makes this drive even more significant. Riyadh is a very welcoming place, yet the laws and rules that have brought a greater equalisation of women and men are still recent; moreover, laws and rules take time to be translated into social norms. Being a female leader in the Kingdom is clearly perfectly possible; substantial change always requires role modelling, however, so that girls and young women can see who they can be.

One of the panel sessions that I am chairing at GESS Saudi Arabia is about success stories for women in education, and I am really, really looking forward to this. The female leaders with whom I spent such a glorious time today already have their stories to tell; what is so exciting to see is not only how they will add to them over the next few years, but also how they will empower and enable others. The future awaits!

The Coming Wave: AI and the edge of human frontiers

I have just read a bracing book – bracing, as in part-terrifying, that is, with some uncomfortable truths. I have, however, found over the years that the majority of bracing books also serve as prompts that lead to positive action, and this one was no exception. The book? ‘The Coming Wave’ by Mustafa Suleyman (with Michael Bhaskar). Subtitled ‘AI, Power and the 21st Century’s Greatest Dilemma’, it delves in fascinating detail into Suleyman’s insights, born of his career in AI, which included co-founding DeepMind, and leading AI product management and policy at Google.

Very well-written, with recent, relevant and real ‘hooks’ on which we can readily hang our understanding, ‘The Coming Wave’ makes a compelling case for an appropriate containment of AI as we explore its potential – and, moreover, introduces us to a framework of ideas that shows us how we could potentially achieve this. I have been reading it as part of my preparation for chairing an upcoming AMCIS webinar in May, which I am really looking forward to – and a huge thank you to Nick Richardson of Marketing Advisers for making the introduction of Michael Bhaskar to AMCIS! ‘The Coming Wave’ traces the history of AI through the unique lens of Mustafa Suleyman, and draws on events – recent and past – in human history to explore the patterns of world-changing waves of innovation, and to situate the development of AI within this history. (Michael has also written ‘Human Frontiers‘, another fascinating book!)

Our greatest dilemma as a human race, according to Suleyman and Bhaskar, is this: that either new technologies or the absence of those very same technologies could be equally catastrophic for the world, if we do not prepare sufficiently well for them … and at present we do not appear to be engaging in preparation that is adequate enough. Containment – by which they mean the ability to monitor, curtail, control and potentially even close down technologies – is, they argue, necessary, although this is an especially challenging option with this particular wave of innovation, because of its unique features (not least the speed of its development).

It should be noted, however, that in arguing for containment, the authors are not advocating for a Luddite-like rebellion against AI … in fact, on the contrary, despite the grave warnings embedded in the text (the terrifying bits), there is a discernible positive, forward-looking perspective that runs throughout the chapters, culminating in Chapter 14 – ‘Ten Steps Towards Containment’. These 10 steps include developing strong safety protocols, bringing in challenge from intelligent critics who are prepared to test the ‘what if’ questions, and developing international alliances and treaties, in much the same way as nuclear power is managed globally.

The proposed step that spoke to me particularly powerfully, from the perspective of what we, as educators in schools, can achieve, was number 8: ‘Culture: Respectfully Embracing Failure’, because in addition to its nod to the inherent importance of building and deploying a growth mindset, it emphasises the social and moral responsibility that developers and scientists – and, indeed, all of us – have collectively in the field of AI.

Schools can be real generators of this social and moral responsibility, with deep values at their core which when voiced, practised and modelled, genuinely enable young people to become decent human beings and good citizens, able to distinguish between right and wrong, and motivated to make a positive difference in the world. With schools explicitly part of the task force of AI development, then help is on its way.

So … there is light ahead of us, but a lot of work to be done. The message to take away is that the sooner that schools step up to their responsibility to guide the development of AI, the better for us all …

Compassion for self … a discipline

Although the Middle East School Leadership Conference in Dubai is now over a week ago, and, after a sojourn at home in Edinburgh, I am now headed to Doha for a few days (to include attending the annual British Schools of the Middle East conference), I am still feeling buoyed up the experience of #MESLC in Dubai. What a super conference it was! So many connections and reconnections, and such great and thought provoking sessions! I came away with a sense of uplift and focus. It was a particular joy to join some dots and create connections between astonishing female educators in Manila and SE Asia too. Leisa Grace Wilson, supremo of MESLC, deserves to feel proud of what she and her team achieved. My topic was ‘self-compassion’, and I have found myself reflecting even more deeply on this topic since the conference.

