Amazing student experience: lessons from the independent sector

It was a huge, huge pleasure last night to announce the awards to schools at the Independent Schools of the Year Awards in London, in my capacity as the chair of the judging panel. And what a lovely evening it was, courtesy of Independent School Parent magazine, who so generously supported the awards and who are acting as real champions of schools, telling the stories of achievement, joy and success which emerge from hard-working schools.

What was really, really clear last night was the positive impact that independent schools have on the lives of young people across our country, both in their own schools and beyond, in all types of schools, not to mention on the lives of the thousands more who are educated in British independent schools internationally, across the world. As I said last night, independent schools are carrying a flag of great educational practice, embedded in strong values and a belief in the power of all young people. And as we heard in many of the stories of the awards, independent schools are working tirelessly with their local community and with other schools, to develop their students as active citizens, able to make meaningful contributions to society and the world. 

What was special about last night’s awards is that they celebrate the core of what education really is all about – to ensure a positive, all round student experience, enabling children and young people to flourish – as in the inspiring story of last night’s ‘Rising Star’, a student whose utter and relentlessly positive determination to recover from brain injury was nurtured and amplified by his school, who went above and beyond in order to support him. These awards were not about grades – although in schools where students are truly enabled to thrive, and encouraged tirelessly from every single angle, academic success will follow. In great schools, young people always, always come first.

So – congratulations to all the shortlisted schools, finalists and winners last night – your students are in amazing hands!

Bathing in the energy of the Early Years staffroom

Over the past few weeks, I have had the privilege of listening to and talking with Early Years teachers in 4 different schools, spread across 3 different countries, on 2 different continents, and the experience has been absolutely energising. Long gone should be the days when Early Years is seen as a nice cosy little corner of the school, where children are contained before being released to ‘real’ school, but sadly this severely outdated perception persists in staffrooms across the country – and globe. In reality, however, Early Years teachers can be some of the most adaptable and child-centred teachers a school has the privilege to possess, and their engagement with the lives and all-round development of the children in their care can be amongst the most impressive … and deliciously subversive … in the school …

Why ‘deliciously subversive’?, I hear you ask! Ah, now therein lies the beauty of the Early Years department! Over the many years when they have been slightly overlooked by their colleagues leading the learning of older children and young people, Early Years teachers have perfected the art of identifying who children are, responding to these needs, and quietly fighting for the individualised resources which these children need in order to thrive. Unnoticed in many cases, these Early Years staff have gradually been refining their position on what works in education, and strengthening their voices … and these voices are now coming through louder and clearer than ever before. “We need to challenge the grades culture as children go through school” … “We need to rethink why we are asking children to learn a particular thing or set of things” … “Maths and literacy are not the be-all and end-all of a child’s existence” … “Politicians need to stop interfering in the development and education of children” …

Now, if we listened to – and acted on – the thoughts, experience and vision of these Early Years educators, the shape of our entire education system might be very, very different. In fact, it will be, if they have their way. They brought a smile to my heart – and I look forward to immersing myself again in their energy and wisdom before too long. We have a lot to learn from them.

The resistible rise of Artificial Intelligence?

I spent a glorious weekend last week in Oxford at the Oxford University Alumni Weekend, meeting friends and enjoying stimulating lectures and discussions. One of these, led in the lovely lecture theatre at St Anne’s College by Professor Peter Jeavons, Head of the Computing Science department, prompted me to rush to put virtual pen to virtual paper, so energised was I by the thoughts that flooded through my brain …

The simple answer to the question posed in the title of the lecture, which took us through the history of artificial intelligence and clarified what artificial intelligence actually is (less Terminator), and more ‘machines acting rationally’ is that this is not the question we should be asking … the question of whether the rise of AI is resistible or not lies, in fact, entirely within our human capacity. If anything, however, according to philosopher Daniel C Dennett, “the real danger is basically clueless machines being ceded [by people] authority far beyond their competence”.

