Monday, 15 June 2015

Rights and Responsibilities

800 years ago, today, a truly historical act took place. For the first time ever in history, a group of (for the time) relatively ordinary people held the king to account and limited his power over ordinary people.

The Magna Carta, which is Latin for the 'Great Charter' (not too inspiring or original a title, I know, but hey, it was 800 years ago!) was put to King John of England by a group of Barons and churchmen to be signed. 

You could say that if he hadn't, then he probably would not have lived much longer, but to sign a document promising to limit his own powers was a genuinely historical moment. Up to that point in history, the ruler was considered untouchable - they could have whatever they wanted and frequently saw the people in their country as simply playthings, there to provide whatever the ruler wanted.

The Magna Carta put limits on that. And they were limits that, on the whole, still stand today. The Magna Carta was a promise that:

  • The rights of the church would be protected,
  • People would not be imprisoned illegally, for no reason,
  • People would receive swift justice, rather than sit in prison without end waiting for a trial,
  • There would be limits on the amount of taxes the monarch could impose.

The Magna Carta, the meeting near Windsor, 800 years ago today, is a moment in history and a document that makes History important. This document had a huge impact then, and throughout history. Your lives are different because of it.

The Magna Carta failed, as the King tried to carry on his life as if it never mattered. However, this triggered wars and a new Manga Carta was renewed a couple of years later and since then has held those in power to account for how they treat ordinary people.

The Magna Carta became the starting point on which our entire legal system is based, and in the 18th Century, when the new colonies in America were shaping their independence, the  Magna Carta was used as the basis for their constitution - the Magna Carta, therefore, shaped the American Constitution and Bill of Rights.

A group of people who were not happy with the way they were being treated held a king to account 800 years ago and changed the face of human civilisation forever!

And you wonder why I frequently say that you hold enormous power in your futures - who knows what you are capable of doing ,if only you have the conviction to do it…

Today, we have a universal bill of human rights, a document that most of the world subscribe to; the following is a list of substantive rights:

  • The right to life - no human should be deprived of this right …
  • Freedom from torture
  • Freedom from slavery
  • The right to a fair trial
  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of thought
  • Freedom of movement

They are not that different from the Magna Carta!

And in school? Well, we have our code of conduct. This sets out the conditions we feel everyone in the school should aspire to & how we should behave.

In principle, it is our bill of rights, our Magna Carta.

You have the right to come to school, without fear of being intimidated or picked on.

You have the right to come to school and learn; to have the opportunities to aspire to be your best.

From the code of conduct:

All students are expected to treat all other students with the same respect they would like others to show them.
Students will be expected to accept others for who they are, not seek to limit, put down or control others through intimidation, harassment or bullying. Any student who engages in this sort of behaviour will be dealt with most severely, through the school’s behaviour protocols. Students who believe that this sort of behaviour is perfectly acceptable are not welcome at Sandymoor School and persistent or significant behaviour of this sort will result in a student being asked to leave.
This includes actions and behaviour that occur outside of school.

You have the right to your own opinion, to have your own thoughts and vocalise them, but in the context of not limiting another person's rights.

And that is where things get tricky; you have a set of rights, we all have a set of rights, but one right we all have is the right to be ourselves, be who we want to be, without fear of intimidation or discrimination.

That means we also have responsibilities; and the primary responsibility is to support and defend the rights of others. To not behave in such a way that the rights of another are limited or reduced.

And that is why the code of conduct goes on to say:

Students who experience this sort of negative, harmful, damaging behaviour need to understand that the school does not tolerate it and as soon as it is reported it will be dealt with and the victim will be protected from further harm. This is not ‘grassing’ but is shining a light on unacceptable behaviour, exposing the bully to the light.
Students who witness or support those who feel it is acceptable to behave in such ways and who do not report it are just as responsible as the one carrying out the bullying & can expect the same level of punishment. To see something ‘wrong’ happen and not act is to accept the wrong behaviour.
There is the underlying assumption that all students will want to make the most of the opportunities provided by the school to grow and develop themselves. Therefore all students will be expected to strive to participate in lessons and activities that others have spent time and effort designing.
Within that context, we have a group of students who are expected to uphold these rights. They have the responsibility to lead by example and not to limit others.

And to not abuse the power they have through their position. King John, 800 years ago, learnt what happened when he tried to abuse his power.

The student Prefect Team are here to support the school, to strive to help other students experience the best the school can be and to support the staff in providing an environment where everyone can feel safe.

The Head Boys & Head Girls are expected to be examples of this, to strive to be the best they can be. They are supported by the prefect team; they perform duties around school, most importantly they are there to hold other students to account when behaviour falls below our expectations. As I have said before, they do their duties under my authority, so when they ask another student to stop doing something, they are doing it as if it were me doing it. I hold them to high standards, however, and if they act in a way that is less than I would expect, then they can expect to be told so by me.

We also have a team of students who take on responsibility in the house system. You are all in a house and have a responsibility to help your house be the best it can be. The House Captains will work to support the House staff in organising house events, arranging inter-house competitions, etc.

And we have our Microsoft Student Ambassadors. These students have been working hard to support the ICT in school and are rolling out initiatives to help this further.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Grit or determination

I found the following quote the other day, attributed to Pele, regarded by many as one of the greatest footballers of all time:

"Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all love of what you are doing."

 It takes all of these to be successful.

Before half term, I talked about what, in fact, success was - what it means to be successful and challenged you with thinking about what success means to you.

Success, if defined right, will make you happy, but the journey to get there is long and often hard. There is another saying, not attributed to anyone, but frequently quoted in lots of different ways:

"If something is worth aspiring for, it is likely to be hard work to achieve; nothing that takes little effort is ever, truly, worth very much."

There has been lots in the news recently about the fact that the main thing missing in young people's lives (i.e. you!) is aspiration - young people, apparently, have no ambition, they don't aspire to be or do anything.

Now, working with you & working with young people for over 25 years, I can say that this is not true - the vast majority of you have ambition, you aspire to things & frequently these are worthy things to aspire to as well.  

So it's not a lack of aspiration that is holding you back.

It is more likely the journey ahead, the route you can see ahead of you and tee knowledge of the difficulties ahead.

And this is where Pele's quote comes in. Yes, it is going to be hard, and yes, you are likely to fail at some things along the way. But that is good; that is life. If you are not prepared to be challenged, if you are not prepared to try new things & not always get it right then be prepared to be left behind while the world moves forwards ahead of you.

This is a hard message, but an important one - life does not owe you anything. We live in a world surrounded by the media message that we have 'rights', and yes, we do, but we also have responsibilities and failure to accept our part in anything will, more often than not lead to you missing out on what you feel is your due.

If you look at successful people, whether it's music stars, sportsmen or women, business people, or 'just' famous people, and feel jealous because of their success, don’t! They have all got where they are through pure hard work and determination.

Whether it's the musician who practices and practices their music until their fingers bleed, wrap them in plasters and then keep going until they are the musical success they want to be, or the sportswoman who wakes up at 4am every morning to put in two or more hours a day of training before going to school, then a further two hours training in the evening and more every weekend, until they get into the team they have always wanted to. Every successful person has worked hard, strived, frequently failed and picked themselves up again, refusing to accept failure as an outcome.

In fact, as I'm on a roll with quotes, another one for you:

You only truly fail when you stop trying. . .

Hard work, determination, the refusal to give up. These are all the key qualities that define successful people, whatever their background or field of success.

And finally, my all time favourite quote, one which I do hold to my heart and try to live by. It sums up my approach to life & is from probably my favourite film ever.

