Nick Dennis's Blog

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Category: Leadership (page 1 of 9)

The banality of racism and privilege

Let’s start with a quiz:

  • When you want to join a prestigious social club, do you wonder if your ‘race’ will make it difficult for you to join?
  • When you show feelings, do you wonder if you will be classed as someone with no emotional control or is too sensitive, both of which form a persistent and negative stereotype of your ‘race’?
  • When you go shopping alone at a nice store, do you worry that you will be followed or harassed?
  • When you turn on mainstream TV or open a mainstream newspaper, do you expect to find mostly people of another ‘race’?
  • Do you worry that your children will not have books and school materials that are about people of their own ‘race’?
  • When you apply for a bank loan, do you worry that, because of your ‘race’, you might be seen as financially unreliable?
  • If you swear, or dress shabbily, do you think that people might say this is because of the bad morals or the poverty or the illiteracy of your ‘race’?
  • If you do well in a situation, do you expect to be called a credit to your ‘race’? Or to be described as ‘different’ from the majority of your ‘race’?
  • If you criticise the government, do you worry that you might be seen as a cultural outsider?
  • When asked where you come from, after giving an answer, are you then pushed for a further response by the statement, ‘no, where do you really come from?’ Or, ‘Where does your family come from?’ Or that you might be asked to ‘go back to X,’ X being somewhere not in Britain?
  • If you take a job/speaking engagement with an employer/organisation with a very clear statement on diversity, do you worry that your co-workers/conference attendees will think you are unqualified and were hired only because of your ‘race’?
  • If you want to move to a nice neighbourhood, do you worry that you might not be welcome because of the colour of your skin?
  • When you use the ‘nude’ or colour of underwear and Band-Aids, do you already know that it will not match your skin?”

The above questions, adapted from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book Americanah, and originally written by Peggy McIntosh, serve to highlight how privilege works in relation to ‘race’.  The purpose of using them is not get people to ‘check their privilege’, which can be an unhelpful phrase, but to comprehend something more profound; tackling social inequality demands a recognition of lived experience and empirical evidence. Without it, we will continue to talk past each other and demean what we want to profess about ourselves and the common thread that drives our work as educators; our common humanity.

If you didn’t have to say yes to the majority of the questions above, you already know privilege.  It is the privilege, for example, of never having to answer what I’ve now come to call ‘the BBQ question’. When meeting friends of friends at a BBQ, I always get asked where I am from. My answer of Hackney does not seem to cut it, and always leads to the inevitable ‘but where originally?’ (or the variation, ‘where are your family from?’) . It is the privilege of never having your daughter turned away from the same hair salon as her mother because they do not do ‘ethnic hair’. It is the privilege of never being followed in a local bookshop and having the till closely monitored in case you planned to go for the contents (my blonde wife, strangely enough, did not receive the same treatment when she went to pay for her books a minute later). It is the privilege of never being told that you are ‘playing the race card’ if you choose to raise an issue. It is the privilege of never being mistaken for the cleaner/waiter/intruder at your holiday resort/restaurant/conference.  Misunderstandings, gaffes, and incidents relating to the colour of my skin may have provided me with a number of funny after-dinner anecdotes, but they also highlight something far bigger. That the world is unequal and it provides certain benefits to those who possess certain physical characteristics which translate into social, economic and status privilege.

Recognising that there is inequality is one thing, but increasing our understanding of the terms that helps us comprehend the inequality is another. The common sense understanding and use of the term racism is that of a binary: you’re either racist or you’re not. Despite our fondness for binaries in debates about education (‘traditional’ v ‘progressive’, anyone?!), social relations are a little more complex. You can love your partner and still be negative about their inability to clear up. You can value the company that you work for and still loathe aspects of it at the same time. You can make it clear that you support equality for women but don’t change your pay system. You can be avowedly anti-racist and still use the reasoning of racism.

We like to believe that on the whole, racism exists somewhere else. It exists in men marching in parks and shouting slogans whilst carrying torches. This is an obvious sign of racism and it is one that makes the news, but it is not the only form. Technology is (in my view, often mistakenly) seen as great leveller, but it reveals that although overt displays of racism are rare, the thinking of ‘race’ and associated ideas of superiority and inferiority are surprisingly commonplace. One study found that the mere glimpse of a ‘black’ hand in the picture of the product to be sold, had the following effect:

Black sellers do worse than white sellers on a variety of market outcome measures: they receive 13% fewer responses and 17% fewer offers. These effects are strongest in the Northeast, and are similar in magnitude to those associated with the display of a wrist tattoo. Conditional on receiving at least one offer, black sellers also receive 2–4% lower offers, despite the self- selected—and presumably less biased—pool of buyers. In addition, buyers corresponding with black sellers exhibit lower trust: they are 17% less likely to include their name in e-mails, 44% less likely to accept delivery by mail, and 56% more likely to express concern about making a long-distance payment.

