Toilet roll: check.  Glow-stick: check.  Rock of weed wrapped in cellophane: check.  DM boots with band names marked in tippex: check.  Girl in bikini top on shoulders: check.  This is my imagined festival essentials list from 1993, the last time you’d have seen Kurt Cobain on the circuit and probably the last time you might have seen me packing for a real festival.

My festival essentials list for Wellington College last weekend were very different: map (to assist with locating the ‘Spiritual Room’, list of Twitterati I wished to meet, iPad and name badge (in the vain hope that someone bounded up to talk about this blog).  More festival nerd than festival chic, but I was excited for the event nonetheless.  The promise of ‘freshly brewed organic beats’ for the Friday night entertainment (presumably some recent Wellington leavers playing ukuleles whilst dressed in red cords) made me glad I was heading into London for the evening, but it was the daytime treats I was most looking forward to.  And here’s what I did:

Day 1

Christopher Waugh

Donnie Darko disciple and wearer of double denim, Chris gave his excellent talk ‘Deus ex Machina’ about pupil choice, pupil voice and the co-creation of curricula.  He is certainly high up on my list to visit at the London Nautical School next year.  An idealist but also a realist, he draws you in with his enthusiasm and clear love of teaching and of his pupils.

Tom Sherrington

Predictably good.  I have read his blog for some years now, and he writes with great clarity but also humility – his gravitas comes from the fact that he is so able; he is collaborative and open to ideas without forcing them upon you.  I felt the talk was a little rambling, but maybe that was the purpose – look for a conclusion yourself rather than having it rammed down your throat.

Keiron Sparrowhawk

How could you not go to this talk?  He sounds like a cross between a fast bowler from the Leeward Islands and an LAPD traffic cop.  Sadly, he was neither.  His talk was on ‘what makes a great leader’ and during the 30 minutes I managed to stick it, I learned that pupils often thought MLK and Gandhi were great leaders, that I needed a mixture of luck and hard work, and I should drink only in moderation and eat my 5-a-day.

Laura McInerney

Laura is very sharp; her writing on education is perceptive; her Twitter feed is excellent.  I am sure that she gives excellent talks for the majority of the time.  This was not one of them.  Probably the most disappointing thing I saw because I know how excellent she could have been.  Instead, in her talk ‘what makes a great education secretary’ she presented a data-trawl on numbers of children, months of birth and time spent in the job, all to no obvious end or conclusion.  The more time in the job, the more they got done (and the more loathed they tended to be) and most of them were born in the summer.  Er…that was about it.

Dylan Wiliam

This man is superb.  He talks with articulacy, clarity and when he says ‘research shows…’ you know that he has read it, and really understands it.  Some teachers have chosen to trivialise AfL, but that’s hardly his fault, and his embedding formative assessment materials are excellent.  He is interesting, inspirational and forces you to reflect on practice.  His ‘debate’ with David Didau was more ‘Brokeback Mountain’ for educationalists, but did provide for high-quality musing on some philosophical points of education.  When intelligent able people get together to talk education, it’s a privilege to be able to sit back and watch.  

Day 2 

Andrew Adonis

Lord Adonis spoke impeccably for 40 minutes without notes.  His talk ranged from School governance to apprenticeships and though perhaps of limited relevance to me, here was clearly a man with a fine moral compass and serious ability.  The former ‘thin controller’ makes one wonder what might have happened had he been given the chance to push on his vision.

Ian Leslie

The find of the tournament for me.  There’s something of the Gareth Malone about him, but far less irritating.  He spoke about his book ‘Curiosity’, and curiosity in general.  I love this word, and it has yet to be bastardised in the same way of ‘passion’ and ‘engagement’.  With just the right amount of certainty, conjecture and whimsy, I found myself taken in by his calm manner.  Note to self: book him in for next year.

Kris Boulton

I liked him a lot, and clearly so do a lot of others, as room 1 of the Mandarin Pagoda was packed to the rafters.  All the gang were here in support: Daisy, Andrew Smith, Katie Ashford; just don’t call them the ‘new traditionalists’.  Kris is very likeable and earnest, and talked a lot of sense.  I got the feeling (as I get with a lot of the relatively inexperienced teacher bloggers) that his ideas are in the process of being formed rather than fully formed and that he is reacting to the circumstances in which he has found himself, rather than extolling some deep educational philosophy.  It felt a little as though I was in some sort of clandestine ‘cell’ a la Hans Fallada/George Orwell, where people of like mind felt able to express themselves without fear of Ofsted and/or progressive reprisal.  I agreed with pretty much all he said, and expect that he’s an excellent teachers; I just don’t recognise the system he’s railing against.

