3 Reasons NOT to be a FreeSchooler

I recently had two prompts to reconsider my experience of leading a free school proposal a few years back. If you are even thinking of it, (perhaps feeling inspired by the recent TES/NSN campaign/confection) and you are an individual, then this post is for you!

Laura McInerney contact me about an article she was writing, that appeared in the Guardian as “How the Tories picked free schools: chaotic, inconsistent and incompetent”. In talking to her I realised that something I had tucked away in a box marked ‘Danger – Do not Open – painful memories within’ – was full of useful lessons I had not shared. Beyond my resentment was a fear that the harm I exposed myself to, was being inflicted on others.

Like so many people, even those who were successful, for me the whole process was incredibly painful; and I recommend Toby Bloom’s article here, for a broader view of why the process itself is hard.  But lots of good things involve must involve pain and suffering, right? Wrong. I’d suggest that this sort of masochism is not good for most (good) people.

Someone else asked me how much it cost to apply – which was such an impossible question to answer simply in general terms, that I decided to write this post to add to those I wrote closer to the bid. The advice that follows below purely personal – and does not dwell on the rights and wrongs of this policy – but might offer a reality check to anyone thinking of jumping in.

The odds are against you and the house always wins

Not only is this process closed to proper and helpful scrutiny, it is part of a genre of government bids processes that would make Kafka question whether he was up to the job of parodying them. Read Laura’s article. It is a bad process, and those of us who believe in better education, for whom the process is intended, should have been better consulted and considered in it.

Obviously it is a competitive process, and the likelihood is you will not be successful, however good your application and ‘right’ your cause.

But, what really hurts is that you will not see the dice rolling, or watch the deck being dealt. You will see ghosts of logic, and wisps of decent explanations for decisions, but will feel out of control… cos you will be. This is a rollercoaster – and from the moment you announce, your hands might be on the tiller – but the currents are stronger.

Even if your application is approved, that is no guarantee of you being the masters of your own school.

It will cost you more than you can afford

Not just in terms of money, though that will be part of it. Even if you are used to protecting your family budget, and the time you work, the expectation and sheer gravity of this endeavour will pull in more than you can allow for.

If you have savings, or advantages (in terms of capital, social connections, favours etc) you are going to find them being hacked into on a pretty regular basis. Unless you are very financially secure, with a great job and understanding bosses (or board members), with a whole community of people to support you (over 30 hard and fast friends) … then you are in for a loss.

Of course, I should have been smarter, and ignored the advice from NSN and others, that the more time and effort we commit to the project, the greater our chances of success. This was rubbish, and I should have known that. I risked too much, and lost even more. But, it’s easy to beat myself up and see all the mistakes in retrospect. I was passionate and committed to the project. So should you be.  Be ready to lose and protect your family and those things you love, too.

Your authentic voice will be lost

You are going to have to talk a great talk and become part of a government policy – and become part of the national and local political debate. You will not be able to say how hard anything is, or question the few organisations in a position to help you (the NSN, for eg) because they are the gatekeepers and they are all deeply political.

You will be on show all the time, and your network will want to know all about ‘your’ freeschool – and it will seem like you are having to pitch it constantly, making out that everything is going great – cos, positivity breeds success, right? Except that this sort of ‘spinning’ is not going to be good for you longer term – trust me!

So What?

Of course, there are lots of possible fixes to these problems – and I’d urge you to find those that work for you. If you’d like help from me squaring the circles, please see my services here. Otherwise, I work in the open, so share your questions or thoughts below.

To all those who might think these points are a product of sour grapes; you’ve got me wrong. But more on that in future posts. Partly to support my own mental health, I have notched my foray into free schools as a failure – but one that I am also kinda relieved about.  Applying to set up a free school nearly broke me, but I learned a great deal and am even more focussed on the principles that underpinned our bid.

I do believe we need new schools, and some genuine innovation in the education system.  I am sorry that free schools have not been that vehicle, and am now exploring other ways to do this, especially looking at how open badges and blockchain technologies can help disrupt and improve our vision for a better education for our kids. If you’d like to talk to me about that work, I’d be happy to do that too!

