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Monday, November 12, 2012

With apologies to Hamlet

Musing during my commute this morning about Entwistle's resignation as director general of the BBC and the stunning hypocrisy that appears to surround it.  The following pastiche almost wrote itself:

To Beeb or not to Beeb: that is the question.
Whether tis nobler in select committee to suffer
The slings and arrows of vindictive Murdoch
Or take arms against a sea of Tweeters
And by opposing end them?  To quit, to sleep,
No more: and by a sleep to say we end
The roundabout of dodge and blame
That comes with this job.  Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To walk, to quit
To quit, perchance to work again? There's the rub
For in that gardening leave, what chance remains
When we have shuffled off this poisoned perch
Must give us pause.  There's the respect
Or lack of it as all rush to blame
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time..

You get the gist.

There is something very sad about not challenging authority and speaking the truth to power when it is needed but then gleefully joining in kicking the corpse when it is too late.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Virgin Trains and the wonderful Steven Collins

Today I was stupid enough to get off the train at Birmingham International while talking on the mobile phone.  As a result I left my coat on the train with my keys inside it.  By the time I realised it was too late.

Half an hour or so later I had just arrived at Shirestone Primary School when the receptionist came up to me and said, "Excuse me but did you leave your coat on the train from London?  I've just had a man called Steven Collins on the phone who says he's found it.  He's left his number."

As we walked to the office I wondered how on earth he had tracked me down to the school.  If I he had rung me on my mobile I would have understood... maybe I had left a business card in my coat.  But I hadn't told him my name or the organisation I work for.  I had had a brief chat with him about the best way to get to Lea Hall station (via Birmingham International or New Street) and then we had talked for a few minutes about the awarding of the West Coast rail franchise to First Group.  All I said to him was that I worked with primary schools.

We rang Steven back and I asked how he found me.  

"Oh, I rang all the primary schools near Lea Hall Station"...!

"I just wanted to tell you that your jacket and your keys are safe at the lost property office at Wolverhampton"

All the schools near Lea Hall station!  What a wonderful man.  I wonder if First Group employees will feel as positive about their jobs as Virgin Trains staff do?  Well, having travelled regularly to Bristol, I already know the answer the that one.

Not even close.

So anyway, thank-you very much Steven.  You deserve a raise.  Or at the very least to keep your current employer.

A little bit of politics.. and some project management

Last week I stumbled upon on Andreas Whittam Smith's launch of Democracy 2015, a 'movement' (in true Alice's Restaurant form) that aims to reshape our political system at the next election.  Whether it will work or not I have no idea but I admire the breadth of his ambition.

Whittam Smith's thesis rests on the assertion that we have been let down by the political class regardless of political hue.  A life in politics is essentially that - a life.  It boils down to two goals; the acquisition of power and the retention of power.  This in turn means that politicians only ever really possess one skill; that of selling themselves to the electorate.  They tend to enter political life early without many transferable skills and then try to stay for as long as possible.  Political survival is more important than actually achieving anything.

The genius is in the simplicity of Whittam Smith's solution to this problem.  If the problem is explained by the old adage that 'power corrupts', then remove the risk of addiction.  Any candidate that Democracy 2015 fields in the next election will be required to pledge to serve only one term.  So if you want a political legacy you'd better stop talking about one and get on with building one.  You only get power if you promise to give it back.

Neat isn't it?

Yesterday Brendan Barber (TUC) exhorted politicians to run the UK like we ran the olympics in  a sort of paean to central planning and investment.  I think he is right but not in the way he intended.  Public vs private investment is an old and rather tedious debate.  Most people, when they think about it can see the evils at both ends of the spectrum (namely waste and greed).  It is not central five year plans that we need, it is an emphasis on deliverables. The olympics was run as a project (timescale, deliverables, budget).  The heroes were the project managers.

Give me a project manager any day over a time serving careerist.  I think five years makes it tight for Democracy 2015 but nothing focuses the mind like a deadline.

It will be fun to see how this plays out.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Positively engaged

I learned almost nothing from my last boss.

But this is not an indictment of him.  Indeed it has nothing to do with him.  It is a charge I lay to myself.

Fortunately, during the period there were many other people around me from whom I did learn.  So the time was far from fallow.  But compared to my working environment now or before, it is quite remarkable that I stayed there for so long. Why did I work for him for seven years if my allegation is true?

A recent conversation with a co worker (whom I shall not embarrass by naming) sparked off this reflection.  She said, "The thing I love about working with the Elliot Foundation is that it is such an affirming and positive organisation.  I feel you value me and my work."

She went on, "But I know there will come a time in the future when I do something that is not quite up to scratch and I want you to know that I am happy for you to tell me that it is not good enough.  I am affirmed enough to hear it"

I was initially taken aback.  But then we joked about how wonderful it would be to work in an organisation where this feeling permeated.  Effectively a place where juniors would say to their seniors, "It's OK. I know you love me.  I trust you have my best interests at heart... Go on criticise me.  I know you're dying to."

