Close your eyes…..

We’re going to play a game.

Think of a private school. What do you see? Ancient buildings, acres of playing fields, a car park stuffed with Range Rovers?

Now, think of a pupil from one of those schools. Immaculately turned out, healthy tan (it’s the skiing, you know), pony at home and an air of entitlement?

Finally, think of the head of the school…..privately educated, Oxbridge (history) graduate, gravitas, and a certain ‘manner’ which comes from dealing with the very wealthy?

Ok, you can open your eyes. You know, as well as I do, that these images are not a true representation of reality.

First, lots of private schools are tiny operations; the average size of an ISC school is around 200 pupils. Many are based in the centre of cities and towns and they can be significant local employers. Others face significant challenges every day in resource management: those ancient buildings so beloved of photographers can be cripplingly expensive to maintain and use. Many independent schools do not have any such buildings. The majority of independent schools do not have pots of cash stacked away in the bank- like most families, including those in their own community, their income and outgoings are a pretty close match with little left over at the end of the month.

Then, the students. They come from all cultures, backgrounds and circumstances, and have a diversity reflective of their local communities. They are not entitled- many are acutely aware of the sacrifices their families are making to pay fees from their (already taxed) salaries. They don’t jet off on holiday at the drop of a hat and they don’t dress head to toe in designer gear. They are just kids, with the same worries and joys as any others.

Finally, the head. Yes, some of us were privately educated, and some are Oxbridge graduates, and there is nothing at all wrong with that. But many of us are neither of these things- as with our students, there is a rich diversity in our leaders and teachers too.

In much the same way as gender stereotypes are sometimes highlighted by asking people to imagine a doctor, firefighter or secretary, asking you to imagine an independent school, its pupils and staff is a way of highlighting the deeply ingrained, and often inaccurate, beliefs about the nature of our communities.

These stereotypes are particularly damaging when their repetition contributes towards preventing those who we aim to support with our partnership work and bursary schemes from accessing us. When perception becomes reality, and the image perpetuated of our schools is one which suggests we are aloof, unwelcoming places, then it is perhaps no surprise that families with no experience of independent education would think twice about approaching us.

The work that we do, therefore, in partnership with our local communities, the maintained sector and our families is vital in helping to break down the stereotypes in the same way as dialogue about gender stereotypes leads to a greater understanding of one another, and a better deal for everyone. It’s important to remember that, in the same way that no two students are the same, neither are any two schools. The partnerships we forge are as diverse as we are. Stereotypes of all kinds work by reducing a group to a set of one-dimensional cliches, but we can dismantle them by seeking to understand one another better. In the words of my own school’s campaign, we are reassuringly normal!

We want to help to support government in its aspirations for all young people. We welcome an open and honest dialogue about what is- and isn’t- achievable for our schools with the new Secretary of State for education. But this is a two-way process and requires listening, as well as talking, on both sides.

Let’s get past the stereotypes and move forwards.

How many women does it take to change a culture?

…that depends, it seems, upon where they are placed in the organisation.
In October 2015, Lord Davies of Abersoch reported upon his five year review of boardroom diversity, stating that representation of women on FTSE 350 boards had more than doubled since 2011, with 19.6% representation of women on FTSE 250 boards and 26.1% representation on FTSE 100 boards- exceeding the 25% target set by the review.  No all-male boards existed in 2015, compared to 152 in 2011.

So far, so good- not 50% representation, but progress, you would think, and significant progress at that.  But this does assume that all positions on boards are equal.  David O’Brien, in conjunction with the firm Beyond Analysis, recently conducted an in-depth analysis of over 1000 annual reports from FTSE 100 companies and found that the picture is not as rosy as claimed by Lord Davies and could be considered to be far from the ‘near revolution’ and ‘profound culture change’ which has been described.

The number of women directors has, as claimed, doubled-but digging a little further into the figures, Mr O’Brien reveals that 83% of those new board appointments were non-executive positions.  

105 male executives were replaced by 83 female non-executives.  Only 10 of the 151 CEO appointments analysed in this time were awarded to women, with only two women appointed internally to the role of CEO.  The upshot of this is that, whilst diversity has appeared to increase, those women in post are in less valued positions, and much less able to influence or change the culture of a company than the men they replaced.  In this case, it’s almost as if diversity has worked against women as agents of change.  The real danger is that Lord Davies, in congratulating those businesses and search firms who have effected this change, has allowed the business world to pat itself on the back, claim a job well done and carry on as usual.  Has anything in the company culture actually changed if the women around the table do not have the same degree of influence as their predecessors?  I would suggest not.

