Author Archives: robinmacp

Walking in Two Worlds: the Māori Education Renaissance⤴

from @ @robin_macp

I recently spent two weeks in New Zealand on a school trip, which allowed me to learn a lot more about a system that I’ve heard a lot about. I read a fair amount of the work of the globally renowned academic Helen Timperley, Professor Emeritus at the University of Auckland, when I did my Into Headship course, so I hoped to learn much more about education across New Zealand. However, what I came away with was an incredible insight into a cultural revival that has relevance for all indigenous cultures around the world. This stemmed from an educational revolution that survived against all the odds. This is the story of that unique renaissance.

Why New Zealand?

I should begin by explaining the purpose of my trip, because there’s a remarkable backstory that needs some unpacking. My school has a link with the town of Ōtaki going back to the First World War. A New Zealand Merchant Navy ship, the SS Ōtaki, was sunk in 1917 by a German raider called the Moewe. The SS Ōtaki’s captain, who fought a heroic action against the Moewe, went down with the ship and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. His name was Archibald Bisset Smith, an Aberdonian and a former pupil of Robert Gordon’s College. Also killed that day was the Ōtaki’s youngest seaman, William Esson Martin, a 14 year old who was also a Gordonian.

The war memorial at Ōtaki College.

Since 1937, the Head Boy of the College (it was boys only in those days) was awarded the Ōtaki Shield and was given a round-trip to New Zealand on board a ship as a prize. The New Zealand government took over responsibility for this visit, and to this day the Ōtaki Scholar is an official guest of the government during their stay (although they no longer go by ship). To reciprocate, a group of people, including past Ōtaki scholars, set up the Everiss Trust to enable pupils from Ōtaki College to visit Scotland, and the inaugural trip took place early in 2023.

What prompted our trip, however, was a conference organised annually by the Global Alliance for Innovative Education (GAIL). GAIL is a network of eight schools across six continents, with Robert Gordon’s College as the European representative. Each school takes turns to host the conference, and the others send a delegation of staff and pupils. In 2023, this was hosted by Kristin School in Auckland, so we decided to make the most of this opportunity by combining our visit with a trip to Ōtaki College. It’s fair to say that, between the GAIL Conference (which deserves a blog in its own right) and the Ōtaki trip, I had one of the most profound and inspiring experiences of my career.

A Little (More) History

Before we get to the Ōtaki visit, let’s take a step back into the history of New Zealand. One of the fascinating aspects of this incredible country is that human settlement is a very recent event. The Māori arrived at some point from East Polynesia in the 13th century AD, roughly 400 years before the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman landed. Following James Cook’s landing in 1769, European immigration had a devastating impact on Māori settlements and their way of life. The Treaty of Waitangi (1840) is essential to understand, because the translation of this key document was (and remains) deeply controversial. The Māori signatories believed they were conceding the function of governance to the British, when in fact they were ceding sovereignty. What followed was a travesty for the Māori, as they lost their lands as well as their rights. Crown policy in the early 20th century was designed to eliminate Māori customs, and this led many Māori to believe that the only option open to them was to assimilate with European culture. They encouraged their children to speak English and abandoned cultural practices at home. Māori heritage and language was facing extinction in the latter part of the 20th century.

Artwork at Kristin School showing signatures of tribal leaders to the Treaty of Waitangi. These were developed specifically for the treaty because signatures weren’t part of Māori culture.

Whatarangi Winiata and Generation 2000

In the early 1970s, Whatagrangi Winiata, an academic who had spent many years working in America, returned to his tribal home in Ōtaki. Located on the south-west coast of North Island, Ōtaki is a small town with a population of only around 4,000 people. Yet it sits at the heart of three tribal settlements who populated this area in the 1820s, collectively known as the ART Confederation. A survey was carried out in the early 1970s which showed that no one in the ART Confederation under the age of 30 could speak the Māori language (‘te reo Māori’). Winiata decided to do something about this.

This is a phenomenal case study not just in cultural revival, but in educational and community leadership. Winiata came up with a plan he called Generation 2000 (Whakatupuranga Rua Mano), which had four key principles:

  1. Our people are our wealth: develop and retain
  2. The language is a treasure: halt the decline and survive
  3. The marae is our principle home: maintain and respect
  4. Self-determination: we control our own affairs

Specific metrics were put in place which were to be measured in the year 2000, a generation later, with the strategic aim of creating a renaissance in Māori language, culture, and identity – and the vehicle for all of this would be education.

The strategy to revive language was based on immersive teaching for the youngest learners, led by the elders and set in the traditional meeting place, the marae. This began with week-long seminars, and the pedagogy was focused on being able to hear and then use the language, rather than drilling on grammar. The priority was building cultural capacity, hence the marae setting was also critically important.

What followed was the establishment of early learning centres and primary schools where the medium was entirely te reo Māori. A pivotal development, which enabled these schools to survive, was the creation in 1981 of a Māori university in Ōtaki called Te Wānanga o Raukawa. It began with no funding, no buildings, and only two students. Yet with incredible perseverance, it grew, became a campus, and also provided teacher training. In 2012, the university built a $10m institute for Māori lifestyle that also serves as a community centre for everyone in Ōtaki. Education is now the main source of employment in Ōtaki, and that economic success also explains, in part, why the Māori renaissance has been successful and sustainable. 

So what of those metrics? Well the national census in 2013 shows how remarkable progress has been. Around 1 in 5 Māori people can speak the language nationally; in Ōtaki, one third of the population is Māori, and 16.8% can speak their mother tongue, so that means about half of the Māori here are fluent. That’s far higher than the national rate, and crucially there is no stigma at all in speaking the language (unlike in other parts of New Zealand). In fact, many non-Māori are comfortable using a wide range of vocabulary, and in our visit we heard a lot of terms used with regularity, particular ‘iwi’ (which effectively means ‘nation’, ‘tribe’ and ‘people’), and ‘whanau’ (‘extended family’), reflecting the deeply embedded cultural values of this community.

What We Learned

Our group of pupils from Aberdeen were brilliantly looked after by host families, and we spent a lot of time in Ōtaki College. The Principal, Andy Fraser, is descended from a Scot (from Carnoustie) who settled here, and Andy married a Māori. He is fluent in Te Reo Māori, and is a genuinely inspirational school leader. I sit in on a staff meeting where he speaks Māori fluently, and the staff sing us a traditional greeting. Andy has scant resources to improve things, so he resorts instead to being resourceful. Whenever there’s a chance to enhance the facilities, he mobilises the community and gets things in motion. The school’s values are carved into beautiful boulders that line the drive-way – these were salvaged from a construction project, as were the solar panels which power the swimming pool.

Andy takes us to a marae, where we go through a pōwhiri (the traditional welcome ceremony), where we do the hongi greeting of pressing the forehead together and rubbing noses. The local mayor and MP are here to greet us, and one of our pupils plays the bagpipes to reciprocate their incredible hospitality. Throughout the trip, we are struck by the huge emphasis they put on their connection with Scotland. The assembly hall has portraits of the main building at Robert Gordon’s (the Auld Hoose) and other scenes we recognise. When I venture into a shop in town for souvenirs, the woman behind the till immediately identifies me as part of the visiting Scottish contingent (her children go to Ōtaki College) and gives me some trinkets on the house. Everyone seems to know we are here, and it means a great deal to them that we want to learn as much as we can about their community. 

Inside the marae, the traditional meeting place for the Māori people.

Ōtaki is not an affluent part of New Zealand. One third of the pupils at the College are dyslexic, so support for learning is particularly strong. The pupils we meet are, without exception, impressive, and are keen to meet our group and spend time with them. I get to see a haka practice in the gymnasium and am struck by how genuinely inclusive the culture here is. There’s a deep-rooted respect for Māori traditions, and that’s something that everyone here both buys into, and defends. After all, a major problem for the renaissance here is national education policy, as Māori language education didn’t emanate from within the system. Ōtaki College provides a lot of educational opportunities for the local community outside of the school day, such as traditional wood carving skills, and there’s a clear sense that the gains of Generation 2000 need to be built upon. There is a belief that five generations need to pass before the achievements will be made permanent.

A haka practice session in the gym

Another key learning point is about environmental sustainability, and how integral this is to New Zealand and in particular the Māori. Our group is struck by the commitment to preserving the ecological system, especially when we visit some of the world’s most stunning nature reserves, at TiriTiri Matangi (near Auckland) and Kapiti Island. Some of our group even manage to spot the elusive Kiwi. The Māori connection to the land is of paramount importance; the pepeha is a form of introduction where a person has to say where they physically come from, meaning their river, their mountain, their tribal land. It is beautiful to hear it being said in full. 