Another example can be found in the job application process. Even when qualifications and experience are equal, it is easier to get an interview if your name is Adam instead of Mohamed or Mariam. We have good, and replicated, research on this phenomenon but very few employers, and even fewer schools, use ‘blind’ applications. Yet when the figures on the teaching workforce are released and we have the recurring media articles about the lack of diversity in school leadership teams and staff rooms, no-one mentions this. If names are taken as proxy for ‘race’, people are denied the opportunity of even being in the room.

This is not the racism of the neo-nazis in the USA, with their overt displays of force and derogatory language. This is the very modern banal racism, cloaked in the forms of bureaucracy, technology, politeness and in the grind of everyday; dating, renting accommodation or applying for jobs. This form of racism works in a subtle way, imperceptible on the surface, and is only verified after it has done its work. Racism, therefore, is not just a state of being or not being a racist. This problem — and this complexity — must be grasped and understood if we are to move from an uneasy social order to one that has justice as a guiding light.

As I was reflecting on the tweets, blog posts and accusations of witch hunts/smear campaigns, I was reminded of the incident between the footballers Patrice Evra of Manchester United and Luis Suarez of Liverpool. In October 2011, Evra and Suarez had clashed during the game and Evra stated that Suarez had used a certain word. Suarez denied this and stated via Facebook:

I’m upset by the accusations of racism. I can only say that I have always respected and respect everybody. We are all the same. I go to the field with the maximum illusion of a little child who enjoys what he does, not to create conflicts.

Liverpool rallied around Suarez and said they would back him through the upcoming investigation. The outcome of the investigation led to Suarez being fined £40,000 and suspended for eight matches. Liverpool disagreed with the outcome and sought to undermine Evra as someone who was wiling to ‘play the ‘race’ card’ and in the game after the initial judgment was reached, the Liverpool team warmed up wearing t-shirts bearing Suarez’s name and picture to show solidarity. Suarez was now the victim and the origin of the whole incident was ignored. Unfortunately, when published, the report was clear that Suarez had used a racist term, but he was not ‘a racist’.   The matter seemed to be closed until the next meeting between the clubs. As Evra lined up for the normal exchange of handshakes with the opposing team, Suarez refused the offer. This was because he was upset and had his feelings hurt by the whole process. As an Arsenal fan, I have no love for Evra. But in that moment, I was gobsmacked; Evra was painted as the bully because he had identified an injustice in the first place.

The parallels between this incident and what has happened over the last week have been striking. Denials, discussions about hurt feelings and widespread accusations of reducing free thought, closing down intellectual discussion and deliberate silence from some of my fellow educators (pleasingly, no one had any t-shirts printed…that I know of). This is what happens when you question poorly researched ideas and highlight the existence of racism. There is still an opportunity to move beyond the reductive reasoning and posturing, but only if there is a commitment to understanding.


Further/additional reading

Backlash over BBC’s low-paid minority ethnic staff

The Visible Hand: Race and Online Market Outcomes

It is easier to get a job if you’re Adam or Mohamed?

Racial Discrimination in the Sharing Economy: Evidence from a Field Experiment

A test for racial discrimination in recruitment practice in British cities, Department for Work and Pensions, 2009

Airbnb hosts discriminate against black guests based on names, study suggests

Study says black Airbnb hosts earn less than their white counterparts

Anonymous recruitment aims to stamp out bias, but can it prevent discrimination?

White privilege – unpacking the invisible knapsack 


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I contain multitudes

Biblioteca Angelica, Rome

I’ve be reading and thinking a lot about of Rousseau of late and pondering the ongoing representation of ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ education. My original intention in reading Rousseau was to help me think about the definition of ‘traditional’ education and to suggest that the use of the term refers to a variety of different things and involves presentism. In other words, the term ‘traditionalism’ anachronistically applies current modern concepts and ideas to historical ideas, writings and events.

After wrestling with a series of blog/article drafts, I found this to be an unfulfilling use of time as it was becoming an exercise in negativity.