Moreover, the work of Professor Alex Haslam and Professor Michelle Ryan of the University of Exeter suggests that women are appointed to leadership positions in very different circumstances to men.  The ‘Glass Cliff’ research project seems to suggest that women are more likely to be appointed to precarious leadership positions, with a higher risk of failure or attracting more criticism.  In 2003 an article in The Times suggested that boards with women members perform less well than all male boards.  Yet archival analysis of company performance revealed that women tended to be appointed to boards of companies already experiencing poor performance in the run- up to the appointment being made and their position was therefore more precarious than it might otherwise be.  In fact, following the appointment of a woman, share prices tended to stabilise or increase.

This archival work has also been backed up by experimental studies of the ‘appointability’ of women to boards, where a similar effect is seen- female applicants are viewed as more attractive for posts when a company is in trouble than when all is going well.  More worryingly, this effect is seen in studies carried out with secondary school students too.

Now, a charitable view of the Glass Cliff research might be that women are perceived to have the skills necessary to turn around a company, make the organisational changes which will lead to success.  But when coupled with David O’Brien’s work, a bleaker alternative presents itself.  Women are appointed to roles where they can have less influence, and when they are appointed, it’s in situations where they are less likely to succeed.  They are expendable.

So instead of being congratulated on their success in moving towards parity, perhaps Lord Davies and those FTSE 100 companies need to consider that it’s not simply a numbers game.

An anonymous love letter

At this point every year, we hold our Prize Giving event, where we congratulate all our students on their success in public exams and say farewell and good luck to our leavers- usually with a rousing speech from one of our alumnae. This year was no exception. Our speaker was outstanding, and the evening went well- it always does.

My own message to our leavers related to being role models for the generations behind them- and how many times in school do we exhort our older students to behave well, dress well, follow the rules, because younger students view them as role models? This got me thinking a little about my own role models, and I’ve very recently come to the conclusion that a role model in the conventional sense is perhaps not a useful thing to have. In fact, I found it quite difficult to think of anyone who has been a role model to me in the sense of admiring someone (perhaps from afar) for specific traits, or their outlook on life, or their lifestyle.

When I really began to consider it, there have been many people who have had an influence upon me during my life. Those people have shaped me, and helped me to define myself. But they are no more role models than I believe I am- they were not perfect, they had their flaws, and I certainly never aspired to be any of them. Yet I am profoundly grateful to all of them for helping me to become me. This is my love letter to them, the thank you they never received at the time.

To my primary school headteacher,

I was about six, and the plaster model of the sheep I had made was, I suspect, truly appalling. Nevertheless, I remember presenting it to you with great pride that morning. I turned to leave your office but just as I got to the door you called me back. You told me that a great artist always signed their work, and handed me a biro to scratch my name into the soft plaster base. You didn’t set me on the path to becoming a great artist, but you taught me to be proud of my efforts.

To my secondary school friend,

You left school at 16, saying it wasn’t for you. At the time, our group didn’t know what to make of that- you were clever enough to have stayed on to do A levels, but chose to work instead. But then you were the one with money on nights out, the one with the car. Your sense of style was bold, uncompromising. You never seemed to care what anyone thought of you. My God, you were cool. So the night when we sat drinking cider together just before I went to university and you told me that you’d always admired the fact I’d stuck with my education when you couldn’t face it, I didn’t know what to say to you. You’d always been the bold one. In that moment of vulnerability, by showing me the store you set by education, from your different viewpoint, you kept me going when things got tough.

To the boy who broke my heart,

You really did break it, you know. So on the day I packed your bags (well, you weren’t going to do it), I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Suffocated by all the anger, and the hurt, I thought I might die. But I did keep breathing, and I did survive. You weren’t the centre of my world, after all.

To my first teaching placement supervisor,

You loved your job- as far as I know, you still do. The kids were tough, and the placement was a real challenge. But you were unrelentingly positive, and they responded well to you because of this. We’d take time at the end of every week to talk about what had gone well, and what had gone wrong, not just in my lessons, but yours too. You weren’t afraid to admit that you didn’t have all the answers.

To the deputy head,

I came out of your office that day with absolutely no doubts that I’d got it wrong. You were completely unambiguous on that point. But you showed me how I might put it right, and then let me do it myself. You helped me to the solution, but I rebuilt the bridges on my own.

All of these people taught me valuable lessons- from being proud of my efforts to understanding how strong I could be- but I am sure that none of them considered themselves to be role models. At the time, neither did I, but with the wonder of hindsight I can see how even just a sentence from them at the right moment has shaped me. If you asked me today who my role models were, I would struggle to answer in any meaningful way.

