639 Posts and 1,151 comments


I was just about to write my evening’s post when I saw on the dashboard that I’d written 639 posts and had 1,151 comments on this log since it started in August 2006.

I just wanted to thank all those who have left comments over this  period and to say that they have had a significant impact upon how I approach my work.   

Street Kids

We recently went to see Joan Eardley’s exhibition at the National Gallery for Scotland.  I loved her paintings of Street Kids- see below. It reminded me of a photograph I took of my own kids when they were small.  I’ve played around with photoshop to try to recreate Eardley’s feel – and failed miserably.

It’s work like Eardley’s which reminds us why we are in the job.

Street Kids

Parents and Children as Customers – an outward facing public service


You know that niggling feeling that you get when you’ve got an idea bubbling just underneath the surface and can’t quite express it – then again perhaps you don’t but it’s one with which I’m often afflicted.  It’s like that for me at the moment with this business of parents and children as customers.  I just can’t help feeling it would make such a difference to the quality of the service we provide – yet at the same time the very word customer sets up such a huge obstacle – no matter how you might try to redefine it as a concept in the 21st century.

I’ve played around with  suggesting that “customer” should be a metaphor for how we should treat parents and children – but this hits the same deep rooted problem of traditional perceptions of the relationship between provider and customer.

My niggle was rekindled yesterday when listening to Anna – a sixth year student from a school in the Scottish Highlands. She was very positive about most of her school experiences – but the recurring theme was how things could be so much better of the teachers and the school tried to look at the school experience through her eyes, and the eyes of her fellow students. To paraphrase what she was saying – and this is, of course, my interpretation – “school isn’t designed for her or her peers, but one where their needs are secondary to the interests of the school”. Yet when I asked a question to headteacher, who was also on the panel, if he was comfortable with the idea of children as customers he immediately replied that he wasn’t, to be quickly supported by Anna herself.

So that was it for me – here was someone pushing for a service which was directed towards her needs – a customer focussed service – but  for whom the very word customer put her off. So no more talk of customers – but what are the alternatives?

Guineapigmum likes the idea of partners – and I think a good school should be characterised by a partnership between teachers, parents and children – but it still doesn’t capture for me the idea of being “customer” (oops) facing. In other words it’s possible to enter into a partnership where you are primarily interested in fulfilling your own needs – and that by working in partnership with others we gain mutual benefit.  However, should schools only enter into partnership with parents and children to gain something for themselves? What if a parent doesn’t want to be a partner – do we treat them differently? What if a six year old child doesn’t want to be a partner – do we give up on them and wait until they do? 

As I’ve mentioned more than once on this Log my own father was a doctor.  He served his patients – their needs predominated.  He sacrificed his own needs to serve the needs of his community.  Sure he worked with his patients and they loved him for it – but it wasn’t a partnership.  I suppose the word here is “duty” – a duty to serve those who needed his services. They didn’t have a “duty” to work with him. 

For me it’s all to do with which way you are facing.  Do we start facing towards our own needs (inwards)? – or do we start facing towards those whom we serve (outwards)?

So that’s it – simple really!  We need to be an outward facing service where we seek to provide the highest quality service possible to those whom we serve – parents and their children (not customers) – and if that means that some of our own needs and wants have to be sacrificed to that end then so be it.

School Visits – revisited

Made it to the October break! – so I thought it might be an idea to reflect upon the school visits which are forming such an important (and enjoyable) part of my working week.

I think it’s fair to say that these visits have created something of stir in some schools, with questions being raised about whether or not they are acceptable. I understand such disquiet – particularly as teachers will inevitably link such visits to notions of competency and personal focus. I also think it’s fair to say that most schools have actually appreciated the visits – once they have been concluded – and the fact that I am focusing upon what I said I would.

Hopefully, as trust builds up people will begin to see it for what is is intended to be, i.e:

a personal statement from the Head of Education about how central the learning and teaching and process is to education in East Lothian;
the highlighting of the importance of the connection between teacher intention and learning task;
a learning experience for me which I can use to influence policy and practice across the authority; and
an example to other educational leaders in East Lothian to adopt a similar focus.

So far I’ve visited 3 secondary schools and 10 primary schools and hope to complete the rest of the schools in this cycle before the end of term.