What really began to excite me was to think about what ‘progressivism’ meant and from my initial research, it became clear that women educators were often neglected in the debate about education (the Brontës and Hannah More for example). I found their stories and writing fascinating and not only because it counters the characterisation of the ‘romantic’ period often used in recent texts about education in England. The plan is that over the next few months I will be looking at these ‘progressive’ writers in a series of blog posts with the first in the series examining Rousseau’s work and legacy. Rather than just focusing on Émile, I will attempt to contextualise the often cited (but I’d wager little-read) text with Rousseau’s other work in The Social Contract and Considerations on the Government of Poland.  My main argument is that we have been subject to a very limiting appreciation of Rousseau’s ideas and we are all the poorer for it.

After dinner yesterday, I discussed with my wife the ideas for the blog post and the debate between ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ education. After I had finished, she said that it was strange that teachers would adopt such extreme positions when thinking about the training they receive.  Experiential learning, often portrayed as the preserve of ‘progressive’ education, plays an important part in teacher training as we apply ideas from tutors/research/CPD sessions to our work in schools. However, experiential learning is not sufficient as there needs to be subject/professional knowledge too if we hope to be successful trainees/teachers.

Her words neatly captured my growing unease but also reminded me of the problems involved in positioning and in that moment, Walt Whitman’s words from his poem, Song of Myself, crashed into my thoughts:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

We may want to declare that we are one position or the other because it gives us assurance. However, in doing so we seem to forget the formative experience of training and the work we do in improving ourselves through CPD/utilising research and writing. Maybe it is time to remember.


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Designing an Oxbridge programme

I recently took a group of students (mostly from my Form) to Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford so they could learn more about the application process and speak to current staff and students. It was a fantastic day and I have to thank Victoria Condie and current undergrads Alex and Holly for their warm welcome. The students really enjoyed the day and as we made our way back to Hertford, I began to think about an Oxbridge programme that  was effective, did not take up too much staff time and enabled the students to be prepared.

Part of the proposed programme below is based on my experience of working in the independent sector and the work that is done to support students in their application. It also draws on the work done by Lucy Helmsley and her research on Oxbridge preparation classes for history students (I highly recommend you read her research on the Oxford University Research Archive).

It is true that fewer students from non-selective state schools study at Oxbridge than independent/selective state school peers. The suggested programme is designed specifically to support students from non-selective state schools. It is also true that A-Level courses by themselves do not provide adequate preparation for Oxbridge applications; imagination, flexibility and independent thought are not necessarily rewarded. The programme tries to build this in and and also support for students and parents. This is one feature that is normally undervalued when it should be of equal importance. As a parent, my child is the most precious thing to me in the world. A school that understands this and provides support to me and my child is invaluable. After all, it takes a village to raise a child and prepare them for the challenges they face.

Ideally, there should be two societies for prospective Oxbridge candidates in Year 12. One  should be a departmental society and the other a school-wide academic society. Both societies should be coordinated by staff (session titles, timings) but actually led by the students who every week or every two weeks, give presentations on topics and invite comments/challenge from their peers. If students have no experience of giving presentations, taking them to events such as the Battle of Ideas, debating competitions and even watching TED talks will provide pointers on preparation. The student presentations should be on issues that they are passionate about in their subject or wider studies.

Running the programme after Christmas in Year 12 gives students time to settle in and allows staff to help Year 13 students prepare for the interview process and the entrance tests.

Alongside the societies, in the Summer term of Year 12 and the start of Autumn term in Year 13, HoDs or nominated teachers should plan a series of seminars that cover the ‘big’ ideas in the subject and that are not necessarily covered in the syllabus at A-Level/IB/Pre-U.  These sessions are not lessons but tutorials where students are asked engage with set material through discussion. This will help them understand that a different type of learning and teaching is expected and that it is intellectual in character with no set answers/grades.  Additional reading/viewing material should be provided and ideally link to the following sessions. Lucy Helmsley’s research above provides an outline for a historical based seminar series but it could be adopted for any other subject.

Working with Parents and students in Year 12.

As mentioned above, this is important. Students and parents should be made aware of the programme, the commitment required from the students, what can be expected from the School and managing expectations from the outset regarding possible disappointment.  Ideally, parents and interested students should be invited to a meeting in January of Year 12 where the above is explained. There are two reasons for doing this as early as possible. The first is that it outlines to everyone the communal work and support needed to provide a competitive application. The second reason is that breaks down the challenge into manageable pieces for all involved and that review points/discussions can be agreed over the course over the coming months. During the meeting parents/students are encouraged to visit the colleges and details of an admissions visit organised by the School should be shared (should be rotated between Oxford and Cambridge).

