Over the past few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to visit Alex Atherton & Ross McGill at Quintin Kynaston Community Academy in London and welcome Carl Jarvis & Jon Chapman of the New Dawn Trust to St. Mary’s & Christ the King. What struck me most was that both occasions were about storytelling.
Story telling is as old as the human race. It gives a sense of our roots, our values and our ambitions. Leaders need to be able to articulate these at interview, to children and their parents, to staff, to governors and to themselves. The story should encapsulate where the school has come from, what it can be and lights to guide our actions along the way. Your aspirations rooted in the school’s tradition.
From the Past to the Future
Standing in the foyer of the new buildings at Quintin Kynaston I was struck by the calm which was in stark contrast to the journey across London and the academy’s recent turbulent past. Stretching across one wall of the entrance foyer is a series of pictures explaining the history of how the current school came to be. It’s been a challenging few years for the academy with a building programme to manage, various revelations in the press about a previous head teacher and, before Alex, too many head teachers in a short space of time. Ross was my guide around the new building and it was very obvious that staff and students are used to seeing him out and about. The new spaces are coming to life and with his usual resourcefulness Ross is looking to add displays and points of interest to an already hugely impressive building. Shaking hands with various staff we met along the way, seeing the students happily chatting with each other in the dining room and the gentle sense of order around the class rooms spoke of a community coming together and at ease with itself. We talked teaching and learning and I had a whistle stop tour of their integrated Google Drive approach to sharing and interlinking documents. This is a school going places, focussed on their students and the progress they make, with a few tech savvy ways of saving staff time. It was great to meet Alex and talk about the academy’s priorities, the challenges of budget & staffing and where too next for Quintin Kynaston.
On my way to Quintin Kynaston I inadvertently attempted to enter two other schools – a primary school and a special school – which share the same site. It will be interesting whether these three schools decide to become part of one bigger story. The extended professional capital people from different phases can bring to the realisation of a vision is quite extraordinary. We’re definitely stronger together.
Story Writing & Story Telling
Leading a faith school seems to give you an advantage when it comes to telling the story of your school. Put simply you are not required to write the story from scratch as many of your head teacher colleagues have to. The story for me, as the leader of St. Mary’s, is rooted in a greater story of Christian education that has been unfolding for over a thousand years. Each new generation adds to it but it is fundamentally set in a vision of education based on the development of the whole child, rooted in wisdom and serving the common good. Other schools may have a significant tradition to inform their story, their sense of being, but for many schools the story changes as each new school leader is appointed. The new head teacher has to be both the story writer and the chief storyteller which is no mean feat.
“It’s Not Like a Secondary School”
Walking around Christ the King and St. Mary’s with Carl and Jon was a pleasure, apart from when I manged to get us locked in the new Christ the King Parish Church momentarily. As we thanked the school secretary I quipped that I must have “been bad” to have ended up being locked in to which her response was, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
Chatting with Carl and Jon over lunch I found myself quoting Isiah, “I have called you by name, you are mine” to explain why we had built and designed our learning house and pastoral system in the way we have. They were interested in the story and its telling musing about how they would articulate their story. They have such a powerful vision and a shared story about what education should be it would be a great story to hear. Earlier they had spent an hour with Sarah & Des (Head teachers at Christ the King & St. Cuthbert’s respectively) discussing the need for authenticity and powerful peer critique within the curriculum. The way they allow staff to create, often quite literally, class room environments and projects to challenge and engage children in their learning is quite exceptional. I don’t know any other school that quite do it as well as the Hartsholme Way.
Authentic stories aren’t just heard and head but are felt and heart. Carl & Jon’s reflection that St. Mary’s didn’t feel like a secondary school as we walked around fascinated me even if they couldn’t quite articulate why at that moment.
Talking About What Matters, Matters
This is probably a bit of a ramble to get to a simple question which needs a profound answer, if you are to lead a school or any organisation, “What is/would be the story of the school you lead or hope to lead in the future?” This question can also be asked about the phase or department you lead. If asked to tell the story; what would you say, where would you begin, what would your aspiration be? It sometimes good to muse about the story’s possible shorthand in terms of simple statements that would have a deeper meaning. “I have called you by name, you are mine” launches me into a monologue about the importance of children being known as the unique, gifted and talented individuals they are and how we have to ensure that they feel a sense of belonging within our community. Belonging to a community means we must hold our individuality in tension with the common good of all, the “I” and “We” of communities must work with each other …. And whilst I could go on what is more important is you thinking about the story you would like to write as a leader.
Thanks again to Ross, Alex, Carl and Jon for being so generous with their time and sharing it freely with me.