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Leading with Purpose

The worldwide disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic is our generation’s Great Pause. We are in a liminal space – a disorientating time between the world that has been and the world that may be. These are times that are so profoundly discontinuous that we reconsider the purpose of our lives: to what extent has my life been well lived? We are likely to re-enter the world changed.

Rohr (2020) sees a parallel between our current experiences and the initiation process that mark the shift from childhood to adulthood. No longer do we see life from our egocentric teenage perspective: “This is my life. I can do what I want.” We move into a bigger world, a more complex world that involves many others. An adult world in which we can create life and we are responsible for the lives and wellbeing of others.

This gives our lives greater meaning and purpose – the relatedness that comes from connecting, interacting and caring for others. They challenge the immature, competitive, self-serving selves and systems we exist in. They are a call to be more than we currently are.  In part, I would describe this “more” as ensuring a preferential option for the poor, keeping closest to our hearts the most vulnerable, disadvantaged and damaged within our society.

“This is not about politics; this is about humanity. Looking at ourselves in the mirror and feeling like we did everything we could to protect those who can’t, for whatever reason or circumstance, protect themselves. Political affiliations aside, can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry?”

Marcus Rashford’s open letter to MPs (15 June 2020)

Illustration by Stan Dupp (@SDupp)

Every school, leader and teacher makes a contribution to this, for better or for worse, irrespective of their school’s particular demographic. It is about recognising our interdependence and connectedness as educators, alongside individual responsibilities. We are responsible for the lives well lived of all our nation’s children and young people, not just those with whom we come into daily contact. For this to become a lived reality will require a substantial re-purposing of our current education system.

A renewed education system

Empowering the education system to elevate and look after the most vulnerable, as its primary responsibility, doesn’t come from Ofsted grading the affluence of a school’s intake. High-stakes accountability has run its course and is now doing more harm than good. Instead of looking to accountability to drive school improvement, we need a more holistic view of how we can improve schools and to what end. This fundamentally changes the power dynamic and drivers within the system. Moving schools from an unhealthy obsession with performance tables and Ofsted grades to one concerned with the poorest and most vulnerable is a necessary start.

We need to recognise the very different contexts that schools find themselves in. Alongside sufficient funding for all schools, substantially enhanced funding is necessary for schools that operate in the most disadvantaged areas. If they are to be bulwarks against the worst outcomes of poverty, they need access to more high-quality services that are joined up across a locality. We need services that support families before children arrive at school and while they are at school. If we want to be more at ease with ourselves as a society – respecting of diversity in all its various forms – we need to eradicate long-term poverty. This is a political decision.

A new social covenant

The concept of the social contract has long been established. As individuals, we consent to surrendering some of our freedoms to the state in exchange for the protection of other rights and the maintenance of the social order. This is both necessary and problematic. Maintaining the social order may suit the powerful much more than it suits the disenfranchised and poorest.

A different and potentially more powerful concept to guide our thinking is that of covenant. This replaces the authority within the social contract with a different driver. The relationship is at the heart of covenantal thinking. Covenants are relationships formed through love and sacrifice, and maintained through reciprocity and forgiveness.

This is a very different relationship to the ones that currently dominate our education system, both in terms of vertical and horizontal interactions. The horizontal relationships are those that exist between schools, the people who work in them and the communities they are called to serve. The power of moving from contract to covenant allows the system to become truly and profoundly collaborative. In fact, it leads the system towards a collaborative imperative. There is no definition of success built on “I”. We are in a relationship. We succeed collectively or not at all.

A renewed sense of purpose

The real substance of education flows from and to the person and the people. We are created as unique individuals. We are brought fully alive in a community and must contribute to the common good. This is the “I” and “we” of life. We need an education that seeks wisdom – the ability to make good decisions. This leads to a life in which individuals may flourish, but also a life in which each person seeks to help others flourish. Or, phrased another way, we need an education that enables all to have a life well lived. 

Speaking in February 2020 at the Headteachers’ Roundtable Summit, I talked about a decade untouched. Little did I realise how important the profession’s collective agency, wisdom and sense of service would be in the months ahead. Although this decade still has a long way to run, it has now been deeply and profoundly touched. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the seismic response to the killing of George Floyd might, through great tragedy and suffering, bring forth a more just, peaceful and compassionate world. A world that will no longer accept a life well lived for the few, but demands it for all.

We must sing into existence this future, one that will serve our children, young people and communities well.

The above post is based on a series of extracts from Educating with Purpose, published by John Catt Ltd

This post will form the basis of my keynote at The World Education Summit March 22-25. I am excited to be part of the World Summit as it aims to bring the collective together – the greatest minds, thought leaders, academic and classroom practitioners. The themes chime with Educating with purpose – Values, Impact, Culture to name but a few. I am so pleased the Sir Ken Robinson stage will be a fitting tribute to discuss his legacy – creativity, wellbeing, finding your element. I look forward to the debates and panels as the largest community of learners come together virtually for the first time. I am part of the Trusts for Impact movement where on day 1 alongside Professor John Hattie we will be launching the largest global student learning survey – the first step in that quest to measure what we value. If you would like to read more about the summit and some of its key themes, this article written by Professor Ben Laker is excellent, Leaders Need To Establish More Equity. Here’s How

If anyone would like to be part of the Summit you can use the code LEADINGLEARNER to get a discounted ticket (available until February 21st). If you would like to know more about the summit, there is a free webinar on Wednesday 3rd February 2021 at 4:00 pm.


Rohr, R. (2020) “The patterns that are always true”, Center for Action and Contemplation, tinyurl.com/y9uled72



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