"Do, or do not … there is no try." (Yoda, from Star Wars Episode V)

It basically says that if you say that you will try (as in "I'll try my hardest"), then you are already accepting failure as an option. Either do something or don't. If you do, then give it your all & do not give in until you have achieved. Otherwise don't.

Monday, 18 May 2015

What does it mean to be successful?

This is a good question to ask, at this time of year in particular. All around the country, thousands of students are taking public exams, the supposed outcome of the factory that is school. The measure of success, for the schools concerned as well as the students themselves, is resting on the performance of 16 - 18 year olds. Exam season is as old as the hills; your parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents and so on back hundreds of years have all been through this period of time.  

But is that what success is? Passing a set of exams? Now, don't get me wrong; passing exams is a product of our society and is a gateway to our futures. There is no getting around that and unless (or until) a new system is devised, we are going to have to ensure that we perform in these exams, whenever they are. Every teacher in the school has had to go through what you have to go through. And the workplace of the future, your future, is going to continue to be a tough one. Getting the grades, passing the exams, is not an optional extra, but is a barrier to a wide range of futures. You do need to pass the exams, whether they're GCSEs, BTECS, A-levels, or anything else. That is, as is said in the business world, non-negotiable.

But they are not, then, an automatic pass to the future. There's so much more to being successful, so many more ways to define it.

Success has two meanings; the first is a relatively simple one - to accomplish a desired aim or result. So, I can say that I am successful in terms of having helped to set up this school; Sandymoor School exists and  is recognised as a very good school. Result, as they say. Mission accomplished. 

But the other, probably more common, definition of success is more tricky. This definition says that success is to 'have achieved fame, wealth or social status'. Really? Well, am I successful, then? No, I'm not wealthy, certainly am not famous and what does it actually mean to have social status anyway? 

The problem with success is that it actually means something different for each and every person. What is success for me may well mean absolutely nothing for you. I feel that I am successful; I feel like I am doing a good job (although that's for others to judge), am reasonably healthy, have enough money to enjoy nice things, have nice holidays, etc., and have family and friends around me to share the good times & support through the bad. I feel like I'm making a difference, which is important to me. That's success. For me. 

And that's the point. What is success for you? It comes in a number of categories to start with.

Friendship - are you a good friend? Do you have people around you who accept you for who you are & like you for who you are? Do you like people for who they are, rather than what they can do for you?  

Health - are you living a healthy life? Do you eat the right sort of food? Do you ensure that you exercise so your heart & lungs are kept healthy enough to see you through the rest of your life?

Future - you may not know what you want to be or do when you leave school, but you do need to face the reality that this is going to happen, and soon. In fact, the vast majority of you will be able to vote the next time we have a general election - you will be adult enough to be asked to have a say in how the country runs, so you should be adult enough to have a say in how you are then! As I said, exams are not everything, but they are a barrier if you don't give them & the lessons, the time they deserve. School is not a social event where how you look or who you're seen with is more important than anything else. Go down that route and you will be alone and miserable, with no exams and a limited future ahead of you.

But there's so much you can do about that. Believe that you can do anything you want. Yes, there's a lot you don't know. There's a whole pile of stuff I don't know. But you know what? If you refuse to ask someone for help, because you don't want to look stupid, then you'll never know what you can do, and you'll never grow.

In every field, whether it's sport, business, or entertainment, the message is clear. If you are not prepared to put the work in, and to risk something you are not sure about; i.e. try something new, something that you are not sure about, then you'll never get anywhere.

Take Stephen Gerrard; whether you are a reds fan or not, there is no doubt that, for over 15 years he has been successful at his club. Awarded an MBE by the queen, regarded by everyone who should know as one of the very best players of his generation, Gerrard has made the decision to move on, to go to LA (& who wouldn't, if I'm honest!), to do something new and uncertain. He got where he is through hard work, persistence and a determination not take second best or 'good enough' in anything he did. And he got everything he deserved because of that. There's a message for all of us. Nothing comes to us on a plate - if something is worth wanting, then it's going to take hard work and determination to get it. But beyond that, we also need to be sure we don't rest on our seats when we think we have enough. Complacency, or laziness, can lead us to not challenge ourselves and we always need to be checking that we are doing the best we can be. That is why Gerrard is going to LA. (& for the weather, of course…).

So a simple message: What does success look like for you? And not success now, where it could be something as simple as having a certain group of friends, or having a specific gadget, but what does success look like for you in 5 or 10 years? Don't let anyone else pull you down or persuade you to be a certain way; instead, work out your own way. It's a dilemma for each generation; every young person wants to be individual, to not be like everyone else, and yet the herd mentality pulls us always to following the trend. And because we don't want to stand out. But if you like yourself, if you respect yourself and know you are doing the best you can, then that is a great start. If you are prepared to put in the work, to ensure you have the basis, the foundations on which your future will be built, then that's even better. You don't need to know the detail of what you are going to be like in 5 or 10 years, but you do need to plan for it. To ensure you don't put in any limits by following someone else. After all, it's very likely that in 10 years' time you will not see these people or have anything to do with them . . . If you follow someone else's dreams, you run the risk of being left abandoned in the fog, with no knowledge of where you are or how to get out.

Monday, 27 April 2015


We all know, use and have been asked then question; 'are you well?' Or it's more common; 'How are you?'

And we probably give the quick response; 'I'm fine, thanks', or possibly the grammatically incorrect 'I'm good, thanks'.

But what do we mean by that & are we, actually, being honest anyway? Are we well? Or has the question just become an unmeaning social construct, as simple as shaking hands? What would you do if you asked someone and they actually said that they weren't actually feeling so good … ?

And what does it mean to be 'well' anyway? Let's think about wellbeing in three different areas:

The most obvious one, the one definition of wellbeing that is, certainly, the oldest and most often discussed:

Physical Wellbeing

To be physically well is, I would think, a fairly obvious one. To not be ill. To not have a cold, or illness. We all know how we feel when we go down with something, be it a cold, flu, or something more serious. We know, at this level, when we are not physically well. And we have no problem seeking out help and support from professionals about this. And even to physical injury; it is clear and obvious when you have damaged something because you will probably be wearing some form of support, or showing a limp, etc.

The thing is, with physical wellbeing, on the surface, it is pretty clear whether you are well or not. And when you're not, you will most likely be quick to seek help and support.

Or is it? There is another level of physical wellbeing that is less obvious - the healthy lifestyle part of it. Are you well, in terms of eating healthy food, drinking enough water, not eating or drinking stuff you shouldn’t (like energy drinks), etc? Sandymoor is a Healthy School - we have a certificate & badge to show that we care about things like this. That is why we have banned pot noodles & similar foods in school; they are not healthy. They do not do you any good. And it's why we are continually going on about getting you to bring in bottles for water. Drinking water through the day is healthy. It contributes to you being well . . .

If all you eat is chocolate, sweets, crisps and junk like this, or have too much salt on your food, or drink energy drinks, then you are, in fact, simple, hard fact, damaging your inner body - causing damage to organs that are still growing and developing; organs that you need to be working well for the next 80+ years.

And healthy, active lifestyles are important too. All the research shows that we need to get our bodies active and working hard on a regular basis, to keep, in particular, our lungs and heart working well, It is important to get out of breath and sweaty on a regular basis, through exercise. Again, because if you don't, your heart & lungs are weakened & you need these to work well through your whole life. . .

But Physical wellbeing is only part of the story too. As a school, we have put the next category in as equally important:

Academic Wellbeing

This one doesn't appear in any lists on wellbeing you  can find on the internet, but as a school, we do believe it is important that you are 'well' academically. Succeeding in school, achieving the subjects and the grades you want &/or need, tasking responsibility for your learning and pushing yourself now, is an important element of your wellbeing. Now and into the future.

