School leaders reflect on pure imagination

SSAT National Conference 2018

Reading time: 6 minues

A major theme of SSAT’s 2018 National Conference was capital, discussed here by two school leaders: Andrew Morrish of Victoria Academies on social capital; and Caroline Derbyshire of Saffron Academy Trust on cultural capital

Social capital: we must support the current generation of parents

Presentation by Andrew Morrish, executive headteacher of Victoria Academies

We need as leaders to flip the system, to take back control of what it means to run sustainable high performing schools. We need to seize the agenda., and most importantly, to take an inside-out approach – where everything that we do in our schools is embedded in action research that begins within our classrooms and permeates to the outside, into our local communities. Then we won’t have to rely on people from the outside telling us what we have to do.

I encourage all leaders to transform our schools in a way that is courteous, meaningful, values-led and above all, where we don’t give two hoots about the lens of Ofsted – that’s looking through the wrong end of the telescope and not seeing the big picture.  It is most important, I believe, to penetrate deeply into the communities that surround our schools. It’s called social capital and that, colleagues, is your ace. Essentially, it’s the sum of all the resources that our parents and families have access to that allow them to make connections within their community, to get a sense of belonging and self-worth.  As you know, particularly in deprived areas, many of our families that come from all four corners of the world have no sense of their belonging, their friendship groups are simply the person that they live with in their house. They may talk to somebody on the playground at school – other than that, nothing. So, by giving these parents social capital that they can trade in, for cultural capital, economic capital, intellectual capital, it gives them power and agency.

Most importantly, they become less disadvantaged. Now, imagine what we could do as teachers if our families came into our schools and didn’t simply participate in activities, things like parents’ evenings, school productions, sports days, assemblies, but actively engaged on a really deep and meaningful intrinsic level. Imagine what we could do. Most importantly, I think social capital would allow these parents to get a foot on the social ladder. [And it would be a significant step towards deep social justice, which is SSAT’s campaign for 2019 and will be subject of its National Conference this year.]

Andrew Morrish speaking at SSAT National Conference 2018

There are many, many issues that are in our way. One of the most damning statistics that I came across recently, in a report by the New Policy Institute, said that in England at the moment, one in five of the population are living in poverty. That means that in any typical class of 30 children, six of them are living in poverty. We’ve got to do something about that. I’m delighted that Amanda Spielman just this week has raised that issue and that schools shouldn’t have to divert precious resources to have to prepare children for school, being able to, for example, go to the toilet themselves; their families should be doing that.

So, colleagues, we have to act now. These current parents, some of them as young as 15 and 16, even up to the age of 40, have lived through times that we’ve never experienced before in terms of deprivation and austerity, and we need to make sure that we support these families.

I think the next generation are well placed. They will have shedloads of social mobility and social capital when they leave. So, our future changemakers are in a good position, but unless we support their parents, I think we’re in a perilous situation. If we are really serious about transforming the life chances of our children, it’s social capital and what we do outside in the community that has the greatest impact. As leaders, we need to grasp that nettle and I know that’s difficult because we find ourselves often getting entangled with the minutiae of an Ofsted inspection framework. That detracts us from focusing on the right things. So, I’m urging you to be bold. As a certain Albert Einstein once said, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

If we are really serious about transforming the life chances of our children, it’s social capital and what we do outside in the community that has the greatest impact

Andrew Morrish

SSAT Members can watch: Andrew Morrish’s presentation from SSAT National Conference 2018

Cultural capital: plantation or rainforest?

Presentation by Caroline Derbyshire, CEO of Saffron Academy Trust

Somewhere between two polarised experiences as a newly qualified teacher, a school leadership philosophy emerged for me about the combination of structure on the one hand and imagination on the other.

Recently we’ve been doing some work with Tom Sherrington, our teacher head at Saffron Walden County High School, to exemplify his metaphor of the learning rainforest – a philosophical analogy that I think really works in modern education. A rainforest, in his words, “is a beautiful, almost magical place dripping with possibilities, teeming with life. It’s a rich and diverse place and it is self-perpetuating.” He contrasts that with the characteristics of a plantation.

Schools that are rainforests grow fantastic teachers, have a diverse and inspiring curriculum, have wonderful outcomes and are self-sustaining. Plantation schools, however, (and you’ll know a few of them) think that there is only one way to do anything. They’re driven by what can be examined or what can be inspected. Hence, their practice tends to be standardised and uniform and their curriculum somewhat limited.

Caroline Derbyshire speaking at SSAT National Conference 2018

It would be easy, and wrong, to suggest that this was some sort of contrast between progressive and traditional schools – because it simply isn’t. Some rainforests are traditional, and some are quite progressive, but they all have three characteristics: they have roots, branches and a canopy. The roots form the conditions for learning; the branches are the knowledge and structure; and the canopy is the way that the school explores and reaches out beyond itself. At my school, the conditions for learning are quite formal. We have the highest expectations of student behaviour, staff conduct, and academic rigour.

Our trunk and our branches are our subject delivery. We only employ graduate teachers with a passion for their subject, who can share that passion through great subject teaching. Our middle leaders lead the developments in their own curriculum areas. It isn’t just about knowledge, it’s also about understanding and greater mastery of that knowledge.

And our curriculum at the school is really broad. We do four languages, including Latin, which gives four options at GCSE and multiple choices at A-level. Subject enrichment is built into our offer, we’re not just teaching examination courses. We teach beyond the syllabus. The extracurricular offer is really broad. Saffron hall is the living symbol of how that philosophy sits at the heart of our school. Built five years ago, it’s a concert hall of international renown that can hold 740 people: all our students get the opportunity to work with professional dancers, classical and jazz musicians, and to attend concerts featuring the likes of Courtney Pine, Nicola Benedetti and the London Symphony Orchestra. That hall was a gift to the school by a local philanthropist, the largest gift that any state school has ever received at £11 million.

All our students get the opportunity to work with professional dancers, classical and jazz musicians, and to attend concerts featuring the likes of Courtney Pine, Nicola Benedetti and the London Symphony Orchestra

We believe that that cultural capital is a birthright. Our canopy is, of course, how we explore ideas in education. As a school we’re deeply committed to educational research; understanding what has worked in the past and what works in our own context. At the moment we’re working on metacognition, and encouraging people to explore that idea in their subjects. The PE team are exploring metacognition. We share our practice through our teaching school alliance, which is linked to the faculty of education at Cambridge University. Almost every teacher gets the opportunity to be involved in some sort of development and leadership package.

As a rainforest, we see children flourish and teachers grow and develop. Rainforests schools are, I think, the lungs of our education system.

Caroline Derbyshire

SSAT Members can watch: Caroline Derbyshire’s presentation from SSAT National Conference 2018

Next week: David Priestley, executive headteacher, Greenfield Community College, on creative capital

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