Do you think my points are true? I’d love to hear about your experiences if you are thinking about doing this – or have already been though the free school journey. Thanks for your time.

School Communication under the microscope

It is one thing to want to make change, but to maintain a focus on impact: it takes respect, discipline and patience bring a team with you on that journey.

As of our meeting last night, ‘Improving School Communication’ is now part of the strategic planning at the school at which I am governor. Which is great, but not enough. 

We’d like to invite others to help us research this better, and help us test the hypothesis that we can balance our work better, if we change one variable. Help us learn how better communication makes schools better.

Although, we agreed that good communication, like healthy arteries, makes for a healthier organisation, it was a matter of faith that it would have benefits for teaching and learning, and for the administration (& even the finances!) of the school. Faith in my experience, and in the statements of others. In reality, there was precious little evidence for tangible impact on school life. We want to change that.

Understanding an ecosystem requires a bit of distance! Tx to Parents@Play.com for the use of this image.

We agreed to start a major communication audit of the school, and explore the blocks, wins, and opportunities that exist now. As I have said in previous posts, about the scope of the work and the nature of some of the problems with school communication, there is a problem of objectivity.

We need outside help from expert researchers. This post is an open call for academics, perhaps from Oxford Brookes University or Oxford Department of Education (or both!) , to join us in this work. It is a hot topic, with a poor evidence base – and a real opportunity to make a direct impact on the quality of teaching and learning, as well as the workload of staff in schools.

If you are interested, please get in touch with me at eylan@ezekiels.co.uk, or in the comments below.

Also, please get in touch if you know of some good research, or sources, tools or evidence we could use to help us on our way: we’d also welcome those! We can’t be the first school to do this, and I am sure that some if this is out there, but hard to find.

If you are also just interested in this topic, thanks for reading this far and watching us on our journey. I hope we can make it useful for others, so let me know what might help you and your school.

Day Zero

All too often, we find ourselves in organisations doing the work, without thinking about why we are doing it. As a consultant, I am often asked to help organisations change and do new work. Quite often, this starts with trying to fit the work strategic goals and vision. To help them do this, I have developed a simple workshop approach which carefully builds focus and effectiveness. And… it starts with a bit of imagination and a bang.

Imagine your place of work: the organisational HQ, offices, registered address, server farm; or whatever physical structure constitutes your business.


Imagine that, for good reasons, that the building is empty of people/life, and that no one has left anything of personal value.

Then: one night, totally unexpectedly, the whole building is destroyed. Boom!!!

via GIPHY

The next morning, all that is left is a smouldering pile of rubble.

Nothing is spared. Every document burnt, (including articles of incorporation, contracts, etc), all digital files and networks lost (backup access is lost – and cloud storage is no longer available – for some reason).

Collapsed roof. Gas leak. Structural deficiencies.  Insurance will cover everything. Everyone who works there now can get new jobs and clients/suppliers will be ok. (Depending on the organisation, geography, the nature of the business, sensitivities in the news, I normally spin a story that matches the place and people.)

It’s all gone. Nothing left. Your business has disappeared overnight.

You’re not out of pocket. No one was harmed. Life goes on.

SO, what would you do?  Would you rebuild? Is it worth it?

Does your work mean anything more than the exchange of money, emails and responsibilities. Does your organisation/business not being around really impact the world in a negative way?  

Is there anything worth recovering that means anything more. Commerce is not enough. Legacy / nostalgia are not sufficient to justify the effort of starting again.

It’s Day Zero. You can start anything. 

But what does it matter? Where are the values? Is there clarity about your purpose?

The answers tend to release all the positive energy in a group and and is all comes down to clarity of values and a real purpose. Building brick by brick.  All the work I do starts there. Once this conceit in in place, it provides the structure for doing the work that my clients need.

This is just one of the workshops I use, and a glimpse into why so many clients trust my approach to their organisational change and the work they do.

If you’d like me to bring this model, or my expertise in education and technology, to your organisation, please get in touch.

