Category Archives: Head’s blog

Adding value through character development

Welcome back to everyone after the half term break. I hope you thoroughly enjoyed the holiday and have returned feeling refreshed and full of energy for the rest of the term. As we start the second half of the term, I would like to reflect on the annual HMC conference that I attended in the UK just before half term and what impressions I came away with this year.

At the Autumn Conference 2019 – ‘HMC 150’, I had a chance to meet with friends old and new, hear some inspiring speakers and consider a little about the leadership journey I am on, and how best I can serve my school. A theme that ran through the conference is the political challenge that UK independent schools currently face; inevitably we considered the ways that we could tell our story more clearly, and engage with a British public that might, at times, be sceptical about the value of schools which are attended by such a small sector of children (about 7%) and are seen as elite and privileged.

Alongside this, also at the same time, I have started a new learning journey myself, as I embark a upon a master’s course from the University of Birmingham, in character education. Character is something that is perhaps an intangible thing, hard to describe and put one’s finger on, but at the same time, very clear and evident in those who have it. Over recent years the development of character and the importance of particular character traits – such as integrity, honesty, resilience and determination – have come to the forefront of the minds of educators. Indeed, our own Lion Learning programme encapsulates some of these habits in the classroom and, I hope, will help our children to develop their character alongside their academic skills in everything that they do at school – academic and otherwise. 

Developing character

It struck me, as I started to work through some of my research materials on the train travelling home, that the development of character, habits and attributes that we see so clearly in our children is one of the things that marks out the true value of an independent school education. Perhaps this should be the unique selling point (USP) that we should be most proud of in this sector. On my course I am starting to consider whether (and perhaps how) character can be taught… I must say that I am quite sceptical that it can be taught, but I absolutely agree that it can be acquired and further developed through the right curriculum and enrichment activities, and that these are things that must remain key in our educational provision. 

Sadly many state-funded UK schools are under such intense pressure to deliver good academic results in the national public exams that the development of softer skills and the enrichment of the curriculum (for example through sport and music) have sometimes had to take a back seat. This reduces the opportunities that some children have to participate in those activities and events which will help them to develop their character, and sadly they may end up less confident in those soft skills and good habits which we know make them so attractive to universities and employers when they leave school.

We are so lucky at St. Paul’s to have such a rich and varied programme of enrichment activities, great trips and facilities to support every pupil in developing their character and a committed and talented staff team to support them. These traits and habits bring enormous benefits in the classroom and we should embrace and celebrate them and help our children to take every opportunity they are offered. 

We care, don’t we?

There was a time when the role of a teacher was simply to educate the academic aspects of the brain, to worry only about public examination outcomes and to consider how we could make sure that every child learned their sums, practised the skills taught in art class or was able to write a well-structured history essay. How outdated this approach now seems. Life for youngsters today is far more complicated than ever before. They live a life which straddles the real world, of family relationships, day to day routine and the normalcy of school and a life online of Instagram, celebrities, perfectionism and ‘relationships’ with people they are never going to meet. And of course, on top of this, we still expect them to fulfil their potential academically. 

 

The pressure that comes with being a young person growing up in this ever more pressured world has led all of us who work with young people to recognise that positive relationships and good mental health should be at the heart of a school. If our pupils are happy, balanced and secure in their lives, then they are much more likely to work hard, enjoy the myriad enrichment activities that we offer and, crucially, able to meet their potential academically.

 

It is this which lies at the heart of We Care. This is our initiative to ensure that positive mental health and wellbeing is at the forefront of all of our minds, and to help our pupils construct and maintain excellent relationships with other pupils and the adults they encounter in school, and with it responsible and positive behaviour for learning. We Care is a school wide initiative, starting with the very youngest children in the Pre-Prep and going right through to the oldest pupils in the Sixth Form. It is a restatement and a joining up of what we have been doing for many years as a school that believes in the best quality pastoral care; however, we hope that, by being a bit more explicit about relationships and mental health and wellbeing, we can make the outcomes even better.

 

We care also extends to our staff body (and not just the teaching staff!), and the HR department is working hard on wellbeing initiatives such as yoga and gym membership, to help all of us to feel more positive about what happens in school each day. We hope that it will be an approach that parents will understand and take home to their own relationships there too, and we look forward to hearing feedback from families in due course. 

 

When Claire Harvey, a British Paralympian, visited our school last year she talked about the impact that anxiety and poor wellbeing have on pupils in schools around the world. She urged us to be inclusive and equitable in our relationships, and to consider how we can make the structure around us positive and supportive for all. This is what We Care is all about – showing that you worry about others, and being ready to extend the hand of friendship and to help a colleague or pupil feel included. Because this makes us feel happier, and when we are happier, everything seems better, even our history essays!  