There is a direct link between how you achieve in school and elements of your future life success; Being successful in school, getting good grades has clear links to better jobs and salaries in the future. And better jobs lead to better lifestyles, with more choice for you.

But beyond that, we are trying to give you the skills to be hungry to learn new things, to be able to seek out new information and do something with it. To, in effect, be able to survive the changing world we live in, where there will be, for example, jobs you will be able to apply for that no-one in the world has yet imagined.

Doing well at school is a very important part of being well overall. We want you to be, to aspire to become the very best you can, but that requires you to have a positive attitude to that as well - education, school, doesn't happen to you, you need to participate and seize the opportunities we provide. You need to be hungry to get from us the most you can, so you can be the best you can be.

You must want to become better. But that rests on the last, and quite possibly, most important, aspect of wellbeing:

Emotional Wellbeing

Being emotionally 'well' is more complex than both the other categories put together and is much harder to define. It is also the newest of the wellbeing elements. There are still some people who deny emotional wellbeing is an issue anyhow - the old-school mentality of stiff upper lip, or just plough on and get on with things anyhow. The mental 'slap on the bottom'.

But study after study shows that mental wellbeing, emotional resilience, self-awareness and self-confidence are all keys to success and wellbeing overall. You can be a straight A student, in the peak of physical condition, but still not be well if you are not in control of your emotions or mental state.

And there is so much in this area that we do not have the time to go through. But . . .

Emotional wellbing is about being happy with yourself. Because of who you are, not because someone else wants you to be something. And that can be a friend (although I would not call someone who is only nice to you if you behave or look a certain way a friend anyhow…), or the pressures of media, from the celebrities and superstars through all the channels of social media.

Emotional wellbeing is about accepting who you are. You are good enough and you do deserve to be happy. You do not depend on others, or things, to be good enough. Accepting you for who you are, looking in the mirror and liking what you see.

Emotional wellbeing is about being in charge. Do not let anyone else control you, put you down or stop you doing what you believe in. They are not a friend and are not someone to listen to.

Emotional wellbeing is about being resilient. In a world with anytime, anywhere access, where we expect to get things now, rather than have to wait, it can be difficult to believe, but things worth having are worth waiting for. You cannot be everything you aspire to right here, right now. You need to work at it, persevere and keep trying. There's a great phrase that says if you have not failed, you've never tried to do something worthwhile, because things worthwhile are hard.

So, are you well? The good news is that you are in control. If you are well, in all areas, then go you! Hats off to you! You have achieved it all; Can you please tell me (& everyone else) how you did it? And write a book about it - there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, or books out there on how to be happy. . .

But if you're like the rest of us, struggling in one, or even all three, of these areas, then that is absolutely fine - you're human and alive. And in control. The trick is to sit down and work out what you are not happy about and then do something about it. And remember that you don't have to ever do it alone. It is not a failure to admit that you need help, in any of these areas. After all, as I said, we will all seek help in the first category - Physical Wellbeing. Why not in the other two?

Tuesday, 21 April 2015


This week's assembly was on the topic of collaboration and working together:

There's a phrase that has been around since forever; one that comes up time and time again, but probably most recently in the popular media through the US version of the X factor. You may remember (if you watch it) the girl group - Fifth Harmony?

The phrase is :

We're better together

And it doesn't matter that it's so well known, so 'true' that we tend to ignore it. In fact, it is the most important concept out there & is, in fact, even more fundamental to the school's ethos than my usual mantra of 'Respect' & trust …

Because the fact is we are not alone, we do not work, we could not survive, if we were truly alone. No one person could live a modern life, with all its trimmings, on their own - no one person can know the sum totality of human knowledge, from medicine to engineering to agriculture.

We rely on others all the time. We are a social animal. We always have been and always will. From the first time we came down from the trees, our distant ancestors worked out that they could defend themselves against the wild animals by working together & they could feed themselves better by working as a team to hunt. Society is based on the principle of division of labour, where different people in the group take on different roles.

We are better together.

The very word, society, comes from a Latin word, socii, which directly translates to the English word - allies. People who co-operate to help a group achieve something they could not achieve alone. Like, for example, the collection of countries that grouped together in the first half of the 1940's to defeat Nazi Germany.

Our school community is a society; we work best when we work together. Like the wider society, there's not one person who can do everything to keep the school running smoothly & the staff all work closely together to help this. The result is that you all have the best possible opportunity to become the very best you can be.

And that's the point; there's so much more in the phrase 'Better Together' than just passively letting others get on with their lives. We have to actively work together, co-operate and collaborate to help others be the best they can be, so that we become the best we can be.

Collaboration is key.

It is also one of six identified social skills that are already crucial and will only become more important in the work place of the future. Your workplace.

For the record, the 6 social skills identified are:

  • Collaboration
  • Knowledge Construction
  • Self-regulation
  • Real-world problem-solving & innovation
  • The use of ICT
  • Skilled communication
But collaboration is the really important one.
In so many ways, we are programmed to compete, to try to outdo each other and overcome others to be 'the best'. And I'm not saying that competition is bad; quite the opposite - competition is a good, healthy thing and there are loads of situations where there can be only one winner, so to develop the skills of competition are also crucial, but we have those, almost built into our DNA, so don't need to spend too much time on these.

The problem is when we try to compete when there is no race, no competition to participate in. When there is no one winner, only losers. That's when collaboration is crucial.

In the classroom, for example. Here at Sandymoor, we have tables in clusters, where you work alongside and around colleagues. There is no competition there; or at least there shouldn't be… If someone on your table doesn't know something, there is nothing to be gained from gloating and letting them struggle, whereas if you help them, they can then carry on and learn and grow. And the flip side? Well, when you need help because you don't understand something, they will be more inclined to help you too. As a result, everyone gets better. Win-win, if you ask me.

There's another great phrase I use time and time again, which also emphasises the importance of collaboration;

Shoulders of giants

It dates back almost 900 years, where a French philosopher first wrote it down, but I heard it by reading about one of my heroes - the famous Physicist; Isaac Newton. Both used it in the same context, to say that we can only see further, understand more, than those before us because we are standing on their shoulders, using their knowledge and understanding to make sense of what we are seeing. We are like dwarves, seeing further only because we are standing on the shoulders of giants.

We become bigger, better, by working with others, working alongside them and helping them as they help us. Our ancient ancestors learnt that, when attacked in their caves by packs of wild animals, so why is it sometimes so hard to do it now?

Try it.
Rather than fighting others, putting them down to make yourself look bigger, or refusing to help someone because you don't like them, try reaching out and helping them. At the very least, you never know when you might need them to repay the favour.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Digital Exercise Books

In the modern world, we use technology to replace old ways of doing things all the time,from the introduction of cordless telephones, through to mobile phones and, of course, the replacement of the typewriter with the computer.

But as we can see from the diagram (called the SAMR model of technology integration), simply replacing how we've done things in the past is the lowest level of utilising the power of modern technology.

And we can clearly see the changes, moving towards augmentation, with text messaging, and tools like PowerPoint changing how we present and communicate, but these are 'just' enhancements to how things have always been done, rather than actually changing how things are done - transformation. That's not saying that this is a bad thing, but it is frequently cited as a reason why technology in education is costly and has limited impact. It is only when we go into true transformation that we can begin to see the true impact of technology on education.