Wrong Headed Jobs

The people the DfE are recruiting and contracting to bring about educational change are not only unhealthy for the schools they work with, but part of the reason policy is so out of touch with teachers.

Premier New Schools advert

Premier New Schools advert

This advert from Premier New Schools exemplifies the problem. It is from a company that provides the DfE with the people to push academies and free schools though. By subcontracting this work out, free schools and academies can get through the hoops that the DfE place before them. But is this right?

This quote captures the problem:

Clients love you because they can count on you being there for them and because your charm is matched only by a herculean capacity for work. Nothing excites you more than being presented with an intractable problem or an impossible deadline. You are master of the process but still find ways to improve on every free school or academy project you have worked on. If you have one fault it is the absolute intolerance of the work shy, the pessimists and above all those who do not attend to detail.

 

 

As you can see, it assumes that there are people who will do an unreasonable amount of work in a Kafkaesque processes, without concern for those who might see problems with the insanity of the process.

I was talking to a colleague recently about the challenges of school life that come from bullying and poor management of staff mental health. We noted that all too often, those who are least able to keep a good work/life balance, protect their colleagues, and see change as an opportunity for self advancement rather than put the needs of the school first, seem to make it through to leadership roles.

My friend told a story of a colleague who had ‘lost-it’ and was being disciplined for shouting at a Yr6 child, pre-SATs. Of course, this lack of professionalism was wrong and disciplinary acts are entirely appropriate. However, we noted that the long term abusers in life, and at school (of adults and children) rarely get caught; because they are adept at hiding it within roles and activities that seem to allow them to turn their stress addiction into a means of professional advancement.

Of course, not all heads are like this, but we’ve all met some who are. And many of them jump from school to school, and end up advising others (often because governors have got rid of them as soon as possible, once they have made it out of RI, or similar travails, following complaints from within the staff).

So, these people are out there, with seemingly great CVs, hiding poor management styles and unhealthy working practices. They are the very people that would agree to implement a crazy policy, ignore evidence, agree to take on work that the rest of us would say was insane, and push colleagues beyond breaking point.

I am sure there are people who will apply for this job out there. They are the very people ministers need to see their plans to reality. Attracted to power, for the sake of power, these people are least able to manage or lead change. What shocked me about the advert quoted above is how thinly veiled the call is to this type of person.

With the news full of Nicky Morgan’s evidence that Gove did not have monopoly on ideological madness, it seems that we have more madness ahead of us. We should challenge, not only the ministers and their SpAds, but those that accept and recruit anyone but the best candidates for the schools and communities that need help.

We need more ethical, empathic school leaders to advise government and implement policy,  who can manage the health of others as well as themselves.

Less Czars and more Carers.

School Audiences and Channels

I’ve been trying to map the communications at the school I’m governor at, in order to help understand how we can improve this aspect of the school strategic direction. I’ve already posted on how terrible most school communication is, and part of the problem is that it is rare for schools to look at this as a distinct part of their work.

It has been quite a shock to note how complex it all is, so I’ve created a few images to help discuss our plans. I’d love feedback on these and hope that they might prove useful to other governors and school leaders. These images were created using Bubbl.us which is a quick and colourful tool for mindmapping. I’d love to see examples or suggestions of how to improve the presentation of this information, but these are a first draft, so forgive my visual ineptitude.

This first map is an attempt to capture the possible audiences for school communication. It is not a complete picture, and the last few nodes are examples to aid discussion. We hope to start crafting messaging that is more appropriate to each audience; in terms of the content, timing and method.

Primary School Audiences

This map is an attempt to look at all the ways schools interact with the world. Again, the last nodes are not a complete list but an indicative example. We are hoping to match the right channels to the right audience, and ensure that, as governors, we can quickly review the operational decisions of SLT to improve communication in specific strategic areas. That is going to take time – but we hope these tools will help us

Channels + examples

Channels + examples

 

I hope these are of some use to you, as they are part of our journey to improve school communication. I will carry on sharing as we go, of course.