Not that there is much danger at all, according to Professor Jeavons, if we grapple properly and effectively with the kinds of questions that he wants to answer on behalf of his new students, as he prepares them to learn what they will need in order to contribute their skills effectively to the world of research and practical application of AI in the future. His core question was not what COULD go into AI development, but what SHOULD go into it … what decisions are we going to take, as humanity, that will enable us to guide the development of AI? He extended this into 3 other questions:

  • What roles in society can be taken by machines without compromising human dignity, and what roles must be reserved for humans?
  • How do we organise an economy which has less and less need for labour, either by hand or by brain?
  • What are the problems we really want smart machines to solve?

These questions will not answer themselves, nor should we allow them to be answered by individuals (even on behalf of institutions or governments); they are FAR too important for that. We need philosophers, ethicists, users, thinkers; we need diversity and creativity of perception and thought, and we need people to challenge, test, explore, discover and contribute to an understanding and direction. The thought did cross my mind during the lecture that we have a beautiful natural and international structure already in place to do this, through our governmental systems, if only we could reorientate them towards reflection and collaborative construction of ideas and practice, and away from the kneejerk, populist, soundbite culture which, bewilderingly, seems to mark our political status quo.

And of course, we have an even more beautiful opportunity to shape the future if we really focus on enabling our young people to develop the cognitive, emotional and social skills to be able to address these issues, to learn how to turn our existing decision-making structures to good and practical use, and to invent new means of identifying and exploring the answers to these questions. I do wonder whether our existing curriculum structures truly enable these … in fact, I am certain that they could do much more if teachers were released and allowed to flex their muscles, in pursuit of developing the strengths in every child.

A plea to policymakers … Please, please, can we trust teachers and let them do this …? The future is in their hands.

Grappling with difference from an early age

I have a lot to thank my friends for, and – in common with most people, I would imagine – I am deeply grateful for many of them for sticking with me through thick and thin. My longest serving (I use the phrase advisedly …) friend in this respect, B, came to stay with me recently, and despite the fact that we calculated that we hadn’t seen one another at all for about 6 years, there were times during the days we spent together that I can honestly say that I felt again the joy of being 7 years old – what a lot of laughter! What funny memories of adventures and mishaps! I mourned when she left, even though we both had pressingly busy lives to go back to, which we had (mostly) put on hold for these few days.

One insight I had during our time together really made me think about the nature of identity and self, because I found myself in a moment of deja vu which took me back instantly through the decades. I was busy and happily bustling to organise for us to go on an outing, while she appeared – as ever – serene and calm. ‘As ever’ – how true of our relationship! ‘Tis thus and always ‘twas thus …’ This insight struck home with me, and I checked in with her, to make sure: “I was always like this, wasn’t I?” “You were”, she said, and, like the 7 year olds we had once been, we giggled. I took her affirmation as a compliment – I very much value the child within, and I am also glad to have led a coherent and authentic life which has enabled me to draw out who I have always been. It is enormously reassuring and uplifting to realise, with the help of the eyes of others, that you already are doing what you are meant to do …

Another powerful insight hit me too, however, and I realised how grateful I was to B for another reason. The thing is … we are very different in many, many ways, although with elements of similarity, more so than perhaps we really knew at the time, but which manifested themselves to some extent in our chosen life calling of education. I remember, though, now that my memories have been rekindled, how I would often feel perplexed about what and why B did and thought as she did, as it wasn’t always what I would have done, and I know that she taught me that there were subtly different ways of viewing the world and different ways to have fun. She was one of the first people who really taught me about the value of grappling with difference in relationships, and of growing through the process. I am enormously grateful to her – and for her continued friendship even when I must have perplexed her in equal measure with what might well have seemed at times like rather odd perspectives on life. What a star she was (and is)!

If our children and young people are to have any chance of developing the global competence they need in the world, they need to learn to grapple with difference – and the earlier, the better. Friendships with people who are different from them are a beautiful way in which to explore and develop their own sense of self and identity, and learn to value that of others. As parents and educators, let us do our very best to encourage this.

