Developing wider employability skills – the Magnificent Seven.

A new Parliament, a re-arranged set of ministers, and we see both in national press and education journals the re-opening of a variety of debates that have been with us all my teaching lifetime. Some writers, such as Will Hutton here in the Guardian (28 June) suggest that the major divisions as seen in British Society are promulgated by the existence of private schools. The sentiments of his closing paragraph provide a real challenge for those of us who lead in independent education “Looking back, my wife and I felt that parents like us should stand by the universal system; our daughter did well and many of her friends at the time, whose parents believed in their exceptionalism, have had unhappy lives. It would have been so much better if those children had been allowed to stick together in a system that spelled out their togetherness while teaching them with rigour. The English tragedy is that we will never get there”.

Locals and Harrow boys meet outside Lord’s at the 1937 Eton v Harrow cricket match. Photograph: Jimmy Sime/Getty Images

I have followed Will Hutton for years, as journalist, social commentator, and now as Principal of Hertford College Oxford. In many ways our views seem similar, driven as we both are to desire for all the access to high quality education and the opportunities that such success brings in adult life that follows. Where our views divide is usually policies for social cohesion, most often over Europe. That’s not that I am a Eurosceptic, far from it, but I am not so resolutely wedded to the concept of the Euro, the EU more broadly and its superior way of doing things. That’s a position just currently that seems to work in my favour.

Anthony Seldon, the retiring headmaster of Wellington College, speaks of some of his parents as “Clueless narcissists damaging their kids with delusions” and suggests that “Rather than letting the child be what they want to be they (Parents) atrophy their child’s sense of development and autonomy.” More here in the Daily Telegraph.  In drawing the reader’s attention to this statement, I’ve got to say I don’t align at all with Anthony on this. Sure, on occasion we have to realign parental expectations, but they’d expect us do that anyway in the main. We can get in trouble when we won’t predict better grades than evidence suggests; that’s a reputational matter we just have to live with, and carries us through when through accident or emergency a child misses a public exam – the authorities are able to trust our judgement!

The retiring headmaster of Eton College, Tony Little, writing in the same edition of the HMC magazine Insight from which the DT draws its copy under the headline “How to fit our pupils for the 21 century?” suggests that schools and our examination systems are no longer agile enough to cope with the rapid changes and increasing pressures now evident in 2015. He has just established a centre for innovation and research in learning at Eton, and hopes it will make a difference for his sixteen year old boys who otherwise might be saying  “What is going on here? This doesn’t mean anything to me.” I am rather hoping that the average CC 16 year old is not saying this, and the current crop of pupil questionnaires seem to be supporting my optimism. The very fact that we have active School Councils and exit questionnaires still astonishes some in our business, suggesting that such democratic measures make us ‘hostages to fortune’. I suspect not, by the way.

Professor Sandra McNally of the School of Economics at University of Surrey and Director of the independent Centre for Vocational Research at LSE believes there is a growing divide between what industry and government want to see in our secondary schools. Whilst education secretary Nicky Morgan is now narrowing state secondary GCSE choices down to the Ebacc academic core (English x2, Maths, MFL, Sciences plus Geog/Hist), the Director of the Confederation of British Industry , John Cridland would wish for GCSEs to be phased out, to be replaced by a more coherent mix of subject and focus from 14, with examination hurdles at 18+ only. In his wide ranging speech at the Festival Of Education last weekend, Dr Cridland reminds us all that information is now universally available at the touch of a screen, but that’s not enough. Children and adults need a ‘steer’ too, without which they’ll not be able to join up their skills and ambitions with opportunities available. Professor McNally advises that children should not specialise too early, though we should not regard ‘vocational’ courses as inevitably being of lower value, highlighting vocational careers in Engineering, Medicine and the Law as offering fabulous opportunities for the successful. The trouble is with Professor McNally’s thoughts are that she finds no way to bridge the ‘skills’ gap that employers need and yet are not grown in examination classrooms. Put simply, we need young adults to be entering employment ‘savvy’ about what is expected of them, with standards of literacy and numeracy ‘work-place’ ready, and a bunch of other craft skills already honed. Is that really possible? Which computer language should they be able to code with? Which CNC lathe  ought they know how to operate?

Parents and Teachers within Claires Court will be familiar with these arguments and discussions, because they have focussed and nourished our school development for the past 7 years or so now, and their threads run all the way back to the decisions we made back in the late 1970s to move from being a Prep school feeder for secondary Grammar and Public schools. Indeed, we now have an impressive number of past pupils who as parents and/or teachers are actively involved in our Claires Court life, and they share with me this certain belief that it is the ‘whole of the child’ that needs educating, a ’roundedness’ not visible or encouraged by the examination system or national government. We know that children need to explore, create, break and mend, reinvent and repurpose. We know they need to learn to acquire the skills not just to read, write, spell and count, but of sharing, caring, competing and being kind. I have stopped speaking about a ‘rounded’ education, because the phrase rather misses the point and demeans what we do. What we must provide are opportunities for multiple skill acquisition, for examination success sure, but also in everything else we do too.