Main takeaways from COBIS 2019

This year’s COBIS conference in London was a fascinating one – with the theme of a vision for international education in 2030, we tried to look forward and consider the future for your pupils. It is impossible to imagine the technology that will be available in just one year, such is the rate of change in this field, let alone more than a decade, but we had a good stab at it! 

One key feature was the possible use and importance of artificial intelligence (AI) in education. AI is something that I was aware of, but not exactly familiar with and I now feel better educated about it. We know that when we use technology algorithms are constantly recording our choices and that data banks are filling up to make a clear image of us as users. Several of the conference presenters shared with us their innovative uses of AI, specifically in pupil assessment (adaptive online tests for example) and programmes that can target pupils’ individual needs and support on a very personalised level. Such applications could be extremely powerful in supporting every learner to have a truly personalised learning experience, and, perhaps more importantly, to create data and outputs for teachers so that they can intervene and assist pupils in a much more targeted way. I found myself considering how this might shape our reporting and communication process with parents, creating a real-time picture with incredible clarity that might allow us to support every child to reach their potential even more effectively.

Alongside these uses of technology, of course we have to consider the role of the teacher – and whether robots could replace us in the future. A fascinating presentation by Andreas Schleicher from the OECD had us considering skills for the future, and the likely shift in employment trends as more mechanisation and technology replace the human work force in this digital revolution. A frightening thought perhaps, but we found ourselves reassured that this is unlikely in all employment sectors. Robots and AI, it seems, might be artificially intelligent and able to learn, but they cannot adopt the complexities of human emotions and relationships, and hence when looking at jobs that are likely to be replaced by robots in the future, teaching comes way down at the bottom of the list. We all heaved a sigh of relief. 

Of course, with the increase in use of technology, the importance of human relationships and personal (face-to-face) interaction could not be more important and one of our keynote speakers, Prof Tanya Byron, a clinical psychologist reminded us of the huge importance of mental health and wellbeing in schools. This was the second time I had heard Prof Byron speak and she was just as fresh and clear as before. Her message to help us develop resilience in our children was clear – ‘let them climb trees’ she said – and, crucially, let them fall out of a tree every now and again. This will help them to be strong adolescents and young adults, and much less likely to suffer poor mental health. As we develop and launch our own mental health and wellbeing initiative, We Care, here in school, this message could not be more important. 

The closing speaker was the executive chairman of the Eden Project, a phenomenal ecological project in Cornwall, south west England. If you do not know the Eden Project, I recommend it as a wonderful vision for the future and well worth the long train journey from London next time you are in the UK. The project was born form the restoration of a former clay china pit and is a huge visitor attraction, research hub and leader of environmental thinking globally. Sit Tim Smit, the CEO, is not a scientist in fact, but an anthropologist and a very British polymath and thinker.  He encouraged us to consider the world in 2030, not just form an environmental standpoint, but also in terms of the political and social situation that we find ourselves in. With so much change on so many agendas globally, and with such uncertainty around some key issues for the future, looking for big ideas and joined up thinking from multi-disciplines has perhaps never been more important. 

I came away from the conference feeling refreshed and optimistic about the future for our children – and reassured that much of what we are doing at St. Paul’s is heading us in the right direction. 

You can read more about the conference programme and speakers here: https://www.cobis.org.uk/cpd/annualconference

Images: www.cobis.org.uk

 

University entrance season

The Christmas break in the UK is one that is often rich with stories in the press about university entrance – typically this is when UK teenagers get offers from the universities of their choice and it is a time when schools are keen to share the fabulous offers their pupils have achieved, and inevitably there follows the press comment and opinion….

It is widely accepted that two of the oldest universities in the world, Oxford and Cambridge (termed together, Oxbridge) are some of the most competitive universities to secure an offer from globally. They attract the best qualified candidates in the country (typically with 4 A/A* at A level predicted) from some of the best schools. Every year there is a discussion about why independent schools far outnumber state (publicly funded) educated pupils at these universities as a proportion of the population as a whole. In addition, two institutions are under some pressure from government and the public (not to mention schools) to widen access to pupils from the state sector and from non-selective schools.  This piece from the BBC shows just how clear these inequalities are.

The report shows the imbalance in admissions:

  • 7% of all UK pupils attend private schools
  • 18% of those taking A-levels are at private school
  • 34% of Oxbridge applications are from private schools
  • 42% of Oxbridge places go to private school pupils
  • Of the top eight schools admitting pupils to Oxbridge, only two are state funded. 