Coming soon from Dr Helen Wright – a new book: The Globally Competent School: a manual. Publication: October 2019

The welcome power of parental engagement

Over the past 3 weeks I have spent some very uplifting time with parents of school students in Asia and Europe, and I have been reminded again of the vital importance of parental engagement in the educational – and life – journeys of their children. I have spent years – decades, now, in fact – listening hard to parents, and seeking always to establish a better understanding of their children and of their needs, in order to create a shared understanding about how we can – together – help guide and nurture them in the years ahead. Once this practice of drawing on multiple sources to understand children is instilled in educators, it is hard to shift it (and why would one want to?), and I find myself slipping naturally into deep listening mode whenever I meet parents, in whatever context. It takes a village to raise a child, after all, and the more we can understand about children from their parents, as well, obviously, as from the children themselves directly, the better our chance of providing those children with the kind of education and support that they will need to thrive and flourish in the world.

Of course, this does not mean that parents know and understand their children in their entirety, and this can often be challenging for parents to realise and accept. In fact, from the moment our children leave the womb (and almost certainly before this), as they begin to interact with the wider world, they start to form as an even more unique human being than their unique combination of genes would already suggest. With such original human beings in front of us, as parents or educators, we have to understand that there is no absolutely clear roadmap ahead of them, and no cookie cutter or conveyor belt approach to guiding them and supporting them that will result in a sure-fire outcome (contrary to the assumptions that underpin many curricula). Our assumptions about who children can or might be are also coloured – inevitably – by our own assumptions, perceptions, vicarious hopes and ambitions … in fact, at times it is a wonder that children manage at all to escape childhood with a strong sense of their unique selves. As the people closest to children in their earliest years, and who are bound to their children with unconditional love, parents are uniquely placed to see early traits in their children, and while these will evolve and present in different contexts beyond the parent-child relationship, parents have a rich and deep understanding. If they are prepared to notice, reflect, and above all share what they see with the wider community of caregivers and educators of their children, while remaining open to seeing their children from the different angles of others, they are giving their child an enormous gift – of shared understanding.

No one person can be all things to a child – a parent is not an aunt, a family friend, a teacher, or a kind stranger in a shop who stops to say hello and play for a moment. Each of us has our own roles to play, and we need to be mindful of the boundaries of these, respecting what others have to bring to the task of bringing up a child. For some children, circumstances dictate that certain relationships will be more important than others; there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ balance of people around children.

But one truth is evident – when parents engage wisely with others, especially schools, about their children, knowing when to intervene, when to advocate, and when to withdraw, all the while sharing as clearly as possible their insights, feelings and perspectives, then we will all have the best chance to work together to help each and every child thrive.

Embracing dual language as a step towards global competence

I have just been brushing up my understanding of dual language research ahead of my trip to Hong Kong this week to spend time with educators and students in the Dalton School Hong Kong. I have been a non-executive Director of the Dalton Foundation since 2015, and it has been a privilege to watch the growth of DSHK from idea to living, breathing organisation – I applaud the vision of the Founding Directors, and the hard work of the Principal and his team. Every time I spend time in the school, I am impressed and heartened by the prospects that these fortunate students have, benefiting as they are from a forward-looking, carefully considered, all embracing education that responds to their individual needs. True student-centredness is hard to achieve in education – and DSHK does a superb job in this respect.

As part of my knowledge refresh, I thought I would just try to gain a sense of how prevalent dual language learning was in the world, and I was struck by how many news items I could find about new dual language programmes popping up – many of them, in fact, in the public schools in the US. Each was accompanied by a short reflection on why states were investing in these programmes, and their reasons resonated strongly with the benefits of dual language learning as identified widely in the available research – better communication skills, increased cognitive agility, and a far greater sense of identity and awareness of cultural diversity.

This latter advantage appeals to me hugely, especially when it is placed in the context of social mobility, about which I have written extensively. Learning how to appreciate and engage with others of different cultural backgrounds from an early age is a huge gift which we can give our children, and an educational model which enables them to learn about the world in more than one language embeds within them a deep understanding of the existence of different ways of thinking, being and doing.