The other suggestion I would make for the end of Year 12 is that personal statements should be in before the end of term. Doing so allows the teachers and students to make tweaks over the school holidays and at the beginning of Year 13. The October deadline for submission should not be taken as a brief to work on the statement until then. Teacher references and checks have to be completed well in advance. In schools where students have left their personal statements until the last minute, the process becomes fraught and the possibility of everyone doing their best work is diminished.

Before students leave in July, they should also be given a number of past papers for the entrance tests to work through. I strongly believe that the break should be used for recharging the batteries. It should also be used for steady preparation too. Leaving it all until September causes unnecessary pressure for students and can harm their prep for the interview.

Year 13

Once the application is submitted, preparation should focus on the completion of the seminar programme and working through as many test papers as possible (which may form part of the seminar programme). It should be used to discuss with a teacher the type of written work that should be submitted (if required). Discussion about the piece means that the demands are clearly understood (alternatively, a piece of work from an EPQ or Extended Project can be submitted). Finally, time should be spent on preparing for interview. I would suggest an internal interview for candidates to be organised in late September/early October to give them a sense of the task. Once students have been shortlisted by the colleges, I suggest arranging an interview exchange with another school (set up in the academic year when the students are in Year 12) with experience of the Oxbridge process. This is incredibly useful as the students are placed in an unfamiliar context and asked questions by someone they do not know. Feedback should be provided and any areas for development should be tested again just before students attend the final interview. This may appear to be too much but in my experience interview rehearsal, feedback and additional performances allow students to feel relaxed and ready for the real thing. It also mirrors what happens in the independent sector and the figures of independent school acceptance to Oxbridge should provide enough justification. One non-selective state school that I worked in only gave students an interview the week before the actual interview which made them feel slightly nervous and unprepared as they did not have the chance to correct any errors. The purpose of the interview preparation is not to hot-house students by giving them the ‘right’ answer (this will fail because the admissions tutors will see through this if stock answers are  Rather, it is suggested as the best way to provide the opportunity for students to show what they can do in a setting they feel comfortable in

Once students return from interview, ask them to note down the interview questions they have been asked and anything else they experienced. All of this should be noted and fed into the process for the following year/build up institutional knowledge. It is important to reiterate to them that regardless of the outcome, they have demonstrated the commitment and dedication to do well wherever they end up.

When applicants are informed in January, I would recommend that schools ask for feedback on the unsuccessful applications. This information will help to refine the support for the students in Y12 and provide any further support to unsuccessful students and their parents.

If you feel that anything is missing, please let me know. Feedback is very welcome!

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Battles, Babies and Boxes

The calm before the storm...

Battle of Ideas. The calm before the storm… with Dr Dana Mills (left of the picture), Dr Tiffany Jenkins, Alka Sehgal Cuthbert and Professor Selwyn Cudjoe.

If you have never been to the Battle of Ideas before, I highly recommend it. A weekend filled with conversation, debate and interesting people discussing a range of issues from Brexit to clowns in towns. I took part in two panels. The first was titled ‘History Wars‘ and was based on Margaret MacMillan’s book ‘Uses and Abuses of History’ and was more like an enlightening conversation than a debate. What was clear is that history teaching still has much to do in terms of its image with the general public in relation to the topics taught or how it is taught. I recommended Teaching History to the audience if they wanted to see the rigour in the classroom but I am not sure there will be many takers! The second panel, ‘Decolonising Education‘ touched on the ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ debate and the protests around the Cecil Rhodes statue in Oxford. The discussion was heated and the audience were certainly engaged! I intend to pick up some of the themes in the discussion over the next few months but it did make me think carefully about why I normally discuss Carr and Elton in relation to UCAS personal statements rather than Ibn Khaldun.

I look forward to returning to the Battle of Ideas next year and making a shorter trip home, as we are part way through the move back to the South East of England. My wife became pregnant with our first child earlier this year (hurrah!),  but she has been quite unwell – to the point that she is currently unable to do the job she loves (boo!). With no family and support network around us in the Midlands and with a baby on the way, it was logical to move back ‘home’ to the South East. We’re in the process of packing – or rather I am while she ‘supervises’ – so watch this space for a longer blog post once we’ve made the move! Needless to say, we’re both very excited about new beginnings.