The job of widening access and redressing the balance in inequality is not easy – but this year there were two fantastic stories about state funded schools which can (and have) started to tip the balance and show that it is possible for schools of all types to generate an atmosphere where aspiration to the top universities (whether in the UK or elsewhere) can prevail.

Reading about these two state funded academies, where many of the pupils are from poor backgrounds, with high immigrant populations and economic and social issues that may accompany these families, it is wonderful to see that they are achieving so much. Robust and rigorous curricula to inspire pupils, and a questioning approach where the pupils are encouraged to argue (politely of course!), debate, be intellectually curious and question the status quo, seem to be a recipe for success, with almost 80 pupils being offered places in these two schools alone for September 2019. These are the articles:

London state school says 41 students offered Oxbridge place

School for poorest pupils gets 37 Oxbridge offers

I remember once hearing a speaker at a conference telling me that he was looking for students who could ‘flounder intelligently’ with an idea…. rising to the challenge of not being sure about something, grappling with new and difficult ideas.  This is what the very best universities want in their students and this is what our IB programme offers to our sixth formers. 

Here at St. Paul’s our pupils are lucky to already have such a ‘leg up’ in life – with great teachers, supportive and aspirational people at home and at school to help them to achieve their dreams, whether that is at home or overseas, at university or at work. They are innately aspirational and many of our pupils succeed in securing amazing offers from universities globally.  We are very proud of them and as we start to see this year’s U6th coming into school this week with their offers secured, we congratulate them and hope that when they go to university next year they are able to learn alongside inspiring young people, from whom they can learn even more, from all walks of life. 

Developing staff to develop the pupils

Of course the pupils in a school are the most important members of the school community -there is no doubt about this; don’t let anyone tell me otherwise! But when we think about the pupils’ learning, the progress that they make and the benefits that they get from school, we have to think about another key resources – and one into which we have to invest just as much educational resource: their teachers.

Coming to this school I found one of the most generous and well managed continuous professional learning (CPL) budgets that I had ever seen – with every member of staff involved in all kinds of professional development on an ongoing basis. The CPL opportunities that they have range from small scale, skills sharing sessions run by the teachers for their colleagues after school on a Thursday evening, to complex, international conferences – with complex, international budgets to match! 

Every single one of our teaching and class assistant teams attends our international education conference every two years – in the last few years they have enjoyed hearing Sir John Johns talking about magic weavers and Claire Harvey talking about tackling equality and diversity issues in school. Both Sir John and Claire had us in tears for different reasons and both were inspiring. We have enjoyed learning about happiness in school from Sir Anthony Seldon and positive psychology from Dr Christian van Nieuwerburgh. This is just a flavour of the internationally recognised speakers who are keen to be involved in our conferences and who encourage our staff team to reflect on the big issues in education, and consider the practicalities of implementing these big issues in their practice in school.  With some fabulous results! 

With the new technology that we all have access to, we can now connect with leading organisations in education and research via webinars and online training courses. For those of us who teach the IB diploma this is a regular aspect of being up to speed with the curriculum and being able to teach the pupils confidently in class, but we also have a large number of Prep and Pre-Prep teachers who have completed Project Zero classroom courses at Harvard Graduate School of Education – a phenomenal resource for learning visible thinking and the project based approach. 

Of course, nothing beats face to face training and bringing trainers to the school from overseas (whether in a conference situation or not) is a great way to ensure that we share our resources as widely as possible.  Recent topics have included bilingualism, differentiation in the classroom, maths for primary teachers (and their children!), quality circle time, literacy, personal social and health education….. the list is endless! 

We believe that the best teachers are continuous learners – this means that they need to be given many opportunities to carry out their own research, reflect and collaborate at conferences and in training events and share their skills with their colleagues. Keeping our own minds active means that we can appreciate the best ways in which to develop the learning skills of our pupils – and also understand their frustrations and challenges when that learning is difficult…. Incredibly important for us to be effective teachers.

So, what is next on the list of staff development opportunities?  Well, I would like to help the team to learn more about how to learn…. And I have my eye on a brilliant speaker, who I reckon can help us to do just that! 

Some takeaways from HMC Conference – keeping St. Paul’s close to home

Conferences overseas might seem like a very positive perk of my job, and in many ways they are, but when so much time (and energy) is spent travelling to far flung conference venues, we have to feel that the investment has been worth it – both in time and financial terms.  My most recent conference, in Manchester, allowed me to connect with friends and former colleagues in the HMC, the Head Masters and Head Mistresses Conference, which represents some 280 or so high quality international schools both in the UK and overseas.