The development of global competence should start as early as possible, but it is also never too late to introduce our children to the wonders of the wider world. As parents and educators, it is our responsibility to find ways to help them grow in wisdom and skill. Dual language programmes provide a really good start.

Dr Helen Wright will be discussing Global Competence and the role schools can play, later this week. Take a look here for further details

Disruptive collage … and why schools need to be more honest about this radical art

I think I expected something different when I agreed to go to ‘400 years of collage’, an exhibition at the Scottish Modern Art Gallery Two … in fact, embarrassing though it is to admit, I know I had a vague expectation of some pretty pastels and cut up magazines. On reflection, this was not unsurprising, given that this has largely been my (clearly very peripheral) experience so far of collage as taught in schools. There was nothing pretty or pastelly about this exhibition, however; this exhibition was all about disruption – of art, of reality and society. And it really made me wonder how I had never worked this out before.

Containing examples of the earliest collages known, this is an exhibition peppered with a number of Picassos and an Andy Warhol, together with the iconic 1980 anti-war collage by Peter Kennard that merged cruise missiles into Constable’s Hayswain. Collage, we were reminded throughout the rooms displaying the work, is by its nature a disruptive art – which is obvious, if you think about it – and so it makes perfect sense that it should be adopted by artists who sought to challenge the status quo.

The questions that it prompted in me, however, were … how many school students who have done a topic involving collage actually understand the disruptive nature of the art? And does it matter? Given the energetic responses of the young person with whom I visited the exhibitions, I would venture to say that it does, because it suddenly gave a deeper meaning to the art, and answered for her the question of why this is important, with the answer not simply being ‘because the teacher says we should’.

Tasks in school should never be because ‘the teacher says we should’ – time spent in school is, quite simply, too precious for this. If schools and teachers are uncomfortable about the historical role of collage, then that is another question … but if we choose to teach it, at least let us put it in context.

‘Hindsight’ can actually be a gut-wrenching thing …

The chances of you managing to see ‘Hindsight’, the play by Jill Franklin, currently being reprised in Edinburgh by the impressive Fox and Hound Theatre as part of the Festival Fringe, grow slimmer by the day, as its run ends on 24 August, but if you can still get a ticket, do! Be warned, though – it is intensely painful in points in its piercing reflection of the inner life and thoughts of children. While this makes it an absolute must-see for parents, school leaders and teachers … and anyone who has ever had, or who ever will have, anything to do with children (ie, basically, every single one of us) … make sure you go prepared, with an open mind and an open heart.

Hindsight – a play by Jill Franklin

It is the story of Laura, a 12 year old girl who sees the world just a little bit differently, but in ways which her school just doesn’t understand, and which renders her mother at times powerless. It is a story of misperceptions, wrongly founded assumptions, and the utter perplexity and desperate frustration which results when we do not seek to understand the world of a neurodiverse child. Human beings divided by a common language … with awful consequences.

It struck me when I reflected after the play, when the tumult of my emotions had calmed, that one of the most important messages that this play had was that we harm children when we presume to understand their inner world without questioning our assumptions. This was not a play ‘just’ about an autistic girl – in fact, the label was powerfully rejected by her mother: “She’s just LAURA!”. This was a comment about how children’s lives are trammelled by convention and schools, and how the wings of their ambitions, hopes and dreams are savagely clipped when we do not try to understand them, respect them and nurture them for who they are.

There are amazing schools out there – and I believe in the power of schools to make a difference in the world; I know too, however, that we cannot allow our own assumptions about children and their behaviour or their thoughts to go uncritically challenged, and we must always be on our guard for our own unconscious bias. Every child who is born into this world is an amazing gift, with the potential to make the most wonderful contribution to humanity and the planet … for those of us (all of us) who are charged with tending these green shoots, we need to learn really, really to listen to them.

William Blake said that hindsight is a wonderful thing … and he added: “but foresight is better, especially when it comes to saving life, or some pain”.

We need a lot more foresight in our world, in our relationship with our children. Thank you, Jill Franklin, for reminding us of this.