Parent Governors are Dead, Long live Parent Governors

It’s time for a revolution in School Governance, one that is driven by us, and our communities, rather than politicians. 

It seems that changes to the governance of schools are coming, whether we want them or not. As a new parent governor, I have been both shocked and disappointed by the proposals by Nicky Morgan to ditch us mere parents on governing bodies, for more professional governors. I am disappointed, not just because the politics behind, and of this policy are bad, but because they miss a chance to bring real accountability to our schools – from representative democracy towards direct democracy. It is time to make school governance more open, to make better use of technology and to be run for the children and local communities they are part of.

On my induction training as a new governor, I questioned how the role of parent governors related to the views of the parent body. What responsibility do we have to gather the views of parents, communicate with them, or even bring parent concerns to Governors meetings?

The answer is none. Like MPs, parent governors, once elected, are free to apply their own views to the governing body. Like MPs, they are held to account after 4 years. But, although all governing body papers are available, most of what school governing bodies do is in the dark; in the evenings, and out of view. Made worse, by terrible school communication and the transient interests of parent bodies, parent governors often fail to effectively represent their constituents.


Like traditional democracy, the representation in schools is due disruption, by technology and the communication tools and challenges to openness it affords.

Schools should be better at communicating the work they do, as I’ve argued before, and to being more open.


Schools should be governed for the community they serve, in the context of that local area. As we see the final stages of the destruction of local authorities, it is even more important that schools (especially those smaller academies and MATs) to investigate how they can demonstrate their work matches their communities.

Schools should be using services like Loomio, where a community can respond directly the issues that relate to them. Even the UK Government allows us to petition for issues to be discussed. Many councils are now inviting local residents to vote topics into agendas and this is as it should be.

Image from Buzzle.com – no attribution or licencing found, so I am happy to remove or cite, if this information is provided.

While I do not think we can move to direct democracy overnight, I would like to see our schools (including the one I help govern) to move towards making use of all available communication channels to help the breadth of the school community have a voice at the governing body.

I also think it offers a way for children to add their voices to the running of the school,

This does not change the fact that decisions need to be made, often with consideration for privacy and safeguarding, and that the Governing Body might have to do something that goes against the views of the majority of parents. However, that should be done in the open, and governors should be accountable for those tough choices.

I wonder how the cooperative movement could be doing more to lead the importance of this shift, as it fits the cooperative movement’s ethos. Are there Cooperative Schools doing this right?

By governing in the open, with the parents behind them, parent governors should be skilled communicators, with the tools to help SLT to schools with their staff, parents, communities and their fellow governors.

I’m helping the school at which I am a governor work these issues through, hopefully bringing my expertise to support the evolution of a better solution. I hope to share more of this as we progress, but we’d love to know if you have experiences to share so we can do this better.

Speaking out on School Communication

 

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil... baaa!

I’ve worked in the schools sector for over 20 years, and in that time, I’ve seen a huge amount of change, though there is always a lag with the rest of society. Schools are terrible at communication, and with the tools now available to us, this is proving less and less acceptable. I think it’s time we created something better.

Before I go any further, I don’t think we need to adopt off the shelf solutions! I’ve been working in communication with schools for many years, in publishing, assessment, training, and policy; and schools are a clear and distinct community. Often schools are forced to take on models or products designed for business, such as the introduction of interactive whiteboards. Rarely do schools take the initiative to get ahead and create something that works better for children, teachers and their school communities. Nowhere is this gap more evident than in terms of school communication. But that also makes it a huge opportunity.

Most schools (especially primaries) are at least 10 years behind a similar sized business/organisation. Over the next few posts, I intend to explore some of the issues around this, and suggest some ways things could be improved. I want to start by pointing a finger at the inertia in how we view schools.

We all love our schools, right? Like the NHS, our local school becomes a place where we invest a huge amount of faith, trust and hope. As the work of schools is a mystery to most people, we assume that things are as good as they can be, unless they are faced with evidence to the contrary (inspections, ‘data’ or reputation). Teachers are stressed, overworked and .. well, I need not finish that list. No one wants to add pressure onto our increasingly politicised schools.