At Sandymoor, we were set up with the strap line of being a 'Fresh Approach to Education' and everything we do is explored from the beginning, asking if this is the best way to do something, or just the 'normal' way things are done. This has led to us keeping a lot of things the way they are normally done - we are not into throwing out the baby with the bath water, after all! We even have some very traditional systems, like a house system, prefects and formal assemblies. But where we see a benefit for doing things differently, we embrace the change, and plan to embed the change in how we do things. The use of technology is firmly in this bracket, because we believe that we can only prepare our students for their future by embracing technology and transforming learning through technology.

One of the first things a visitor to the school notices is the fact that we don't have traditional whiteboards on the walls and have no 'Interactive Whiteboards' (IWBs) anywhere. This is because these tools are firmly in the bracket of substitution (or, in the case of the outdated IWB, occasional augmentation); from blackboard & chalk to whiteboard & pen, then to 'interactive' whiteboard, with digital pens. And yes, students could interact with these whiteboards, but surely that's what students have always done when asked to come and write on the board? There is no transformation there! And there really is no difference in a student copying out from a teacher's chalked writing or a writing from a board pen - there is still the relatively mindless, static copying out of information, the student passive and the teacher the active in the act.

But from this summer term, we are taking the transformation on to the next level. We have rolled out digital exercise books to all students. These are in the form of OneNote ClassBooks, integrated into our Office 365 ecosystem. Students can access their digital exercise books from any web-enabled device, giving them full freedom to use their own personal devices. We are enforcing a system where each student has to bring with them a device to lessons; these can be their own device, or a leased, or loaned device through the school, but they need to have something to access their digital exercise book.

So, how does this transform the learning experience? Well, the ClassBook provides a whole range of additional ways for engagement and collaboration. First of all, the ClassBook allows the students to add text, video and audio to their notes, making their work much more multi-media focussed. We already have, for example, students creating audio notes in Spanish for their homework, so they can practice their vocabulary without being embarrassed by their peers. It also enables teachers to provide much richer feedback; with audio notes replacing the red (or if trendy, green) pen. It also allows students to record videos or pictures of experiments in science, or instructions in technology.

There are also collaboration spaces, where students can work together on projects, copying the finished work into their own space for posterity at the end. And to cap it all, the teacher has a whole section that becomes, in effect, a living, growing text book, where class notes, additional material and extension work available for all students to access.

And if a student wants to work on paper, or forgets their device? Simple - they can quickly and easily upload a photo of their work into their ClassBook, again keeping it for posterity. This happens to make marking so much easier too; the teacher doesn't have to carry home stacks of exercise books as everything is online in their ClassBook.

So many young people struggle with handwriting, and the handwriting becomes a barrier to learning, something that causes barriers to go up; in these cases, the technology opens doors for students, as opposed to closing them.

Some will say that this is all well and good, but is at the cost of traditional skills. Not necessarily; handwriting is still an important skill to develop and one that the use of digital exercise books enhances, rather than degrades. This is because we can separate the skill from the content - when handwriting is being taught, this becomes the focus and rather than being assumed to be taught can become something that is explicitly developed. The same for grammar and spelling, where it can be easier to see, and correct, without impacting on the content. The development of spelling and grammatical skills is not degraded by the use of technology. Again, by the fact that we separate the knowledge & understanding from the skills development, we can spend more quality time focussing on and enhancing student understanding of the importance of grammar & spelling.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015


With the Easter Break looming, the clocks now back on British Summer Time and the first glimpses of new growth on the trees and plants, I certainly have started looking forward to warmer weather, longer days and sun …

But this is because we are coming out of winter. The seasons tick off their timing, winter to spring, spring to summer, summer to autumn and then back to winter's icy grip. The revolving door of time, the ever changing, yet unchanging characteristic of nature, the reassurance of the changing seasons. The seasons change, but we are reassured by their predictability.

What about real changes? Changes that make a difference and cannot be reversed? Growing up is one such change, for example. As I have said before, we start off life as a completely helpless babe, entirely dependent on others for everything and as we grow, we start to be able to make choices, take control of things. And it's then that we discover that being in control is hard. We don’t always get what we want, when we want it, so we learn to hate change. Change becomes a signal for unpleasantness, for more difficult things.

But we have to fight that; change is the very essence of the universe, at the very centre of everything and is impossible to fight. If we waste time energy & effort in holding back change, we are wasting opportunities and chances that pass us by. Like King Canute, trying to hold back change will only result in futility as profound as trying to hold back the tide.

(Historical aside: King Canute was a king who reigned over 1,000 years ago - a Viking king, who controlled what is now modern day Denmark, Norway & England - one of the most powerful people in the world. He was thought to be a good king, with great power, but even he could not control the changing nature of time, as demonstrated in his attempting to stop the tide from coming in…)

Change is, paradoxically, unchanging. There will always be change, whether it's global warming, the next version of Windows, or new houses growing up where there were once fields. Change, the only reliable, unchanging fact of living.

So how do we respond to change? As I said, we naturally learn to fear it, to see it as something to dread. But if we change our mindset, look ahead and seek out the opportunities the change brings, we can make so much more of what the future delivers us.

As a school, we are growing, changing, rapidly. That is what we have to do; moving from the temporaries, into this amazing building, was a huge change. And it was not simply looked forward to; some were worried about the space, having got used to the smallness of the old buildings, for example, and feared losing their way, or being caught somewhere they shouldn't be when we moved. And the new students & staff. But such is the way of things and we all adapted and now feel like this building is home, is our 'normality'. So we are now planning to grow again; we have over 100 new students joining us this coming September, and after Easter, we will start the process of getting to know them, so they feel part of our family before they even arrive. It will have a lovely new feel to the school, with almost 300 students in the corridors and classrooms! New friends and new opportunities.

As you know, we have also, last week, started to recruit all the new staff who will be joining us to help you all on your journey. We have, to date, had over 150 applications for 9 posts. Last week, we interviewed 23 people, putting them through a rigorous process to make sure we recruited only the best to join us in our growth.

(I am not arrogant enough to think that everyone who applied for a job here will read this, but if any are, I would like to thank them for taking the time to apply; it is not an easy task to find the time to complete an application form, think about the upheaval that moving jobs will make, and apply, in the complete uncertainty of the outcome. Everyone I met on interview was, in their own right, a truly unique individual, and not once did I think I had chosen badly to shortlist. To the successful candidates, I look forward to working with you as we continue to grow and develop this amazing school & to the unsuccessful ones, I wish you all the best in your own personal journeys - who knows; our paths may cross again.)

The process continues, as we recruit more staff this week & after Easter; in September, we will have over 50 people working in the school, all committed and passionate about helping everyone here be nothing but the best they can possibly be.

One of the questions I posed to the candidates last week was 'What, actually, do teachers do?'. This question was inspired, I must admit, by the great performance poet, Taylor Mali - look him up; he's simply amazing!

A simple question, with a hard answer, especially one that is short and to the point. But one candidate hit the nail on the head, and that is why we appointed them. The answer they gave was:

To be strong for the students, especially when they can't be strong themselves.

That is, indeed, what we are about!

We do have one major change after Easter, one to do with technology. I have stated this time and time again, and now we are getting there. After Easter, you will all be required to have a device, whether a laptop, ipad, tablet, or whatever, in the lesson. The teachers will not be able to provide you with one from a trolley. There are 4 ways you can do this:

Bring in your own device. This is by far the best option, in truth, as it's yours, then, and you know how it works. Your parents will need to check their home insurance, but it is usually possible to add this to most policies.

If you don’t have one, then your parents can lease one through the school. ParentMail letters went out a few weeks ago about this & for about £10 per month, you can have a device to use, with insurance included & it is yours to keep.

