There are three good things about motorway journeys: the latte stops, the political podcasts you have time to listen to and, above all, the time to think. The blog that caused me the most thinking was one from my friend @JohnTomsett https://johntomsett.com/2016/12/18/this-much-i-know-about-a-new-concept-of-headship-in-a-mat-centric-school-led-system/ I think this blog was exceptional in its ability to get right to the nub of the current contradictions and problems in our system.
Ten years ago when I opened one of the first 30 academies – one of the original ones – the landscape was completely different. The ‘bog standard’ schools which were considered to be all similar, and in the poorest areas deemed to be ‘similarly bad’, had to be closed and reopened as entrepreneurial academies, led by innovative, entrepreneurial leaders. Principals were appointed who would put their own stamp on these new schools, lead them in new ways, adopting radical approaches: some were very successful and we were rightly and justifiably proud. A model which recognized the importance of individual leadership and vision certainly appealed to our egos and our desire to make a difference; it also appealed to my sense of the importance of individual context. There was an inherent problem always built into this model – how to survive when that leader moves on and many of these early successes didn’t. They were schools with extremely challenging contexts built around an individual’s response to that context.
Some exceptional leaders, such as Sir Michael Wilkins, anticipated this and built the ‘Toyota model’ John refers too. Michael talked about it as the 80% rule – building the systems and processes that cover 80% of what the schools do to ensure that the quality is future-proofed. And so we see the growth of the MATs and a new style of headship is born. I find it hugely ironic that that the birth of the academies was about doing things differently and now the drive is to ensure that within each MAT things are done the same.
John concludes his blog saying that future headteachers may be the guardians of the MAT’s educational philosophy and values-system as in the oldest, successful schools which have survived for centuries. Maybe he’s right, but it seems to me to be hugely important that schools need to be able to respond to context in order to serve, and those schools which have been successful and survived for centuries largely do so because they are educating only the privileged whose future place in society owes more to their birth than their education. But maybe I’m just a bit old-fashioned. One thing I do know is that headteachers like John need to be central in shaping educational philosophy and values and any system which prevents that doesn’t serve our country well.
I also thought long and hard about the whole ‘Michaela furore’ on Twitter. It worries me a lot when people want something to fail because it doesn’t fit into their own value-system. It also worries me a lot when people think they have found the magic bullets – I’ve lived too long to believe in magic bullets. I think I tweeted at the time something on the lines of ‘it isn’t the replicability of Michaela – of course it is replicable; it is the scalability which is in question’. Having thought about this a great deal I have decided that there might indeed be one magic bullet after all – the ‘opting in’. If a school is absolutely clear about what it is about and the families who send their children there take a clear and positive choice to opt into that vision and support it, then it will succeed. In the early days of the first academies many of us used the same approach – “This is an academy, we do things differently here and if you don’t like it, you can choose to go to a local authority school”. I admit it – I made that speech, several times. Of course the world was a very different place then. But the problem is the education of the children whose families never wish to ‘opt in’. That is the scalability problem of Michaela and that is the challenge for those of us who wish to continue to serve the children of those families who will not ‘opt in’, in order that their place in society is determined by education and not by birth.