This is a guest post from Jay Helbert of SCEL. Jay chaired this year’s forum and also wrote this interesting reflection about his impressions of it – thanks on two counts, Jay, from your friends at SELMAS.
This year’s forum took place at St George’s School, Edinburgh with a focus on the child outside the system. This was my first time at a SELMAS forum and as chair, I took this as an opportunity to challenge those in attendance to be provocative, think creatively and be brave in their conversations and beyond. This is not to say I think teachers and education leaders are fearty or faint of heart. In fact to do the very jobs we do requires great doses of fortitude, courage and resilience. Rather the challenge was to use the forum as a space to imagine and think beyond the system.
We were joined at the forum by a number of innovative thinkers who, more importantly are also innovative doers. First of all, Paul Blackwell, of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service told us of how a chance conversation with a colleague in Police Scotland led to him tackling the issue of gang violence and anti-social behaviour. This is a wonderful example of what can be achieved when people think beyond the traditional and prescribed parameters of one’s role or agency to create sustained change. Paul’s message was clear and reflected what was to become a theme of the forum:
“Be the person who brings change about, often it starts with you.” His philosophy of developing solutions with gang members rather than delivering solutions to them, or worse doing things to them is an example of genuine engagement.
The second speaker of the night was Fiona McKenzie, a former music teacher who now runs Centre Stage Communities Ltd, an organisation that uses the arts (and food) to engage people of all ages – current members range from 3 weeks to 106 years old. Fiona’s talk achieved that rarest of things by having people laughing one moment and choked up the next. This wasn’t mere ‘edutainment’ though. Fiona discussed her team meetings where, when new ideas are discussed, staff are encouraged to ask, “What’s the best that can happen?”. This take on an old question shifts the emphasis to encourage people to imagine a preferred future and then set about making it happen.
He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
– Outwitted by Edward Markham
Fiona was followed by Ian MacMillan, an experienced leader from the financial industry and third sector. Ian is a non-executive director and chair of Cyrenians, a charity that re-engages those who are excluded, from education, employment or society. Ian was very honest about the fact that teachers and school leaders face a wide range of challenges, from bureaucratic demands, through to the changing nature of curricula and assessment arrangements. He did, however encourage us all to remember the passion we have for education and continue to kindle the spark that glows within.
“You can’t light the spark in others of it’s not burning brightly within – the greatest thing a teacher does is light a spark, create a trigger moment which creates passion, confidence and allows learners to be free.”
Ian shared his learning from David Marquet’s experiences as a submarine commander when he turned USS Santa Fe from the worst rated ship in the US Navy, into the best. The key messages can be found in this inspirational and short video clip.
Our final speaker of the night was Gillian Hunt, who reminded us of some stark statistics about the number of young people who leave school without a ‘positive destination’ or more worryingly without a sustained positive destination that enable independent living and positive life experiences. Many children leave school at 16, but moany of these have disengaged by time they are in second year. Again Gillian was clear that the majority of young people are engaged in school and are served well by schools, however she is seeking a solution for those to whom school is perhaps not the most conducive environment for learning. Inspired by Newlands Junior College, Gillian is working with a range of partners from the public, private and third sectors to establish a junior college in Edinburgh.
The forum finished with a very lively panel session where we explored the question – should we have to leave the system to bring about real change? This led to some deep discussion about the definition of ‘the system’ (are we not all the system?), the power of Mavericks (should we subvert the rules if we know it is the right thing to do? If so what risks do we take?) and how any individual can change such a vast system (one lone actor can seem like a nut, but when followers join, you have a movement).
“We but mirror the world. All of the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we change ourselves then the tendencies in the world will change.” Mohandas Gandhi.
Throughout the night, I was reminded of an analogy my first head teacher, used to use; some people are like thermometers – they are good at telling you it’s too cold. Others are like thermostats – they figure out that it’s too cold and then do something about it.
It’s up to you folks. Are you a thermometer or a thermostat?
Personal Note: This blog is a personal reflection of the night as experienced through my eyes and ears. The beauty of SELMAS forum is that because of the structure and wonderful people present, every single person will have had a unique experience – it would be great to hear yours.