We’re here in the middle of a fiercely-contested general election campaign, which shortly after sees a firm step to the right as the Labour Party, previously led by Jacinda Ardern, is decisively rejected by the electorate. At the same time, a referendum in Australia failed to change the constitution to “recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice” by a margin of 60% to 40%. Generation 2000 is a striking success by any standard and provides a model for cultural revival that could be replicated the world over, but these events means that there will be no complacency amongst its younger beneficiaries. They know that the revival has a long way to go, and that they can never rest on their laurels.  

My final reflection is on a conversation with Andy’s daughter, who went to Ōtaki College and is a brilliant example of the alumni. She tells me that her grandmother’s generation thought that the best thing they could do for their children was to get them to assimilate; abandon Māori language and values to speak and think in English. Her mother’s generation, however, were activists and they fought to have a voice. Now, her generation wants to use that voice. She says that Māori people in New Zealand have to “walk in two worlds”, the indigenous and the European, whereas everyone else only walks in the latter world. Her children will, I hope, always be able to walk in their own world with nothing but freedom and dignity. 

Acknowledgements

My thanks go to all our host families in Ōtaki, and the incredible staff and pupils at Ōtaki College. I’m also incredibly grateful to Mark Wilson, Principal of Kristin School in Auckland, who gave us our first grounding in Maori culture at the GAIL conference. We made friends for life on this trip, and learned even more than we could have imagined. Sean Press, a brilliant Ōtaki Scholar (2012), and his wife Emma, accompanied us on a lot of our visits and provided a superb experience in their adopted home city of Wellington. And finally, Andy Fraser and his family were the best hosts you could ever ask for (Mon, if it helps, Scotland definitely doesn’t look that much like New Zealand…!). We can never repay you fully, but we’ll try our best! 

Nurturing Inclusive CPD Events⤴

from @ @robin_macp

This is a guest blog by Sanum J Khan who you can follow on Twitter at @Sanumjkhan. Sanum is a an Assistant Headteacher and frequently speaks at events and writes articles for the education press on a range of issues, especially diversity, equity and inclusion. She is speaking at the 13th Festival of Education this summer.

Attending events – online or in-person – are an excellent way to network with others and explore fresh perspectives. In ‘The Teaching Life’ Jones and Macpherson outline the many benefits of professional networks and education events – including networking, low cost learning, sharing ideas and supporting wellbeing. Opportunities for connecting with others in education is more popular than ever right now and so we want to ensure that, where we create such opportunities, we are doing so in an equitable manner.  

However, I often feel as though I am running two professional learning programs for myself; one which engages with developments in teaching, and a second which centres around mentoring from people with similar characteristics to me who understand my lived experience more fully. 

This is an unsustainable way to expect marginalised or underrepresented groups to plan their careers. When paired with The Making Progress report’s findings that there is a ‘hidden workload of coping with racism’ and Kandola et al’s exploration of the relationship between a lack of belonging and decreased wellbeing (and thus decreased productivity) at work, I conclude that representation of marginalised groups is crying out for an action plan to build trust, nurture a sense of belonging and commit to values-driven leadership and inclusive spaces.

Event organisers 

Event organisers need to consider who they are inviting to speak and how they are being invited. As a Muslim woman, I do not always want to speak about Islamophobia I have experienced in my career as the focus of my session; it is exhausting and a session of this nature limits my professional growth. We need to normalise diversity and representation in education and can’t achieve this by only drawing attention to our diverse identities. It’s also important to identify speakers who uphold our values of inclusivity, regardless of their protected characteristics. DEI should be a lens through which we look at all work in education, as opposed to a stand-alone strand. Diverse Educators Ltd have an extensive list of organisations working in DEI and for specific speakers I recommend the BameEd Network

Once you have your speakers, make plans to ensure that speakers from under-represented or marginalised groups feel welcome, that they belong and that their input is valued. This begins with getting names and pronouns right – in spellings and pronunciation. It is also helpful to review pen-portraits to ensure that all have stuck to the guidelines given. 

Promotion of the event also needs careful consideration. Some speakers will have huge twitter followings and will have published books or blog posts that will give them immediate attention. Others will need you to amplify their work. This can include retweeting their session with a personalised comment about what you are looking forward  to, encouraging participants to attend their session and reaching out to the speaker to relay the positive interest their session has generated. This final suggestion is key for someone who may have typically experienced othering behaviour and thus may not feel they fully belong at your event. 

It is also helpful for speakers and organisers to have time to meet before the sessions begin – perhaps over a coffee in advance or in a welcome on the day. This can put nervous speakers at ease by offering an opportunity for them to be reminded of why their voice and work is so valued and important in this setting. I’ll always remember my conversation with Dr Emma Kell (@thsethatcan) before we spoke at the Astra conference in Bucks, 2022. Emma, thank you for reminding me that every human misplaces their USB or forgets their start time once in a while. Thank you also for referencing me in your introduction session. To have an absolute powerhouse express belief in me helped me own my vulnerability rather than having it own me. 

Speakers 

As a speaker, you may not know who your attendees will be until the moment they come through the door. As people enter the room, be sure to say hello and to welcome them in. Encourage people to fill from the front. Make eye contact and speak to visible minorities in the room. Learn some names so that when you are presenting later, it is easier for you to invite specific people to speak or share. 

There is great value in building in reflection time. This can be a ‘starter’ for participants to discuss with the person next to them as they enter – and you could eavesdrop to pick particular individuals to share ideas with the whole group – or a personal journaling activity which gives people time to tie their thoughts together. For some, offering thoughts in a group situation can feel daunting. Offering reflection time takes some of this fear away. Another way to remove some of this fear is to stay behind for a few moments in case anyone has further questions or comments that they don’t want to ask in front of peers. 

Finally, think carefully about how you select people to ask questions. Giving the room a few moments for multiple hands to go up before you select people to ask questions is helpful. If you’ve picked someone who visibly represents the most common characteristics in the room to ask a question first, identify someone who does not represent these characteristics to go next – and let them know you’ll come to them next. 

Attendees 

If you are attending an event, you are not ‘off the hook’ as far as nurturing inclusive spaces is concerned. Consider, firstly, which CPD sessions you attend. If DEI is the lens through which changes in education ought to be viewed, then you must take steps to learn more about developments here. Reading blogs, articles and books is of course valuable but attending sessions offers a networking opportunity, as well as the chance to engage with the lived experiences of others, that shouldn’t be overlooked. 

When signing up for sessions within an event, don’t be afraid to attend a session you know nothing about. Listen, take notes, ask questions and plan for some reflection time after the session. Equally, if there are speakers you have not heard of, read their pen portraits and any additional reading material they have recommended. We commonly populate our professional sphere with like-minded people who have similar interests and academic pursuits. However, if doing this has not resulted in inclusive spaces and diverse events then we need to move out of our comfort zones. 

Once you’re in the room, be brave and sit near the front. Make small talk with the speaker and pay particular attention to what has drawn you into their session. Also, think carefully about attendees who are sitting alone. If there are visible minorities in the room, invite yourself to join them and start a conversation. In her Netflix show ‘The Call to Courage’, Brene Brown talks about the stories we tell ourselves. So often I have sat in a space and told myself I don’t belong, others think I don’t fit here and that anything I offer will be unintelligent and unimportant. These seemingly small acts of warmth and humanity can have a huge impact. 

My final piece of advice is to those who have been marginalised and who do attend sessions as the minority in the room. You deserve to be in that space and any event which doesn’t feel inclusive is not a sign that you do not belong. Be brave; sit at the front, make conversation, ask questions and send follow-up emails or tweets. Your learning and growth matters and if others have not planned through a DEI lens, you will need to dig deep to find your confidence. In my experience, it’s no easy task but with the right mentors/coaches/sponsors, it is definitely worth it. 

Final comments

This blog post is not a checklist for success; as society grows and changes, so too will our practices and aspirations. The books photographed here have all contributed, in some way, to the formulation of my thoughts and I recommend you add them to your summer reading list. I am also speaking at the Festival of Education this year on DEI as part of school culture – come and join me! 

A Summer of Festivals Part III: EduFest Le Rosey⤴

from @ @robin_macp

The third and final instalment of this series is about EduFest at Institut Le Rosey in Switzerland, which debuted in 2019 and was back in 2022 after a COVID-enforced hiatus. It’s a start-up which has huge potential, bringing together educators from across Europe every two years. From what I saw, it has a bright future. 