Dr Kristin Neff, in her seminal book ‘Self-Compassion: the proven power of being kind to yourself’, explains that research shows that there are 3 key elements to self-compassion. Compassion, remember, is a feeling that we have, and show to others, when they are having a hard time in some way; self-compassion is therefore a feeling that we show to ourselves, when we are struggling or suffering. Compassion differs from empathy in that it is not just the act of communing with another, and feeling alongside them; it has what might be described as a more activist element to it, as it motivates us to seek to alleviate the pain being experienced. A deeper understanding of self-compassion, therefore, helps us to understand what we can actually do to help diminish our pain or suffering, so that we can better thrive.

These three components of self-compassion, as identified by Dr Neff, are as follows: mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity. By ‘mindfulness’, she means adopting a curious and observant attitude to the state in which we find ourselves, feeling the pain or suffering, but, rather than simply dwelling in it, taking time to consider it, as a way to bring some proportionate thinking to it; by ‘self-kindness’, she means identifying what we actually need at that moment, in order to support us through the experience of the pain – this could well include forgiveness, which is of course a very active process too, because forgiveness requires that we acknowledge fault, resolve to address or remedy it, and then move forward. Each of these components requires discipline and determination – they do not happen simply because we would like them to; rather, they happen because we very consciously practise them, and thereby improve in how we manage to accomplish them.

It is the third of the components, however, that I find most empowering … while radically simple, it also challenges us to transcend in our understanding of our place in humanity. This element of self-compassion, ‘common humanity’, is the discipline of reminding us that every human being fails or struggles, and so therefore we are not alone. Cognitively, or in the abstract, this is relatively easy for most of us to realise, understand and accept, but the discipline comes from genuinely feeling it and deeply, deeply knowing it, at that very moment of pain, when our default position can often be to feel incredibly alone – ashamed, guilty, embarrassed, unable to show our face, wanting to hide away. Suppose we were able to reframe our thinking and feeling so that – at the very moment where we feel most alone, we are able to feel most connected with humanity, because this is what humans feel and experience? Just how empowering would that be, if we could?

Well, we can. It requires discipline and practice, of course – oodles and oodles of it, I am sure! – but Dr Neff’s work gives us a glimpse of what we can achieve in our self-compassion, when we start with the awareness of our human interconnectedness. When we are more self-compassionate, we are even better role-models for the educators, young people and parents with whom we work; we owe it to them, as well as to us, to do this. It was a privilege to stand up at #MESLC and share this; now, together, let’s start work on our self-compassion, and see where this might lead us all.

Meaningful work

The Middle East School Leadership Conference takes place on Wednesday and Thursday of this week (21 and 22 February), and so I am back in the sleek hustle and bustle of Dubai, ready to speak at, and enjoy, the event. My talk will be on ‘Self Compassion for School Leaders’, and so – in amongst my meetings and coffee catch ups with lovely coachees ahead of the conference – I am grounding myself in readiness by dipping back into Dr Brené Brown’s book, ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’ (the 10th anniversary edition, in fact, with a nice new foreword). This process of grounding myself in this way is particularly good for me, as I know I still have the tendency, if unchecked, to focus on the negatives of my own imperfection; learning to focus on the positives continues to be a discipline that I practise, and part of that discipline lies in being actively and regularly re-inspired. Anyway – allow me to share my musings …

Now, I am conscious that a significant number of my extended LinkedIn network are diehard Brené Brown fans, and could probably quote whole chapters; please, please feel free to share your favourite Brené insights in response to this post on LinkedIn! For me, in this reading of the book, and in the context of a few months of global travel, engagement at conferences, and reflection on how I can balance impact with reward, I found myself drawn especially to what this insightful research professor has to say about meaningful work. She reminds us of Malcom Gladwell’s three criteria for meaningful work, as outlined in his ‘Outliers’ – complexity, autonomy and a relationship between effort and reward (reward in its widest sense, not specifically financial reward); she also explains what she has learned during the course of her research. Here are some key points (from pages 142 and 143):

“We all have gifts and talents. When we cultivate those gifts and share them with the world, we create a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives.”

Squandering our gifts brings distress to our lives … When we don’t use our talents to cultivate meaningful work, we struggle. We feel disconnected and weighed down by feelings of emptiness, frustration, resentment, shame, disappointment, fear and even grief.”

Using our gifts and talents to create meaningful work takes a tremendous amount of commitment, because in many cases the meaningful work is not what pays the bills. Some folk have managed to align everything- they use their gifts and talents to do work that feeds their souls and their families; however most people piece it together.”

