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More reasons to believe …… the Northern Rocks Edit

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So farewell Northern Rocks and thank you!

Thank you for giving me the chance to meet an absolute host of positive, joyful, committed colleagues. That will be the abiding memory for me. It won’t be the excellent sessions that I attended. It won’t even be going to the very edge of incontinence with Shonette Bason-Wood –

It won’t even be the fantastic contributions from the young people who have been involved, year in and year out, nor the intensely moving personal statements from Chris Kilkenny – or Jaz Ampaw Farr There have been so many great contributions from so many great educators. People come and give their time for nothing. Debra Kidd – and Emma Hardy – – deserve to be remembered for starting it and keeping it going with a huge amount of assistance from partners, friends and people who were just desperate to help. That is still not the main thing!!
It’s not even the fun that they allowed me to have. Who else would ever have let anyone, least of all me, sum up a day through the medium of a DJ set? Who knew it would work – phones in the air, dancing in the aisles, laughing, rocking, waving – that sort of working? It did and I will love these moments forever, but what I will really treasure is this …..

– hundreds of people turning up on a Saturday in a spirit of anticipation, desperate to learn, full of care for students and ambition for learning, loving their jobs and still wanting to do it better – that’s the ultimate Northern Rocks takeaway for me, A day that was full of reasons to believe.

More reasons to believe

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I have taken to using a slide toward the end of presentations which plays out to Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe” – I use it to recognise that, overwhelmingly, teachers, school leaders and other colleagues working with young people give me a reason to believe in a better future. I am unembarrassed by either the idealism or optimism. I praise the difference that they make and, equally importantly, the fact that, when they don’t, they persist in their efforts. It is wonderful when the idealism and optimism are reinforced by experience.

I have spent a lot of time recently working with teachers in Highland Region. They were consistently curious and enthusiastic even in the metaphorical semi-darkness of a “twilight” session. I loved the contributions that they made to discussions and the questions that they asked. I spent a day working with children in Crown Primary School in Inverness and, despite the many highlights, it was a timely reminder of how demanding teaching is.

That respect was strengthened in two sessions that I was involved in with Suzanne Zeedyk – one in Edinburgh College – the other in Inverness College – . We had two large spaces filled to overflowing with students, parents, colleagues from the NHS, social workers, foster carers, nursery nurses, teachers and more. They all wanted to be better informed about children. All were aware of the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and desperate to know what more they could do to make sure that these did not blight the lives of children in their care. One session was in the evening. The other was a Saturday morning. They had all paid to come and most were reluctant to leave.

One student made the most amazing cake!

The whole fortnight was more than impressive. It was moving, reassuring and revitalising. It gave me reasons to believe. I only hope that it did that for those who were part of it.

Exclusion: Time to change the debate?

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It has been fascinating to see the growing debate about exclusion, especially among commentators and teachers in England. It has been equally interesting to hear the concerns in Scotland that the apparent reduction in exclusions from schools is illusory and where a reduction has been achieved it has been at the expense of staff. They, it is argued, pay the price in assaults, threats and increased stress.

It is the wrong discussion.

Exclusion is a problem in England for all sorts of reasons, but one is that the system is so fragmented. Schools are more isolated. Central services are diminished. There is much less alternative provision, and far less clarity about the procedures, for dealing with young people whose behaviour is deemed uncontrollable. Despite all of this the debate seems to be all about what schools and teachers can be expected to put up with, rather than whether, or not, we have the right range of provision for young people.

Autonomy for schools too often comes at the expense of the most troubled children. In Scotland, the government is looking to maximise the power of headteachers without, it would seem, much thought as to what the implications might be for these young people. In the world of empowered schools there have to be powerful safeguards for all young people, but, as ever, the safeguards need to be strongest for the most vulnerable. There seems little indication that this is embedded in the Headteachers’ Charter.

All children should be a collective responsibility for society. That principle is at the heart of the United Nations Charter for the Rights of the Child. Perhaps we need to do more to make sure that we have the collective structures that honour that responsibility. In the whole exclusion debate that barely seems to feature.