If you want to find a venue for an education festival, then the vicinity of Lake Geneva is not a bad place to look. Le Rosey is one of the leading Swiss boarding schools and has made a strategic decision to move into thought leadership by running their own education festival. The ambition to make this a major European event is clear, though persuading local teachers to attend seems to be a harder task than attracting those from Germany, France, and the UK. 

The line-up was incredible, with Dylan Wiliam headlining and providing further sessions. Strands were curated by researchED and WomenED, and there was a good range of speakers presenting in French for the local audience. Content Director Kim Kovacevic and his team deserve a lot of credit for that, as do the logistics team run by Philippa Barton. It certainly had a festival atmosphere, helped by spectacular weather. The campus is a mixture of the traditional and the ultra-modern, and the main performing arts centre provides a stunning and perfectly-equipped venue for a range of sessions. 

Keynote – Dylan Wiliam (@dylanwiliam): How Do We Prepare Young People For A World We Cannot Imagine?

The first thing to say is that if you haven’t seen Dylan speak, you really need to add that to your bucket list. He is very, very good. It’s a bit like watching a magician who pauses every so often to let you in on the trick. Dylan walked us through many aspects of educational and societal change, challenging orthodoxy and busting myths with ease. For example, we frequently hear that the increasing application of AI will destroy jobs, but the advent of the cash machine (which should have made many bank tellers redundant) actually increased jobs in the US over the long term because it allowed bank workers to focus on things that mattered more. This is why the only 21st century skill that matters is metacognition.

The one really competitive skill is the skill of being able to learn… We need to produce people who know how to act when they’re faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared.

– Papert, 1998

Dylan then went through the many new ideas that we’ve seen in education over the past couple of decades, and his take on growth mindset is worth sharing widely. Essentially, there is no evidence yet to suggest that GM interventions have provided any meaningful impact in pupil learning. Here’s the evidence base he cited.

Dylan then called on us to be critical consumers of research. This slide is a very succinct and helpful steer on how we do that, by asking questions of research.

Overall, a tour de force from an educator who remains at the forefront of international thinking, and at the top of his game.

@robin_macp: Paradigm Shifts in Professional Learning

I ran back to back sessions on my book The Teaching Life, which was co-authored with Kate Jones (@KateJones_teach). You can read a review by Zoe Enser (@greeborunner) in Schools Week about it here. The talk crunched down some of the major arguments we make, such as taking control of your professional learning can enhance career planning, agency, and wellbeing. So much has changed in the world of professional learning, and not all of that due to COVID, but it has been an accelerator of sorts. We expand on Carl Hendrick’s argument that this is a golden age of professional learning, and pose challenge questions to the reader to get them to consider their own learning and career progression. 

One of my favourite riffs is about low cost/high impact professional learning. Here’s one of my slides which has ten such methods, so see how many of them you’ve done in the past year.

After both of my sessions we had a lively Q&A and interestingly the same difficult question was asked after each one: how do we evaluate professional learning effectively? That’s tough, and I spoke about grappling with this with the Teacher Development Trust a few years ago. This post has a little more about how they do that.   

Dylan Wiliam (@dylanwiliam): Teacher Learning

Back for more, and this time the focus was on how we can develop as teachers to become better at what we do. There were four questions Dylan posed at the outset:

  1. What makes effective teacher learning?
  2. How should teacher meetings be organised?
  3. What doesn’t get done?
  4. How will we know if it’s working?

He spoke about the ‘Knowing-Doing Gap’ (Pfeffer, 2000) and I was particularly interested in Nonaka and Takeuchi’s model of knowledge creation and conversion (1995). We lose so much tacit knowledge in schools through experienced staff moving on, that we are always struggling to replace that.   

Never one to just identify a problem and leave it hanging, Dylan set out his model for teacher learning and communities (see the sides below), as well as the responsibility of senior leaders. He said that his wife, a headteacher of 20 years’ experience, describes herself as a ‘deflective leader’, meaning that she spends a lot of time deflecting nonsense away from her staff that comes from outside the school. I know what that feels like…

Carl Hendrick (@C_Hendrick): How Learning Happens

Carl has been busy since we co-authored ‘What Does It Look Like In The Classroom?’ in 2017, having written ‘How Learning Happens’ with Paul Kirschner (@P_A_Kirschner). He went through many of the key aspects of the book, challenging poor practice like ‘just Googling it’ and highlighting solutions, like the Dunlosky et al  (2013) study which shows the gap between what students actually do, and what they should do. Cognitive Load Theory was a core aspect of the talk, as well as the interesting work on engagement. If you want an excellent guide to how learning really happens, then look no further than this book. 

Tom Bennett (@tombennett71): How To Get Anyone To Do Anything – The Parent And Teacher Guide To Managing Children

I last saw Tom speak at researchED Scotland in Glasgow in February 2020 and since then he’s published Running The Room, which I strongly recommend. In his usual irrepressible form on stage, Tom set out the nature of the behaviour that we see in children, and the essential contention that behaviour is something that is learned, ergo it requires a curriculum. The mantra of ‘don’t just tell children how to behave, teach them’ is key; there is a pedagogy to this. He cited the document he produced for the DofE, Creating A Culture (2017), and his list of takeaways is very helpful indeed.

Behaviour is one of the toughest areas that teachers grapple with, but keeping it simple and consistent is a good way to improve things. This was a talk that gives you the confidence that this can, and will happen. 

Takeaways

The one downside to speaking twice is that you can’t get to as many sessions as you like, and it was a real shame to miss Adam Boxer, Becky Allen, Pedro de Bruyckere and Carli Ochs in particular, but I did get to finally meet Twitter pal Parm Plummer. It was also a pleasure to have another head from a Scottish school in tow, as Simon Brian from St Leonard’s in Fife came along and he also took the chance to visit some other Swiss schools for IBO experience. The chance to speak to educators from across Europe was a valuable opportunity, allowing us to compare notes about our respective systems. I hope this event grows and reaches a wider audience, and do check out the website for news about the next iteration in 2024. There’s a lot more to come. 

A Summer of Festivals Part II: Friday at #EducationFest⤴

from @ @robin_macp

The second day of the Festival of Education saw equal amounts of sunshine and political debate given that Boris (finally) resigned so there was a real buzz about the place. I managed to fit in sessions on classroom practice, social mobility, coaching and the BAMEed strand, so there was no rest for the wicked…

Nicholas Hopton (@RisbyDuck0): Going On A Bear Hunt – Making Desirable Difficulties Desirable 

After being in the bigger venues yesterday I wanted to start today with some pedagogy. The Maths and MFL Departments have a very different feel, as sessions are usually by teachers and about what they do in the classroom. The title of this one caught my eye, and it didn’t disappoint. Nicholas is Head of English at Bedford School, and in terms of being well versed on current pedagogical  thinking he certainly knows his stuff. This session (as the title suggests) was about Robert and Elizabeth Bjork’s work on desirable difficulties and how we make that happen during lessons. 

In Nicholas’ approach, lesson planning is structured around the Bear Hunt story with balancing classroom challenges (rivers, mud, forests and caves) with scaffolds (walking sticks, pathways and maps). Of course, when faced with an obstacle, pupils can’t go around it/over it/under it but have to go through it. It’s about creating obstacles that pupils can, with effort and just enough support, overcome. Nicholas also threw in some Ron Berger (feedback should be “kind, specific and actionable”), and I loved what he does every summer with his pupils. They write spy fiction, and afterwards the pupils publish their work and have a book launch. Overall, a very good session with a lot of practical advice that was grounded in the best of current thinking. 

Hashi Mohamed (@hm_hashi): Adventures in Social Mobility

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Hashi since we both went on a Remembering Srebrenica delegation to Bosnia several years ago. Since then he has become one of Britain’s most important voices on social mobility and race (you can hear more about his own story via his BBC Radio 4 documentary series and his book).

Hashi is the 8th of 12 children, born in Kenya to Somali parents. His mother was illiterate and his father was killed in a car crash. He came to the UK in 1993 at the age of 9, and couldn’t speak a word of English. He then went on to Oxford University and qualified as a barrister. If you think this is going to be an inspiring story of how hard work and grit leads to success, think again. Hashi is a critic of the concept of social mobility (both absolute and relative mobility) and argues that his story is the exception, not the rule. 

Hashi was keen to stress the importance of early years education.

“I really strongly believe that this period can make a huge difference in someone’s life. No period of life is as important as the first four years. It’s when the basic structures of your brain are established. They set the course for your life.”

