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16 May 2022

The Monday Briefing: One Day in your Life

The Monday Briefing: One Day in your Life

I was extremely fortunate last week to have been present at the first Independent Schools Association Annual Conference since 2019. The setting of the picturesque Low Wood Bay Hotel and Resort, nestled in the natural beauty of the Lake District, was apt to host a meeting which aimed to succeed in bringing ‘renewal through connection.’ 

The connection with nature was obviously apparent in Windermere, but the more important links being made were amongst the Headteachers and Principals who were in attendance.

The forum was punctuated with some exceptional speeches which inspired, provoked reflection and urged further action from a group of school leaders which I’m immensely proud to be a part of. The ISA is a very special organisation, and one where, I believe, the support amongst the community is unparalleled.

The standout moments of the conference for me were plentiful, and, universally, they looked to explore a similar theme: how do we empower students to seize the day: to take the right decisions; to drive themselves on to better things; to make the most of their lives?

With the exams starting today in earnest, a great deal of attention within the profession is shifted to academic performance. Something not lost at the conference, however, was the precedence of building character within young people to deal with such challenges - to reinforce resilience, self-belief and confidence in order to get the very best from themselves.

There were two presentations which particularly resonated with me from last week.

Early on the first day, the former mountaineer and Army reservist Darren Edwards delivered an incredibly thought provoking speech in which he described his journey since having undergone a life changing accident which left him paralysed from the waist down. For someone who previously had Mount Everest in his sights, his life ambition was close to being realised. One moment climbing in Wales changed all of that, and it is testament to Darren’s incredible spirit that he has adapted to find new goals and ambitions to pursue and overcome. Last year, he led a record breaking kayaking group to travel the coastal waters of Britain, and now he has set for himself the challenge of taking on seven marathons in seven continents in seven days. The word inspirational is often overused, but Darren’s presentation really spoke to all in attendance: that life can throw a huge amount at you - and that through the continual reinforcement of building one’s own resilience, incredible feats can be achieved.

Towards the end of the conference, Emma Bond, Pro Vice-Chancellor Research and Professor of Socio-Technical Research at the University of Suffolk explained expertly the challenge faced by schools in safeguarding students in the Virtual World. She extolled the virtues of teaching young people how to make the right decisions about their online conduct, and called the internet the new ‘bikesheds’, claiming, quite rightly, that it is perfectly natural for teenagers to explore sexuality. They are now just doing that in a different way to the generations before. There is a limit to how much control can be put on them to manage their behaviour, human nature would suggest that additional controls would be a source for rebellion from them. What really matters is an approach where students are made aware of the dangers of bad decisions: listening to them; supporting and guiding them; casting no judgement. Through these methods, dialogue can begin, the conversation becomes an open one, and trusting relationships can be built.

Several other speakers shared best practice from their schools, suggesting many possible enhancements for how we do things at Ealing. I particularly enjoyed hearing of Dr Stephen Burley’s approach at the King’s School in Warwick, a transformative programme to develop ‘Changemakers’.

This is what we are all trying to do, in the most basic sense: enabling students to develop in order to make the world a better place. How we make that happen is the challenge.

Another huge benefit of the conference was the ability to network with other Head Teachers and Principals. I held several discussions with colleagues which helped clarify my own thoughts on the approach we need to take, and how learning, growth and personal development truly is an all-encompassing pursuit.

One particular conversation sticks in my mind at this point which I shared with Gerldine Maidment, the Head of Annemount school, and it followed the speech by Darren Edwards. When discussing exactly how we could help students to broaden their expertise in resilience, a speech I heard a while ago by Admiral William H McRaven at the University of Texas resurfaced in my thoughts.

The University’s motto, that ‘What starts here changes the world’ should really be prominent in the minds of all school leaders, but McRaven’s first piece of advice will always stay with me. Your first action, every day, should be to make your bed. In his own words:

“If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can't do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.

And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made — and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.”

Though a very small action, it is a right action, and it always, to me at least, sounds like an appropriate first step, capable of anyone, to get things moving positively. 

Despite the fact that I was staying in a hotel part of last week, I made sure that I followed the rule - and it certainly didn’t get in the way of my departing the conference as a more energised school leader, ready to bring further positive change.

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