Language matters so much. Jenn Knussen and her colleagues at Pitteuchar East Primary in Glenrothes ( talk about the transformation that took place in the school when they stopped talking about “challenging behaviour” and started to talk about “distressed behaviour”. We might make more progress if we stopped talking about exclusion and started to talk more about appropriate provision. One thing is certain, young people have a range of needs so we have to have a spectrum of provision.

Will we get that within a fragmented system rooted in school autonomy?

The Disruptors

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Let’s disrupt the real disruptors!!!

I love the idea that InnovatED is going to devote a whole month to celebrating the mavericks and mayhem makers, the change agents and secret agents, the innovators and instigators and anyone not so classified who is trying to make change in education.

I think I might qualify for inclusion. I was once profiled in a series entitled The Innovators. If you are ever desperate for distraction, you can use this link

The unfortunate truth, or even the inconvenient truth, with due respect to Al Gore, is that it is hard to make change in education and the change that we make as “innovators” is rarely disruptive. Millions watched Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk about education’s fatal assault on creativity, how many changed their practice? I am not aware of an increasing wave of Leonardos breaking into the worlds of art or science after an inspirational 18 minutes on You Tube. ResearchED has blossomed into an international phenomenon with a conference itinerary that must need coordination from Jules Verne, but some of its leading lights still feel that they haven’t yet vanquished Brain Gym. Frankly, if you can’t still the twitchings of Brain Gym, wholesale educational change might be a bridge too far.

Independent Thinking is a wonderful hydra-headed force for educational change, continually reminding the world that “there is another way”, but it seems to remain “the path less travelled”

I am not dismissive of the possibility of change. Goodness knows, I have been trying to achieve it for longer than most of my handful of readers have been alive and I am with McFadden and Whitehead ( in believing that “there ain’t no stopping us now, we’re on the move”. I just recognise that it takes time and that it is much easier to achieve in a context where you have power and influence. I am also convinced that change in education is more likely to translate into sustained difference when it is not overly disruptive.

Change needs traction. It has to have grip on the ground and take people forward from where they currently are. It has to respect context. As I am unduly fond of saying, successful schools adapt more than they adopt. Change should be coherent. Like a good narrative it should build on preceding chapters and be rooted in those that we seek to write. Otherwise we paint on wet walls – another image which I threaten with overwork!!

All of this begs the question, who are the real disruptors?

Step forward the ideologues with influence, the politicians with power and a lust for legacy and those in positions of executive power who prefer intervention to stability and headlines to articles.

One needs to ask how much disruption has been created by inflicting a belief that structures change practice, certalnly, in the context of England, but, undoubtedly, more widely. We have seen so many models of school organisation being imposed at worst or permitted at best, in the belief that such change would improve practice. It may be possible to find examples where that might be the case, but, at the time of writing, we are seeing fragmentation, fragility and failure on a worrying scale.

We have seen so much disruptive change in the name of school autonomy when the reality looks much more like the decentralisation of blame.

It is hard to see the current crisis in staff recruitment and retention as anything other than a disruptive failure in workforce planning buy successive governments, more concerned with “liberating the system” than actually making it work.

One also needs to ask how disruptive the current workload for school leaders and teachers is. I see so many tired and frazzled colleagues who, in William McIlvanney’s words, “madly try to dream ourselves a beach”

Don’t your retired colleagues look well?

There is a very serious point in all of this. Disruption, especially imposed, ill-considered, founded on an unjustified certainty and enforced through mechanisms of accountability and funding, will certainly bring change. Its track record on progress is a lot more questionable.

Hence my title. We really need to recognise who the real disruptors are  and question whether they are any more than the assassins of Humpty Dumpty, unable to put the pieces together again even in the configuration that they initially sought.

We can only break a system when we have thought through how we will rebuild it. When we do so we must offer the reassurance and support that allows change to feel constructive, rather than disruptive. We need to end the current love affair with iconoclasm. On the world stage that has brought  a Trump presidency and I, for one, am not sleeping any better as the Doomsday Clock is poised at two minutes to midnight. That sort of iconoclasm seeks enemies rather than allies. We can see elements of this in the current educational debate where politicians rail against “experts” and educationalist savage each other in the WWF of Twitter.

If we want progress, we need alliances and not conflicts. If we want more than change we need to disrupt the disruptors and get alongside the constructors

What do employers want – and what’s that got to do with Youth Work???