When it comes to inherited poverty, he warns that “deprivation begins in the womb.”

Much like David Olusoga yesterday, Hashi is not a fan of “meaningless slogans and phrases” (what David called ‘deepisms’). Teachers tell children that ‘work hard and you can achieve anything.’ He was scathing about Michaela Community School (which is five minutes from where he lives). 

“Children should not be robots who walk silently in corridors. That school would not have worked for me, as a traumatised child. I promise you now that that environment would not and could not have brought out the best in me.” 

He was clear that we have to grasp the reality that the problems we face in society are far more profound than teachers can deal with. Yet despite this, teachers and parents will still be left to deal with the consequences of what happened over the past two years; sadly, we cannot rely on the current government to deal with that legacy. 

Another interesting contention he set out was this:

“Data does not show a direct link between education and social mobility. It isn’t there. It isn’t the determining factor. Education gets you to the starting line of a race. You then have to run it.”

He talks about some young people benefiting from a life that goes “From quad to quad to quad. You run from one manicured lawn to another. It is a life that is both straight and square.” For his own part, he broke into this by luck as much as anything else:

“I know that I have been lucky. Luck is an important factor to consider. Bad luck is easy to see, you can’t miss it. Good luck is something we often think is not actually luck, but something created by us.” 

It was a fantastic session with many important provocations, making it a natural successor to David Olusoga’s talk the day before.

Chris Munro (@CmunroOz) and Christian van Nieuwerburgh (@ChristianvN): GROWTH Coaching 

There was a significant strand on coaching and some of the key individuals in UK and international education were at the forefront of this, such as Rachel Lofthouse from CollectivED and Jim Knight. I didn’t manage to see them but did catch Chris Munro and Christian van Nieuwerburgh from Growth Coaching International doing a session which was really a live demonstration and analysis of the process involved in coaching. Christian asked for an audience volunteer, who happened to be a lecturer from Oxford University, and they went through a coaching discussion (she asked for assistance with how to be a better coach). Chris paused every so often to analyse the method with the audience. It worked very effectively and they referred to the GROWTH model, which Chris was keen to point out is not linear, but can be done in any order. 

I had a really good discussion with Chris afterwards (somehow he and I have managed to miss each other despite his long period of lecturing at the University of Aberdeen). I’m really interested in where coaching sits in terms of reflective practice, as my next book will be on that theme. He gave me a lot to consider and links to go away and read, so that was a big help. This is why the festival is so good; you can approach any of the speakers and ask them for advice and guidance. 

BAMEed (@BAMEedNetwork) Mentoring and Coaching – Effective Development Support for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Educators

A really positive addition to the festival programme was a dedicated BAMEed strand, curated by Penny Rabiger (@Penny_Ten) (amongst others). Penny was in the audience and at one point reminded us that BAMEed was founded with both white and BAME educators on board, so that “it’s not a deficit model. We want to increase the racial literacy of white people who are in positions of power.” She also reminded us, when we hit the sensitive point of language and terminology, that “language is always dynamic and always inadequate.” For what my humble opinion is worth, we need many more people like Penny in education.

This was a lively panel chaired by Lizana Oberholzer (@LO_EduforAll), with Krupa Patel and Nazya Ghalib as the guests. The focus was on the network’s provision of pro bono coaching for three sessions, with continued support available thereafter. Contact can be made through the website and Lizana assigns the applicant a coach from the extensive and experienced BAMEed team. Krupa and Nazya gave a lot of insight into the way this works and what the experience has been like for them as coaches. Both are hugely experienced and I can imagine that anyone who has them for a coach is being really well supported. 

The discussion became very open with frequent questions from the floor, and I asked if the coaches tend to experience normative issues with coachees, or was it more specific due to the constituency? The panellists agreed that they see much more in the way of coachees dealing with issues of race and barriers, such as lack of representation. That is predictably sad, but BAMEed is providing support that will be game-changing in the long term.

Mindful of the discussion I had yesterday with Sanum Khan (@Sanumjkhan) and Kamraan Khan (@Kamraan1984) (who I sat next to at this session and we picked up where we left off) about the level of diversity seen in the regular festival session audiences and the BAMEed strand, I have to say that was again the case here. It’s brilliant that the festival has this strand, and I doubt there is much the organisers can do about audience footfall, but it was a really interesting point that Sanum makes about running two different PL programmes. Further thinking is needed on that point, but I had a great conversation with Penny at the end that will hopefully lead to further progress on this point in terms of teacher recruitment. Watch this space.  

Networking

Finally, if you haven’t already been persuaded to attend the festival in the future, consider the brilliant networking opportunities that it presents. I didn’t go to every single session because I spent so much time talking to people, many of whom I haven’t seen in a very long time. There are many areas where people can just sit and have some food, a coffee, or even a cocktail, and if you want to have a go at speaking then the outdoor ‘green room’ is amazing. I had a great lunch with Hashi Mohamed, Jim Heal, Sarah Donarski, Eva Hartell, Kim Kovacevic and others which was as good as going to any of the sessions. I strongly recommend putting in a pitch to be a speaker for 2023 via the website from September onwards.

That’s what makes this event so special; it genuinely is a festival rather than a conference, because the laid back approach, multiple stalls and activities, and sociable community it creates are wonderful. A huge thank you to Shane Mann (@shanermann) and his team (especially you, Adele Kilby!); you all did a great job. I’m delighted it’s back. 

A Summer of Festivals Part I: Thursday at #EducationFest⤴

from @ @robin_macp

After moving online during the pandemic, the Festival of Education at Wellington College was back on site and in person for 2022. It also moved date, coming in early July rather than late June, and that had no adverse impact on attendance or interest. With around 400 speakers and over 5,000 attendees over the two days, it’s back to being an essential part of the professional learning calendar. Here are some notes from the sessions I attended, and I’ve hyperlinked as much as I can to let you follow up the aspects that interest you most. If you want a sense of what it’s like, there’s a short highlights video here.

David Olusoga (@DavidOlusoga): Black and British – A Short Essential History

I began with a headliner, and he definitely did not disappoint. David spoke candidly about his personal experience (including being driven out of his family home by the National Front), his publishing career, and his belief that “histories are on the march”. He has multiple identities: Nigerian; half white working-class (with Scottish roots); black; and British. The book that helped him to make sense of these identities was Staying Power (1984) by Peter Friar, and he apologised for not writing children’s fiction sooner because he “looked down on children’s publishing, despite my own experiences.” He, and the publishing industry, are now making up for those mistakes.

He was very clear about the failures of the current education system. For GCSE History in 2020, for example, there were 59 options offered by the various exam boards. Only 12 of these cover black history, and even then only 5 are about black British history (the remainder are about slavery and civil rights in the USA). He said something that particularly resonated with me, as a history teacher:

“It shouldn’t have needed the murder of an African American outside a convenience store for change to happen… There is an enormous shift in attitudes that is being driven by an underlying generational change. The younger generation don’t believe that history is a place you go to be taught comforting myths.” 

Once we moved into the Q&A it really opened up on some huge issues. When asked about his views on Black History Month, he gave the most powerful defence of BHM I’ve ever heard.  Going back to 1987, it has been a significant vehicle for change. 

“It’s one of the greatest achievements of the black British community – a moment when we supercharge black history and turn up the volume. Teachers have used BHM as a battering ram against resistance to introducing this history to their school.” 

To argue that we need black history 12 months a year “sounds cool but is incredibly destructive…to call it tokenistic is ludicrous” especially as we don’t ever hear people challenging Holocaust Memorial Day on the same basis. He used the word “deepisms” to describe the kind of sloganeering that sounds good but is actually reductive and false – a point we’ll return to later with Hashi Mohamed. 

On EDI, he argues that “the legal and financial sectors are doing better than the liberal arts and education because we gave ourselves a free pass.” He also disagrees with the narrative of victimhood around slavery history:

“If you are descended from slaves you are descended from survivors. The last thing we should do is think about them as victims, there was resistance at every stage of their life. We should remember them as heroic.”

A final question that was very tough for David (or anyone) to answer came from a young woman at the front of the audience: what colour is your heart today? His answer?

“I believe in empathy. If we can be empathetic we can tell the history of any people. History makes you empathise with people and that’s the most valuable thing for children to learn.” 

Sir Anthony Seldon (@AnthonySeldon): 5 Things That Will Change in Education in the Next 10 Years and 5 That Won’t

If David Olusoga set the intellectual and moral tone for the festival, Sir Anthony Seldon brought the big picture and the bounce. Bear in mind that this was Boris Johnson’s denouement, when we had three education secretaries in a day, so Anthony was moving seamlessly between presentations and media interviews. His audience got the benefit of multiple riffs on current politics throughout, much to their delight. 