Perhaps the creation of of role models are not the way to go after all. Perhaps instead we should aim to be more mindful of those tiny interactions which we forget we’ve had…but which may have a profound influence on the other person.

There are many more people who have showed me who I could be- too many to list here. You don’t even know who you are.

Thank you anyway.

Slow in, fast out (or why strategic leaders might want to ride motorbikes)

This particular post came from two places- a casual pub conversation and an (almost) perfect bike ride.

The pub conversation centred around the tension between the day to day business of schools and the vision for an organisation- how can you keep these two things in balance in your head simultaneously without one, or the other, dominating?  The bike ride was just one of those which happens on a perfect afternoon, with smooth roads, no traffic and the sense of liberation I always feel when it all comes together just so.

In my post- ride afterglow, I got thinking about the pub conversation and how I manage to pull off the aforementioned trick.  I came to the conclusion that riding a bike, and leadership, are not as far removed as one might think.

Consider it this way- your school is the machinery, a motorbike, in this case.  The road you’re on is the timeline between where you are now, and the future.

The day to day of school life is the machine running.  You maintain it, check the tyre pressures and oil, make sure you have enough fuel for the journey….but you don’t spend the entire journey thinking about whether the spark plugs are firing correctly or if the spindle holding the wheel on is working loose.  You’re a responsible rider and you check these things regularly so that you don’t have to worry about them all the time.  You’re listening to the engine, of course, when you are riding.  You are vigilant for a change in note which suggests something is amiss.  It isn’t, however, your main focus.

In order to get you, and the bike, safely and successfully from A to B with all your parts intact, you need to be spending your time reading the road- and looking a long way out in front.  If you do this, you can prepare for the tight bend (another change in education policy) or the oil spill which might cause a skid (that staffing issue which has been brewing for a while).  You might even spot the juggernaut about to pull out of a side road and flatten you.  You are reactive, but in a planned way- you have a strategy for dealing with these things because you’re looking out for them.

If, when riding, you’re focussing too much on the engine, you miss the warning signs of the hazard up ahead. At best you panic and overcompensate, leaving you shaken and a bit unnerved about your capabilities as a rider.  At worst, you crash.  By looking out ahead, not only do you get to where you want to be, but you can also enjoy the journey.

This analogy doesn’t work with car driving.  In a car, drivers are often distracted- they fiddle with the radio, drink coffee, have heated conversations, text, even.  On a bike, when riding you are completely in the moment- you can’t afford not to be.  Leadership works best when you’re in the moment too.

Why else should leadership be like biking?  Next time you’re out, watch bikers as they meet one another on the road.  There’s often an almost imperceptible nod, which is just a quick ‘hi’ or ‘I see you’ to one another.  We’re in it together. We also head out on the road together, sharing experiences and journeys.  Head teachers should do these things too.

Finally, you might be wondering where the title of this blog came from.  It’s from the late, great Mike Hailwood, ‘Mike the Bike’ who won 12 TT races by the age of 27, setting a record as the first person to win three times in three different classes in one TT week at the age of 21.  

‘Slow in, fast out’ describes how he approached a corner.  You pick your line, check your speed, deal with it smoothly and move on faster from the bend because you’ve come out in the right spot.  You don’t rush into the bend headlong and wrestle the bike heroically round, leaving yourself exhausted and in the wrong place for the next part of the trip- or you and the bike in a ditch. 

That’s not a bad analogy for heads to follow- either in the early days of a new post or for any major change you might be considering.  Slow in, fast out wins races.

A Tale of Two Friends (and of growth mindset)

I want to tell you a story about my friend and I.

This is us in the fifth form (Year 11), summer of 1986, in the term we took our 16+ exams- for those who remember that brief experiment in education.  (I’m the one on the far right).

My friend and I were in the same class throughout school.  We bonded because we shared the same birthday and because we felt like we’d known each other forever.  Our lives were similar in so many ways- but in others they were quite different.

At school, I had lots of friends.  I went to parties, spent long Saturday afternoons in Topshop trying on clothes I’d never buy, and once in the sixth form I spent countless Saturday evenings in the pub with my mates. I remember fancy dress days, pizzas at 3am and lots of music and laughter.

My friend was bullied, and spent many evenings feeling very low.  It didn’t matter what she did- she couldn’t win her tormentors over.  Nothing made the situation better.  She looks back on her school days and on these times with a sense of sadness.  She has never worked out why she was a target and probably never will.

At school, I chose subjects I enjoyed, and was successful in my A levels.  I went off to university to a city I loved to read a subject I found fascinating.