Or your parents can loan a device from the school. These cannot be taken home, however, but will be yours, personally, for your use during the day.

Or, finally, you can go to Mr Thow or Mr Connor and book out a device for use. This can only by at the start of school, or during break or lunch, however, and will not be a personal device - you will be given what is available.

But not having a device will not be accepted and will be followed up with a consequence, the same as if you had forgotten a pen or pencil. This technology is your future in work & we are building systems to help you have that important edge when it comes to it.
For details of the school's reason why we are insisting that students have devices in lessons, please read the following blog:


Monday, 16 March 2015

Being yourself

This week's assembly, following the last one on labels:

Now, I know that there has been so much written about the topic of 'being yourself', so many self-help books, and so many people offering to help you 'find yourself'. This is a hot topic, one that many people keep away from. But it is important and while I am sure that the vast majority of what I say will go in one ear and out the other, I do ask that you listen today.

Over the last few weeks, the newspaper I read has been launching a campaign called 'Time To Mind', to try to make the government look at youth mental health and wellbeing much more seriously than ever before. We all recognise that growing up is hard, but it has become so 'true', so embedded in our culture, that as adults, we tend to take the line that it was hard for us, so you just need to get on with it and it will soon be all over - it all gets better when you're an adult.

The trouble is, this is wrong on two counts. First of all, just because of the amount of money spent on 'self-help', the number of books offering to solve all our problems, clearly shows that, in fact, being an adult isn't the answer to any problems! If you have not got yourself sorted as a teenager, you'll not be sorted as an adult, either.

But more importantly, things are, actually, harder for you than they were for us. Growing up is hard. The pressures of finding out who you are, wrestling with self-doubt, fighting to have an opinion, to be able to make decisions, are all the same as when we were young. But society has changed. Things are harder. As a generation, you are more aware of the need to achieve as an adult than ever before - the infringement of media, television, music & movie stars all make us aware that there is so much more for us to aspire to. The high profile nature of exams, and the need to succeed, are much more to the front of people's minds, and then there's the 24-7 nature of the internet, selfies, online chat, body image and bullying make a toxic mix that can swamp anyone.

The thing is, however, you can take control - you can do something about this. You are, in fact, in control and can make decisions about your health.

I was reading an article over the weekend about a woman who really got a bad deal online … she was, as a teenager, just browsing through YouTube, as you do, and saw a link to a video titled the ugliest woman in the world. Clicking on it, as you would, it slowly dawned on her that the video was about herself! Now, I don't know about you, but that would simply be devastating - I do not know how she did it, but she took control, set up a website and YouTube channel to let people know who the ugliest woman in the world was & it now has almost a quarter of a million followers & has given talks around the world on how to stand up for yourself, how to define yourself, rather than being defined by others. Lizzie Velasquez is her name - look her up.

And that is the point. As a school, we hold Healthy School status, and this is in recognition of the fact that we care about your health. And want you to have the facts and skills to do something about your health. And health is not just about eating the right things and taking exercise. Yes, these are important, but doing something positive to make your mind healthy is actually more important than anything. How you are feeling, what you are thinking, has such a powerful control of your body! There are studies after studies that show clearly that positive thinking, a healthy mind, has huge impact on everything else. At the most extreme, a survey of the mental state of cancer patients shows that, to put it simply, the patients with a positive self-image, a positive mental outlook and a clear determined mind, knowing that they are in control were more likely to survive treatment, and go on to live better lives, than those with negative outlooks.

But what does that mean to us? Well, it is simple, and, in fact, links to my last assembly on labels. First of all, you need to know, to understand, to believe that no-one can hurt you, mentally, without you actually giving them permission to do so. Yes, physically, someone can punch, kick or assault you. If they do, our policy is simple - whoever makes the first physical assault, whatever the grounds, is issued with a minimum of a one-day external exclusion. There is never a reason to physically attack another person.

But mentally? That is where you are in control. First of all, you can choose to take yourself away from the situation, to put a distance between you and them. Yes, with the internet, this is harder, but almost all chat room / messenger technology specifically allows you to block individuals.

Secondly, you can report it and seek help. Yes, I know, you are all, almost without exception, going to tell me that this never works, that all it does is bring on more, and anyhow, it's grassing and you don't grass.

Well, let me tackle all three of these areas:

It does work. Simple. Here, we have a clear code of conduct that states that intimidation, harassment or bullying are not tolerated. Any student who feels it is fine to intimidate another, to call them names, to make their life horrible, is not welcome here. There is a big 'but' here, however. You need to not retaliate. To not let the words make you angry. Instead, report, report, report. The school systems for you to report are simple - go online and fill out an incident report and it will be dealt with.

Second; it will only bring on more if you let it. As soon as you report it, someone will investigate, will talk to people, will provide you with support. The people picking on you will try to have a go at you, will try to stop you reporting it, but only to save their own skin!

And this leads me to the last; grassing. As a concept, I do understand it, I do get why it has become accepted, but as a way to do things, it always strikes me as a really, really stupid standpoint to take. Especially if you are a victim of harassment. The only people who win if grassing stops people acting are the bullies, the people making your lives miserable are being protected by your wrong impression that it's a bad thing to tell.

If someone is calling you fat, or stupid, or ugly; if they are spreading rumours about you, or posting messages about you online, then we will act. Trying to put people down in order to make yourself look better is the lowest, nastiest, worst characteristic as person can have and there is no space for such people here.

So, take control, don't let others control how you feel and look for the good things to focus on. That way, you can be happy and achieve whatever you put your mind to.

To finish, then, a couple sections from two poems. The writers of the words are separated by over 150 years, but the message is the same from both people - take control of your life, be in charge of who you are and don't let anyone else dictate to you who you are.

First of all, a few lines from a poem I've read before: If, Rudyard Kipling.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you …

If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build them up with worn out tools …

And finally, I am sure you will quickly work out who wrote these lines:

I stay out too late
Got nothing on my brain,
That's what people say.

But I keep cruising
Can't stop, won't stop moving
It's like I got this music
In my mind
Saying "It's going to be all right."

Because the players are going to play,
And the haters are going to hate
Baby, I'm just going to shake,
I shake it off.

And if you didn't get it, that was Taylor Swift, "Shake it Off". . . (I bet you've never heard her quoted like that before...)

Monday, 2 March 2015


This week's theme for assembly was on 'Labels':

Labels are everywhere and we use them all the time. They are used in so many ways that the whole concept of labelling is embedded deep into our culture - you can't go anywhere without seeing labels or being labelled.

And if we look way, way back, it becomes clear why we label - as a species, when we came down from the trees and started to explore the world around us, the bewildering array of new and different things could well have ended our evolutionary progress before we got very far indeed, as it so frequently has. The thing is, the world is such a complex place, so full of new things, that our brains could easily become overwhelmed by the variety. Or we could become so limited that our very existence would be at risk. As an example of this, there is a species of bird that will only eat a specific fruit from one type of tree. It doesn't matter that there are other trees, or that there are other fruit that this bird could eat, but no; they do not have the ability to look and compare and judge that another fruit is, in effect, the same or similar to the one they eat. And as a result, they are now at risk of extinction because the fruit from this one tree is changing due to global warming and they are not recognising the new fruit as something edible.

We must have, at some point, evolved the ability to look at things and recognise similarities - that fruit looks similar to this one, which I like, so I will probably like that one too. . . And so we evolve.