He began with an overview of the Times Education Commission in discussion with political journalist Rachel Sylvester. The Commission focused on what people outside the education system want to see, not what the education system wants for itself. This was driven by concern at the increasing narrowing of the system, and a desire for change across different sectors of society. The consensus that emerged was that “education should not be done to children and teachers, but with them and for them.” The UK is being left behind internationally, compared to forward thinking systems like Holland (which leads on wellbeing) and Estonia (which leads on robotics). Here:

“one third of young people are told that they have failed by age 16 and those are disproportionately from the most disadvantaged areas of society. One third leave school with mental health issues.” 

So Anthony posed us a question: in the next decade, what five things will change and what will stay the same? He gave us some time to consider our answers to that, and as he went through his list he challenged us to see if our predictions were aligned. 

So what will change? He definitely sees a change to exams, development of the curriculum, family engagement in education (the idea of ‘porous walls’ was floated), the use of technology (especially AI and green-tech) and the impact of EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion). And what will stay the same? Pathways into higher education, early years education, support for parenting, and the political control of the system. 

Some of the stats he presented were terrifying. In the last 10 years government spending on health has gone up 42% compared to just 4% in education. He didn’t feel that funding, or the position of teachers and staff will change a great deal. Ofsted was deemed too confrontational, with only 1% of teachers believing it led to positive changes in their school. 

On political change, his prediction was that we wouldn’t see a general election until 2024 and that Wes Streeting will replace Sir Keir Starmer as Labour leader before that. You heard it here first. He then finished in a very upbeat note, which was well received:

“Learning is an extraordinary joy when we set it up in the right way. We have a natural desire to learn.” 

Panel: The Importance of Teacher-led CPD

This had a formidable line-up consisting of Rae Snape (@RaeSnape), Nikki Cunningham-Smith (@NikkiCuSmith) and Adrian Bethune (@AdrianBethune), and they did exceptionally well to battle the heat in the marquee. There was early emphasis on the importance of dialogic communities, meaning “teachers reading the same research and debating it.” I saw this just before I did my own session and was pleased to hear the importance of school visits, using social media, and reading groups as methods of effective and informal professional learning. There was also reference to the DofE’s Standards for Teachers’ Professional Development document which emphasises that “Professional development must be prioritised by school leadership.”

Adrian cautioned about anything that might be the ‘next big thing’, with a reference to the recent EEF report about cognitive psychology. Is this a case of academic research being transferred into the classroom as a lethal mutation? This led to a point being made by Nikki that you have to be careful about what you embed and how you evaluate that, as with multiple new initiatives being launched it can lead to a very varied experience for pupils as they move from one classroom to the next. She put it very well when she said “if you are interested in it and believe in it, it will be sustained over time.” 

There was an interesting discussion at the end about the best CPD that the panellists had ever done. For Nikki this was a 3-day course by Bill Rogers on behaviour with the takeaway being that “learning to be a better practitioner doesn’t look like everyone thinks it does.” Rae added the importance of having a headteacher community around you, and shared her idea of having an academic in residence (one that I think has real value). She is setting up an ‘empathy lab’ which will include three teachmeets per term, and will share more information in due course. 

My Session: The Teaching Life – How to Build Your Career Through Effective Professional Learning

I won’t spend much time on my own session, as Sarah Donarski (@s_donarski) has very kindly written a detailed piece about it here. It was based on my book with Kate Jones (@KateJones_teach) on professional learning and career development. I will share one slide below which consists of challenge questions for teachers about their career, so perhaps have a go at them and see if you can provide answers to them all.

After I spoke, I had a really fascinating conversation with Sanum Khan (@Sanumjkhan) and Kamraan Khan  (@Kamraan1984) who approached me from the audience. Their challenge was why were they the only non-white educators at my session, and why was the BAMEed strand the converse? I honestly couldn’t answer that but it started a theme that was continued the next day (and beyond). For more on that how that unfolded, see part II of this mini-series of summer festival blogs.

That wrapped up a pretty epic first day, with a lot to reflect on.

On sightseeing, and getting lost.⤴

from @ @robin_macp

A tribute to my father-in-law, Dr Ansar Skandary.

Unusually, this piece is not about my professional life, but my personal life. It was driven by a desire to put something into words for my own children. Unlike my professional blogs it will not be actively advertised or shared, but will just sit here waiting for anyone to read it who will find some value in it; it is about memory, loss, grief, love and appreciation. Fundamentally, I just felt that it was a story that needed to be put into words.

I’m sitting in my father-in-law’s flat in the summer of 2022, three months after he died. He lived just outside the European quarter in Brussels, in one of those huge apartment blocks that the city has in abundance. The street below is always busy and noisy; tonight there is a party going on nearby with plenty of loud voices, even though it’s Sunday night in the middle of a severe heatwave. Yet up here on the 10th floor, that noise seems very distant. 

The view from the 10th floor

Dr Skandary’s flat is small, even cramped. You get here via a lift that says it can hold nine people but in reality it’s four. There is one bedroom, a decent sized living room, a galley kitchen and a box room that served as a dining room which, at a squeeze, could get eight people around the table. Yet despite its size, I adore it. The decor is uniquely his own (the walls are all bright red), and reflects two passions: his family, and his love of hospitality. There are photos placed everywhere, many of them showcasing his life in the 60s and 70s. The view out of the windows looks west across the city, and lends the flat a feeling of space and perspective that it would otherwise lack if lower down the building. I feel totally at ease here; I feel just as strongly about this cosy flat as I do about my childhood home. I first set foot here sixteen years ago, and of all the places that have meant something in my life this association has been the longest. I have many happy memories, and it saddens me greatly to think this is the last time I will be here. 

Dr Skandary, on the far right, as a young man in Afghanistan

Dr Skandary’s life was far from ordinary. Born in Afghanistan just after the Second World War, he set out for Paris as a young man to study geology at the Sorbonne. He stayed on to complete his doctorate there, and he married my wonderful mother-in-law Mahmooda (a woman who has an equally incredible biography). Their honeymoon was an epic road trip, driving from Paris to Kabul. They made it all the way to the Iran-Afghanistan border where the import taxes on their car meant they had to abandon it and complete the voyage on public transport. Imagine doing that journey now. 

Dr Skandary rose through the ranks of government and was a minister during the 1980s when the socialist, pro-Soviet administration fought the Mujahideen. Almost all western histories of this period speak of the Soviet (or Russian) ‘invasion’ of Afghanistan in 1979, but Dr Skandary and his family don’t see it this way. They argue that the Afghan government invited Russian forces in to fight narrow-minded (and US-armed) religious fanatics. After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, a brutal civil war between various factions in the Mujahideen led to the rise of the Taliban, so it is perhaps a period worth revising. After all, which western historians talk of the American ‘invasion’ of Vietnam? 

Dr Skandary held on for two more years after the Russians withdrew, but life in Kabul became too dangerous to endure. The Mujahideen had a tactic of kidnapping and torturing the children of government ministers, and with four yong children it was a risk he could not take. In 1991, he took his family to Delhi, departing with a single suitcase each. It was meant to be temporary, but he returned to Kabul a few weeks later to pack up the rest of their belongings. He found their apartment in Mikrorayon had been ransacked, and anything of value was gone. He returned to India, and would never again set foot in his beloved Afghanistan. His decision to leave was fully justified by the horrific death of his final boss, President Najibullah, in 1996, despite UN protection.1

Two years later the family moved to Russia, living a risky existence as illegal immigrants in a state that was transitioning from communism to capitalism. My wife remembers queuing for hours as a child for bread, but also her father taking her to McDonald’s in Moscow. From being a government minister with a limousine and driver at his beck and call, he was now working in a street market to support his family. Six years in both Moscow and St Petersburg followed, desperately trying to survive. Yet despite this poverty, many friends and family remember how generous he was helping others, and in exile he remained a central figure in the Afghan diaspora. 

In the late 1990s he and his wife were granted, at separate times, political asylum in Belgium because they were Francophone. They were finally reunited, as a family of six, in a one-bedroom apartment in Brussels. It seemed that finally they had some stability and security, and their children could go to school. He worked for the Belgian government, vetting asylum applications because many non-Afghans tried to game the system by claiming to be from Afghanistan. He interviewed them to see if their claims were legitimate or not. This was his last work in life, which seems an extraordinary waste of talent for someone who was awarded a doctorate by the Sorbonne and signed international treaties and trade agreements on behalf of his government. 