Geoff Barton

I expect that he’s given this talk (or something similar) many times before, so polished it was.  However, he could power the College with his enthusiasm, and the message is just as impressive as the man.  When I check Twitter at 6am, there’s always some Barton to read already that morning.  He makes me want to read more, he makes me feel like a grammatical ignoramus and he does it all with plenty of jokes and being genuinely likeable.  What a star.  

Keith Vaz, Katie Hopkins, David Starkey, Claire Fox

Drivel from start to finish.  Keith quotes abstract soundbites (we need to give our children the best, it’s not all about A* grades), Katie sounds like a rabid right-wing housewife (some people are failures and need to go into catering), David says f*ck and praises Brighton College and Claire says little, probably bemused by the directionless shambles of D-list celebrities with whom she’s having to share a stage.

David Baddiel and Cosmo Landesman

David Baddiel was excellent, as always, but was let down in a huge way by his interviewer.  I had never heard of Cosmo, but he was very poor, with no research, no ability to sit and listen and seemingly no idea that people hadn’t come to see him.  Even David was struggling by the end, resorting to telling a feeble anecdote about Gove just to get off the topic of pornography.

This was an outstanding educational occasion.  The opportunity to be inspired, to discuss, debate and to network was a great privilege and this is surely the gold standard by which all educational meets can be judged.  And the toilets were fragrant.

Numbers and memory

This time last year I talked a lot about numbers. I talked about the number of small prizes won and commendations awarded. There were over 2000 academic awards made last year; the number this year is similar.
Our lives are dominated by numbers.  Sometimes we are bombarded with so many numbers, they become tangled and lose meaning.  Understanding the meaning of numbers can help us to understand the progress we make at School, but in order to understand progress, we need to understand the numbers – is 65% good, or disappointing? It can be both, seen through the eyes of two different people.  Here’s an example, and I’d like you all to have a go: how long is a million seconds?  I haven’t given you very long, but if you said 11 and a half days, well done.  Now have a go at a billion seconds?  If you said 32 years, well done.  That’s how long it would take you to count to a billion, one number per second.  Translating those initial numbers into a more understandable format helped to give them meaning.
What are the numbers that are relevant to you this year?  Commendations gained, runs scored and wickets taken, exam percentages, netball results, A* grades predicted, Twitter followers, Facebook friends.  These are all numbers. Some matter, some are meaningless.  Make sure you concentrate on the ones that matter.  The number of A and A* grades achieved matters, number of Facebook friends doesn’t. I am not suggesting that your number of actual friends doesn’t matter, merely the number of Facebook acquaintances, which is hardly necessarily a measure of real friendship.
You need to make sure that certain numbers are going up – exam scores for example, and others go down – pink cards. Human lives can’t be measured purely in numerical terms, but they give you a good idea of how that life is going.  Of course this relies on your being able to remember your numbers from last Quarter, or last year.  If you don’t remember anything from the past, it’s difficult to gauge how you are performing in the present.  I am always amazed by what pupils do and don’t remember.  We can’t always control what we take away with us from days, but days are where we live.  Some advice that I give and I really want to stick gets forgotten immediately (it will happen during this assembly), and other throwaway comments are remembered for years.  Sometimes pupils ask me years later if I remember saying this or that to them, and even if someone did say it to them once, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me.
R S Thomas, in his poem Abersoch, touches on the nature of memory:

There was that headland, asleep on the sea,
The air full of thunder and the far air
Brittle with lightning; there was that girl
Riding her cycle, hair at half-mast,
And the men smoking, the dinghies at rest
On the calm tide.  There were people going
About their business, while the storm grew
Louder and nearer and did not break.
Why do I remember these few things,
That were rumours of life, not life itself
That was being lived fiercely, where the storm raged?
Was it just that the girl smiled,
Though not at me, and the men smoking
Had the look of those who have come safely home?