The random selction of which classes I will visit has – I think – been a success – as all too often it’s only those, and such as those, to whom someone such as myself has been directed.  In large schools I’ve adopted an alphabetical approach and just asked the headteacher to send me to the classes of teachers whose surname begins with a certain letter. In other situations I’ve asked to see particular areas of the curriculum such as writing or art. Of course in small schools, such as Dirleton – I watched every teacher!

So what are my reflections?

Firstly, I didn’t realise I had so much to learn about the learning and teaching process. I previously thought I knew what was going on in our schools with my pop in visits and pastoral chats – it’s obvious to me now that without such a classroom focus that visits are virtually meaningless, aside from showing that you care,  maintaining a profile, and gaining an “impression” of what a school is like.

The simple – yet remarkably revealing focus – that I’m taking in classes means that I must remain disciplined (don’t start to let my attention wander onto other areas), self-questioning (don’t let my own preconceptions interfere with what I’m watching) and open to trying to understand what it is the teacher is doing in a broader context (don’t see the task which is happening in that lesson in isolation).

It’s almost as if this period is more of personal learning phase to provide a context which will help me to draw some conclusions about what it is I’m seeing in schools.

One thing has become abundantly clear to me over the last few weeks – we have wonderful teachers in our schools! The creativity, passion and commitment to what they are doing with young people is a common feature of every school I’ve visited. What it has also confirmed for me is that teaching is an incredibly sophisticated skill, with common characteristics, which can be broken down, analysed and learned.

I know there’s a huge mystique surrounding the teaching process, e.g “it’s a craft”, “it’s a personal thing”; “it’s about the personality of the teacher” – but in lesson after lesson I’ve seen teachers having very clear learning intentions and linking them to suitable and challenging tasks – where that happens – without exception – the children are engaged and producing high quality work, whilst the teacher is gaining real job satisfaction.

Over the course of the next few months I hope to be able to develop my insight about what it is about the link between a learning intention and a learning task that leads to effective learning. My hope is that colleagues will continue to help in shaping that understanding and contributing to this dialogue.

Could I take this opportunity to thank every teacher who has allowed me into their classroom – it’s been a privilege.

Oh – I should have mentioned – I don’t think there’s a day that’s gone by when I haven’t used something that I’ve seen in schools in connection with other parts of my job – i.e. budgeting, staffing, policy development, etc. – so in that sense it already having an impact.

“Ping……..ping” – developing a leadership sonar?

It was during a conversation this afternoon about how leaders communicate with colleagues that I used a completely throwaway remark about “pinging” and listening.

What I meant by this was that we need to engage with our colleagues if we are to really understand the impact that our strategies are having.

However, on saying the words the picture came to me of a leader needing to find ways of establishing where they and their organisation “actually” are – as opposed to where they “think” they are.

The metaphor of a sonar was perhaps influenced by my weekend experience on the Alba Explorer, where no skipper would dream of sailing without having an understanding about the depth of water they are navigating. In days gone by this would be done by dropping a line and measuring the depth – in the modern era it’s done by emitting a sound and listening to the echo to judge the terrain below.

And so it occurred to me that perhaps the effective leader needs to be sending out lots of different soundings and then listening carefully to the echoes which come back – and altering course accordingly.

Out and about

I cycled to work on Thusday as part of the East Lothian Council’s health week. Richard Parker and I cycled from Carfraemill to Haddington (17 miles)

On Friday evening I set off for an adventure with the Ocean Youth Trust Scotland on the Alba Explorer from Port Edgar to Eyemouth. What a fabulous experience!!!

Alba Explorer off the Isle of May

The highlight was the reach from the Isle of May to the Bass Rock in force 7, occasionally force 8 gale – despite being seasick – it must rank as one of the most thrilling moments of my life. OYT is a wonderful organisation and one that every school should try to involve in the lives of their children. If it can have a profound effect on a broken down 49 yr old then what might it do for child or young person?

Loss of the Future

It was Roland Barth who asked us to think back to an incident in our life which had been our most intense learning experience.

That’s a really interesting question to ask anyone – if you don’t believe me try it for yourself.

What emerged for me was the moment when our first child was stillborn. Gill was two weeks overdue and the baby just stopped moving one Saturday morning. We went up to the hospital and it took nearly an hour for someone to confirm our worst fears. We were sent home and told to come back the next day where gill would be induced. Gill was in labour for 14 hours before giving birth to a beautiful baby boy who we named Stewart.