I first met him in 2006, in the same room that I am writing this piece, when I asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage. He spoke Dari and French perfectly, but not English, so I had been to night school to reprise my secondary school French to ensure that I passed the test. Somehow, mercifully, I did. We became good friends, and I can honestly say that we never had a crossed word. He was always the life and soul of the party, dressed to kill, playing the gregarious diplomat at every family gathering and wedding, but it was in his own apartment that I thought he was at his best. 

His cooking was legendary. His speciality was an Afghan dish called laandy pulao, which (if you’re a purist) involves dry-curing lamb for weeks before cooking it in copious amounts of rice. It’s a dish that very few people can cook, and I may never experience it again. There was always a ritual to visiting his home. The entrance, the formal welcome, the apératif, the food, the ‘bon cafe’ digestif on the sofa next door, and the leisurely catching up as the afternoon stretched lazily on. That same pattern, that familiarity, was a constant joy to me. I always knew what to expect when I visited him; this included reproaching me for letting my French slip, before being complimented for (somehow) making progress by the end of our visit a few days later. 

We had a shared love of football, politics, good whisky, and philosophy. Although he was a man of science by training, he always talked about the broad principles of life. What makes a person good and honest was a frequent topic of conversation. I knew full well that he was educating me and setting out his expectations at the same time, but I appreciated that greatly. It was just what I hoped to get out of my relationship with my father-in-law. 

He was a convinced socialist through and through. Not long after we first met, my parents came to Brussels to meet him and we went for a walk in the city. As we passed a mosque, my father (a presbyterian minister and RE teacher) asked him if he was a frequent visitor there. He simply said “Jamais. Je suis un socialiste.” He observed the rituals of Islam when the occasion called for it, but he was absolutely secular. I could never place him exactly in terms of his politics, but if I had to try I would say he was not a million miles from Nehru. 

I got a small taste of what his political modus operandi was like when my wife and I had our Afghan wedding in Cologne in 2008. We had to visit the wedding centre (a venue popular with Afghans and Turks in the west of Germany) to negotiate the details and the price. I sat next to him and just watched, making constant mental notes, as he did all the talking. Over several rounds of tea, and with a mixture of bonhomie and steel, he induced the management to offer the very best service at the lowest possible price. He had a particular talent for showing his disapproval in his body language, but not his words. It was masterly. And after all, he knew he had a strong bargaining position. He was still a significant name in the Afghan diaspora. To give a specific example, when my wife went to the Afghan embassy in Brussels to apply for work experience, she was asked to give her name. When she said ‘Skandary’, they immediately said “Ah, you must be Dr Skandary’s daughter!” Any attempt at achieving anything on her own merit has always been difficult because of this.

He was very conscientious about his health. He swam regularly (I tried and failed to keep pace with him once – let’s put that one down to youthful naivety) and he walked for two hours every evening. Afghans have a saying that “sightseeing is sightseeing, but getting lost is still sightseeing.” When my wife was little he told her that she should walk everywhere to learn her surroundings and should always pay attention to the names of the streets. It is a habit I have picked up from him, and I recommend it to everyone. It helps you to know where you are, and where you are going. 

He seemed indefatigable to me, yet he succumbed to a heart attack not long after being admitted to hospital during a visit to see his brothers in Denmark, suffering from high blood pressure. I last saw him in October 2019, and that gap was down to COVID; our next scheduled trip in April 2020 was cancelled, and it never crossed my mind that the forced separation of that period would mean that we would never see each other again.

After his funeral in Copenhagen in April 2022, we had a family get together and it was a strange occasion. It felt as though he was there; I always expected to see him as I went from one room to another. At the end of the evening we watched a reel of photographs of him over the years, and it was a trigger to my grief. It came in powerful waves. The enormity of what I – we – had lost suddenly came over me and I couldn’t control it. He had had that effect on many more people besides me. 

So now I sit here in his flat for the last time, putting down some thoughts for posterity. This is mainly for his five surviving grandchildren, only one of whom will retain any memories of him into adulthood. He was by no means perfect, but he owned his imperfections. His passing was marked by a wave of loyalty and affection from the hundreds of attendees at his funeral, some coming from very far away. 

Having lost my own father ten years ago, I am still processing the loss of my second father. As with all important relationships, the memories live for many years afterwards. I read recently that great people die twice; the first death is physical, and the second is when their legacy ceases to be remembered. I think that Dr Skandary’s second passing will be a long time coming.

Rest in peace, Baba Jan. 

1  I should add that my wife’s family has the utmost respect for President Najibullah. If this period interests you, follow Heela Najibullah on Twitter. My wife met her recently at a conference for the Afghan diaspora and it was a rare case of meeting your idol and not being disappointed. 

The Danish Way of Life 2: Sport and Physical Activity⤴

from @ @robin_macp

This is the second blog about a visit to Denmark to learn about education and the provision of sport and physical activity. The first blog is about the school system and provides more context for this piece.

5,700 teenagers performing at Landsstævne, in Svendborg.

For the past two years I’ve been investigating the future of sport and physical education. If we’re going to improve the wellbeing of young people, and indeed all of society, then sport and physical fitness have a central role to play. As part of this process I’ve been talking to various people from the Observatory for Sport Scotland, a think-tank that provides research and organises events to inform public debate and policy making. When I asked about best practice outside the UK, I was told that Denmark was well worth visiting. What follows is my learning from a trip to see Landsstævne, and I’m very grateful to Charlie Raeburn from OSS for arranging various meetings for me with key people in Danish sport and education. 

The Sports Analysis Institute (IDAN)

One of the key elements in Danish sport is the Danish Institute for Sports Studies (IDAN), which is a think tank that is funded by the Ministry of Culture, but has significant autonomy. It began in 2005 and is responsible for the Danish Institute for Non-Formal Education (Vifo) and also the Play the Game conference. Play the Game is fascinating; founded in 1997, it looks at ethical issues and controveries like doping and gambling, and it views sport as a vehicle for democracy. Attendees are typically investigative journalists, academics and policy makers. 

IDAN was instrumental in the creation of the Observatory for Sport Scotland. In fact, Henrik Brandt, who spent many years working at IDAN and now runs his own consultancy, was involved in OSS from the start. We have a long way to go in Scotland to provide the same level of community engagement and infrastructure that Denmark has, but if we’re going to get there OSS has a central role to play. OSS has no public funding, unlike IDAN, so in many ways we’re fortunate that it exists at all.

The Role of Sports Clubs – DGI

DGI is an organisation that covers a wide range of sports clubs across Denmark. For a country of 5.8 million people, it is incredible that DGI supports 6,400 member clubs across 14 regions. That’s a staggering 1.65m Danes who are affiliated to a local club with DGI membership, about a quarter of the population. Danes spend on average 800 euros a year on sport and physical fitness, and the sector is worth about 2% of GDP. This network of clubs is run by around 100,000 volunteers which underscores the Danish emphasis on community. In fact, if you look at DGI’s values you see that ‘a sense of community’ is first on the list. Volunteering is so important that Mogens Kirkeby, vice president of DGI, told me that “if you lose one volunteer you lose ten participants. If you gain one volunteer, you gain ten more people.”

DGI is a big organisation; it has an annual turnover of 90 million euros and supports physical activity for all ages, which is vital in a society that values life-long engagement in sport and wellbeing. That starts early; some 80% of Danish children will become a member of a sports club before before the age of 12. This isn’t even the whole picture; in addition and complementary to DGI there is DIF, the association of 62 national governing bodies, which represents a total over 9,000 clubs. Most clubs are affiliated to both DIF (historically representing English sport) and DGI (historically representing rural gymnastics). An example of this is the football club IF Lyseng which has 1,700 members.

The International Sport and Culture Association (ISCA)

Mogens is also President of ISCA which has its headquarters in Copenhagen. It began in 1995 and is an international network of 260 sporting organisations across 89 countries on all continents. The values that are inherent in Danish sport can also be seen in ISCA, such as the idea that sport is a driver of community and democracy. It provides support and advocacy for members around their core purpose of “moving people”. It is a broad umbrella group that is really about physical activity, so organised sport is a subset of that. Through ISCA, Denmark exports its philosophy of wellbeing and thought leadership around the globe. One of the most consistent beliefs I came across was the importance of exchanging ideas for the common good. 