"The fault, dear Brutus is not in our stars but in ourselves".  It is not the boss's fault.  They cannot see that you are not learning from them. They are too wrapped up in themselves (which incidentally is why you don't learn from them).  If you are not learning, move on to pastures new.

Because if you are not learning... you are not really living.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Different strokes?

As Heath Monk’s piece in the Guardian yesterday, "The Mossbourne way is not the only way to be an 'outstanding' schooland the subsequent response on Twitter suggested, there seem to be some pieces missing from the collective education jigsaw.  It can’t be the case that there is only one way to achieving the best education for our children schools.
Putting aside context or 'theory x' vs 'theory y' or ‘command and control’ vs. ‘enabled models’ for the moment.  I think there is a more fundamental problem here as evinced in my daughter’s school’s motto,

“Excellence for all”

I think we ought to pause for a moment for that to sink in…

It is one of the those statements that at first glance appear to be very much what schools should be aiming for but then, like nails down a blackboard, should set your teeth on edge at the appalling sloppiness of the thinking.
In the bluntest terms; all cannot excel! Because if everyone is doing it, it is not ‘excellence’, it is ‘average’.  Now, there is nothing wrong with below average schools aiming to do tomorrow what those deemed to be ‘excellent’ do today, provided that it is applicable to the context of the school and children in question.  But it places an awful burden on those few deemed to be ‘excellent’ to continue to stride ahead and find the solutions for next year and the year after that.
 Better that schools set their sights on becoming their own sort of brilliant - educating radiant children, rather than trying to shoehorn themselves into someone else’s models. Doing this creates multiple future models from which we can all pick,  chose, amalgamate and improve upon.
Interviewing someone for a headship on the basis of a candidate “knowing what ‘outstanding’ looks like” is naive to the point of being almost funny, if it weren’t so tragic.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Brand and the suspension of disbelief

I have been thinking about brands and their impact on us.  I am an Apple fan.  My first ever computer was an Apple... well actually my first ever computer was a ZX Spectrum but you know what I mean.  Then, when I bought a laptop for work in the 90's I defected to Microsoft.  I stayed with Windows until the lunacy of waiting 5 minutes for your computer to start only to crash every hour or so drove me back to Mac.

I loved (and still love) my Mac mini.  I love my MacBook Pro.  But the full conversion, when last year I ditched my Blackberry and bought an iPhone 4 was a step too far.  My smart phone fails to meet even the most cursory definition of a 'phone' let alone being 'smart'.  I have looked in chat rooms on the internet and have learned about the 'death grip', I have switched off unnecessary applications, I have bought a case...  On average my "phone" drops 60% of calls at some point and fails to get through on 3 out of 4 dial attempts and the battery lasts for about 2/3rds of a day.  It is quite simply not a phone.  It is useless.

And yet I persist with it.  My 'love' for Apple has thus far enabled me to overlook the abject failure of the dreadful device.  My belief triumphs over the reality and keeps me going.  This belief exists simply as a result of the branding genius that is Apple.  The emotional commitment to a product that makes me feel special and ignore the set backs.

I wonder if instilling self-belief in children has a parallel with this.  The motto we devised for the Elliot Foundation is, "where children believe they can because teachers know they can".  If we can create a personal brand in children where this is strong enough to allow them to overlook the setbacks of life and keep going then we create better life chances for young people.

Having written down my half formed thought, I have a sneaking feeling that this is actually blindingly obvious...

Oh well.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Rentaclists, erraticlists and suicyclists

Returning to work after an Easter break in France, which was more like work than a break, I notice that spring is bringing the occasional cyclists back onto the roads.  And I can't quite decide whether they are worse than the hardened, semi-professional traffic light deniers who commute into London every day.

But it reminded me of some words I invented with Becci and some friends some time ago and think should be added to the lexicon, which I offer to you as some post holiday levity.

Rentaclist, n an individual who takes advantage of the Barclays Boris Bike scheme in London

Erraticlist, n an occasional cyclist who does not use hand signals, or look over their shoulder except on rare occasions and wanders erratically and without warning between traffic lanes, generally at slow speeds

Psyclist, n a committed and extreme cycling commuter who has become so self absorbed as to fail to notice any other authority than their own whether traffic signals, other road users or the highway code. Psyclists will only interact with other humans in the same way that they ride; aggressively, fast and with thinly disguised contempt.

Suicyclist, n an extreme form of any of the above who has taken their art to the brink of self-extinction

Hope you all had a good Easter break!

PS I should admit that I am a Vespa rider so invent others to contribute their own definitions of motorised cyclists

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

It’s a lovely idea but after you if you don’t mind…

Last Friday’s article in TES highlighting the small number of academies that had picked up the challenge to sponsor a ‘weaker’ school was written as a response to the latest publication from the National College by Robert Hill et al, “The growth of academy chains: implications for leaders and leadership” which is worth reading in full. 

