Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Wish for the future

Chinese Lanten

With the hindsight that comes with retirement,
an office clear out and a three-month trek to the other
side of the globe, Roy Lyon reflects on the real drivers of change in education - and they aren't rooted in central government policy.

New Years Day 2007. My headship over, there was no need to fret about 'CVA', Ofsted or how to respond to 'specialised diplomas'. As midnight approached, I was sitting on a beach in Thailand watching heated paper lanterns rise into the sky. As they rose and drifted over the bay, natives said, the lanterns carried away the ills of the old year and bore a wish for the new.

Days earlier, 20 years of material had likewise been borne away as I cleared my office. Government circulars, national curriculum papers, reports from independent and partial sources, some read in detail, some only skimmed, some not read at all, were disposed of.

Sifting my office, I came upon the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust booklet, Essential Questions for the Future School. I remembered accepting of the validity of much of the document's analysis; but remembered, also, that on first reading it had irritated.

Skimming the booklet again the irritation remained: perhaps because it rehashed ideas that had been current for some time; perhaps because it was based upon a deficit model of current activity: "In most UK secondary schools the dominant mode of learning is more or less the same as it was throughout most of the last century"; "Why has some of the latest thinking on complexity theory failed to permeate schools?"

Perhaps it was because it offered another set of absolutes, another orthodoxy for the masses to accept with virtually no practical advice on how schools might best engage with complex system-wide issues.

Destination but no map

It was one of many documents that over the years has offered a view of tomorrow without concrete ideas on how to travel there.

Was it Elliott who said that, "behind the word and the deed there lies a shadow"? Clearing out my office reminded me that too many words have been written and too few ideas debated, let alone implemented, because of the shadow of learned compliance.

A profession full of talented and creative people for too long has been required simply to deliver an agenda from the outside. I like to think that in the final few years of headship, I understood enough to know that overblown rhetoric in national documents has little impact.

What generates the potential for impact is an environment in which individuals are encouraged to find locally based and practical solutions that will, step by step, affect transformation.

In those final few years at Wilmslow High School, the curriculum and personnel structures, the model of student services (the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust booklet still talked about the 'pastoral/academic divide') and the physical space were reshaped.

The reshaping was based upon the belief that organic growth, which is sustained and generated by individuals within the organisation rather than imposed from above or from the outside, would enable the school to continue its journey from 'good' to 'great'.

Wanted: clear vision

Before I went the beach, I read an article in the Bangkok Post about the GE Foundation's annual scholarship programme for undergraduates. It reported that, unlike other sponsorships that place academic performance and financial need as the top search criteria, the GE Scholarship is aimed at students with outstanding character who have a clear vision for their future.

These students must display "a potential to succeed and show that they want to help change society for the better".

It struck me that the UK needs such a sponsorship programme, not for undergraduates but for those talented teachers who have the capacity and the desire to change society by redefining what we mean by 'school' and who have the potential to lead school-based futures thinking.

As the lanterns disappeared, an American called out, "Have a good one." I let go of my lantern and saw headship float away. I thought of new ventures coming up and I wished for fewer pretentious documents and the end of learned compliance, and with it, the powerful impact that teachers in schools promoting new ideas and models will have.

Only time will tell if my lantern's wish is granted.

Roy Lyon was Head of Wilmslow High School in Cheshire for
10 years before his retirement.

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