The Role of the State and Governing Bodies

It’s worth noting the role that the state plays in this. There is autonomy for the various organisations described here, but there is significant state funding for DGI and the national governing bodies (see part 1 about Danish boarding schools and the folk school movement). The commitment to sport as a part of national wellbeing, and the multi-party support for funding this, is central to the national philosophy of creating a sense of belonging and civil participation. Local authorities are charged with supporting clubs for children and youth and through access to or subsidies for local sports facilities, and this is all enshrined in legislation. For example, all state schools must make their facilities available to clubs after the end of the day and throughout weekends and holidays. Local authorities have also been tasked with providing support for marginalised communities to get involved.

In my visit to Oure School I saw two interesting examples of this. One was the Danish Football Association’s funding for their impressive new football facility. Yet there was also a contrary example. Their golf programme was struggling so they approached the national governing body for guidance and support, and got nothing back. What did they do? They turned their hand to other sports that did get buy-in, in this case mountain-biking and sailing. If you look carefully at the shape of the building in this photo of Oure’s biking centre, you can see what it used to be – a golf driving range.

There is a salutary lesson here for governing bodies everywhere; ignore the grass roots at your peril. And for schools, Michael Sørensen was very clear about the significance of values. “The first thing you should ask a governing body is about their values. If they align with yours, you can work with them.”

Landsstævne

DGI runs an event every four years called Landsstævne. This is a huge sports meeting that lasts for a week and in 2022 the turnout was 25,000, which put quite a demand on the town of Svendborg and its population of 27,000. Of the attendees some 50% are under the age of 23, so this is a real mixture of children and adults. The oldest participants were in their 80s. 

Landsstævne means ‘gathering’ and the first one to take place in Denmark was in 1935 at Ollerup (which is a short distance from Svendborg). That attracted 14,000 people who built a village consisting of 1,000 tents. Sports that were offered back then included handball, football, gymnastics, swimming, diving and folk dancing. Those are all still part of the modern Landsstævne, but of course it has evolved – there are 30 sports on offer and eSports are now a big attraction. This is really a ‘grassroots Olympics’ and similar festivals can be found in Germany, the Czech Republic and elsewhere. The traditions that underpin these events go back to the early 19th century when such organised physical activity was actually seen as a challenge to the state, until eventually it became a fundamental part of civil society. 

A key part of the philosophy of Landsstævne is that people play against each other in these sports, but there are no medals or trophies. There is no podium. It is simply about the joy of being active and competing for fun. There is no structure to the games, in the sense of a draw or a league, it’s just about signing up to get involved and challenging another club or team to a match. There were over 700 football matches played this week and not a single prize was handed out. I was told, quite simply, that “you are not honoured by winning.” Danes really do see sport as a form of democracy, and this is what it looks like in practice. 

The culmination of Landsstævne is a performance by 5,700 pupils from 60 boarding schools across the country (for the Danish approach to boarding, which is very different to the UK, see part 1 of this blog). They were accompanied by no fewer than 739 teachers. This event is their Year 9 and 10 (i.e. age 15-17) graduation. They perform an incredible hour-long set of live instrumental music, singing, dancing, and gymnastics in front of an audience of over 10,000 people in a circular arena. The fact that there is no such thing as a ‘best seat in the house’ again takes you back to the democratic values that underpin all of this. The arena is more or less the same size and structure as it was in the 1930s, sitting on a big bank of earth that was made by volunteers. 

The performance is incredible; I have no idea how you would go about choreographing something on this scale. There are dozens of routines and several costume changes. At the end, a video is played on the big screens on the stage of the week that the teenagers have had. They stand around, arm in arm, watching with a mixture of smiles and tears at the friendships they have made. Rather than take a curtain call and bask in the glory, they instead share a moment of community before departing the arena. As we leave, I can hear them all over the bank cheering and shouting at what they have achieved together. 

The event finale, as participants watch a video of their week together.

Reflection: Creating Communities and the Centrality of Values

We talk a lot about values but we are faced with the ever present challenge of praxis. How do we take core values and turn them into practice in what we do in sport? My main takeaway from Denmark was exactly that. The ethos and philosophy that drives what Danes do has been developed for around 200 years and is reflected in the structures at government and grassroots level. The world was deeply moved by Danish footballers standing around Christian Eriksen on the pitch at the Euros, but in fact this was automatic for those players. It is the culture they were raised in. The culture we build in British sport needs to do exactly the same. Community must come first.

Thank you to…

The incomparable Charlie Raeburn for facilitating my visit, and everyone at OSS for their contribution to Scottish sport and society. I was very fortunate to be able to interview Troels Rasmussen (CEO of IDAN), Henrik Brandt (a consultant and formerly of IDAN, and supporter of OSS), Mogens Kirkeby (Vice Chair of the DGI and President of ISCA), Simon Roslyng (DGI facilities adviser) and Michael Sørensen (Oure Kostgymnasium). I also met many other sports analysts and academics from Italy and Germany who were a pleasure to speak to as well. Any errors in these posts are entirely mine.

The Danish Way of Life 1: the Education System⤴

from @ @robin_macp

I’ve just come back from a visit to Denmark, and my intention was to blog about what I learned about the education system there. In fact, it was such a productive visit that I’ve had to divide it into two parts. Here’s the first instalment, and it focuses on the education system and what we might learn from what is a very different approach to the UK. Part 2 is about sport and wellbeing.

The Danish Education System

The first thing to set out is how schools work in Denmark. Education is compulsory from ages 6-16, with pupils doing a pre-school year (Year 0) and then Years 1-9. This is ‘primary’ and ‘lower secondary’ education and there is an option to carry on in Year 10. After primary school things split into different pathways depending on what works best for each student. There are three options:

  1. High school (gymnasium) – three years of upper secondary at a general gymnasium (stx), a business college (htx, or handelsgymnasium) or a technical school (htx, or teknisk gymnasium), which leads to a leaving examination and provides a pathway into university. This path is by far the most common.
  2. A three year pathway of vocational education leading more directly to specific professions.
  3. A two year vocational education leading directly to skilled or unskilled professions.

School leavers are typically 19 years of age and for those of you who are PISA fans, Denmark came 25th out of 79 countries in science in 2018. However, the socio-economic differences in attainment are below average (10% compared to 12% in reading), and economically disadvantaged students are marginally more academically resilient (by 1%). Those stats might not seem world-beating, but the ethos is completely different. Danes sacrifice attainment for egalitarianism. You won’t find Singaporian mass cramming here, but you won’t find so many human beings consigned to perpetual failure either. 

A Different Option – the Folk High School Movement

This is where things get really interesting. There is something called the ‘folk school movement’ which was inspired back in 1844 by Nikolaj Grundtvig, and became fully established in the late 19th century. Folk schools were a reaction to the prevailing conservatism of the 1840s, and they are open to adults of all ages. Exams are forbidden, the curriculum is bespoke (schools design them based on need), and the length of time here can vary. Folk high schools are also typically boarding schools. They offer opportunities for non-formal lifelong learning which can provide highly skilled people with new skills, or a chance for those who have struggled to reset their life. In a post-COVID world, this looks incredibly attractive.  

Boarding Schools

A key feature of the Danish system, which is common across Scandinavia, is that many parents opt to send their children to boarding schools for one year in Year 10. This is equivalent to S5 in Scotland or Year 12 in England, and gives pupils a social experience which is rooted in life skills. There are no exams in this year, and about one third of all Danish pupils (around 30,000 per year) take this option. It’s subsidised by the state, but parents know that it is coming and will save up for several years in advance to pay the 10,000 euros (approximately) that it will cost. The main objective is to teach young adults about socialisation and living as a community.

Case Study: the Three Schools at Oure

I spent an afternoon with Michael Sørensen, who has worked at Oure for 20 years and is a former pupil. He’s now on the Senior Leadership team and if you want to speak to someone who is passionate about their school and the values they espouse, he’s your man. Oure consists of three schools and they are very much a community. As Michael says, the purpose is to “lift people up”, often when they lack the resources or skills to do so themself.

Oure is a boarding school that specialises in sports and the performing arts and was founded in 1987. It’s on the outskirts of a village about two hours west of Copenhagen. It has three schools: the upper secondary (the Kostgymnasium) for years 10 and up, so ages 16-19; the continuation school (Efterskole – a Danish word that I’m sure should be be Scottish) which offers a formal secondary school education for pupils aged 15-16 to add life skills, additional maturity, and lifelong friendships to the formal part of the education, effectively like an early gap year; and the Folk High School. In total there are around 1050 students and 250 staff. Each school is boarding, and two thirds of the funding for the Kostgymnasium and Efterskole is provided by the state, with the remaining third being paid in fees by parents or students themselves. The Folk High School is entirely state funded. The cost for all education, activities, food and lodgings is about 250 euros per week, so in line with the 10,000 euros p.a. cost outlined above. 