“No-one can define what’s meaningful for us. Culture doesn’t get to dictate if it’s working outside the home, raising children, lawyering, teaching or painting. Like our gifts and talents, meaning is unique to each one of us.

Meaningful work

Just let those words sit with you for a moment. What resonates? What realisations or reassurances do they cause to twitch in you? Where, on reflection, would you place you lesser, at this moment, along the spectrum of meaning in your work? Bear in mind that ‘work’ does not necessarily mean your ‘job’; it does, however, reflect what it is that you opt to do, and how you choose to expend your effort. Meaning is important in life; meaningful work is important in life … clearly, meaningful work signifies different things for each of us, so the real question is – do we know what ‘meaningful work’ signifies for us in particular? As unique human beings, with all our quirkinesses, we are forging individual pathways through our lives, but we are far from alone; our paths crisscrossing inexorably and sometimes frenetically with those of others, in a gloriously entangled collective; how are we shaping our pathways so that they nudge us all forward, hopefully seeking to leave the world a bit better when we leave it than when we joined it?

If I could grant you a wish today, it would be that you could answer this question along the lines of ‘I think/feel/hope I am getting there’, because working out the meaning in your work, and practising it, is a phenomenally satisfying journey. Regardless of where you are on the journey, however, my wish for you is that you will take time this week to appreciate, and embrace, the meaningfulness in your work.

And enjoy, enjoy, enjoy! Onwards and upwards, as ever!

Women Rising …

As I prepare for this weekend’s WISE (Women in International Schools Empowerment) conference at the British School Manila, in the pleasant February temperatures of the Philippines, and as I reflect on the amazing work already being done in the WISE community in mentoring women leaders in education, I have been re-reading ‘How Women Rise’ by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith.

‘How Women Rise’; Background is Metro Manila

If you haven’t read this book yet, do – whether you are man or woman – because it describes 12 habits which often hold women back in their leadership careers, and these are worth noting. The habits do not apply to everyone, and are by no means exclusive to women; I can testify from my coaching of women leaders over the years, however, that a large majority of women leaders battle with a significant number of these habits, and as such, it is worth us all paying attention to the articulation of these habits in this book.

The 12 habits range from a reluctance to claim your own achievements (Habit 1) to ‘the disease to please’ (Habit 8) and letting your radar distract you – a reflection on the importance of bringing authenticity and vulnerability to the table (Habit 12). The book explores what each of these mean, and gives some insights into how to address them; it makes for an interesting read.

One of the dangers, of course, in establishing a list of habits like this, is that it can appear like another stick with which women can beat themselves … it can become yet another list of things that women are not doing right. This would not be – indeed, is not – at all helpful to the cause of freeing women to be authentic, confident leaders and contributors, able to lead in their own individual ways, and able to bring their immense worth to the world of work and beyond.

To counter this, as I was reading the text, I instead found an image growing in my head of a large pile of heavy leaves, resting and pressing down on the shoulders of women, and in some cases submerging them completely in a sea of foliage. Each leaf, I imagined, was an expectation of the woman – an expectation born of centuries (millennia, even) of expectations of women; expectations about behaviours, about goals in life, about purpose, about family responsibilities, about relationships with others … even about who takes the bins out, and who doesn’t.

These expectations – these conscious, subconscious or unconscious biases – can be enormously weighty; indeed, they can be extremely hard to shift, especially if we do not even recognise that they are there … we can feel the weight, but we cannot always explain what it is. At times, the leaves contradict one another, and demand that we present ourselves in mutually incompatible ways … and as we are reminded in Gloria’s powerful ‘It is literally impossible to be a woman’ monologue from Greta Garwig’s Barbie movie, this makes life so much harder than actually it should be.

Woman Rising

But the thing about a pile of leaves, as you will remember from your childhood, if ever you played in a flurry of fallen leaves in the northern or southern hemisphere autumns, is that when you stand up decisively, the leaves fall away, and you can brush from your clothing any other leaves that remain. Stand up, let them fall away, and brush away those that try to stick … when I muse on this, it strikes me as a rather powerful metaphor for women rising.

So – something to ponder, and on how developing new habits, reframing our old ones, can help us to do so.

Rise at WISE, perhaps … for my part, I am really looking forward to it!

