I was privileged enough to be asked to take part in the keynote presentation at the Whole Education conference in London earlier this month.
Whole Education is an increasingly popular network with more than 500 schools working in partnership to ensure that despite the constraints of examinations and external accountability, our young people have a fully rounded education, developing the knowledge, skills and qualities needed to help them thrive in life and work.
I have found them to be an encouraging and inspiring network which share good practice and foster a climate of collaboration and aspiration that is sometimes difficult to find in our current educational culture.
There are too many occasions when I leave a conference thinking of TS Eliot’s The Wasteland (I teach English) and have that sense of isolation and dislocation that he describes. However, I left this event so encouraged, it put me in mind of Eliot’s Four Quartets, where he writes: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice.”
In no way does Whole Education seek to shirk the accountability agenda, but it is encouraging a growing number of schools to address it in a new way. Chairman Dr John Dunford often speaks about the way in which it is time for the profession to “look out, not up”.
So the conference focused directly upon school improvement journeys but its tone was very different – built upon the quotation from Hargreaves and Shirley that: “The inspiring future of school improvement lies in the fear factor giving way to the peer factor.”
Baroness Estelle Morris and Professor Sir Tim Brighouse opened and closed the event, sharing their reflections on the important role school leaders have in making the most of the teachers they have and in seizing the initiative in setting a vision and learning ethos.
Baroness Morris spoke about how “politics changes the pieces; education changes lives” and encouraged us to innovate, citing her experience of those outstanding leaders who are keen to share where they have broken through boundaries as opposed to those who sought to safely meet the expectations of a framework.
She described how politicians may use systems to bring about reform, but it is headteachers who can use people to inspire and create change. She observed the high quality of government research after a strategy has been implemented but called for better research in advance of implementation; urging schools to do more of this within their own contexts too. This was something Sir Tim spoke about later, tantalising us with the fact he is working on the five key questions politicians should always ask before they implement policy and urging school leaders to do the same.
Concluding the event, he spoke about “having the courage of your convictions; moral purpose, moral compass and moral courage”, and encouraged Whole Education schools to further develop their mutual commitment to championing these qualities.
Key themes of his presentation were the need to focus on children’s “transformability” above “ability”; the “ipsative” rather than the “summative” – go on, look it up, I did! – and the need for schools to move towards a “Futures Learning Outlook”.
Sir Tim argued that schools need to move from an obsession with compliance towards a clear philosophy, challenging themselves with the big questions that move them towards a culture of “embodied and real learning”.
It is this latter approach which resulted in our invitation to participate. It was a pleasure to share Shenley Brook End School’s journey from “good” to “outstanding” in teaching and learning and the key questions that had transformed our journey, such as asking middle leaders “what holds us back?” and year 13 students what they most wished had been different about their education.
This was contrasted with the transformational school improvement journey of Hartsholme Academy in Lincoln, which was shared by headteacher Carl Jarvis. The school went from special measures to outstanding in two years through its use of research-evidenced immersive learning and it is an inspiring journey that was achieved with hardly any change in teaching staff.
Mr Jarvis’s passionate delivery was an excellent example of the heart of Whole Education – the encouragement to be bold, to share what works and to show how innovation does not just develop student engagement and wider skills, but has an impact in conventional ways and measures too.
Enthusiastic Makewaves interviewers from Catmose College in Leicestershire added significantly to the student contribution at the event, while an impressive range of Whole Education schools and partners led an incredible variety of workshops on pedagogy, community, technology, employability and CPD. Sir Tim finished with a poetic flourish: “For each age is a dream that is dying, Or one that is coming to birth.”
It is clear that Whole Education has a role to play in encouraging the spreading of confidence, research and practice that could create a more holistic emphasis across our education system and ensure that our children and young people have the opportunity to be prepared for the challenges and opportunities of this new century and not for those of the last.SecEd
Chris Holmwood is principal of the Leadership and Training Centre and senior deputy headteacher at Shenley Brook End School in Milton Keynes.