The energy, inspiration and support for schools to do things differently in order to do them better

Kai Vacher, Principal, British School Muscat; former Operational Director, SSAT

I joined the Specialist Schools Trust (as it was known in 2002) for a one-year sabbatical as a regional coordinator in 2002. In 2008 I was appointed Operational Director, Innovation.

How SSAT influenced my career and values

My nine years at SSAT were the most incredible preparation for headship I could ever have imagined. I visited hundreds of schools; worked with some phenomenal school leaders and teachers; shared ideas with leading thinkers including professors David Hargreaves, Dylan Wiliam, Yong Zhou and Guy Claxton; and shared the stage at the ICC in Birmingham with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, Sir Bob Geldof, PMs Blair and Brown, Gareth Malone, Karren Brady and Tanya Byron.

Between 2004 and 2008 I had the privilege to work with professor David Hargreaves. I learned a great deal from David. He taught me to look to the world of business for ideas and inspiration; how to aspire to the highest possible standards and then aim even higher. He coached me to write professionally and to question intelligently. He modelled how to bring the best out of teachers and school leaders. He challenged me to read Confucius, Drucker, Collins and many others. And he showed me how to present effectively and with confidence. It was a most inspiring apprenticeship.

Working with David on supporting schools to develop approaches to personalising learning was a remarkable time. We felt that we were helping schools to make positive changes to children’s learning. I believe that we helped schools make big steps forward to personalise learning for their students, particularly in the areas of innovative curriculum design, student voice and assessment for learning. Personalisation became an expectation that all schools would aspire to for their students.

Personalisation became an expectation that all schools would aspire to for their students

By 2006 Sue Williamson thought I needed even more of a challenge than leading on personalising learning for SSAT. She said that she wanted me to lead the SSAT national conference; the largest educational conference in Europe at the time with over 2000 delegates from 1000 schools at the ICC in Birmingham. Working with a superbly talented team within the SSAT and our partners, we had the opportunity every year to create an event that would inspire, energise and support schools to develop and improve. It’s the best job I have ever had.

I did have to overcome a major personal challenge however. Throughout my own time at school and well into my early adult life I had to manage a fairly pronounced stammer. When I joined SSAT in 2002 I was still terrified of standing up in front of a group of people and simply introducing myself. When Sue told me that she wanted me to direct the national conference she must have seen the look of fear on my face. She declared confidently; ‘Kai, there will be no stammering.’

Emboldened by Sue’s belief in me, I went on to practise my public speaking skills in front of 2000 school leaders for five years on the grand stage of the ICC. It was terrifying at times and the experience definitely took me out of my comfort zone. But, as we know, that’s where the magic happens.

And there was a lot of magic during those conferences. For example, seeing Gareth Malone on stage supporting primary, secondary and special school children perform a song that they had all co-constructed in the week of the conference – and receive a standing ovation from the packed auditorium at the ICC – was a special moment indeed. The experience enabled me to develop my public speaking skills to a point where now, as principal of a leading British international school, I am comfortable leading assemblies and addressing colleagues and parents.

SSAT’s Influence and what it stands for now

SSAT has throughout its history provided the energy, inspiration and support for schools to do things differently in order to do them better – David Hargreaves’ definition of innovation. It has provided schools with ideas, inspiration and practical support to collaboratively challenge and change the way we provide education for our children.

Working at SSAT also gave me the confidence to take on the leadership of British School Muscat in the Sultanate of Oman. The success of BSM in recent years has been hugely influenced by my time at SSAT, which helped me for example:

  • to seek out and visit other international schools and learn from them
  • to work with and learn from business
  • to consult effectively with a wide range of stakeholders
  • to market and promote BSM successfully (SSAT national conference experience)
  • to have a clear plan for the tricky start to the role (SSAT/ David Carter’s ‘First 100 days of headship’)
  • to understand how to encourage and support innovation in a school (SSAT Personalising Learning pamphlets)
  • to establish the BSM learning ethos, which underpins everything we do and why we do it (SSAT Redesigning Schooling publications).

I sometimes look back at my time at SSAT as a nine-year sabbatical: time to reflect; to visit schools; to discuss ideas with leading thinkers; to learn from school leaders, teachers, businessmen and women and politicians.

Most importantly, for nine years I worked with a fantastic team of colleagues whose support, commitment and inspiration I will value for the rest of my life. SSAT believed in me, gave me incredible opportunities to grow, to flourish and to excel. For all that and much more, I shall be forever grateful.

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