So here’s my take (a Magnificent 7 of them) on how to ensure that children emerge from school with all the skills they need for their next steps in life, employed or otherwise.

  1. Children need to be known, to feel secure and be fairly done by. This cannot to be delivered in social organisations that are too large, and there’s loads of psychological research about this, perhaps the most famous being ‘Dunbar’s number‘. Whilst class size of 28 to 35 makes no difference, indeed there are plenty of examples where perhaps even hundreds in a room regularly learn really effectively, that’s not what the classroom is all about. Whilst there are many successful schools far bigger than Dunbar’s 150, that’s not to say that students within feel they are valued and secure, or will develop further all the skills and talents they’ll need to come. For class size, I’d say 16 to 20 is ideal,small enough for care large enough for competition. As a DofE Assessor and trainer, I can tell you no group bigger than 7 is ever permitted, and frankly 5 is a better number. In groups larger than this, adults and children are often ‘monetised’ by sitting back whilst others get the work done. I am not much in favour of solo working, because collaborating successfully together provides great certainty that things actually will get done.
  2. Children need to be happy and achieve. This may seem a paradox, because lots of school ‘stuff’ is hard, not easily acquired and comes with ‘failure’. It’s interesting though to note that it’s through gaining the professional expertise of a teacher that we learn how to create a classroom environment in which this happens. My proudest achievement as a school Principal is to lead an Academic Faculty which has teacher-development at the heart of its work. OK, there will be times of the year when coverage is patchy, when our ‘best selves’ as educators is replaced by necessity and expedience, but I am confident that we are a school that focuses on ‘Learning Essentials’, that models how best to include ‘digital’ opportunities, where ‘Peer’ education and ‘Pupil voice’ aren’t just titles but realities in practice, and where community activities are central to what we do. I’m content that we have our focus on children and their learning about right, though I have learned from our community partners that many schools’ social engagement in recent years has become significantly impoverished, partly as a direct result of leaving the Local Authority and becoming Academies.
  3. Children are challenged. Who ever thought their child was going to play sport for England, perform in national finals, sing at the O2, row at Henley, read Chemistry at Oxford, be a playworker with disadvantaged children or compere at a Headteachers’ conference? That kind of activity has been grist to our mill in 2015, just saying. It’s that time of year in my school when there seems to be too much going on, with Music concerts and Drama festivals competing with sports days and regattas on the one hand and with Art on the Street and Summer Fair on the over. My leading staff seemed to be stretched close to breaking point, not only with the doing but with the writing too, reflecting on their pupils’ progress as seen in summer examinations and over the past year. The point is, every week brings fresh challenges and opportunities, not a relentless focus on some exam requirements years down the line. That calendar of activity does not arise by luck; at the time of writing CC Leadership are smashing together another year of dates to ensure that in its granularity, we have enough for everyone on offer. Trips and re-enactment days are woven through the schemes of work; rhetoric such as ‘teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’ won’t work unless the ‘men’ can get ‘hands on’ – learning is not just a theoretical activity, and takes place in many locations and a variety of ways.
  4. Children as leaders, teachers as mentors. Pretty much every piece of academic research highlights that peers are better as teachers than teachers themselves. And in every article I read about ‘my favourite teacher’, it’s the way that adult opened for the child the possibilities that lie ahead and persuaded or encouraged their student to believe more of themselves. In designing provision to have blended curricular and co-curricular activities, we need enough of the latter on show to ensure the children have sufficient time and opportunity to gain expertise and leadership skills. There is a huge call by industry for entrants to have vocational skills; just a walk around the street of the  Claires Court Summer Fete last weekend reminds our community of the opportunities our children have. ‘Beat the goalkeeper’ vie with ‘Shoot-em-ups’ , GoKarts & Drones from the STEM club at a higher level face off Young Enterprise and Candle stock sales. Our commitments to and partnership with Rotary International and the Lions Club provide a guarantee of competitive speaking and partnership sponsorship in public and links young pretenders with community thought-leaders and separately with those much less fortunate in society that need a leg-up.
  5. Relentless and ruthless enthusiasm blending a can-do and no-excuses culture. As a parent of 2 and surrogate parent for thousands, I avow completely the mantra that children come first. At the same time, I do not support a ‘Little Emperor Effect’ that promotes vain-gloriously the performances of one above the whole, arising from the mass study of the intended consequences of China’s one child policy, whereby ‘only’ children gain seemingly excessive amounts of attention from their parents and grandparents. Here in the UK, and understood for some time, that children regress on entry to secondary school.  This Year7/8 dip arises because parents want to let-go of the primary school requirement that they take very close interest in their child’s education, because the children themselves are becoming independent learners (aka making choices, some of them about not wanting to work solely to please adults) and because the learning possibilities secondary schools present accelerate exponentially. What secondary staff need to do is to get to know each child really quickly, so their possibilities are known before the child writes the same opportunities off because of peer pressure. Singing in public, performing on stage or field, standing up to be counted are all categories of un-coolness in the teenage vernacular. We need children to be proud of their outcomes because of the way they achieved them, attribute the success to the things the children personally made happen, and through that route subtly change peer expectations to making positive contributions to class, to school and to society at large the norm. This does not happen by magic, and the ‘grip’ of school needs to be sure, holding to account those less committed to the cause with a resolve that sure and appropriate.