Reclaiming the concept of networking

Although I have written in the past about the subject of networking, and how we can choose to interpret it really positively and empoweringly (what a lovely adverb!), I want to address this again, because I continue to be struck by how many of the leaders I have coached over the years still struggle with the word ‘networking’. I have noticed that many, many leaders associate networking with actively making artificial or false relationships with the intention of discarding or abusing the other party at the first opportunity, in a race for superiority and the next step on a ladder of perceived ‘success’ – and, unsurprisingly, these leaders do not like this. Equally, I have also come across a fair few leaders who perceive networking in this manner, and do like it – which strikes me as similarly problematic. And yet over the past 2 weeks, as I have spent time in Doha and latterly in Shanghai (from where I am posting this blog), a considerable amount of my activity (ie meeting school leaders, educators, founders and pioneers) could well be classed as networking, and I don’t recognise at all this negative description of what I have been doing.

When I think of networks, I think of the wonderful networks that are constantly vibrating inside our brains, as our neural pathways grow, stretch, strengthen, polish themselves up and prepare to achieve new and wonderful things. I think, too, of the intertwined ecosystem of the rainforest, which pulsates with energy, and where each element supports the growth of others, in different phases and stages, each of which has its moment and time to rise towards the sun. I think of the digital communications, media and transport systems that connect us across the entire globe – and beyond, in fact. And when I translate these images into networks of people, I see and feel connection, warmth, joy and an immense potential to learn from and with others, in relationships which are not only mutually beneficial, but which also create energy and insights that will benefit others in ways not yet fully anticipated, yet for which the seeds have now been sown.

And although, personally, I sit very much on the cusp of introvert and extrovert, I recognise that networks and their potential make me feel alive, bonded to the rest of the human race, and flooded with an immense sense of the possible. When we meet and chat with other human beings, and share our stories and challenges, then we create an entity that sits between and around us – a relationship that in turn introduces and links us to others. In a world where mistrust and a lack of understanding between people presents us with possibly the greatest danger of all, this kind of connection really, really matters.

So … go out, and extend your network today …

Equality of access to public examinations: how can we shift the exam grade bell-curve?

The last few weeks in August in the UK – and, indeed, in British international schools across the world – are a hive of activity (and emotion). These are the weeks when the results of A Levels and then GCSEs are published, and with them, university destinations for students are confirmed, and teachers reflect on their past year, and then take that learning with them to the next year’s cohort of students. Students, meantime, wrestle with decisions born from the grades they have received – some pathways open up, others dry up. How they react and respond to this time can make or hinder them in their future.

Given the pressures and emotions of this period, I do think that this is also a time of year when it is also important to reflect on what the phrase ‘equality of access to education’ can and should mean. In their Sustainable Development Goals, the UN emphasise that ‘Providing quality education for all is fundamental to creating a peaceful and prosperous world. Education gives people the knowledge and skills they need to stay healthy, get jobs and foster tolerance.’ … and I cannot imagine that anyone reading this would disagree. It does of course assume that we can collectively reach an understanding of what passes for ‘quality education’ … that is a whole other stream of thought, however. Assuming that we can already have a broad and working (if imperfect) understanding of what ‘quality education’ can embrace, we can also recognise, very quickly, that the reality of how to achieve equality of access to this quality education is not straightforward – and much of it actually depends on quality of access to preparation for public examinations.

In most current education systems, public examinations – which are still the best impartial, unbiased, nationally (and internationally) validated means we have of establishing what a student knows and can do (within the limitations of the subject specifications, of course) – are the most common gateway for a young person to their future. There is some amazing work being done by organisations like Think Learning Studio on challenging this through a focus on portfolios; for the moment, however, most students have to face examinations which are actually competitions for top grades rather than pure reflections of achievement. This means that not only do candidates have to score highly in their exams, but they have to score more highly than significant numbers of other candidates in order to be awarded a good grade. Examination awarding bodies over the years have evolved complex statistical models which – while seeking to maintain grading based essentially on standards and levels of achievement – nonetheless expect and anticipate that certain percentages of students will do less well than others, and this is reflected in the number of grades awarded in different bands.

This expectation is now baked into our system; put differently, if every student in an examination scored 100%, the first assumption of most internal and external stakeholders, including politicians and the media, would be that the exam itself was too easy, rather than that all the students taking the exam had acquired the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve full marks. A manifestation of this assumption was seen in 2023 with the UK examination boards, when it was determined that grade boundaries should rise, so that fewer students would gain the top grades. This may have brought the percentages achieving top grades back in line with the pre-Covid grades, which is in many respects sensible, to avoid discrediting the exams (‘grade inflation’ equals ‘easier exams’), but it does not address the issue of how we can support young people to reach the grades that will enable them to fight for those higher grades. Nor – dare I say it – does it address the issue of how we strengthen the case for the shifting of the exam grade bell curve in a way which does not presume grade inflation, but rather comes as the result of students actually developing increased knowledge and skills – and (most importantly of all, if I dare say this too) being grounded, confident, service-oriented, well-prepared amazing young people – again, a whole other stream of thought.

