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Headmaster's Blog

Live the dream and prepare for tomorrow's world today

William Hague has just written, "if there is an openness to new ideas, the process of recovering from the pandemic could be the start of transformational change in education."

For so long, and I am talking years if not decades, education has languished. There have been dreams as to what it could look like but in the last year there is the beginning of a sense that they could now become reality rather than just dreams. The COVID pandemic has been terrible but in everything we must look for the light that offers hope and the possibility of a better future. Leonard Cohen said “there’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.” The past year has been a dark period but it’s time to look for the cracks that will let the light in.

As a Headteacher I am so excited about the prospects for teaching and education. There is an awareness now, brought about by necessity perhaps, of what can be done, and the enforced reflection on our lives over the past few months provides the opportunity for greater focus and clarity as to what is important and what will be needed to prepare our children for a world that has very different expectations to the one in which you and I grew up.

There is a danger that society will be reluctant to see the opportunities for change and the evolution of education. Indeed, we all seem desperate for things to go back to how they were and there is a danger that in so doing we miss an opportunity. It is so ingrained in us that the measure of success is determined by the grades we achieve in school and at university; it is not that those don’t still merit acknowledgement and recognition but they are not the only things we should be looking for anymore.

At Thorpe House we have been very successful in the delivery of our online learning and it has meant that we can begin to expand our horizons. There is no substitute for lessons in school but equally there are no limitations on where school can be! Blended learning can really take place so that children can access lessons in their classroom or from home and therefore access to education is greatly enhanced; it opens up avenues to expand a school’s offering beyond its immediate community and to bring others in, potentially from all over the world, and that in turn opens us up to greater cultural diversity and appreciation for our pupils of working beyond international boundaries and recognising their role as global citizens as well as encouraging inclusivity.

At a personal level I have really enjoyed being able to have more contact with the parental community than I might have done in a typical term. Most weeks I endeavour to hold a Google Meet with the parents to update them on what we are doing and to take questions. It holds us accountable and continues to foster that all important partnership with the parents and that is something I will seek to hold onto beyond the return of pupils to school.

Teachers and pupils alike have all enhanced their IT skills and there is greater appreciation and understanding of the ability to access and search for information and apply it appropriately. That is such an important skill and it is one that has often been overlooked or not really considered until much later in a child’s education. As a parent I now see my son in Year 4 (aged 9) exuding a confidence and familiarity with IT programmes that wouldn’t have been even considered 12 months ago and we need to make sure this digital awareness is not side-lined when the pupils come back into school.

In a world where we are presented with so much information, pupils need to demonstrate critical thinking so that they can discern what is trustworthy and what is misinformation (fake news!) and therefore debate and discussion in schools about current affairs and real life issues such as climate change are crucial. How often do we emphasise the importance of objectivity in schools? I think we do but probably not enough and an enrichment programme that encourages these qualities is every bit as important as what the pupils learn in their academic lessons.

Just before the COVID pandemic took hold, my attention had been grabbed by the possibilities of Artificial Intelligence in education. Awareness of Technology is opening up so many new avenues. We have been using Century Tech and Mathswatch (and I am aware there are many other platforms being rolled out) and they are transforming what we can do with our pupils. Tasks can be set which teachers can monitor in real time so that they can provide tailored support to individuals or groups of pupils and the programmes learn from the pupils’ responses to create tasks that are bespoke to the individual child. We all want a bespoke education for our children and it is becoming a reality. It also allows and encourages our children to learn and foster their innate curiosity because it is so focused on them as individuals. They are not having to always listen to a teacher telling them something which they already know how to do, they can move on and enjoy the challenge of tasks that will build on what they know and take them into new territory.

The awareness of technology is not just important for the pupils but also for the teachers. Software applications have transformed how teachers can present their lessons. Tablets can be used by a teacher anywhere in the classroom to project onto a wall or screen so that the teacher need never turn their back on a class ever again! Similarly, tablets can be used for pupils to show their work directly onto a screen using digital whiteboard apps and they can every pupil’s work can be viewed simultaneously by the class and the teacher at the same time. New apps are coming out all the time and keeping abreast of these is so important so that educators are leading from the front rather than, as has often been the case in the past, following on from behind.

Equally, having had a period of time where our children have been glued to computer screens, recognising how subjects can be delivered more creatively must be encouraged. I have just appointed a new Head of Maths. To teach ratios she will also do cooking, to study trigonometry she will take the class outside to look at nature, to understand measurements she will get her pupils to measure up rooms. This creativity and application of observation and encouragement of practical skills does not replace theory but it supplements it and encourages empathy and practical application that crosses several disciplines.

Communication skills and the ability to collaborate are further qualities that will prepare our children for tomorrow’s world. As new classrooms are built or refurbished, we are keeping two or the walls in each of the rooms free of any displays so that they can be used for collaborative work by our pupils. Forget whiteboards, we have whitewalls where our pupils are up on their feet, working together and presenting to their teachers and classmates, literally writing on the walls. The power of collaboration is extraordinary and I often hear in my head the words of Harry Truman, “it’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not get care who gets the credit.” We are doing this already in KS2 and it means that the pupils are learning how to work as a team, speak to an audience, articulate their ideas and are developing a natural confidence that is so valued in society. Standing up in front of a group of people (especially your peers) can be a daunting prospect for so many but if it is never thought to be an issue from such an early age, it isn’t! At the same time, working in this way is starting to develop their leadership skills as they make decisions and take ownership for their work. The teachers also can see everything that the pupils are doing at a glance from wherever they are in the room and it makes for a much more purposeful and engaged setting and one where the teachers can gently identify improvements and offer encouragement that will bring the best out of the children.

We always talk about IQ but less about EQ. Emotional intelligence is increasingly important in society and as much as we look to embrace technology we also need to make sure this is not at the expense of human interactions. Perhaps now more than ever before, when society has been closeted away and social interactions have been hindered, it is crucial that self-reflection is encouraged and there is awareness not only of our own emotions but also of the emotions of those with whom we interact. Social media and email are great but they are the source of some terrible miscommunications because they can lack empathy and awareness of how the invisible recipient will understand what has been said. Getting this right in a digital world is hugely important and cannot be underestimated.

I am big fan of qualifications like the HPQ and EPQ. They allow pupils to branch out and pursue exploration of topics that uniquely interest them and encourage self-motivation, curiosity and even experimentation. Creating that half-glass-full mentality that comes from taking up these pursuits means that aspiration is fostered and complacency is pushed to one side. We have to encourage desire in our pupils because otherwise, as Michelangelo said, “The greatest danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.” If we have instilled aspiration and that desire to learn in our pupils, then we will have succeeded because they will have the drive to be better today than yesterday and better tomorrow than today and that will be a society in which can all see hope and optimism for the future.

Nathaniel Woodard founded the Woodard Schools. Thorpe House is not in that group of schools but I have always held onto something he said as a driving focus for my own ambitions in education. He said “we only have one chance with the education of our children, so their tomorrow must be our urgency today.” We have a real opportunity right now to take education forwards and I hope we will.