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How not to ‘whitewash’

The #RhodesMustFall campaign has been interesting because the main goal to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes, imperialist and benefactor, has failed. Equally interesting has been the opposition, which has centred around the seemingly simple argument that one should not ‘whitewash’ history (an interesting choice of words considering the reasoning behind the campaign).

This argument in particular assumes that the history behind monuments and buildings is apparent to everyone. It is not. I have no doubt that many people had no idea who Cecil Rhodes was and what he did when they walked past Oriel College. Without context, the statue presented a limited narrative. The campaigners have called for Oxford to ‘acknowledge and confront its role in the ongoing physical and ideological violence of empire’, and there is a simple way to do this.

Making the complex history of statues/monuments/street names available to all can be done through the technology of iBeacons or QR codes that direct the public to a mobile website/app that offers two interpretations in audio or text format. These can be written by professional historians or by using the network of history teachers across the country. After engaging in the content, listeners/readers can then offer their own interpretation as oral testimony. Rather than ‘whitewashing’ history, it allows people to interact with the past and add their own voices.

Imagine what places like Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Liverpool and London would be like where the history of buildings, streets, monuments and public art speak to you as you walk around. What horrors of the Slave Trade would be revealed? What celebrated achievements would they boast of? What tales of fundamental British values would they make complex? The overlapping and intertwining stories would, for the first time, be available to all as they stood in the physical space. Education, something we seem to agree on as a progressive force in society, would be available to all and at the point of interest.

The costs of such a project would be minimal and it could be done quickly. The public benefit would be enormous and it would allow our society to confront, in a very real way, our history. So rather than threatening to withdraw donations, belittling the students for raising questions and prioritising a single story, let us be open to the voices/spectres of the past and confront the issues. If we don’t, we will simply create a safe space for dissatisfaction and anger.

Interested in the above proposal or think it is unworkable? Get in touch (especially if you are in the heritage sector or Oriel College).

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Watch out, Cameron; I’m bringing the fight for equality in Britain to you

Let me introduce myself. My name is Nick Dennis and I’m a Deputy Head at an independent school.  I am a governor of a Free School in London. I am also black, from Hackney and the first person in my family to study A Levels, go to university and complete a degree (I ended up doing three).

This is not a ‘sob story’ or an inspirational tale about overcoming adversity.

I’m telling you this because today, the Prime Minister David Cameron wrote a piece about the need for equality in Britain and I’m wondering whether he truly understands the extent of the problem he is trying to address. From where I’m standing his solutions seem pretty weak.

In today’s Sunday Times, Cameron stated that he wanted to reduce inequality in Britain.

But when you look more under the surface, it’s clear that we’ve still got some distance to travel to achieve the One Nation ideal. Consider this: if you’re a young black man, you’re more likely to be in a prison cell than studying in a top university. Only one in 10 of the poorest white boys go into higher education at all. There are no black generals in our armed forces and just 4% of chief executives in the FTSE 100 are from ethnic minorities.

As Trevor Phillips stated in the same paper, this is a watershed moment. Unfortunately, the proposed solutions do not match the written ambition.

The Prime Minister talks of addressing the problem in two ways. The first is raising aspirations. There is evidence that this helps (the ‘Nudge’ unit have produced some interesting research here), but it is not a solution. When material concerns such as high tuition fees/ reduced funding for state schools to provide education opportunities are obstacles, the financial package around education has to be addressed.

As a teenager living in Hackney during the riots in the 1980s and attending a comprehensive school in the Bethnal Green, university seemed like something other people did. It was somewhere I wanted to go, but at that point I – along with many of my classmates – had no way of knowing how to get there.  In the end I was fortunate. During my GCSEs I got to spend a week at a university as part of a widening access programme. It opened my eyes to something I did not really think was possible. Later, I was able to study a course where my fees and living were subsidised by the state but even then, it was a worry. Student loans were being introduced and as I worked out how much I would have to pay back over a period of time, it seemed almost impossible. For current students facing a larger debt without the family resources to support their studies, what incentive is there? The effects of debt on decision-making have been clear for a while but do not seem to figure in the proposed solution.

