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31 August 2021

The Monday Briefing: Break of Dawn

The Monday Briefing: Break of Dawn

Last week, I attended a Heads’ Induction and Refresher meeting at the new Bellevue headquarters in central London. A wide range of aspects were discussed about the importance of successful leadership, particularly given the circumstances of the last eighteen months. It was wonderful to be back in face to face meetings with my colleagues, and to feel a shared sense of purpose. Since then, I’ve been considering the College approach to the academic year 2021-2022.

The day began with an inspirational call to arms by Mark Malley, the CEO of Bellevue, who stressed, in no uncertain terms, the importance of resetting the agenda following the pandemic. Displaying his exasperation with lockdown and its effects, he implored the Heads present to jump on the reset button ‘until it breaks’, to get on the front foot and bring the school fully back to life, endorsing an immersive educational experience which obliterated the ‘block’ of Covid. He re-emphasised that which set Bellevue apart - employing a laser focus on the quality of provision, enhanced by a collegiate approach utilising the expertise of talented staff across the group. The time for enforced limitation is over; the time for growth, and growth with substance, is here.

Such instruction instantly provoked searching questions: 

What really defines the identity of the College? 

In which direction are we seeking to grow?

What sort of mentality do we need to succeed?

As a Scot, I’m very conscious of the power of nationalism, and how it can define the identity of the people of a country. In my experience, this has brought both positive and negative connotations. The stereotypical ‘tartan, bagpipes, whisky, haggis, deep-fried Mars bars’ view of the nation only provides some of the truth. Yes, Scots like a drink, and yes, the typical diet is riddled with unhealthy options, but this speaks as little of the warm and caring nature of the vast majority of the population as it does about the generally dour and pessimistic outlook on life. One needs to look beyond the surface to find the reality.

When trying to think about a national identity to aspire to, and one that perhaps the College already has several things in common with, the one that comes to mind is that of Denmark. Again, there are stereotypical images to work through here: the misunderstood phenomenon of Hygge, which seemed to explode in popularity around five years ago, conjures images of cosy evenings huddled up on a sofa in front of a roaring fire in a large woollen sweater, sipping hot chocolate from a large mug or nursing a warming bowl of pumpkin soup. I’m sure many Danes partake in this, but it gives only a superficial impression of the national character, and does not explain the word at all satisfactorily. Drilling deeper illuminates a range of attributes befitting of a country which seems completely comfortable with itself.

Denmark would not usually make the shortlist of a tourist coming to Europe seeking wonderful scenery or a more pleasant climate. Denmark experiences mild and windy winters and cool summers. The local terrain is generally flat with a few gently rolling plains. Copenhagen may be leafy and packed with cafes, shops and restaurants but it does not have the pull of the molecular gastronomy of Paris, the awe-inspiring history of Rome or the theatres, museums and multiculturalism of London. Likewise, the Ealing Independent College building is functional and bereft of any form of wow-factor. We too have numerous shops, cafes and restaurants in close proximity as well as a range of leafy parks close by. When parents arrive to see the College, they are often as underwhelmed as those who first see the most photographed site in Copenhagen - the Little Mermaid statue.

One important aspect of Hygge is the concept that looking at something beautiful makes you happy, and this is why Danes spend a great deal of time and effort on maximising the appearance of the interior of their homes. Whilst there is a long way to go at the College, we’re starting to make strides towards becoming more ‘house proud’. The large pictures which adorn the College walls, introduced in 2020, show students who are keen and engaged in their learning. The student council also transformed the look of the reading room for the better last year and I want to continue in this vein. Investment has gone into the Science department to enable the highest standards of practical experiment work in lessons and we are placing a greater emphasis on the maintenance of the building through the work of the ever dependable Les. He has improved the aesthetic of areas within the building, but I also want teachers to take such care over their rooms - to create Danish inspired serene sanctuaries where learning is enhanced through student comfort and contentment.