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I don’t want to run the risk of repeating what most of us already know so let me try to be brief and that, as anyone who has heard me will know is likely to be a bit of a challenge.

Wherever we look the message is the same

Employers are no longer looking for compliance nor for employees who will just do a job. Arguably, there is no such thing as “just the job” any more. Changing technologies, aspirations, demands and structural changes in economies mean that jobs will change and we need workers who can adapt to that. The pressures that businesses and services are under also mean that we need employees who are flexible and can make a far wider contribution than would, traditionally, have been sought. We are looking for workers who can learn, who can contribute more widely and can help businesses to grow and services become more efficient. This creates demand for a broad skills base, for problem solving, creativity and a willingness to engage and contribute.

All of these points can be reinforced through reports from the OECD and consultants like McKinsey or, if you prefer, from a host of YouTube videos and seemingly endless succession of TED talks.

The big question for me is what this means for Youth Work.

The answer, from my standpoint is very straightforward. The demands of employment endorse the core values of Youth Work. These have always sought to build confidence in young people and to enrich their experience. The best Youth Work empowers young people, supporting them to devise activities, manage facilities and shape provision. It encourages young people to be active in meaningful ways in their communities; it battles against alienation, dependence and disadvantage. It helps young people to be more than they might be. It offers the possibility of them being contributors in work and in their communities. One can only hope that employers recognise its value.

Originally written for Youth Link Magazine

Whatever happened to “joined up thinking”?

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It’s strange how a random sequence of events come together to trigger a flood of thoughts and, in this instance, a cataract of anger and incomprehension.

Especially Random?

Scottish Attainment Challenge screenshotMy sequence may seem especially random. It includes the White Paper on education – although I feel that I am overly dignifying the recent White Paper by maintaining the link with education as it manages, at the same time to be about much more and much less than that. It also includes the ongoing announcements about the Scottish Attainment Challenge, a visit to Raploch in Stirling, the 20th anniversary of the Dunblane Massacre, Uncle Ernest’s speech at his 90th birthday party and a google search on Professor Stewart Asquith. If you’ve managed to make the connection already, a prize is on its way!

The White Paper set out the commitment to forced academisation for all schools by 2020. The argument was supported in some shockingly stumbling interviews – stand up Nick Gibb, your Newsnight performance was the prime example – and a series of inept presentations. The rationale for this sweeping move appeared to be that some academies had done well and therefore all schools should follow their lead. Interestingly Nick Gibb added a new twist – schools that were improving and weren’t academies should be forced into multi-academy trusts so that they could play their full part in improving other schools.

There is so much to argue about here, but the issue that I will focus on is the isolation of academies, be they part of Multi-academy trusts or not. Schools can make a difference through raising young people’s attainment beyond that which might be predicted for them on the basis of their personal circumstances and prior performance, but there is very little evidence that they can make all the difference.

Uncle Ernest’s speech

This is where Uncle Ernest’s speech comes in. He and his sister came from a background of rural poverty brought up by a single parent. Both benefitted from the good schools. He became particularly successful, a first in Chemistry, a PHD, an impressive career and a number of patents to his name. He is the epitome of the social mobility that the government seeks, but he would never have been able to go to University without free tuition and the provision of grants. His mother could not have contemplated the sort of debt that so many students now face. Even if, by some miracle, she had, she would never have been able to support his sister who became a teacher. For them attainment would not have been enough. They needed that element of joined up thinking, that it was once so fashionable to refer to.

The reality is that we are not generating many, if any, more stories like Ernest’s through either academisation or school improvement. That is the thinking behind the Scottish Attainment Challenge – we need to raise the bar and close the attainment gap. It inevitably makes teachers the shock troops in the war on inequality as if they could suddenly do what they have been trying to do for years without significant success. There is some evidence of joined up thinking. Scottish Government have  received a report on widening access to higher and further education and there is central support through an Attainment Hub and there are some new diagrams and infographics, but is that enough?

Stewart Asquith’s story

That is where Stewart Asquith’s story came in. The son of a cinema usherette, also a single parent, he also attained remarkable academic success before devoting his life to making a difference for children. That difference came through children’s rights alongside a focus on child care and family support. He knew the importance of that for children unsure of their identity and their place in the world. He understood the need for support beyond schools. One wonders if our politicians as have the same clarity about how we confound destiny for children whose lives are blighted.