  6. It’s all about provision. Schools need to be full of independent adults who know their stuff, walk the talk and understand both Carol Dweck’s Growth mind-set theories and the need not to make posters about them yet do use them to keep children engaged with the activities that can make the difference. Yes, children can do anything they put their mind to, but it will also require body and soul and 10,000 hours. So we need to teach coding and craftwork, hard sums and lab-rat stuff, how to speak in ‘tongues’ or at least in one of them well, and how children should feel about their history, geography, and where our philosophical ideas come from. And we can’t all be expert in everything, so careers advisers, ict experts, art therapists, sports instructors, links to industry and work experience, visiting speakers and independent counselling services are essential. Professional development is not just a requirement for children but for adults too, and our experience alone is not sufficient to make us better practitioners. Teachers need access to advice, as early as possible to support and expand their thinking and to keep their minds open as they move through their careers. Making such learning opportunities open for parents is almost as essential; there so much bogus stuff out there that can bewitch and entice (just think weight loss programmes as example) and which are completely contradictory and actually illusory. Make sure everyone learns that the ‘silver bullet’ does not exist, and that actually the ‘vampire’ problem it was designed to cure doesn’t exist either.
  7. Underpin it all with a set of values that are universally transferable: Responsibility for your own actions, Respect for others, Loyalty to your community and Integrity above all. As one of Maidenhead’s larger employers, Claires Court looks after 300+ and we need the best we can find for all of our roles, be that in housekeeping, admin or on the front line teaching. These days whatever the job, people are required to make application, and we’ll always follow that by interview. Those that show they know stuff, can be relied upon, seek to be their best selves and do the best they can are really easy to employ. Probably the bit that schools need to work on most is the ‘biddable’ bit. It seems to me successful outcomes from secondary and sixth form can permit the development of an arrogant mind-set which is difficult to supplant, because the narrow objective of examination success is the be-all and end-all, reached within an environment that supports the can-do-no-wrong “Little Emperor” syndrome. Recent Universty changes have probably enhanced this effect, with so many of the leading institutions ceasing to offer any pastoral support or finance lecturers to have personal engagement with students. The government are really keen that schools have at the heart of their pastoral curriculum Fundamental British Values, and there is no danger with us that those will be missing. But we need to place more importance than just a nodding acquaintance with this narrative; it is not just values, but skills, character and resolve interwoven as well. Will Hutton invites us to worry about a doomed youth whose only uncertainty is misery as adults. That’s something I cannot accept as an educational mission, but perhaps bear witness to; with the destruction of the extended family and the mobility of modern life, it’s hard for families to keep it all going without a supportive community, and that’s central to our Claires Court offer, to have that support on tap and nearby.

To conclude, and in a nutshell, great employers know their place. Right from the start, they value their employees and provide for them enough to feel safe, secure and known. They ask their employees to think and do great things, to support others outside of their narrower remit and to be kind and supportive, but whistle-blow when needed.  They provide monitoring, expertise, accountability and training in equal measure and intervene just early enough to makes sure big mistakes can’t happen. And of course, have a vision suitably shared to provide an appropriate purpose for all their employees activity, not so much a profit score or destination, but a way of working and living that provides for them and their families  for a long time to come.

I’ll finish with another Will Hutton headline “Let’s end this rotten culture that only rewards rogues“, which led one of many pieces written highlighting the inequity of reward uncovered during the recent banking boom and bust. I’d like to see Education’s P&L systems examined just as forensically by external experts. Frankly, we know that every child deserves to succeed and needs to attend a school in which that can happen. But with almost every secondary school designed around a-built-to-fail numbers model, around disastrous selection philosophies  that separate the haves from the have-nots, with primary schools now monetised to get bigger to get better, and with national government actively promoting the ‘academisation of schools’ thus removing local accountability, there is no way that parents can opt-in to a education built around my ideals easily.  Unless they live near Maidenhead of course. And at a very reasonable price. Ahem.

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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