My friend had to fight to do the subjects she wanted to do- it was always a battle.  She applied to read medicine, thinking she might be a doctor, but didn’t get a place.  She chose a course almost at random, and through the old CAP process in UCCA (oh, the nostalgia!) she was allocated a course in a city she had never been to and which seemed huge, frightening and overwhelming.  But, she didn’t know what else to do, so she went anyway.

At university, we both met someone and fell in love.  But whilst I stayed with the person I would eventually marry, she had a disastrous and tempestuous time, and when the relationship ended she vowed she would never marry or have children.

We both graduated, having done quite well.  She moved into a career which she found quite quickly that she hated, and wasted time trying to work out what to do with her life.  I became a teacher and found the job I wanted to do forever.  We’ve both moved jobs periodically, and I’ve done well, moving for promotion and eventually ending up leading my own school.  My friend has also progressed but has been passed over for many ‘dream’ jobs.

And so we’re both still here, 30 years older and hopefully wiser than we were as 16 year-olds.  We haven’t always been kind to one another, but we have generally remained on speaking terms and I’d say our relationship now is as close and supportive as it’s ever going to get.

Here I am, doing my job:

It’s the best job in the world.  I love what I do!

And here is my friend, doing her job:

….which she also loves.
Time to come clean.  My first photo in this blog was the misleading one.  Kirsty and Sharon, in the photo with me, were good friends, but I wasn’t talking about either of them.  Everything I refer to happened to me.

I did love school, and have many good friends, but I was bullied for a significant period of time.  I did love the subjects I studied but I had to fight for my choices, and I did want to be a doctor.  When I didn’t get a place to read medicine,  I chose the degree I ultimately studied because a) I liked the subject matter and b) it had the biggest list of possible jobs after it in the careers office guidance.    I did meet my future husband at university following a disastrous first relationship and I did vow never to marry or have children (5 kids later I’m still not sure where that one went to).  I’ve been fortunate to secure some excellent jobs in wonderful schools but I’ve also been passed over for lots of other roles.

We think a lot about building resilience in students, and about the concept of growth mindset.  We design programmes to teach them how to get back up after a knockdown, and we talk about ensuring opportunities to build character are built into our schools.  We teach them to say ‘I can’t do it……yet’ and to appreciate that intelligence is not fixed, that they can develop their talents and skills.  We know that this can’t be an add-on to school, but needs to be woven through every experience our students have. This is all admirable, and absolutely as it should be.

But it isn’t enough, however firmly embedded any scheme appears to be.

As teachers and parents, we are role models for our children.  Resilience, positive outlook and growth mindset has to be something we not only teach, but that we live and breathe.  I could tell the story of my life and say it’s been difficult, with many setbacks and not inconsiderable sadness.  I choose not to.  If I can’t show resilience, how can I expect my own children and students to do so?  Every time we say ‘I’m useless at this’ or, when asked about our weekend we talk about how hard things are, we pass on the message that whilst we say that we value the mindset we try so hard to instil, life isn’t really like that.  When as teachers, we make a fuss about changes to the curriculum or a different routine, the message we send is that we can’t easily adapt.  If we show we have no work-life balance, however hard it is to achieve it (and I’m not suggesting for one minute that it’s easy), we pass onto the next generation the tacit suggestion that you can’t have a life and a busy career and that this is an acceptable state of affairs.  It then doesn’t matter how many times we exhort our children and students to enjoy activities outside of the classroom- the message they hear is once again life isn’t really like that.

We talk the talk….let’s walk the walk as well.

Zen and the art of being a parent (and of motorcycle maintenance)

I ride motorbikes.  Big ones- the bigger and louder the better. Motorbikes, and the riding thereof, have been a part of my life for over 30 years now, and my other half still claims it is the only reason he married me.  I love riding bikes, and whilst I do it less than when I was younger (I no longer commute to work) it is a lifelong passion and one which I don’t envisage giving up.

At this point, you may well be thinking ‘Clearly this is not the blog I thought it was, and it has little to do with education’.  

You may be tempted to move on- but bear with me, there is a relevant point coming.

I’m currently reading ‘How to Raise an Adult’ by Julie Lythcott-Haims.  Although the book has a thoroughly US slant, Julia talks with real conviction about the pressures on parents, and children, to make the ‘right’ choices of subjects at school, to get onto the ‘right’ courses, at the ‘right’ universities, and thus move into the ‘right’ jobs.  In order to allow all this ‘rightness’ to happen, the acts of thinking independently, self-management of interests and study time, and the ability to make their own choices is, she suggests, being removed from children and young people to the degree that they are reaching adulthood without developing the ability to ‘adult’.  This is not, she says, the fault of parents- no parent would want to leave their children incapable of managing their own affairs- but the degree of pressure, perceived competition for prestige positions and fear of the future consequences of failure is driving us towards behaving in such a way as to disempower our children.