We went on to have two wonderful sons Douglas and Lewis but that experience was one which has had a major influence on our approach to life.

As I thought more about that experience I realised that the sense of “loss” which we experienced was to do with our future rather than our past.  We had plans, expectations and dreams which we hoped to fulfil with our son – when he was stillborn that loss of the future made our grief even more intense.

So what’s this got to do with learning? Well it struck me that what Norman Kunc called the “hurt of change” might just be connected to people’s fear of losing their future.  Leaders often complain about people’s unwillingness to change, to embrace new practices, to adopt a new culture. But what if that unwillingness was actually to do with the fact that they can see the future because it looks just like the present.  When a leader comes in who paints a picture of something out of sight then is it any wonder that they recoil, resist – or worse stiil – ignore.

Perhaps the leader might do well to recognise people’s fear of “losing their future” – and through such recognition develop approaches to change which took account of these feelings – as opposed to simply writing off anyone who offers resistance?

It’s not all plain sailing

With all this talk about NEET – Not in Employment Education or Training – I thought it might be interesting to reflect upon my own recent experience as a father of two teenage boys – 17 and 19.

Our eldest collected a good set of Higher results (2 As, 2 Bs, 2 Cs) and set off for Edinburgh University in September of last year to study Physical Education. Right from the word go he didn’t enjoy the course and it soon became apparent that it wasn’t for him. He hung on until January but we were proud of him when he made the difficult decision to leave. Since then he’s been working on a variety of odd jobs – mostly labouring – with the aim of earning enough money to help him go off on a diving expedition to Fiji in the New Year. He has also been taking this time to consider what he wants to do with the rest of his life and has decided that he’d like to go back to Edinburgh to study Accountancy (he loved Edinburgh).

Of course he’s now terrified that he might make the wrong choice again. His solution has been to apply for a trainee position at a local accountancy company for the coming year.  He was interviewed today and starts on Monday in a salaried post. The great thing about this is that it will give a tremendous insight into the profession, provide him with set of skills and knowledge which he might put to good use at university, but most importantly allow him to make an informed decision about whether accountancy is for him or not.

It’s strange that only two weeks ago he had said that he would like to have had a crystal ball -to help him see what he might be doing in the future – well it looks like his crystal ball has materialised.

All this makes me think that going to university straight out of sixth year is not for all young people. I’m not advocating gap years but I’m convinced that some “life” experiences prior to committing to any course of study would certainly of benefit.

And his brother? – well we reckon that he’s a success story in his own right – never really very academically focussed – he crashed and burned in his Standard Grades -but he got 2 Bs and a C in his Highers, and an A in Intermediate 2 English this week – due to some really hard studying and a Learning Log on which he kept all his notes.  He hopes to get another three Highers in 6th year and he probably will – due in no small part to his self belief that studying can work. 

His plans? – well he’s off to New Zealand this time next year to play rugby – which he’s had in mind since he was 12 years old – now that’s what I call forward planning !!!

Don’t judge my potential – you have no right

One of the goals we often espouse in education is to help children reach their potential.

Perhaps our greatest problem is that we actually think that potential has a limit!!!

If you have 11 minutes to spare watch these videos and take some time to think about how often you have used the phrase – “I want to help children to reach their potential”

I’m guilty as charged!

The Moon Comes Up

A Credo for support

Back Home and a pledge

I got back to Scotland on Friday.

So what did I take from the Harvard experience?

There are ten inter-related things I’d like to do as a consequence of attending the course:

  1. Identify and remove all things which erode or prevent a sense of belonging – in schools and the authority
  2. Reduce the variance in the quality of learning experience in every classroom
  3. Promote the notion of a “person” being separate from their “practice”
  4. Believe in every person’s capacity to learn – children and staff
  5. Listen carefully to what people say and avoid moving into problem solving mode too quickly
  6. Encourage, model and support people to say “These children are mine”
  7. Focus our attention upon improving the quality and complexity of “learning tasks” provided in every classroom
  8. Keep returning to the measureable impact of our work
  9. Ensure that all teachers have a comprehensive understanding about current research into the brain, mind and education which they can use to develop their own professional practice.
  10. Establish unambiguous, consistent and shared norms about what we expect from our children and ourselves – and ensure that these are vigorously upheld.