“Ideas are not always responsible for the people that have them” – Katharine Whitehorn

Richard Wells, former Chief Constable of South Yorkshire wrote to the Times this week, in order to pay tribute to this less well known quote of the recently deceased journalist, author and broadcaster, Katharine Whitehorn. He explains how over a career of professional policing, understanding that solutions for dispute resolution might arise from the most unlikely quarters, and that’s a view with which I wholeheartedly concur.

I find that teaching brings me into contact with the most remarkable and often previously unheard of conflicts, both in the classroom and in the wider world. Trying to ‘fix’ an adolescent woe is a most unwise activity. Remembering another old dictum, ‘2 ears, one mouth’, I have found it is always better to listen first, ‘hear the noise’, distinguish whether there is reason therein, and if so, pursue said reason to what may indeed be the most logical and straightforward solution. In the “he said’ she said” last chance saloon, you can be very certain that your version of ‘reason’ won’t come out on top. But listening perhaps to the protagonists and their friends is often much more likely to result in a longer term peaceful resolution for the combatants. The tragedy for teachers is of course that so many petty squabbles occur in a day that they don’t actually have the time to address them all, moreover quite frequently their brusqueness with  the process fans the flames!

Since the coronavirus struck schools last March, it does very much seem that for the nation at large, their children’s education has been in freefall. Mumsnet has declared most of its members’ ‘home-schools’ as now being in special measures, and there is more than a grain of truth in the idea that wine is being drunk in tea mugs on-screen to hide the bringing forth of ‘opening time’. And in almost every newspaper and magazine article on this I read, it turns out that children in private schools are managing to continue their education at almost pre-pandemic levels, which causes an even brighter spotlight to be focused on those in the state sector falling further behind. Whilst I am proud of my school’s remarkable efforts in this arena, I also recognise with great respect the work of other schools managing in their unique ways, and it seems perhaps that approximately 25% of the nation’s schools are coping well, a far greater ratio than just the 7% independently educated. 

What Whitehorn’s quote obliquely refers to is well illustrated within Education.  Throughout my lifetime, the state education agencies and wider aparatchics have had a natural prejudice against our sector, and almost any good work we do is framed in providing yet more advantage to the already advantaged. England’s state education financiers have chosen to include the development of elite musicianship, dance and ballet in specialist institutions, and those include schools I know well such as the Purcell and the Royal Ballet. This is a tiny volume of funding, and the Treasury’s only other additional high-needs funding block goes to those with special needs. Currently the government itself is called into question,with 2/3rds of Johnson’s cabinet the products of the private sector, and a similar volume products of the best universities – in short our sector knows how to develop talent, but that success is shaped by the accusation that it arises purely from privilege, and nothing to do with the skills and time we deploy in our schools for this purpose. 

The trouble is, that every good idea our sector has in terms of bringing others from less fortunate backgrounds up to speed inevitably creates a further imbalance for those we have not been able to reach and thus apparently are left behind. I am utterly fed-up with the hand-ringing by well meaning commentators on equality in the UK, who consistently blame us for our success yet don’t follow the evidence we surface to explain why what we do works. In Elitist Britain 2019, the HM Gov reports that  43% of men and 35% of women playing international cricket for England went to private school. It’s easy to work out why, because our sector attaches such value to the development of athletic skills, and cricket is one of our national sports. 

When I graduated from Google Teacher Academy in 2012, to keep my Certified Innovator accreditation, I had to sign up (and every year recommit) to provide advice and support generically in my field of expertise (education) to assist in community projects rolling out the benefits of digital education to an ever-wider audience. Right from the outset, I (and everyone else rolling out from similar activities stimulated by Microsoft, Apple or Adobe) have always been clear when supporting communities about the need to create a digital ecosystem that supports individuals within it. So as in the development of cricket as a sport, for IT you have to show how to create and develop the infrastructure of nets, wickets, grounds and opportunities for the individuals and communities therein to thrive. Cricket requires ground staff, coaches, expertise in multiple disciplines across a wide arc of time and opportunity, and above all a belief for those all involved in its importance and relevance. 

Truly, until March last year’s #lockdown, the vast majority of schools I had been invited to support as a Google Workspace ambassador simply didn’t understand the priorities they needed to attach to the development of an digital ecosystem to ensure that it could thrive in their school. We are not talking about money here, because that is a finite resource. We are talking about the days, months, years of cut-and-mow to ensure that the digital nets, wickets, outfields etc would work when needed. Personally I have had to learn how to code, rebuild chromebooks, connect projectors, test Apps and phones, understand wifi and make why-not decisions. It is no surprise to me at all that our state schools don’t have the architecture in place to support children at school and at home, because it has never been a government priority, and even now, government and its agencies show it does not have a clue.

By way of example, I chose Chromebooks for Claires Court because they are devices you can manage completely from afar, they have no requirements for software to be loaded by hand and they work on their battery alone for 8 hours or more and have a 6+ year lifespan. Their entire operating system is protected by Google from viruses and Google sorts out the problems remotely if its software utilities don’t work. Government continues to insist they provide laptops, the latest 25000 turning out to be infected with Russian Malware, and all running under windows 10, which requires local software installation, subscription services to Microsoft, weaker battery life, shorter life span, and with nothing like the professional support available at a local level to rectify. 8 years down the road, and I despair that almost a million laptops will have been shipped out to schools without a belief by those involved that the provided solution would work. Frankly a new Geo 11inch laptop is about the same cost as a new cricket bat (circa £200); I would not choose to secure the future of English cricket by shipping a cricket bat to all those needing one, so why the government is doing more than handing out laptops beats me. 

In Education, as in Cricket, you have to get the grass roots right. If you want to reach children and provide them with education, you have to secure them in school, and provide them with access at home. It was never enough just to leave children to their own devices at home, and most houses will have those. Fundamentally schools need to be open for much longer, and be that place for sport, art, drama, music, wrap around care too. Schools are essential centres in their community, and not just for learning, but for welfare and care too. All of our early chromebooks (from 2012/3) could take a sim card given them 4G access to the web, through which they could reach the school’s Hub. This Google site has not changed in appearance for 8 years, because we want it accessible from even the humblest of devices. It’s our portal onto the 2021 educational landscape that our virtual school plays out, and requires the lowest bandwidth we can require. Yet as the calendar and other apps show, it’s completely current and content-rich. 

Great ideas are out there in the wide world arising from every and any place, whether humble or privileged. And we witnessed such on Wednesday, when Amanda Gorman, aged 21, spoke her poem at President Biden’s inauguration. 

We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president only to find herself reciting for one. And yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect. We are striving to forge our union with purpose. To compose a country committed to all cultures, colours, characters, and conditions of man. And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us. We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside. We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another. We seek harm to none and harmony for all. Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true. That even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped. That even as we tired, we tried that will forever be tied together victorious. Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.”

What great ideas, what genuine empathy, what real hope there is for all of us, when such a young voice calls us all in to greater ideas than currently we dare to hold?

At the closing of another busy week in school, I’ll continue with that public good of promoting and prioritising good ideas within our wider community. I do hope they’ll be received in the manner they are given, generously and with integrity. Time will tell; in the meantime I do assure all that education and cricket will continue to thrive at Claires Court – #CCPride!

About jameswilding

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