I hesitate to introduce reference to the Dunblane massacre because the events involved were so extreme, traumatic and tragic, but reading Gordon Jeyes’ article in the Times Educational Supplement overcomes that hesitation. Reacting to the events, dealing with the welter of issues raised by them, trying to support those most affected and to recover some form of normality was a huge challenge. Gordon’s article is very clear that the response required services to be drawn together not pulled apart. It was collaboration, cooperation and “joined up thinking” that achieved the progress that was made. How would that be achieved in the fragmented world of academisation?

We appear to be moving way from “getting it right for every child”, an approach based on integration recognising the contribution of all agencies, to one where schools and attainment are seen as the keys to equity.

The grace note is the visit to Raploch, an area of Stirling where the Council mobilised its resources and formed wider partnerships to regenerate schools, Further Education provision, housing, health facilities, employment prospects, the wider environment and culture to enhance life chances for the whole community. I need to go back again to look at the impact, but watching the Big Noise Orchestra from Raploch launch the Cultural Olympiad in 2012 gave me considerable grounds for hope. I believe it would now be more difficult to make that sort of intervention in Scotland now and impossible to do so in England. That defies my understanding and makes me angry.


Originally appeared on the Independent Thinking website

Redefining Potential – getting beyond the walls

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Outdoor learning offers unique opportunities to extend the potential of children through learning in context and through experience and place.  How to devise different a challenging experiences to support learning.

By David Cameron, (chk title: Chair of the Outdoor Connections Advisory Group)

I imagine that there are many other people involved in education who are becoming heartily sick of being challenged to raise attainment. For some reason, it is always a “challenge” and never an “encouragement’ as if, left to our own devices, it would never occur to us to attempt to improve children’s life chances.

The reality is that most of us have been working to raise achievement for all, but particularly for those currently getting least from our education system, for the duration of our careers and it is difficult and demanding.

Fulfilling potential

Outdoor LearningMany of us also recognise that ensuring children fulfil their potential is not always a helpful concept. Much of the evidence that we have suggests that some young people only have the potential to fail. The reality is that for these young people we need to do more than add value, we need to write new narratives and create new possibilities. In my view, we won’t do that with more of the same or more of the same only better or more of something remarkably similar to the same repackaged with a new label and accompanying book and motivating professional development package.

We need to offer young people richer experiences which are more likely to engage them. We need to give them opportunities to find meaning. I see the value of phonics and other decoding techniques and have been closely involved with phonics schemes in Scotland, but if we can’t find understanding and sense in what we read we will never be fully literate. Gaining understanding involves challenge investigation and tasks. It has to involve young people in the active quest for meaning. More than that, it has to involve the development of a sense of identity in learners. From that, comes resilience and the willingness to take the risks that lead to leaps in learning.

One wonders how anyone can belief that we can accomplish that entirely in classrooms. I was working recently with teachers committed to outdoor learning and found myself saying –

“Nature has designed spaces for learning, in schools we have designed spaces for teaching”

There are myriads of challenges that we can create outside. Juliet Robertson’s book “Dirty teaching” is one of the best for identifying these and providing examples for teachers. There are other excellent resources available online and lots of helpful advice and support available from organisations like Learning through Landscapes or Eco-schools. I am not going to summarise or cherry pick from these here.

My intention is simply to make the case that young people can learn formally and informally in a range of different environments and our chances of them learning successfully are enhanced when we offer variety in these environments. Evidence from the OECD is clear that young people whose parents have benefitted from education will buy in to schooling regardless of how dull it might be. Young people from different circumstances need to be engaged, they need to be interested and we need to find ways to unleash that interest. There may be an argument that we can achieve this through strong discipline and traditional didactic approaches, but I cannot accept that this will build the resilience, adaptability and creativity that a complex world demands.

We know that conventional approaches can work well in improving measured attainment. In my oft-used cliché, they can be effective in getting young people over an immediate assessment hurdle, but are much less effective in helping them to complete the race. Moving outdoors can offer exploration and application. It can tax us physically and intellectually and connect us to a world that we need to understand and value.

Why would you ever close the door on that?