The HMC is traditionally seen as the voice of the independent sector in the UK, representing schools that are world renown, such as Eton, Harrow and Rugby as well as many other less well known, but sometimes equally impressive, schools in various parts of the country.  The organisation includes over 50 international schools and this is a growing division, as many UK schools set up franchise schools around the world, most notably in the Middle East and China. 

Our divisional meeting, of heads of international schools within HMC comprises an eclectic mix; established schools like our own (and the other Latin American school, the Grange, from Chile) both have long histories and traditions, which stretch back decades.  Alongside us are the ‘newbies’; schools which have recently opened in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and which have a ‘mother ship’ back home.  Schools represent countries as diverse as India and Switzerland, Qatar and Malaysia, Australia and France. The growth of new schools with English language (often British) curriculums is something that has been quite incredible in the last decade and remains a discussion point not just for the international division but also for the membership in general; how will the association maintain its standards?  UK schools are all required to be inspected by the same inspectorate, against the same standards – this is not possible for a number of reasons in different areas of the world; how can the association ensure that accounting standards and governance and financial processes are maintained?  UK schools in the group are all charities, with a specific set of accounting regulations – whilst there are a whole host of ownership and governance models in overseas schools, with many of them being profit-making enterprises – something that does not fit with the HMC model.  Trying to fit different shaped pegs in to an HMC hole seems quite a challenge and our discussion on this topic was very animated.

Speakers at the conference are always designed to catch our attention and give us some ‘takeaways’.  Dame Rachel de Souza CEO of the Inspiration Trust was a great speaker.  With her brand of disruptive education, but based on the firmest of positive principles, she has done great work, it seems, in improving pupils’ chances in tough schools in the east of England.  I liked her direct approach, no-nonsense and straight talking; and her focus on appointing the strong and charismatic senior leaders to take her schools forward. 

We also heard from a voice that anyone of a certain age in the UK would recognise – BBC newsreader, Michael Buerk. He most famously brought to the consciousness of the nation the plight of hundreds of thousands of starving East Africans in the 1984 famine which led to the first international celebrity efforts to raise money and put an end of poverty and starvation in Ethiopia.  The footage and images that he brought into our living rooms quite literally changed the world. Michael was there in Manchester, however, not to talk about poverty but to be a ‘grumpy old man’!  He got the tone of the conference just right, asking us all to consider the entitled lives of millennials, and what we can do to help to focus on what is important in our schools.  His light-hearted approach was both fun and thought provoking – often the best kind of speaker. 

In amongst the keynotes we had panels on teaching and learning and pastoral care, drugs awareness, and workshops on taking your school brand overseas, or being an executive head in a group of schools.  In addition, a new video on digital awareness was revealed which has been made in partnership with HMC. This video sends a message to try and harness the positives of social media and digital tools – rather than a down right ‘don’t do it’ message, which we know that our children are probably going to ignore.  I encourage you to watch it with your children and discuss the message which it contains and any questions that are raised from it. 

More important than all of these things, though, is the opportunity to network and connect, and to try new things.  I always enjoy meeting up with old friends and colleagues and this year I attended my first ever football match – watching Manchester United draw to Valencia at Old Trafford.  Well worth it (and the fish and chips were delicious!). 

BTEC music technology results for St. Paul’s pupils

More great results!

Following on from the success of our IGCSE results last week, we are celebrating again with our L6th pupils this week, following the first ever BTEC music technology results which the pupils have achieved.  27 of the pupils chose to follow this new course, capitalising on our excellent new recording studio and music technology facilities and none of them has been disappointed.  81% of the grades were awarded merit or distinction (the top two grades) with 8 of the pupils securing starred distinctions, recognising exceptional performance in the assessments. 

Many congratulations to the 27 happy pupils and many thanks to our wonderful music department, and especially those involved in setting up this new course.  It has been a great success and we are delighted, once again, to be leading the way with internationally  recognised courses which allow our pupils to excel.  

Positive thinking in school: supporting our children to be happy, healthy and productive in school

As I sit in the departures area at Heathrow, on my way back from the annual meeting of head’s of the school’s in COBIS (the council of British international schools), I inevitably find myself reflecting on some of the speakers and themes and their importance and influence on educational leadership at St Paul’s. We are lucky to be members of a number of groups of quality international and UK independent schools and each of them has their own annual conference, at which many important themes are explored. Over the last two months, I have attended three such conferences, COBIS, the Latin American Heads’ Conference and our own St. Paul’s educational conference. I have learned much!