For us to shift this exam grade bell-curve, much has to change in our national education provision – and I know from my work around the world that what applies in the UK is true elsewhere. One of the stark realisations I have had in recent years from supporting the CEO and team at Mark My Papers, as Chair of their Advisory Board, is that the quality of preparation for examinations of students by many national or state schools is very precarious. I have written in the past about my admiration for Mark My Papers and the work they do in giving schools – any school, regardless of their demographic – swift, accurate, unbiased feedback on students’ mock exams, and I continue to be impressed (which is why I support them!), not least because it is painfully obvious from so many of the papers that they mark that the students have not been well-prepared for their gateway public examinations. This can occur because students were taught by a non-specialist teacher, or because a change in the subject specifications has gone unnoticed, or because the students have not had enough practice in the very particular technique needed to answer question types, or (and this affects every single school in some way – ignore this, schools, at your peril!) because of unconscious bias in teacher marking (eg “I know this is what they meant to say, so I will give them the mark”).

Much of this can be attributed to lack of investment in education, of course (yet another stream of thought …) – regardless of the reasons, however, the stark reality is that students do not currently have equality of access to education because they do not have equality of access to exam preparation. We all know that exams are not the be-all and end-all of education – far, far from it! … but in our current world, exams are important for so, so many young people, and we owe it to these young people to find ways to guarantee them greater equality of access to this often defining aspect of their education.

I wonder if we could aim to shift the exam grade bell-curve just a bit this coming year, because our students really have learned and performed better … Just a thought.

Sara Pascoe and the importance of using our platforms well

What a great Saturday morning last week! Quite apart from the fact that we had lovely friends staying, and I was able to meet some of their equally lovely friends too (great educators all, it must be said!), it was a real treat to spend an hour with my 16 year old daughter watching and listening to the irrepressible Sara Pascoe in conversation with Michael Pedersen at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. And (as you would expect from one of the UK’s top comedians) it was very funny indeed. Our claim to a connection with Sara Pascoe, incidentally, is that as a family we used to watch her, years ago, in her early years as an unknown actress, when she performed for several years as part of the ‘Shakespeare for Breakfast’ troupe at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival … she was obviously talented and funny back then, and (we hoped and assumed) destined to move into a wider sphere of influence.

And indeed she has done so … Sara Pascoe is enjoying a great career on TV and in other media, and this was clear from her conversation today, although ostensibly, we were all there to hear about her debut novel, Weirdo – due out in September, and (to judge by the extracts we heard) an astute (and humorous) account of what it means to live as Sophie from Essex in a financially-challenging, emotionally-challenging world. Sara herself said that she wanted to write a novel about someone who was trying to be normal, and not really succeeding – what, after all, is ‘normal’? – and I am fairly sure that it will contain a lighthearted (but acerbic) commentary on the world.  

It was a funny and enjoyable hour – but one moment in particular made me sit up straight, and admire Sara for her honesty and inclusiveness. In answer to a question from the audience about whether mobile phones should be banned from arts venues, she told a story about when, as a stand-up comedian, she had got it very wrong indeed, and the lesson she had learned from it. It was in her early years as a comic, when, with an air of over-confidence, she decided to call out an audience member for scrolling through his phone while she was performing. The more she called him out for his apparent disdain and arrogance, the more he put his head down; to cut a long story short, she realised – eventually – that he was checking his phone because of a family emergency, and that … because he had cerebral palsy … his biggest fear was being asked to speak in public, in case he was misconstrued as being drunk. Calling him out was completely the worst thing that Sara could have done; on Saturday, in front of an audience of several hundred, she acknowledged this openly, with no excuse, and with the learning she gained, ie that we never know exactly what other people are going through … and if something bothers us, we should be grown-up enough just to deal with our irritation ourselves. There are bigger things in life; and kindness and understanding go a long way.

Sara Pascoe had a platform, and she used it really, really well; she spoke out boldly about the importance of inclusiveness and how easy it is to make wrong, damaging assumptions. It was a reminder that our responsibility as human beings goes beyond what just what we do in our own lives – it extends to the impact we can have on others. If you have a platform – and we all do, at some point in our lives – then we absolutely should recognise this, and use it well.

Bravo, Sara! And well done to the Edinburgh International Book Festival for providing the platform!