As I am reading this book, students in years 11, 12 and 13 are busy prepping for exams.  In a few weeks, our year 12 will begin thinking in earnest about their onward journey from LHS as we think about future careers, reflecting upon past discussions and careers evenings, and looking to what’s on offer beyond the school gates.  A number of students will think they know what their onward journey looks like- but far more are still undecided and are still considering options.

How much support and guidance should we, as parents, give?  When does that support tip over into deciding our child’s future for them?  Is it when we point them towards a suitable course, discourage a line of inquiry, forward a job advert to them, draft their application?  When we take them to the interview, wait in the waiting room?  When we phone for feedback on their behalf?  If we do these things, does it matter if it gets them into a secure job, which pays well?

There is a fine line to tread.  Children do need support and choosing the next step is a big decision.  But it is their decision to make.  Yet our children want to seek our opinion as a sounding board, and that’s where the hard part comes.  Children love us, their parents, and generally want us to be proud of them, and to please us.  If, when they are making the decision about their future, they sense disapproval they may steer away from a route which will lead to their great passion in life.  

‘Aha’, you say, ‘but what if that choice is patently ridiculous, or a dead end?’

Well, it might be- but I doubt it.  I have great faith in those young people that I know to make eminently reasonable choices about where to take their lives.  It is a leap of faith, but we have to trust that they know themselves.  And we need to trust ourselves that we have raised children who are well on the way to being self-sufficient and self-confident adults who are capable of controlling their own lives.  So when they come to us to act as a sounding board, we need to be a bit zen, reflecting their questions back to them and not telling them what their choice for their life should be.  If we don’t trust them to make good decisions, what does that say about us?

And so, back to where we came in, and motorbikes.  33 years ago, when I began riding at the age of 13, my mother could not have been more zen.  I rode, and when the time came, I passed my test and rode even more on the road.  I travelled all over this country, and outside of it, on two wheels.  I’ve had great experiences, met a huge variety of people from all walks of life, and gained my life partner in the process.

My mother hates me riding, and always has, but was good enough not to tell me that until I was old enough for it not to matter……about 5 years ago.

Thanks mum.

Across the pond….

I’ve recently returned from two conferences in the USA.  At both I met a huge number of committed heads and teachers who, just like us, are doing their utmost to provide the best for their students.  We found lots of common ground. 

In common, we shared the demands of running complex organisations whilst juggling the needs of staff, students and parents.  We all recognise that in terms of the economy and the political climate, these are uncertain and unpredictable times.  Heads in the USA shared with me their fears for their students, and I shared mine.  They were strikingly similar on almost every front.  For example, I attended a one day symposium on sexuality education and issues, meeting heads, teachers and students from many schools (thanks here to the students of Georgetown Day School, who were outstanding contributors to the event).  The symposium fell on the day our Secretary of State announced the proposal to make sex education compulsory for children in the U.K.  The topics we discussed in the symposium- LGBT issues, online pornography, sexting, teaching consent and managing different moral and cultural values- were just the same.  

So what was different?  Very little.  However, one thing which did strike me was the scale of the second conference I attended- NAIS  in Baltimore.  It’s an old cliche that everything in America is bigger, but this was HUGE (or should it be yuge?).  The final day saw over 6500 delegates, coming together to hear keynote speakers in a space more suited to a rock concert.  Headteachers, administrators, counsellors, class teachers, all sharing good practice in breakout sessions, of which there were hundreds, and openly talking about the challenges they face.  

It was tremendously empowering and energising- and it made me think about what we could do here in the U.K. if we spoke with a common voice on issues- and I don’t mean just heads, or just independent schools, or just maintained schools, academies or free schools.  

As educators, we are responsible for the most valuable asset our country possesses- our children, our future leaders.  We do have our differences, but actually my trip brought home to me how many similarities we have too, even when separated by thousands of miles.  We are kept awake at night by similar things- concerns about the exam system, making the money go further, the kids who we’re battling to keep afloat, physically, mentally, emotionally.  

How powerful would we be, as a profession, if we could accept our differences, put aside our prejudices, see past the stereotypes on all sides (and none of us are blameless here) to the common ground, and work together?  After all, it’s what we tell our students they should do.  Maybe it’s time we showed them how. 

(P.S.  Another shout out to Ann, Martha, Sissy, Kira, Joe and JT, who all made me feel incredibly welcome.  Joe, when you’re over here, dinner’s on me.)