A common and extremely important theme across all three of these professional opportunities was wellbeing and providing the right kind of support and guidance to help our children develop excellent mental health and be able to cope when life is challenging for them. With the recent tragic deaths of pupils in schools in São Paulo this is perhaps more pertinent and prominent in our thoughts than ever before.

We heard this week from two contrasting speakers on the issue of mental health for young people: Dick Moore is a former independent school headmaster whose son, Barney, took his own life in his early twenties. The impact was crushing to the family, as you can perhaps imagine, and we were inspired by Dick’s incredible humour and positivity in the face of such challenge. He now raises awareness of mental health issues in young people, particularly in boys and young men, and advocates for better support, open communication and practical strategies to help to create spaces where these young people can share their thoughts and feelings, be themselves and open up to accepting help. These, he says, are key.

Natasha Devon is an impressive woman and she too had us all thinking about how best to approach mental health issues in school. Natasha reminded us about the neuroscience of the teenage brain (a fascinating topic in its own right) and shared with us some startling statistics about mental health issues in the UK. It is interesting to note that approximately similar proportions of young men and young women have mental health issues, but that girls and women are far more likely to seek help and respond positively to it. Natasha supposed that boys in general are less likely to seek help because our methods of counselling and clinical support are intrinsically feminine and that this does not sit well with boys and men. She described to us a counsellor’s office, in muted, ‘feminine’ colours, with chairs facing each other, soft music and flowers on the table. Boys, it seems, do not want to look into an adult’s eyes, and they are generally not impressed by sweet smelling flowers either! Society also teaches our boys to ‘man up’ and be strong. It does not, in general, encourage men to be sensitive and reflective. Even the language that we use around courage and being able to cope is often ‘masculine’ in its nature. This made me think about how our new school counsellor, due to join us in August, might arrange their space… and why parents should really make the most of car journeys to talk to their teenagers, boys and girls, both sets of eyes fixed firmly ahead! These are opportunities to talk without judgement, and when you might really get to the heart of any worries that your children have. Read more about Natasha’s work here.

One speaker who was common to both our own conference and the COBIS one was a wonderfully charismatic positive psychologist, Christian van Nieuwerburgh. A Belgian, born in Lebanon to a Japanese mother, he is a linguist par excellence and, in my view, offers a fantastic insight into coaching and positive psychology. He is acutely culturally aware (he has even devised a new form of coaching for people of the Islamic faith) and utterly pragmatic in his approach. His witty and engaging workshops and keynotes in São Paulo encouraged us to develop a coaching approach in our work and our teaching, helping to identify what drives us and identifying ways to help young people set goals, based on knowing themselves and particularly their strengths, better. Reminding us that the people around us are generally committed to doing good things as well as they can was a key message, which hopefully will make it easier for us all to establish and maintain the highest quality and most productive relationships in all parts of our lives, even when we don’t always agree!

As parents and educators the most important thing for us all must be the mental health and happiness of our young people. Being attuned to the challenges that our boys and girls face, and helping them to navigate through the process of growing up is not easy. Professionals like psychologists and counsellors are key, of course, but it seems that what is more important are family relationships and openness between our children and those who care about them and can intervene when they need help. Creating space and time to share worries and problems are of prime importance if we are all to support our children to be happy, healthy and productive in school.

The dangers of unlimited screen time

Sadly when we go out for dinner the sight is now common – couples sitting opposite each other, not talking, but focusing on the screens of their smartphones. Taking pictures of the food to Instagram – or checking up on what others are doing on Facebook. In our homes, the idea of a TV in a child’s bedroom is passé – instead each member of the family sits with their personal device – no longer sharing the watching experience, but in their own world with their screen. The London Tube has never been a place where strangers speak to each other – but the days of everyone being lost in their daily newspaper or latest bestseller are now replaced by the dreaded smartphones.

There is now mounting evidence that this addition to our phones and to an online life which may or may not represent reality, is not only damaging our social interactions, it is damaging our mental health too – especially that of our teenagers. At a time when they should be creating and developing relationships and practising the skills needed to be successful in the adult world, they are lost in the moment of likes online, or an unattainable image of ‘real life’.

This article helps us to see what the research is indicating – and perhaps how we as educators and parents can help our children towards better mental health and more satisfying adult lives beyond school. Last year we posed the possibility of going ‘phone free’ in the Senior School. We will be revisiting this idea with pupils and parents in coming weeks and would be very happy to hear your thoughts. This is a discussion that cannot be had online.

https://theconversation.com/with-teen-mental-health-deteriorating-over-five-years-theres-a-likely-culprit-86996