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: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/ukschools/archive/2015/03/31/andrew-howard-why-is-1-1-not-personal-enough.aspx


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.