It's also important to be able to compare and contrast things so that we can spot things even if they don’t look like we expect them to do so. If I'm hunting an elephant, for example, I need to be able to find the elephant, even if it's partially hidden in a bush; this can only happen because our brains can look at a bush with an elephant hiding in it and spot the patterns that would indicate that there is an elephant in there. If we didn’t have that compare and contrast ability, we would not have seen the elephant, because we would only be looking for a whole elephant, like the one we have a mental picture of in our heads.

But this essential skill has evolved and become more complex as our world has become more complex and has changed as our society has changed. We are, by nature, a cataloguing, list making, labelling animal because it is what got us where we are. The trouble is, we can't stop labelling!

Labels can be useful - the labels on medicine telling us not to take it, the labels (or signs) warning us about danger, are all perfectly useful. Scientists who study patterns, looking for new discoveries; the elusive cure for cancer, say, or the solution to the world energy crisis will be found by labelling, cataloguing and looking for those patterns…

And labelling happens all the time in our day to day lives; in the supermarket, the food labels helping us make healthy choices, labels that help us clean our clothes effectively at the right temperature and in the right way. Labels can even be pretty harmless; I am wearing labels; my watch, my suit, even my socks, are all labelled, branded. So what? I can buy the most expensive item of clothing and it could well have been made in a factory somewhere in the world right next to a similar item being made for Primark - how do I know?

But this is where it starts to go wrong, and labelling can be something harmful. I, personally, do not think that I am any better than someone else, just because I am wearing an Armani watch, but the wearing of specific labels can frequently be interpreted in this way. It is why so many schools have very strict rules on clothing; because there are some people who feel that by wearing a particular brand of shoes, or trainers, that this makes them better, bigger than someone else. I do not understand this logic at all, but it is there, in quite a significantly childish way. And it is promoted by advertising and the media - the footballer who promotes a particular brand, the supermodel who wears a particular perfume. I am not naive enough to think that just because I might buy David Beckham's latest clothing item that I will suddenly look like him … …

When we label to discriminate, to separate and isolate, it becomes something wrong and harmful. Our original evolutionary drive to compare was to help us see similarities, but we far too frequently use this essential skill to separate and isolate. To label myself a Manchester United fan, for example, would isolate myself from those of you who follow other local teams. (This is why I am a Rugby Union fan & refuse to be drawn into the tribal labelling that exists in football).

We are all labelled, all the time. This is to understand how we are, how we behave, but if we lose sight of the fact that we are all, in fact, individuals, with our own unique set of strengths, weaknesses and priorities, then we see that labelling people is pretty useless and frequently counterproductive.

That is why, here at Sandymoor, we refuse to label people. We do not have sets, and you are not taught in groups that label you. Instead, your teachers treat you all as individuals, tailoring your experience to your needs.

That is why we hold you, individually, to account here at Sandymoor. We do not label you and treat you differently just because of who you are. Too many schools do that. The 'Oh, that's so and so - they always behave like that' or the 'Don't try that - it'll be too hard for you'. This is so important, because when people do limit us, they put chains on our imagination that are hard to break. I remember to this day a senior teacher at my school saying to my parents that there were limits to my future - this person stated that sixth form would be of limited use to me because I wasn't bright enough to go to university … and here I am, with three degrees to my name … believe me when I tell you that I will never limit you, or let anyone else limit you.

At Sandymoor, we will never limit you or assume you have boundaries to your potential - instead, we will always work with you to help you achieve what you desire. As I've said many times before, the only limit to your future is your imagination. And some hard work ,of course, but without imagination, without a goal to aspire to, all the hard work in the world will get you nowhere.

Bullying, intimidation, harassment - all the things we have a zero tolerance policy towards - all start with making assumptions, labelling people, not looking at the individual, but treating them like someone, something different. Bullying starts with trying to limit the victim, let them feel that they are somehow less, somehow deserving of it all. And we will not tolerate this in any area.

So, at Sandymoor, no-one will ever say to you that you have limits on what you can achieve. No-one will ever put you in a class and then put a limiting label on that class. This is why we do not set, why we do not have a top, middle & bottom group. No-one will ever say that you shouldn't try something because it's beyond you or that you would never be able to understand. Instead, we promise to work with you, alongside you, to help you achieve your dreams and aspirations. Dare to dream, dare to aspire and we will support you all the way.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Following the Rules

The first assembly after half term was a revisit of rules and responsibilities;

Ok, so we all hate following the rules, don't we? The signs that say 'Please don't walk on the grass' make me want to, just because the sign says I can't!

But following rules is part of being one of a group, whether that's a family, a work place, a country or a school. The 'rules' are a set of guiding principles that a particular group of people agree to follow & they are not always bad!

Especially because a world with no rules at all would not be a good idea. It may sound great when you first think about it, but after a while, it quickly becomes more of a nightmare. The film series The Purge, where, for one day a year, there are no rules, shows what a world would be like without the mutual agreement to follow a set of laws. . .

Think about games for example. When we, as a family, play games, the youngest always wants to play by a slightly different set of rules; maybe that's why she always wins at Ludo … !
Or if we look at sports, all sports have a set of rules, in order for the game to progress with a clear flow and outcome. And yes, I know it's popular for the overpaid so-called stars of football to challenge the rules, but all their posturing and complaining doesn't affect the outcome or sway the referee. (as an aside, this is one of the reasons why I prefer rugby - one of the rules of rugby is that the referee's decision is final and binding, so there's never the toddler-like tantrums when someone falls foul of a rule during the game).

And there are rules we follow just by being part of the country. It's part of being 'British' - the unwritten rule that we will follow the rules, or laws,  and suffer the consequences if we're caught breaking them.

I may not like them all, I may not even agree with some of them, but that is completely irrelevant. As an adult member of society, I have to abide by the laws of the land. If I don't like it, I have the freedom to leave and go to another country. Or I can petition, become active and work to change the rules. Maybe I could even become a politician, go to parliament and work to change the rules. People have done so before; the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, universal education and health care for all, etc. . .

But in the meantime, I accept the rules and live by them, or suffer the consequences if I don't. I know, for example, that if I am caught speeding on the roads, I will be fined & I know that, no matter how urgent, I must never answer an email or text while driving. It may be an important meeting that I'm running late for, but to speed to get there is not allowed by the rules & there are consequences if I'm caught breaking them. Even if I don't know it's against the rules; not knowing is not an excuse. . . There are people who think it is perfectly fine to break the rules on a regular basis - shoplift something just because they like the look of it & don't have the money to buy it, perhaps, or to drive without insurance because they can't afford the premiums. But these people are, in fact, hurting everyone else - goods in shops cost more because the shop has to make up for the lost income & my insurance for my car costs more to cover the people who cause accidents without insurance.

To decide to not follow the rules is a truly selfish act, thinking entirely of yourself, rather than others & not caring about harming others in the process.

And when you go to work in a company, you enter into a contract. The contract states that, providing you perform certain tasks, then you will get paid. But along with that, every company will have a set of rules that every employer agrees to abide by in order to be paid. In most companies, these rules are more commonly referred to as a 'Code of Conduct', because it's assumed that it's more of a mutual agreement to behave and act in a certain way in support of the company.

There's a lot in the news at the moment about how some politicians are not following their code of conduct and are suffering the consequences.

At Sandymoor, we have a Professional Conduct document that sets out the standards that all employees are expected to work with in order to support everything the school stands for.

And as students, you, too, have a set of standards that you are expected to work with as a Sandymoor student. You signed a home-school agreement when you first joined the school that sets out some of those standards of conduct. These are:

  • Come to school expecting and wanting to learn.
  • Approach each lesson in a positive manner, ready to listen and to be involved.
  • Bring to each lesson all the books and equipment required.
  • Keep books and files in suitable order within school or at home.
  • Be conscientious in the completion of work in school or at home.
  • Want to make progress and to seek help and advice when necessary.
  • Take time in thinking about how they learn best.