The TES piece illustrates the tension between government ambitions and factors that might be holding schools back.  It quotes ATL general secretary Mary Bousted,

““If you’re a converter academy, why would you sponsor another school if it meant that your Ofsted rating could slip as a result?” she added. “Schools are now working in an immensely competitive environment. Why would you want to threaten your Ofsted grade? Where is the incentive? It is the same as independent schools not wanting to sponsor academies.”

The issue, however is one of perspective.  If you look at it from an individual school’s point of view the comment above is unassailable.  If you are running a good or outstanding school, it is easy to see how you would jealously guard your own school’s performance.  Why would you risk a slip in your own performance if there is no adequate reward for helping someone else; other than the warm glow and the thanks of a grateful nation?  Financially you will be worse off and that’s before you take into account the distraction and drain on management time.

It is the prisoner’s dilemma all over again.  Viewed from an individual perspective, co-operation and collaboration can’t seem to triumph over self-interest.  But is there another vantage point from which to view the problem?

If you can help the individually strong school to understand how it could benefit from working with ‘weaker’ schools then you may be on to something.  Unsurprisingly, that is precisely what we are trying to do at the Elliot Foundation.  We aim to build an enduring, self-supporting, self-improving network of primary schools.

The difference between this and other models is that with us the Principal of a converter is not on his or her own in helping a sponsored academy.  The responsibility for helping improve schools is distributed across a network and no one school is solely a giver or solely a receiver.  We believe that there is good in all schools in the same way that they are things to improve in all schools.

We created the Elliot Foundation with the distinct belief that in education, one size does not fit all.  A top down model inhibits innovation in teaching, learning, school leadership and administration.  This is why we do not mandate any one particular curriculum or any one particular approach to school organisation. 

We believe that the only way to build an enduring and self-improving system is to promote variance and comparison within a framework of high expectations.  Encouraging diversity and creating a culture of exchange is the way to allow tomorrow’s solutions to emerge.  It allows schools to develop their own best practice based on their own context rather than having one imposed upon them from the outside that may not suit their needs.  Consequently, it encourages innovation at both a macro and micro level; in the classroom itself and across a network of schools.  Building performance within a network is a more resilient model for school improvement than the existing models of one-to-one support, outstanding academy to ‘failing’ academy or local authority school improvement partner to ‘failing’ school as expertise is distributed rather than concentrated.

If you would like to know more or would like to help us work together to improve primary schools, email

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

In memoriam

Yesterday morning my father died.  It is perhaps a little soon and a little raw to write about this now.  But I believe that is the nature of blogging... raw and immediate. So apologies if this is a little rough around the edges.

Of the people I have learned from in my life, he is pretty near the top of the list; as any good father should be. And he was an excellent father.  In fact, he was an excellent man.  He drove me to distraction over many things but on the things that mattered, he was generally right.

Indeed in the long run, over a life time, it is better to do the right thing than to chase success, comfort, contentment or any other fleeting goal.  This is perhaps the biggest thing I learned from him.

Other things include:

  • If you're going to stand up in a small boat then try to be in the middle of it when you do
  • Soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce make an excellent deglaze gravy for pan-fried duck breasts
  • Grainy mustard and cream make an excellent sauce for pan-fried cod
  • On the back of a motorbike, sit still!
  • Don't cry, it's only pain
  • A bowline is about the only knot you need to know how to tie...
  • Being able to tie a bow tie, however, without a mirror is quite classy
  • Don't fight the wind, work out where it is coming from and work with it
  • When driving in snow, use at least one gear higher than you would normally and use the engine to brake where possible
  • Brakes don't slow the car down, they slow the wheels down
  • Always use a Stanley knife away from you
  • If you're going to 'drink', then do it standing up; your sense of balance will tell you that you've had enough long before your head or your stomach will
  • First write your document; format it when you have finished (I wish more people knew this!)
  • If you want to understand something, try and put it in a spreadsheet; you might not succeed in getting it into the spreadsheet but the process of trying will greatly help your understanding
  • The joy is not in the knowing it is in the finding out
  • The real measure of a man is not the number of his friends but the nature of his friends

There are many other things that I learnt from him, these are just the first few that spring to mind.

The world is a lesser place without him in it.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Conference season

I really rather enjoyed BETT and Learning Technologies this year.

Was inspired by the presentation made by Dan Roberts (aka Chicken Saltash) at the Microsoft sponsored Partners in Learning piece.  First up I loved the word wide telescope, who knew that there was a google earth for the universe?  But even more, I loved the story of the primary teacher who got students to make telescopes out of card and paper in the morning, then asked them to lie on the floor and look up through their telescopes before switching the lights out and pointing the projector at the ceiling, then taking them on a tour of the solar system.

If ever you needed proof that it is not the technology that matter but the use to which the technology is put then there it is.

At learning technologies I was impressed by Jaron Lanier who made me think.  He challenged all the believers in social learning, collective commons etc. by pointing out that we might be living in a fools paradise.  It's all very well for those of us sharing and contributing for nothing to live in some form of socialist utopia when the companies that control the servers over which the traffic that our contributions generate continue to live in a firmly capitalist world.