Beyond individual choices, there are financial issues that reduce the ability for state schools to provide the great education they want to the students walking through their doors.  Recruitment is a major problem because the wage is not enough to attract people in London due to high rents and travel costs. Teacher training, once the preserve of HE, has now moved to schools but without the budget or time increase you might expect.  My experience in the independent sector shows that many schools have the capacity to offer housing with low rents and extensive training for their staff. If we really want to ensure that state schools can do a great job in helping to create the new equal society, a more detailed look at finance is needed.

Cameron’s second solution is to tackle discrimination in all its forms.

I don’t care whether it’s over, unconscious or institutional – we’ve got to stamp it out. We don’t need politically correct, contrived and unfair solutions. Quota’s don’t fix the underlying problems. To succeed, we must be far more demanding of our institutions, and be relentless in the pursuit of creative answers.

One particular target in the fight for inequality are universities. Cameron highlights that Oxford accepted only 27 black men and women out of 2,500 undergraduates. Cambridge don’t have a great success rate on this either. His solution is to make sure universities  publish data on applied for and offers given. More detail will help (it is partly done already by Oxford and Cambridge) but it does not go far enough. The cuts that the government have made to HE funding has reduced the capacity for widening participation schemes to bring in more students from diverse backgrounds. Ironically, what it has also done is reinforce the commitment of many academics to include as many students from diverse backgrounds as possible (disclosure: my wife is an academic and this is a hot topic of conversation in at least one Russell Group university).  Alumni funding campaigns have been increased in the hope of accruing the money to fund the great work many institutions are already doing. But both of these have happened in spite of the government, rather than because of it.

Finally, the PM issues the following challenge:

 Ask yourselves: are you going the extra mile to really show people that yours can be a place for everyone, regardless of their background?

This is a very interesting question to ask and it is one area the government has a terrible record in. The data published by the Department for Education clearly shows the dearth of black head teachers and the number has not risen dramatically over the last few years. Where programmes exist, it is usually individuals like Dave Hermitt who take the lead. If the government cannot make dramatic changes, then it really is up to other institutions and individuals to pitch in.

Based on the above, I would like to ask the Prime Minister, is this really the extra mile? Because if it is, we are in trouble and the One Nation he hopes to create will remain an unfulfilled promise. In my view, this is just a first step. The vision is enticing but the steps to get us there demand a more reasoned, subtle and deep appreciation of the problem.  It also requires genuine leadership and I look forward to seeing what the Prime Minister does next.


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The Role of the HoD Within Whole-School Planning

The role of middle leaders in driving school improvement is crucial. Despite a wide acceptance of this wisdom across education, acting on it is not. On the 3rd November, I led a workshop on the Independent Schools Qualification in Academic Management (ISQAM)  course on this issue.  Below is a brief outline.

Purpose is a crucial factor when leading people. Without it, decisions can be paralysing. Delegates were asked to consider the notion of ‘purpose’ throughout the session and the importance it plays from a whole-school perspective and from a departmental point of view.

The other major feature of the presentation was to clarify the difference between strategy and development. A colleague in a state school contacted me a while ago for some help with what their Head wanted from them. After a few minutes it was clear that their Head did not know the difference between a strategic plan and a development plan and this led to increased stress on all sides. Simply, strategy is concerned with defining the shape and extent of the organisation. Development is concerned with how the organisation is going to adapt and improve within the strategic framework. To put it another way, strategy is concerned with what ‘B’ looks like and development is concerned with the substantive steps that take us from ‘A’ to ‘B’.

I then discussed the strategic process from a whole-school point of view from four key areas:

  1. Background research – stakeholders, market research, SWOT analysis
  2. Core Aims and Values – what are our core values? What do we stand for? What are we trying to achieve?
  3. Decide Fundamentals – size/structure of the school, boarding/day, single-sex/co-ed
  4. Determine direction – where are we going? Why are going there?

On the background research, I discussed the use of analysing student numbers and the use of Mosaic data to think about potential competitors and prospective parents. This is a fascinating aspect of analysis and if you work in an independent school as a senior leader and have not heard/seen the data, I recommend going on a course to find out more about it.

After going through the rest of the process from a whole-school perspective, we then explored what the process would like from a departmental point of view. I mentioned the importance of the ‘pre-mortem‘ in departmental and school planning and how a ‘multipliers‘ approach can work at a department level.

I was also keen to stress (and I will do so again) that despite using Berkhamsted as the basis for the presentation, we have not got everything right! When I joined the school, the middle leaders (academic and pastoral) were not directly involved in the development process and I felt strongly that they should be. Now, we have two separate development days for HoDs and pastoral leaders in January set aside for this purpose. Their thoughts flow directly into the Senior Leader strategy days later on in the year and shared with the school before the end of the summer term so people can think through departmental development plans carefully.