Which might explain why we put up with such crappy communication.

Does any of this look familiar?

  • A clutch of scraps of paper coming home in school bags
  • Letters home about trips with essential information missing or wrong
  • Teachers not available or contactable except during working hours
  • Notification of events at school at very short notice
  • Announcements made about changes to school life, without consultation
  • Staff meetings where there is no agenda, no minutes, and no follow up
  • Parents not sure who to talk to about issues or how to raise different topics
  • Slow or no responses via email from the school (messages not getting through)
  • School calendars rarely reflecting actual life of school
  • Staff struggling to manage all the information and data required of them

It would be bad if I was pointing the finger at teachers. But I think this is a problem for all of us. This might seem obvious, but most complaints, disciplinaries, failings, and causes of bad feeling are down to poor communication. So, Governors, Parents, Suppliers, Partners, (etc), all have a role in taking this forward. We should ask what we can do to make it better (more on this in later posts).

Yet schools rarely tackle this area as a specific issue for improvement, despite the fact that it would have a huge impact on the quality of teaching and learning, staff wellbeing and economic viability.

Over the next few posts, I am going to look at:

  • why it matters (enough to prioritised alongside T&L initiatives)
  • who schools communicate with and how
  • where communication could be improved

So, what is your experience of school communication? Is it great where you are – and if so, what are you guys doing right? What sort of problems are you seeing? What support is out there?

Free Schools in the High Court

Free schools have been a fundamentally and intentionally divisive policy. But now we have proof that was run against clear legal principles. Shouldn’t the free school policy be in court?

By sjiong – http://www.flickr.com/photos/sjiong/109817932/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6380215

When I chose to get involved with this policy, if subversively, by proposing an innovative new school in Oxford City, I knew what I was getting involved with. We knew the odds were not good. However, the inimitable Laura McInerney has found damning evidence that not only was the game rigged, but corrupt. No surprise, say the cynics.

While I don’t expect any sympathy, I do expect someone to take this to court  – not to sue the public purse – but to invite judicial review on the whole way this policy has been run.

The personal cost of being involved in a free school: in terms of mental health, financial security and professional resources; was huge. And no, we had no privileged background to draw on, and it hurt.

But, we sucked it up and faced the possibility that perhaps our application was just not good enough. But now we can see that the worse applications than ours were approved. And I’m pissed off – and ready to fight.

Laura’s story shows that the DfE are (unsurprisingly) a tough opponent – but not impossible to defeat. So… if anyone is up for it… I’m game.
I offer all the documents and communications we received to anyone who will challenge the DfE in the way it managed the application process for Free Schools. Get in touch.

3 suggestions to make you a more ethical freelancer

 

Banksy’s ‘Sweeping It Under The Carpet’ in Chalk Farm, London. Photo by Fabio Venni

To live and work in line with your values- that’s what we’d all want to do, right?

That’s the ideal of Ikigai, which I’ve written about here.This week I’ve been talking with folk who share the freelance life with me. We were dreaming of ways we could work together as our common values, shared ideals, and varied skills made for a compelling possibility. I found myself asserting that issues like diversity, equality and inclusion were as important in freelance work as they were in organisations.

It seems self-evident to us that working ethically is not always easy but that in our experience, the benefits play out in economic terms as well as social ones. Though there was agreement, we found ourselves without the time to work it through, and I left saying that I’d think it over. This post is the first part of my promise, but it needs work. I hope you can help.

So, here are 3 ways freelancers, alone or in small agencies, can walk the walk of social justice in their consulting, creating or making.

Do your homework

Before you take on a new client, it’s worth finding out a little about them. Who owns them? Do they pay their fair share of tax (looking at you Facebook)? Do they sell arms to oppressive regimes? Do they create advertising campaigns that make your stomach turn?

You might not feel you have a choice about who you work with, or that you have to keep quiet about unethical practice to get paid or to keep to the terms of a contract. But at some point you might need to know enough about their business to avoid getting your work included in something dodgy.