You also agree to work with us in your standards of behaviour and dress & these are also written out and have been shared with you and your families. By being a Sandymoor student, you agree to live according to these rules, this code of conduct. And you agree to accept the consequences of not doing so.

I have spent some not inconsiderable time over the half term break preparing a single document that has the Professional Conduct expected from everyone who is part of the Sandymoor Community, both staff and students. This single document is designed to be a one-stop location for all our conduct & it is designed to show the (you, the) students that we are not expecting anything significantly above and beyond what any employer would expect of an employee (& indeed what I expect of every member of staff at Sandymoor).

To view this document, please click here.

And when you are challenged by a member of staff, either about your uniform, your behaviour or the quality of your work, all that is happening is that the member of staff is following their code of conduct in pointing out to you that you are not. . .

Monday, 2 February 2015

Holocaust Memorial Day

Assembly this week focussed on the remembrance of the liberation of the Death Camps, 70 years ago, how it & the war as a whole still impacts us today and then reflected on the lessons we can still learn.

For us as a school, we need to remember that Hitler was a bully who was allowed to get away with what he did because others let him. My assembly contained a number of images and a video, so I am trying it out in a different format:

Monday, 26 January 2015

Grit and Growth

Continuing to post weekly assemblies, here's this week's;

Why do we limit ourselves? Why do we tend to say 'I can't' quickly before we say 'I can'?

It is something we all suffer from and it is quite possibly the one main contributing factor in limiting out potential, limiting what we can achieve. Why do we do it?

There are many different theories, but all of them point to the fact that we can do something about it if we truly want to, which is good. That we often don't try because we feel we can't do it.

Some of us limit ourselves because we've been told, time and time again that we're no good. And we start to believe it. Maybe in primary school, or in a club, we try something, fail at it, and then someone says we're no good, so we believe them and stop. When someone we respect, someone in authority, tells us that we are no good at something, we tend to believe them, particularly when the evidence points to them being right.

At school, I was told that I would never really amount to anything; a senior teacher told my parents that there was little point me doing hard A-levels as I was most likely only going to fail them & maybe I should look at a safe local job for after school. Something inside of me told me that was wrong & I knew I wanted (& was able to) achieve more, but if I'd not thought that, I would not be here now.

The trouble is, there is a myth that we only use a small part of our brain & we can't do anything about that. Even scientists in the past felt that there was a limit on our use of the brain; the concept of IQ (Intelligence Quota), formed  by psychologists just over 100 years ago, was a test used to identify students in France who would not succeed in the newly created compulsory education system. It has since been used to identify people capable of being forced into the army in the first world war and is still, today, used in the USA to identify whether or not a criminal is 'intelligent enough' to have known that what they did was wrong when they murdered someone and so deserved the death penalty or not.

And in popular culture, there's an amazing film; Lucy, with Scarlett Johansson as the lead role, who accidently takes a new drug which expands the use of her mind to 100%. A great film, but one that reinforces the limit to our use of our brain without help from drugs or stimulants.

As science develops, we are more and more able to understand how our mind works; it is clearly still by a million-fold, the most complex object in the world to date and each and every one of us has a unique set of patterns in the billions of neural pathways that make up our mind, our memories stored as electrical impulses lighting up our brains. We can now 'watch' these signals fly around the brain in real time, and watch parts of our brain light up as we perform simple tasks. We know better than ever what parts of our brain do now and how they link together. And we know one important thing now that our ancestors of 100 years ago didn't:

That the brain can grow. 

We can develop our brain, just like any muscle, and make it better; in any way we want. We don't need to look to drugs like the character Lucy, in order to do more with our brain than we do now.

So we do not have innate intelligence. You are not, intrinsically, cleverer than I am, or better than me at things. Our ability is not fixed, so if we can't do something, it's just that we've not learnt how to do that yet.

What's funny, however, is that we know this in some areas of our life. When we get a 'Game Over' message on our PlayStation, we don't think we're no good and give up. Instead, we pick up the controller and click the 'start again' button, determined to not make the same mistake again that got us kicked out of the game last time.

The trouble is, we do have innate preferences; some of us find it easier to work with words than numbers, some of us work better with images or pictures than words. These are all subtle differences that make us unique. I am not so good with languages, but it did not stop me going back to evening school to learn a foreign language even though my MFL teacher at school told me I was hopeless and couldn’t learn a language. I am not brilliant, but I can get by in France now. Because I did not believe that I couldn't do it. 

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be awarded a scholarship by the US government to visit schools in New York & Washington (The International Visiting Leaders programme), where I met some amazing students, teachers and leaders. One school in particular, in Washington, sticks in my mind - they have a huge sign in the entrance way to the school, which is seen by students, staff and visitors every day. It reads:

"If you don't understand, it's not your fault"

I think this is the most powerful statement ever. It means that, whatever you are studying, whatever you are doing, it's never, really, 'Game Over', so long as you are willing to pick up the controller again and have another go. You will certainly progress further each time and will, eventually, get there, so long as you don't give up.

But it takes one thing that is rapidly becoming a very hot topic in education & society in general. It's given an American phrase; Grit. Grit is the determination to keep on going, to not give up. To re-start the game and learn from our mistakes.

Monday, 19 January 2015

International Education Leaders' Briefing 2015

On the 18th January, I was honoured to be a speaker at the Microsoft Education Leaders' Briefing; the ELB is a forum for presenting the latest thoughts on the integration of technology and education and they are attended by people from across the globe. We had been invited to participate in this as one of the UK's 6 Global Showcase Schools, identified by Microsoft as being world innovators in the use of technology to change young people's life's for the better.

Below is the text of my presentation:

Good Morning & Thank you. My name is Andy Howard and I have now been teaching for 25 years! An awful lot has changed in that time, but an awful lot has remained the same. I now find myself as Principal of Sandymoor School, one of only 6 UK schools to have been awarded Global Showcase School status by Microsoft for our innovative approach to education and the use of ICT in education.

Sandymoor School is a brand new school; we were founded under the government's Free Schools programme, a mechanism that allowed schools to be set up in response to local need and without the control of local government. An initiative based on the Scandinavian Free School & US Charter School models.  

Three years ago, we opened in temporary cabins, steel boxes bolted together and fitted out with basic services. It did not stop us having strong ambitions for our students and we grew. 18 months ago, work started on a brand new building, where I worked with architects to match our vision and our ambitions. We now have a building that would qualify for the Internet of Things - a smart building … … CO2 measurement & Temperature sensors in all rooms,  lights that dim if it's bright outside, etc.

We are pretty much unique - a brand new school, built entirely from the ground up, metaphorically as well as literally, proposed and founded by 5 local parents, ordinary people, mums and dads who just wanted to make a difference.

There are very few opportunities these days to be involved in the start of something as big, as ambitious, as grand as starting a brand new school! Our founders are still very much involved in the school, all being on the governing body and very actively taking interest in their school. The school sits in a relatively new suburb of the New Town of Runcorn. A twin of Milton Keynes, Runcorn was built after the second world war to provide housing to the bombed out estates of Liverpool. Still growing today, the suburb of Sandymoor is the last growth area for the town. Sandymoor currently has around 900 houses, but is part of the government's house building strategy and is scheduled to grow to over 2,000 homes over the short term. The vast majority of the homes in Sandymoor are classed as medium density, higher status family homes & they are very sought after houses.

