Your latest book is titled A Manifesto for Change – why publish it now?
I started writing it in January 2018, on the 10th anniversary of me leaving my primary headship. Over that decade, there were numerous times when I thought to myself, I wish I’d known that when I was an educator – I wanted to put these thoughts in a book to show current generations of teachers and school leaders those experiences which had stimulated my own thinking as a teacher.
You’ve consulted with numerous companies over the years – what have been the most memorable ways in which this work has informed your views on educational trends and policy?
I’ve worked with a number of organisations that employ high-performing young people with top degrees from the top universities, particularly in the financial and tech sectors. Talking to the senior directors of those organisations, they often tell me the same thing – that their younger employees are phenomenally well educated, but don’t possess the kind of skills they need for them to be able to drive their businesses forward.
Those skills include self-leadership, innovation, the ability to take risks, the ability to collaborate. A question I’ve kept returning to is how do we plug that gap? And how can we ensure that we have an education system that doesn’t result in that gap needing to be plugged?
In the book you describe Twitter as both a ‘fantastic tool for collaboration’ and an ‘ecosystem for hate’. Are there any particularly inspiring examples of social media use you can call to mind?
In the early days of Twitter usage, perhaps around 2010 to 2011, I was doing a lot of work in Scandinavia and remember seeing Twitter there start to become this really powerful, collaborative tool. At the time, the Swedish government had just started to reform the country’s school system – which had always been very collaborative up until then – by creating charter schools, similar to what we’ve seen here. Teachers soon found themselves feeling more isolated, and started using Twitter as a means of maintaining that collaborative structure.
At around the same time in England, when we saw similar moves towards free schools and academisation, some powerful voices emerged on Twitter who would try to undermine experts and voice their own views of what the system should be, rather than support one another. I think that helped create quite an intimidating environment for many educators, particularly at primary level, who then felt very nervous about using Twitter to express opinions, share views and look for advice.
More recently, however, I’ve been encouraged by the return of a more constructive, positive and collaborative discourse across Twitter, which I believe has been helped along by a younger generation of teachers who have grown up with social media in their lives.
You’ve previously spoken of the need for schools to recognise the importance of ‘psychological safety’ in education. Can you expand on this?
‘Psychological safety’ is an elegant term I first picked up from Google and the research they’ve done into what makes teams effective. Google and other companies like them operate under what I call an ‘assumption of excellence.’ Borne out of trust for your colleagues, it’s the absolute belief that you’re working with good people who are capable of doing great things.
Yet in many traditional organisations – and certainly within this country’s education sector – there’s historically been a belief in the ‘assumption of incompetence’ – this idea that people have to be ‘managed’ in order to do their best job. If we don’t trust schools and the profession to deliver, they consequently have to ‘prove’ their abilities before being allowed to develop. There must be better ways of looking at accountability.
By adopting a culture of psychological safety, we can create school environments where everyone supports one another, on the understanding that we’re all human, and that we all have a duty to share both great practice and the stuff that goes wrong.
Is there any possibility of changing things in way you propose without entailing major upheaval of the sort we’ve seen in recent years?
Most education policy is built across short-term change, and largely focused on thoughts of ‘How do we make our existing system more efficient?’ rather than on truly transforming it. That’s what leads to those ‘silver bullets’, the stress, the pressure, and resulting scepticism.
We must get rid of this idea that change has to happen overnight. In ‘A Manifesto…’ I’ve tried to frame the book as a series of catalyst conversations, questions and challenges for people who I want to see talking about these things, and developing the confidence to start evolving their thinking, vision and practice. But it’s very hard to do that when schools are still facing the same systems of accountability.
We need to have a big conversation about the vision and purpose of education – and not just in the 21st Century, because let’s not forget that some of the kids being born and starting education now will be alive and working into the 22nd century. Only when we get to that place can we start to develop a truly sustainable model of education in which teachers feel like professionals again – where they feel valued, and where the vast majority of what they’re doing in the classrooms is what they chose to enter the profession for in the first place.
Is the answer to take education policy out of the hands of politicians?
It may be too easy an answer, but I absolutely believe it is – to an extent. Politicians do have the right to hold the system to account, because they’re the people’s representatives. And in a system of mass public education that the taxpayer is paying for, the taxpayer has a right to know that the system is effective.
What’s increasingly happening in a large number of developed countries is that politicians have become the designers of policy around education, while trust in the profession has been increasingly undermined. Look at Finland – it’s a very different social context, but they have a highly successful and innovative education system, where teachers are highly respected, highly regarded and drive the system ahead of politicians. Around 20 years ago they stopped politicians changing policy every four or five years and handed the evolution and development of education to educators and the system itself.
That doesn’t mean politicians don’t hold them to account, but politicians don’t create the policy. That means there’s less chance of policy being driven by ideology, and far more chance of it being driven by practice. If you set people targets, human nature means they’ll focus on delivering those targets because that’s what they’re judged on. If you ask people to instead create something that’s more significant, and hold them to account for it, you’ll achieve far more remarkable things.
Begins teaching career, having previously been an actor and copywriter
Appointed headteacher of Grange Primary School, Long Eaton
Becomes adviser to the then Department for Education and Skills
Wins ‘School Head Teacher of the Year’ at the British National Teaching Awards
Has his work recognised at the UNESCO World Arts Education Conference
Publishes his first book, Creating Tomorrow’s School Today
Education: A Manifesto for Change is available now, published by Bloomsbury.