One way of doing business is to accept anybody and everybody who comes along. After all, you want to pay the bills, right? However, at some point, if you’ve got what entrepreneurs call ‘product-market fit’ you will have more work than you can manage. At this point you will need to use some kind of criteria to accept some work while turning down other pieces of work. One way of making these decisions is by gauging how much different clients are willing to pay you. But there are other ways. This is the perfect opportunity to bring in criteria such as your ethical standards and social justice concerns.

Place one line in the sand

Don’t be afraid of your politics, and don’t scare others with it. Your primary obligation is to the client, but that doesn’t mean you leave your values behind when you walk into their offices. Pick *one* issue, and explain how you believe it can help the work you are doing for the them. Be friendly, not ranty…but raise the issues that matter to you. Not everything can be about saving the planet – and sometime sourcing materials from a dictatorship might seem unavoidable. But, for example… any saving made buying from bastards, could be make up with sales that increase due to an ethical purchasing banner. Race, Global Citizenship, Gender equality…, whatever – it matters! If you are looking at budgets, ask why female staff are being paid so much less than male team members? Tilt their worldview, while being a kick-ass freelancer.

Be open and transparent

Work, as much as you can, in the open. Not everyone can blog about their work in public, but there are intranets, and meeting minutes, and other ways to record discussions in the workplace. Find them. Use them. Don’t rant in emails! Make sure there are plenty of people in the room when you raise an issue (especially where there are HR implications) , and make sure your broader view is minuted, not just your criticisms.

I am sure that 90% of every unfair pay deal for women has been made behind closed doors, by a room full of men (unfounded assertion). And I am sure that in at least some of them, someone has disagreed. Consultants and freelancers are often paid to be the people that say the difficult things, so even if you think no one heard you, your evidence for change might be appreciated by someone!

So, what do you reckon? Are these the right 3 things to start with? Is this even possible or desirable from a freelancer? What else should we consider?

This is just a start in my thinking on this, and I’d love your feedback on these ideas, or thoughts on how to do it better. We all want better government, fairer communities, and decent places to work. So, start with the smallest unit. You.

—–

My name is Eylan Ezekiel and you can find more about me here or on LinkedIn. I specialise in creating great communication in the education space, and would love to help your organisation to grow with the evolving digital landscape in learning. Get in touch at eylan@ezekiels.co.uk or on Twitter

Ikigai: my career compass

I am now available for work. Making decisions about which contracts to take, and which opportunities to go for, can be confusing. It is easy to make mistakes, or go down blind alleys. While I don’t know what is round the corner, I am far more clear about what I should say ‘Yes’ to, thanks to Ikigai.  Before you make me an offer of work – here is more about me and what I am looking for , but more importantly, here’s how I am choosing: in  my search of an Ikigai

According to Wikipedia  “Ikigai (生き甲斐, pronounced [ikiɡai]) is a Japanese concept meaning “a reason for being”. Everyone, according to the Japanese, has an ikigai. Finding it requires a deep and often lengthy search of self”

I recently explored a full time role, but because I was clear about what I wanted from a job, and where I could add most value, I could tell I was getting off the path. Ikigai has been my compass: rather than a set of directions or a destination. I’ve found it a useful tool for making decisions about jobs.
Here are my first attempts at answering the prompts that the Ikigai diagram asks:

What I Love

  • Family
  • Teaching
  • Cooking / Entertaining for family and friends
  • Music that move me

What the World needs (IMHO)

  • Progressive education that works
  • A more socially just, diverse and healthier education workforce

What I can be paid for

  • Teaching kids and teachers
  • Product Evangelism
  • Project and Product Management / Publishing
  • Leading change in education

What I am good at

  • Ideation
  • Business development
  • Social media
  • Managing teams

My Passion

Igniting kids learning

My Mission

To make learning better

My Vocation

Helping kids learn

My Profession

Educator/Teacher

We are all on a journey, but I’d be fascinated to know what guides you towards your Ikigai. What would you answer to these prompts?