Detailed information on the workshop can be found below:

The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’s Conference (HMC) and the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) jointly run the ISQAM. If you are a current middle leader, or aspire to be one, I highly recommend the course.

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The misinterpretation of E D Hirsch

Today’s TES has an interview with academic E D Hirsch and it is enlightening to read his thoughts on how his work has been appropriated and used by educators. There are two telling passages in the article. The first deals with the application of his work to secondary education:

In Cultural Literacy, he repeatedly emphasises that his attention is on the primary age group. He does not endorse his work being used to justify a curriculum beyond that level. “My focus is on 3-11 education,” Hirsch reiterates. “I am calling for a solid, well-rounded, common early curriculum.”

The second deals with the ‘progressive’/’traditional’ pedagogic divide:

The truth is you can have a defined curriculum and use all sorts of progressive methods to deliver it. If the kids get the results and you can prove it works, then do it. Who cares how you deliver it as long as it gets into the minds of children and they’re happy? Pedagogy is highly variable. It is very context-dependent.” [Emphasis added]

It really does seem that we have been listening to shades of Hirsch.

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Architects of the Mind – A Blueprint for Education Innovators. Stowe Ed conference 4th Jan

It may appear that I am not keen on relaxing over the Christmas holiday. Not only do I move house on the last day of school this term and prepare to start my new post at Nottingham High School in January, I have also agreed to lead a ‘breakout’ session at Stowe School’s conference on the 4th January. Julie Potter, Director of Studies at Stowe and a former colleague at Berkhamsted, discussed a plan for a conference focussing on the ‘mind’ after visiting TLAB15 in March. The Stowe Ed conference is the result. Keynote speakers include Sir Anthony Seldon, Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Matthew Syed. The programme for the day can be viewed here and my session will focus on the power of ‘Nudges’ and how they can be used in education. If you are looking for a jolt of teaching energy before term starts, I look forward to seeing you there. Just don’t ask how the house move has gone!

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The Next Chapter panel discussion at the University of Brighton

On Friday I was part of the panel at the University of Brighton’s panel discussion ‘The Next Chapter | Our Future in Black and White‘ to discuss the absence of BME academics in HE.

When discussing the lack of BME students in HE, the curriculum was highlighted as a site of exclusion with school history lessons being the worst example. There is no denying the issue as this film explains:

History Matters from University of Chichester on Vimeo.

However, I wanted to emphasise that there are opportunities to go beyond the apparent limitations at school level. The first example is that many schools are not bound by the KS3 national curriculum as Academies and so have the agency to make appropriate content choices. The second example is that even when following the guidance, there is a still a great deal of agency/latitude in how much time is spent on certain topics leaving enough time to explore other areas. Emphasising existing capacity for revealing  the diversity of Britain does not mean that change is automatic, but it moves us from saying ‘we are constrained’ to asking the question ‘why are we not doing this?’

One response to this question may be that geographically speaking, we are an island and our focus should be on the ‘island story’. However, the story of this island, to use Kei Miller‘s words, ‘is a wide, wide open space’ and touches the shores of West Africa and the plantations of the Caribbean.  The politics of the European states, wars with Imperial China, exploration, colonisation and decolonisation are part of our ‘island story’. It is, as Marianne Hirsch suggests,  a connective history rather than a competitive one.

The possibility of teaching a rich history of Britain at KS3 demands a focus on practical matters and for teachers who are already engaged, they need help accessing the latest research.  This is where HE can be very helpful by working with schools in their location to provide access to library materials such as journals so educators. This will not solve the problem, but it removes a very real obstacle for teachers at KS3 who may lack the subject knowledge.

There is also hope beyond KS3. The new History GCSE from OCR has options on migration to Britain from the c200 to the present. Two units, ‘Migration Through Time’ and ‘Empire and Migration c.1688-1730’ have been developed in partnership with the Black and Asian Studies Association (BASA) and Dan Lyndon-Cohen and Martin Spafford are currently writing resources to support these courses. Other exam boards have yet to follow these lines but this is a clear change at the formal exam level.

Many other aspects were discussed and the video will shortly be available Youtube. Thanks to Marcie and the team at Brighton for organising the event and for emphasising the need for positive steps forward.

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