I like to think of myself as well travelled, having visited over thirty countries. I’ve seen the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China. I’ve been on safari in Kenya and I’ve seen other worldly geographical features in Iceland. I’ve had some incredible food on my travels and stayed in some wonderful places, but perhaps my fondest holiday abroad was spent during a rather rainy four day break in Copenhagen with my then girlfriend (and now wife) in 2011, and I write this largely because of how welcoming the people were during our trip there. Instantly, I enjoyed a vibe characterised by wellbeing and a pace of life which encouraged relaxation, indulgence and consideration for others.

It was during that short break that I came to understand the concept of Hygge more fully, and how the power of the positive nature of it can cause a lasting effect. Denmark is regularly identified as the happiest country in the world, and this is what I want for the College population, staff and students: an understanding that without happiness, there is no success. 

This requires a certain type of mindset: where it is not characterised by a need to beat everyone else, but merely in beating expectations of oneself. Where the conception of self-worth is not directly linked to the number of hours worked, to the prestige of grades earned or in comparing one’s achievements to others. Rather, it should be congruent with the strength of friendships and camaraderie, with the ability to look after oneself and one another and with the pursuit of a balance of harmony within work and family life. An inherent understanding of the importance of parentage is abundantly clear in Scandinavia, as it is at the College. Our heightened level of monitoring allows the creation of an intimate familiarity with their child’s performance. 

Whilst presenteeism and an expectation of working extensive hours is not celebrated in Denmark, they have a workforce generally understood to be the happiest in the world, and the second most productive in the EU. Leaving work on time is not seen as an indulgence, rather it is celebrated - and I’m keen to emphasise this approach at the College too. Staff are not held to draconian hours, providing they get their work done. Students come in for the first taught lesson and leave after their last taught lesson, unless they feel the need to stay and remedy issues in their approach. The importance of work-life balance is understood and encouraged here, as it is in Denmark: the importance of maintaining closeness and intimacy with family and friends, whilst spending sufficient time outdoors partaking in activities. Students know this doesn’t have to require playing a football match or running a half marathon - it can simply mean cycling to school or going for a walk in the park at lunch.

Danes are also amongst the most trusting people in the world, and we also try to instill such an approach towards our students. Reflected in the fact that Denmark is also often judged the least corrupt country on Earth, we find that allowing our students responsibilities like dressing as they wish, being on first name terms with staff and making their own choices at lunch is returned with good faith and gratitude in terms of the level of maturity within their behaviour. Students here are treated like adults, and our only requisites are the highest standards of conduct towards each other and in terms of effort towards their studies. Everyone is expected to aspire to the same objective: shared success through supportive relationships. We help each other to reach our goals.

With the summer of sport almost over, and Euro 2020 beginning to fade from memory, my abiding impression won’t be the victorious Italian side, or the near miss for England. It will be the remarkable togetherness demonstrated by the Danish international team in the wake of the collapse and cardiac arrest of their star player Christian Eriksen in their first game against Finland, rather, which will linger most. Many observers crowned the Danes as the ‘true winners’ of the tournament, with their captain Simon Kjaer, for his inspiring leadership, as well as the team medical staff, fitting winners of the UEFA President’s Award for saving the life of their teammate. Their run to the semi-finals, and joyous victories against Russia and Wales, particularly, brought parallels with the events surrounding the success of the nation in Euro 1992, and, in particular Kim Vilfort, for overcoming personal tragedy to score the goal which clinched for his side the trophy. For such a small nation, in a sporting sense, overachievement has become second nature. We, at the College, pride ourselves on overachieving too.

Danes are fiercely patriotic and proud of their nation - a survey in 2017 found that 88% would classify themselves ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ proud of their nationality. I’m keen that everyone who is part of the Ealing Independent College family feels a similar sense of belonging and pride in what they do and personally, I am fiercely proud of what it means to be Principal here.

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