Malorie Blackman and the pathway to social mobility

Unsurprisingly, I really, really enjoy engaging with people who are relentlessly, strongly, determinedly optimistic, and it was therefore a joy to hear the author Malorie Blackman in conversation at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Sunday. She was talking about her latest book in the Noughts and Crosses series – Crossfire – although she ranged over the rest of her life and career, including why she became an author, how the voices of the characters urge her to write them, and how much pleasure she gains from writing something that matters. (If you haven’t read the Noughts and Crosses series, do – it is a very powerful and incredibly pertinent drama, and I am so pleased that my daughter introduced me to the books.)

Malorie Blackman signing one of her books at the Edinburgh Book Festival 2019

Worryingly, Ms Blackman said that she has encountered more racism in the past 3 years than in the past 30, but she is utterly determined in her belief that people can in fact get along with one another, and have to let the past go – this is the woman who is actually grateful to her school careers advisor for refusing to write a university reference for her back in the 1970s (saying – jawdroppingly – that ‘it isn’t for black people’), because this just made her work even harder and commit to never giving up. She became my hero instantly.

Anyway, one of the topics about which Malorie Blackman became very heated was that of libraries. She adored her local libraries (she had 2, equidistant from her home) and, growing up in Clapham, London, in the 60’s and 70’s, she practically lived there. When she had devoured the children’s section, the librarians guided her towards some of the classics, and Jane Eyre remains one of her absolute favourite books to this day. She knows what libraries did for her – giving her a voice, stretching her imagination, teaching her how to express herself and articulate her feelings – and she was crystal clear in her assertion that without libraries, she would not be sitting on stage here in Edinburgh (or anywhere else), and she would not have carved out the career that she has.

Libraries, she insisted, are one of the world’s great equalisers, because they give access to books for all – not just people who can afford to buy them. They enable people to have a voice – a voice that emerges through reading and experiencing the words, thoughts and feelings of others, and learning how to shape words to articulate their own thoughts and feelings. Effective communication is an incredibly important skill for social mobility, and libraries make this possible. On a more sinister note, she mused that cuts to library services – in the guise of general cost-cutting – are in practice taking even more power away from those in society who are already increasingly disenfranchised, as the gap between advantage and disadvantage grows. We should not blithely allow this to happen.

I’m not going to argue with Malorie Blackman – on the contrary, I completely agree with her.

Support your local library.

‘Conscious intuition’: musings on Bridget Riley

If you are in Edinburgh before 22 September 2019, do consider visiting the Bridget Riley exhibition in the Royal Scottish Academy (part of the Royal Scottish Galleries) at the foot of the Mound. Impressive, and beautifully situated across 10 rooms, her work seems to come alive in front of your eyes – a testament to her skill, thought and experimentation with lines, shape and colour. I was mesmerised as I (almost literally) breathed them in.

One particular expression that caught my attention as I perused the descriptions and explanations throughout the exhibition was the phrase that Riley herself used to describe how she came to create her work: ‘conscious intuition’. She would work carefully at each piece, developing her design over time, thinking about, and feeling, the choice of form, structure, colour, tone, tempo and scale. Only when she was sure of its balance and impact would she commit the design to canvas or other medium, using her team of painting assistants to help her, so she could keep her mind on the overall effect and not lose herself in the operational detail. If you look really closely at some of her works in the exhibition, you can see tiny, tiny marks which indicate either where the paint has joined the surface of the work, or where two lines, or discs, or other shapes, have been carefully levelled with one another. These are barely perceptible, but evidence of a careful, thoughtful, utterly attentive artist at work.

The term ‘conscious intuition’ has been playing on my mind since I saw it in this context. It seems to me that we can conceptualise this as a process, not a state, and not limited to the world of the artist … bringing together thought and feeling, drawing on the depths of all the understandings accumulated in the self over years of experience, which have become built into our perspectives on the world, but which we must still interrogate, to rid ourselves, as best we can, of false assumptions, misinterpretations and assumed (but unnecessary) limitations.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more it excites me. I want to practise it, stretch it, extend it, test its limits … if indeed it has limits … Let us see what happens.

Conscious intuition … my words for the day.