The school specialises in performing arts and sport, so has various dance studios, music practice rooms and studios, a swimming pool, sports halls and many outdoor areas for biking, handball, volleyball and football.

Boarding life is organised around small houses, which are mixed gender. In the upper secondary, eight boys will share with eight girls in four rooms. When Oure was founded there was real opposition to co-educational boarding houses, but this has been normalised now. The bedrooms are separated by gender but the toilet and shower facilities are shared. Each year, students have to work for one week in the main school kitchens to develop a work ethic, a respect for the staff, and learn about food waste. Student work about wellbeing, health and nutrition can be seen posted on the walls of the canteen. In the Efterskole, the same principles apply but students are in two bed rooms rather than four. The furnishings are modest – think of a clean, functional youth hostel and you’ve more of less got the picture. 

The Folk School currently has an age range of 20-32, and the average age is 22. There is no upper limit – it is open to adults of all ages. At the younger end you have people who still don’t feel they have found their purpose in life and need more time to develop. At the older end, you have people who want to change career or take a break, so need time to think and to learn new skills. The eldest graduate last year was a man who left the army and didn’t know what he wanted to do. Social life here is vibrant – there is a bar/cafe and plenty to do. 

Michael is especially passionate about the folk school. “If it hadn’t been invented over a hundred years ago then no one would want to establish it now, because it’s too ambitious and idealistic. Yet all political parties support it and no one would ever criticise it. That would lead to defeat at the next election for any politician.” It is so well established and respected, but it’s worth reflecting on the fact that such a great idea was possible in the 19th century but probably wouldn’t be feasible to start from scratch now. 

The site is incredible and has been developed incrementally over time. There are multiple facilities for sport, arts and leisure. The whole place is powered by a wind turbine that is 32 years old – how’s that for being ahead of the curve? Thought has gone into locations of buildings and there is a natural flow. For example, the music school is next to the indoor skateboarding park, causing a lovely cross-fertilisation of ideas and friendships that come from those two social groups mixing outside. The mountain bike park has a huge hill that is man-made, coming from earth that was dug out of the lake – all done by the folk school students. The lake is due to be extended to allow for watersports to be done on site. There is a shop, which was opened by staff when the local village shop closed down. It’s a co-operative where all the proceeds are divided between the students annually to help cover their expenses. 

As I visited during the holidays, the campus was being used for summer schools. Interestingly, when parents enrol their children on these they attend as well. The emphasis is on family learning, so I saw a sports hall packed full of parents and their children doing various games. The staff were mainly former pupils who had come back because they love the school and believe in the Danish tradition of non-formal education and volunteering. That’s a big part of the ethos, not just at Oure but across Denmark. 

Families taking part in the summer camp

Reflections

There is a lot we can learn here about ethos and values, and about life-long learning. Danish education isn’t talked about in the same lofty terms as Finland or Estonia, but the metrics are different. Emphasis is on equity and allowing people to learn (or relearn) at their own pace. State support for boarding is based on the intrinsic belief in building shared communities, and this is where Denmark does stand out. After all, it’s frequently cited as being one of the happiest places on earth. That might be down to hygge, but it might also be down to the education system. 

COP26 and Education: Change in the Making⤴

from @ @robin_macp

In a few days’ time, Scotland will play host to COP26. The eyes of the world will be on Glasgow, and the conference has been discussed in terms of being a last chance opportunity to create the change needed for human life on this planet to be sustainable. What is meant by sustainable development needs to be defined clearly, and the best definition I’ve come across goes back to the UNWCED in 1987. It stated that sustainable development was:

“development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” 

United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED)
OECD iLibrary

This has the beauty of simplicity, and also broadens the definition beyond purely environmental issues. It is also about the economy, political structures, education, culture and society. Whilst I am no expert on climate science, I am comfortable to talk about the role that education has to play in creating a sustainable future. In fact, I would argue that the single most important intervention we can make in the battle for a sustainable future is actually in education. Here’s why.

The Problem of ‘Peak Human’

Peak human is the moment when population growth plateaus. Population growth globally actually hit a high point in the 1960s and has been slowing ever since, but we have yet to reach peak human. There are two key issues here:

  1. The date at which we reach peak human – for this to be sooner is more desirable.
  2. The level at which we reach peak human – we want this to be lower. 

Projections on the date and level vary, as shown by this graph from the UN Population Division. 

The high variant shows the global population at over 15 billion people in 2100 and still climbing. The low variant shows peak human coming around the mid-point of the 21st century at around 9 billion and then a gradual decline following. Needless to say, the former projection will exhaust all resources no matter what we do, whereas the latter makes it much more likely that we can find solutions to the problems we currently face. The most recent projection published in the Lancet suggests that the peak will come in 2064 at 9.7bn which is more optimistic than we might previously have thought.

What will make the difference? Educating girls around the world. Where girls have access to secondary (and ideally tertiary) education they are less likely to be forced to marry early and have multiple pregnancies throughout their life. This leads to a natural reduction in population growth and makes the challenge of feeding, housing, and providing energy for the world much more feasible. In this respect, education – and SDG 4 – are of critical importance.

The New York Times Climate Hub – Educate on Climate Programme

I’ve been working with the New York Times, Summerhouse Media and Kite Insight on the Educate on Climate programme at COP26. The NYT has created a Climate Hub which is a brilliant venue (Es Devlin’s ‘Conference of the Trees, the featured image of this post, has to be seen to be believed). We’ve spent the past few months thinking about which issues to tackle. The NYT are looking at various strands so education is just a part of this, but on November 5th we have a programme which tries to explore as many core education issues as possible. Online tickets are still available and are free, with content being recorded and available to view later on. 

So what are looking at? Here are the debates that we’ve got lined up:

  • Forming Partnerships With Schools in the Global South
  • Creating a Research-Informed Manifesto for Environmental Sustainability in Education
  • How Schools Can Prepare Their Students for a Changing Climate
  • The U.N.’s Decade of Education for Sustainable Development: Is It Working?
  • From Climate Change to Change-Making: Firing Up Youth Activism
  • Future-Proofing Pupils: Preparing Students for Work in a Changing World
  • Teaching Critical Thinking in an Age of Misinformation
  • Reboot the Future: How Do We Move Faster, Together?
  • Climate Tech Will Be Bigger Than the Internet Revolution
  • Explore: Urban Nature Teacher CPD

The steer given to all speakers is that the audience should have practical takeaways from their session. The dynamic we are looking to create is a platform where students and educators can really put policy makers and those in power on the ropes. 

It’s impossible to be comprehensive when exploring the ways in which education can be the solution, and we were left with so many good ideas that we couldn’t fit into the time we had. We’ll think of how we can use these ideas to carry on the conversation long after the UN has packed up and left Glasgow.

What Do We Want to Achieve at COP26?

In the many meetings and discussions I’ve been involved in over the past year, it’s clear that we’re way past the point of raising awareness. What we need to do now is tackle two key things: attitude and behaviour. 

Many young people are left struggling with what to know and think about the crisis we are facing. ‘Climate anxiety’ is a term that has come into public discourse, and I think it’s unhelpful. A recent study led by Bath University found that 56% of young people believe that “humanity is doomed”. The narrative that underpins this makes it less likely that our students will feel motivated to tackle a problem if they are led to believe that it is futile. Self-fulling prophecies are not what we need or want.

Instead, what we need to do is persuade students that a) the problems we face do have solutions and b) that they have agency to make a positive contribution. It is not too late, it is not insurmountable, and it is something that every one of us can influence. That should then lead to a change in behaviour. It is not only about the behaviour of all school age pupils, but the positive impact that their action can have on older generations. Making everyday decisions, even at a very basic level, will affect change. 

I’ve written about this before, but Generation Z clearly cares about this issue more than any other. The Greta Effect has led many students to believe it is better to miss school and campaign for change than stay in a class and learn more about the issues. That is either a damning indictment of education on sustainable development (ESD), or evidence that it has energised young people and created a global call to action. The jury is still out on that, but we’ll be discussing it at the Climate Hub. 

What we definitely want post-COP is a paradigm shift, with change ranging from macro level policy to micro level behaviour, so that humankind has a future beyond this century. There have been many mass extinction events in earth’s history. Our species will either be the first to be the architect of their own demise, or the first to escape this fate. I hope that COP26 is looked back on as a significant turning point, for the better.