To the west of the school, we have, however, housing estates built when volume was the only measure for housing and some of the estates within a mile of the school rank as some of the most deprived communities in the UK.

One of the school's great strengths is our diversity and our school community. We have students from all backgrounds in the school and almost all of them local. Over 70% of our young people live within a mile of the school. In an area of the UK where social mobility is at its worst, we are an example of aspiration, with high standards of academic, social and personal development expected from all our community.

One final piece of our local setting is our proximity to the world-renowned Daresbury Science and Innovation Centre; the home of the Particle Accelerator and still a world leader in scientific innovation.

The founders set a very strong and ambitious vision for the school; to be an 11-18 school, producing intelligent, employable global citizens that demonstrate social competence, a desire for learning and respect for each other and the world around us.

And there is so much in this statement:

In a world where we cannot predict 6 months ahead, we are, as educators, trying to do the impossible. We are having to prepare our young people to do jobs that don’t even exist yet, using technologies that haven't been invented yet, solving problems we don’t even know about yet.

And with technology as it is, we are now living in a global village, with communication around the world virtually instantaneous, news beamed around the world as it happens and workers engaged in collaboration with colleagues in almost any continent. How do we prepare our young for this?

With all of that, and the world they are inheriting from us, they also need to be more socially aware, more tolerant and accepting of others than ever before. Xenophobia and fear is driving a wedge between people and we need to be providing opportunities for our young to learn from our mistakes and build a better future.

Now, I am not a technologist, never have been and never will be. I am an educationalist. Passionate about helping our young to be the best they can be. And I believe that the only way we will be able to do this, in our world, is through engaging fully with technology.

Our ICT strategy has this as its opening statement:

ICT alone will not transform learning, but learning will not be transformed without it.

This is their world, immersed in technology, the world at their fingertips. We need to embrace this world of theirs and engage with them on their territory.

Blended learning, where technology is used, when (& only when) it is better than other means. When it allows us to do things previously unimagined.

Young people, all over the world, are fundamentally no different to how they've always been; shy, uncertain, desperate to be different, individual, determined to grow up before they are ready and ultimately complex, amazing and totally unpredictable.

But they now live out their lives as much, if not more online, in the digital world. They are the digital natives, whilst we are immigrants in this brave new world.

However, just because they are the natives, it does not mean that they will embrace every new initiative, or 'learn more' just because it's delivered using technology. That is the mistake that has been made so many times before, with the results that there are numerous research papers that state that technology does not improve student outcomes.

In fact, they will defend their territory as fiercely as any pack of lions seeing off a rival group. Why on earth would they want to allow into their social world the dull duty of learning without a fight?

And that's why, I think, we at Sandymoor are starting to get it right. By being a brand new school, we have been able to think carefully about everything we have done; imagine it completely anew and ensure that every element of Sandymoor is fit for purpose as a 21st Century School.

We start every planning exercise with a blank sheet of paper and ask the question; what do we want this to look like, in the modern world. We do not automatically assume that the way things have been done before are still fit for purpose. Where they are, we use them, but only after testing them against our vision.

What do we want a 21st century student to do, to be, to experience? How do we help them adapt their skills to make them accept the use of technology in their world?

And that has to influence, in fact shape, the whole infrastructure.

First of all, we are all, now, used to looking up the answer to something at the click of a button, the swipe of a finger. So a teacher is no longer the gatekeeper of knowledge, the expert and deliverer of understanding. It is no longer valid to have the teacher stand at the front of a room, delivering material to students. The whiteboard, let alone the interactive whiteboard, is redundant, because I can look up the answer to a question faster than you can write the question on a board.

At Sandymoor, we have twin projectors at right angles to each other, which project directly onto the wall, painted in an ultra-matt, green-tinged cream, which is, according to research, a much easier surface to read off, without glare from a bright white surface. And the twin projection system means that the learning experience is an all-encompassing, immersive one.

There is no traditional 'front of class', with no teachers' desk, either, which means that the classroom environment has a much more collaborative atmosphere; my teachers are very much more 'Guides on the Side', as opposed to 'Sages on the Stage'.

Getting rid of whiteboards entirely, which in their time replaced the old black chalk board, is a clear sign that we are starting to use technology to completely redefine education, rather than mere modification of old habits.

But we also have to think about what, in fact, the point of school is in the modern world. What place does the teacher have, now? If they are no longer the gatekeeper of knowledge, then they do have to adapt completely to a completely different role, that of guide and mentor, helping the student to find their way, develop their understanding and grow in independence.

The most transformational invention of the last 50 years has to be the internet, the 'Cloud', and it is to the cloud that we have looked to ensure that we are building for the future, ensuring capacity.

Collaboration is key here; working together, in collaborative spaces, we grow and share and experience more than we ever can in isolation.

But we always have to come back to what is most important; the young people we are all doing this for. How do we ensure that everything we do will help them grow and succeed in their future, especially when we can't see what their future looks like?

 By building a structure, in the cloud, using collaborative spaces, we ensure that outcomes are clear and impact is strong. Students work together, with teachers, to learn off each other, learn how to learn and develop the skills for future growth.

The skills they need, adaptability, mental flexibility, and perseverance, are all developed in a curriculum focussed around collaborating in online spaces. Students can bring in their own devices, regardless of make or model. Our wifi is designed around public space capacity, with 1-1 infrastructure being not ambitious enough for us (I, personally, have 4 devices that connect to wifi with me today), so we have a complex wifi network capable of dealing with any device a student could bring in and capacity for over 3,000 separate device connections.

We need to meet students where they are, so one over-riding principle for me is what I call device agnosicity. Any systems we use in school need to be accessible by whatever the student will bring in. For us, Office 365 exemplifies this.

Against popular convention, as I have said, our students have been resistant to embracing this, but for two reasons;

First of all, as I've said before, it is trespassing on their territory. We need to tread carefully, and not assume that they want us in their space. We need to set out our case, let them accept the need first and foremost. We have done this by assuming a very business-like environment. All our students have the same access & expectations on them as my staff. Homework, project deadlines, meetings, etc., are all set with students via calendar invites. We don’t have student planners. Communication between staff & student is via email, with the same expectations for reading and action. There is no skin on our systems - we don't treat them like children; there is no dancing frog or comic sans fonts in sight. . . (Did Facebook create a young-person centric version, with silly characters or simple fonts?)

And then secondly, we expect them to take responsibility, to accept that they are part of the solution, that they have to actively participate rather than just be passive recipients of learning. That is hard work. But it is important, because it’s about behaviour modification, about teaching them to take responsibility, whilst there is a safety blanket around them to ensure they don't get hurt. 

But they are still children and while the social domain is very firmly theirs, we need to help and support them, which means we need to be active in their domain. Tools such as Yammer, in the Office 365 environment, are perfect for this, bringing the social into the workplace.

There is also, however, the flip side of the coin and that is the teachers themselves.

We need to ensure that we don’t forget that there is a behavioural management change required here too. If we are going to truly instigate transformation, we need to support, encourage and if necessary cajole teachers into learning new ways to be as well. There is always a workload increase when something new is implemented, but it is important to ensure that there is a clear pathway to smarter not harder ways of working.

Ultimately, however, it needs a strong vision, clearly focussed, with the modern student at the heart, to ensure that we truly transform education. And it does need transformation, if not revolution, across the world - we are failing so many young people and politicians talk about percentage improvements in test scores, without really recognising that every percentage point that fails is a real student who learns that they are not a success. . .

Technology will not transform learning, but without it learning will not be transformed.

Thank you