22 May 2023

Monday Briefing: Seaside Rendezvous

Monday Briefing: Seaside Rendezvous

Throughout my career, I’ve attended a number of continuing professional development conferences and gatherings, with varying success. Some have been incredibly insightful, whilst others have led me to question whether the time out of College (or school in the days before I moved to Ealing) was actually worth it at all.

Given how precious the time of headteachers, teachers, or indeed anyone working to support child development is, it’s vitally important that any training opportunities in term time are justifiable.

On Thursday and Friday of last week, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend one such get together - the Independent Schools Association’s Annual Conference. 

It was an opportunity, first and foremost, to listen to a wide ranging array of presentations: outlining the latest research and analysis pertaining to the current state of affairs in the sector - and so advising future planning; essential guidance on changes in inspection frameworks and necessary preparations for visiting inspectors; and some inspirational speeches, affirming the importance of why we do what we do. 

In addition, it was a chance to reacquaint myself with peers, enabling discussions about issues in the profession, providing the basis to start to find solutions to shared problems. A chance to forge new links in order to share good practice and learn from that of others. A chance to gather expertise in one place, to provide an environment conducive for educational discourse away from the daily, all consuming, bubble of each, respective, separate school.

Following on from my first conference in the Lake District last year, my expectations of the trip to Eastbourne for the 2023 Annual Conference were that the 2022 edition would be difficult to surpass.

In fact, like all aspects of my involvement with the Independent Schools Association, I’ve found that the more I’ve become involved with it, the greater the rewards - for myself; for the teachers I’m responsible for; for the students under my care.

The Conference began with an inspirational opening speech by Herman Stewart who outlined the importance of mentoring in schools - not just for those in educational difficulty - but for all. There is a general view in schools that mentoring has negative connotations - that a student only requires a mentor when something goes wrong with their attitude to learning. He sought to show that everyone needs a mentor, and, given that I’ve benefited in my career from having figures around me whose counsel I’ve developed significantly from, I couldn’t agree more. His presentation - ‘The Joy of Being Broken’ - was difficult to argue against in any way, and his delivery was absorbing. He provided a series of wonderful analogies which ensured that his point was understood in the room loud and clear.

He gladly shared his own educational philosophy through these: within every caterpillar is a butterfly, and the winning DNA is inside all of us - it just needs to be discovered, nurtured and refined; that smooth waters never prove true sailors, and, that the difficult character building issues are a necessary part of growth and development; perhaps most poignantly, he shared his view that ‘a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle’ - in essence that we can only ‘see the light’ if we bring that light collectively.

From the opening gambit, this brought ideas on how we can improve our current mentoring systems at Ealing, an institution which is small enough to be able to have in place exceptionally close relationships amongst the entire College community. I see no reason why we can’t timetable a ‘mentoring hour’ for every student, which will provide time to discuss, reason, question processes and seek problem resolution. The benefits could be huge - and so it’s an idea worth pursuing.

It’s always a huge privilege to see students perform, and this was a welcome addition to the conference this year (it had perhaps been impossible previously due to the constraints of Covid before). There were superb music and dance performances, but I was particularly impressed by the winner of the ISA Public Speaking Competition, Angelina Yu, the Head Girl at LVS Ascot, who provided an erudite, passionate and, at times, moving speech about gender inequality. Much of what she said chimed well with my thoughts on the issue, showcased in previous blogs about the importance of educating boys on the subject, and empowering young women to strive for more.

There then followed a thought provoking, engaging and practical explanation from Joe Hayman on the delivery of Fundamental British Values in the Classroom - and how the four key values have a tendency to challenge one another. Thus, great importance should be placed on debate, discussion and dialogue in ensuring students' understanding of each.

Understanding of the new ISI framework for inspections, which commences from September, was the topic for conversation after this - an extremely useful outline of priorities for preparation came with the heartening move towards inspections identifying ‘significant strengths’ of the different institutions inspected. Any move away from box ticking criteria, narrowing the scope and provision of our schools and colleges, can only be a good thing. Schools are as varied as the students who attend them - and diversity should be celebrated in terms of delivery. Parents should have the right to see, with clarity, where schools do what they do well - and choose whether that particular setting is right for their children. Judging schools by one word, whether that be ‘excellent’, ‘outstanding’, ‘good’ or ‘requires improvement’ will never successfully capture the complexities of the culture, ethos and effectiveness of any educational setting.

A timely session on the pros and cons of Chat-GPT and AI in teaching and learning followed, with some invaluable insight from Professor Amanda Kirby who helped make excellent sense of a thorny issue. As with all new technology, it needs to be harnessed carefully - and working out how best to do that is always more difficult when playing catch-up. Another thorny issue to contend with for school leaders is the potential introduction to VAT on fees for independent schools, and thorough, comprehensive advice on the practical consequences, through Robert Warne, and the political context, through Jonathon Simons, will, I am absolutely sure, prove indispensable in helping institutions, both small and large, to adapt.

The conference was closed by Ross Garrod, the CEO of Practice Pal, who explains myelination, and its importance in the development of learning in children. With links to Einstein, and his brain development, the speaker emphasised the link between learning a classical musical instrument and the capability to learn, retain and apply knowledge. I quickly messaged my wife after the session to open discussions on whether Molly should be learning the piano, violin or clarinet in order to give her every chance to be the best she can be.

Earlier in the day, heads were also fortunate to hear an always appropriate session on finding a sustainable and healthy balance in leadership, with a series of searching questions with which to self-reflect, courtesy of Dr Jill Berry. A vastly experienced former school leader who has worked across the range of ages and settings, she helped to snap into focus for me why blogging like this helps me to compartmentalise my busy schedule, utilising the release valves I have at my disposal to be able to move forward with confidence and an assured sense of purpose.

Such conferences, and the learning which comes from them, are absolutely essential to promote coping strategies and self-management - and that’s why the ISA Annual Conference is a vital part of my CPD calendar. It was clear that those in attendance emerged re-energized and ready to enrich their respective schools further. The upcoming benefits for those institutions are extremel exciting.

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