I wonder how many of you will remember this poem, its sentiment, its name and the name of the poet?

It’s the process, stupid

I came across the following quote, linked from a link from a link. It’s a quote from Saracens Rugby chief executive, Edward Griffiths:


I think this can apply to Schools, at least in some ways. Appointing clever, hardworking people, who have a broad range of interests themselves and are able to communicate with the pupils they teach is the most important part of my job. If you get it right, your School will develop organically into an effective institution without very much tinkering from the top.

Treating people well is important, but it is perhaps more complex in a School than in a rugby club. The players in a premiership rugby club are all men, and will be aged between about 20 and 35. The Oktoberfest (and similar) trips might be the stuff of dreams to lads in their 20s, but the thought of transposing my common room to Bavaria in the autumn doesn’t sound like a very good, or realistic idea. People certainly need to feel valued, but being thanked at the end of a lesson by the pupils you have just taught is enough for me. I want management to give me a decent space for teaching, a reasonable timetable, a variety of classes and a sensible extra curricular load. I also want to feel supported in the sense that if I need help, I know who to ask. They should be able to help me, and won’t judge me for asking. Beyond that, the rewards of the role are obvious: when pupils understand something that they didn’t understand before, when they enjoy a book you have introduced them to, when they ask a question that makes you think about a topic in a whole new way. These are the daily rewards, and they have nothing to do with finding note-cards in your pigeon hole thanking you for something that was part of your job anyway. Small gestures, such as buying a colleague a drink at the end of a long day, are likely to be more appreciated than financial rewards, or timetable allowances, which lack the personal touch.

Perhaps where the Saracens approach most closely mirrors that of Schools is in the need to build a community. It is perhaps easier at a Boarding School, but if the majority of your common room treat the School as an office (enter at 9, leave at 5 – and yes, I know everyone marks and plans at home), it’s hard to build that community. Helping pupils before or after School, having a drink with your colleagues at the end of the day, speaking with parents at Saturday sports fixtures, these all help to build a community where pupils, teachers and parents feel welcome. Never ask what your community can do for you. Communication can be effective over email or social media, but your community is easier to build if it has firm foundations – it must be centered.

The other point I think is worth emphasising is results being seen as outcomes of process. If you get the process right, you don’t really need to worry about results. Again this is different for Saracens and Schools. Saracens play a lot of one-off ‘winner takes all’ ties, certainly in the cup competitions. In the latter stages of these competitions, all of the teams are good, and any team can beat any other team on any given day. One of the joys of sport is its unpredictability: the bounce of the ball, the Schoolboy error, the moment of genius that can decide games at the highest level, and Griffiths is right when he says that judgement on results alone is futile. The concept of ‘deserving’ in sport is often mentioned, with managers bemoaning the negative result when they had the majority of the possession and chances. You certainly don’t always get what you deserve in top-level sport, but when it comes to examination results (at least from a whole-School perspective), you do get what you deserve. You are not competing against anyone else; one moment of genius from another pupil in the exam hall does not take away your grade, nor does another pupil not reading the question boost you to a higher level. You are in control of the situation, more like a snooker player in the balls than a rugby player scrapping to secure possession.

Schools need to be brave enough to ignore the quick fix. Don’t start with the results and ask ‘how can we improve?’ Start with your process of education, start with your philosophy of education – and then question this. Exams are simply a celebration of knowledge gained up until that point. You might have two years with this set of pupils. How are you going to create the best set of chemists/geographers/mathematicians/linguists that they can be? A few weeks before the two years are up, you can then prepare them assiduously for an examination, but don’t let the examination drive you. If you want to create pupils with a serious interest in literature, introduce them to everything you think is worth reading, don’t simply plough through the ponderous Of Mice and Men (sorry, couldn’t resist) because it represents the quickest and easiest route from A to B. You are not really doing the best for your pupils.

In summary: concentrate on process and results will be the glorious byproduct; look to build a community that includes everyone connected with the School; small daily rewards provide all the job satisfaction that most people need; working with talented and committed individuals day in, day out is something we should all be grateful for.

And if you do decide on Oktoberfest, remember to pace yourself and don’t go for your first wee too soon.

Written for @edutronic_net #blogsync June 2014