CPD – Mostly sitting with Nellie


I have used the expression ‘sitting with Nellie’ because a great deal of my professional development has been on-the-job and opportunistic. There are some who take a dim view of this approach; I’d argue that judicious choices in formal and informal development have worked quite well for me. The one thing that has run through it is that it is MY development.


When Alison Peacock spoke about learning without limits during my PGCE at the Institute of Education, I raised my hand. “How do I get a job at your school?” This has been my approach to CPD throughout my careers. I use the plural because I’ve had a few. They have been characterised by continual professional development, a state of becoming rather than being. So I can only approach this subject in a rather long-winded way, from the beginning.


In 1992, early on in my working life, Dr David Butcher, director of the General Management programme at Cranfield University, said something that has stuck with me throughout my careers. “If we want it enough, each of us is capable of unlimited development.” Some in the room passed cynical glances; naively, I believed it. At the time, our company was undergoing a programme of corporate and personal change. Besides grading for two belts in karate (a group of us chose a somewhat unorthodox way of illustrating David’s point), I took every opportunity that the company could offer.


But even before that, shortly after my attempt at a PhD in medieval ecclesiastical history had ended in temporary work counting cars on the M5 and M6, I’d embarked on my professional development. The company, a transport planning consultancy, could see that I was capable of more, and they needed someone who could persuade and inform their clients. So I became a marketing assistant. By night, I studied alongside other half-awake men and women for my graduate diploma in marketing and gained my membership of the Chartered Institute of Marketing. After a shaky start to my career, the course and the qualification gave me the credibility I needed amongst consultants who considered ‘non fee-earners’ as superfluous. Of equal importance, then and throughout my career, was the guidance and sponsorship of a senior leader. At first a director, then the Managing Director: they recognised my potential, set me the initial challenge, supported me in my development and demanded more of me than I believed myself capable of delivering.

When the company hit huge difficulties and had to be bailed out by venture capitalists, I managed my second step in my professional development in an equally unorthodox way. The ‘company doctor’ had made me redundant but wanted to know if there was any future for the firm, so he asked me to carry out a competitor analysis. Of course, I said, knowing little or nothing of how to do it. Youth, chutzpah and the need for the daily fee prevailed. In order to fulfil my brief, I turned to my father-in-law, a retired corporate finance director, who taught me how to read between the lines of company accounts, to smell out problems. Hours of conversations with him, pages of scribbled ratios and days at Companies House led to a report that revealed the parlous state of most of my former company’s competitors. Thanks once again to some high expectations of me, and thanks to my father-in-law’s tuition, I’d emerged as a jobbing freelance consultant.


My twenty years in management consultancy began in a marketing capacity, but once again the sponsorship, direction and challenge of senior leaders led to huge changes in my career and capabilities. I’d only intended to work there for a year, to raise enough money to pay for a law conversion course. But it felt dishonest, so I told the chairman and asked for his advice on my career. “Stick with me and I’ll make you very well off,” he replied. Though mistaking my motivation, his offer of support convinced me to stay. The managing director then took me under his wing. He saw the makings of a management consultant in me and explicitly offered me a steep and unorthodox route into the profession, almost an apprenticeship. Looking back on the twenty years there, I pride myself on only having read one book about management, ‘Maverick!’ By Ricardo Semler. Though I could see the benefits of books for others, my preferred ways of learning were on the job.


I was assigned to a very experienced consultant as his assistant in interviews, information collection, analysis, report writing and presentation. I thought I had a decent brain and a way with words: he taught me what not to say, what to say and how to say it. In some pretty bruising conversations, in which I had to learn that I couldn’t simply expect to apply my prior learning to this new role, he shaped me as a consultant.

My managing director wasn’t content with that. We were a firm of practitioners who also preached, project managers who consulted, so he set out a path for me into managing projects. This was by way of training others. One of the best ways of obtaining a pretty deep and rapid understanding of a subject is the terrifying prospect of having to teach people about it. 

There was an explicit logic to the development: I was assigned to a senior consultant, who gave me an overall understanding of what we taught. He then took me through a session and patiently explained each point: what he said, why he said it, what it led to and, importantly, how I should make it my own point. I had to understand my subject, and draw on my own experience, if I was to have any credibility in front of our clients, and if they were to learn from me. Next, I accompanied him to our residential courses in a supporting capacity, watching, listening, learning and then discussing what it all meant over dinner and late on into the night. Only when I was comfortable with what I was to teach did I begin to present individual sessions. After each, there would be a painful “So how did you think that went?” session. My colleagues and I all used to walk around with large lever-arch files full of feedback. Though useful, we eventually had to learn how to filter out what was of most value to us. With his help, however, I became able to present the technical content of our training.


There was a subsequent and, in many ways, far steeper step. I began to work alongside David Butcher and his colleague at Cranfield University, Dr Catherine Bailey. Both occupational psychologists, they worked with us to provide management development for our clients. We taught the technical; they offered deeper development. And once again, I learnt most at dinner and afterwards. Like many of my colleagues, I gave David and Catherine permission to be extremely blunt about what they saw and what would be necessary for me to develop. While my consultant colleagues had worked on my knowledge, understanding and skills, Catherine in particular addressed my values, attitudes and behaviour. I learn best from watching, probing for meaning, practising and then reflecting on what I’ve done, action learning for want of a better name. 

For years, long after my ‘apprenticeship’ and when Catherine and I were working on assignments as equals, she continued to provide this deep and challenging development. It is best characterised by her exasperated comment one night, “Malcolm, this is the point where you shut up and I teach you something.” There was a three-way contract, between Catherine, me and my company. And I cannot overemphasise how important the sponsorship of my managing director was, as during this extended period, the company was making little or no money from me. It was a very informal and very expensive route to further professional development.  


The company was heavily involved in the emergence of a professional body for project managers. While jokingly someone had said, “If we were arrested on a charge of being project managers, would there be enough evidence to convict us?” there was a real determination to assert our still nebulous profession alongside the engineers and other specialists whom we managed and with whom we worked. Though I lacked the confidence and, at that stage, the experience to claim membership for myself, I was interested and involved in the accreditation of my peers in the profession. 

One of the big drivers for professional accreditation in project management was assurance. This ranged to the formal assurance required in safety critical environments such as railways, to giving some comfort to a client who was about to part with large sums of money and hand over the running of a major investment to a stranger. And an important element of that accreditation was the requirement for continuing professional development. Our environment was constantly changing and we had to show we were keeping up with it. I worked extensively on this with Catherine Bailey, as one of her areas of expertise was competence development. Our work culminated in a paper that was runner-up for an award from the Association for Project Management: Catherine provided the brains; I provided the beautiful prose.

I continued to pursue my own development through ever more challenging assignments. One or two of the assignments were flops, and my employers afforded me the luxury of making sense of failure. Successful or otherwise, most of my work taught me through getting my hands on practical activities, and working alongside, questioning and listening to other professionals. Plan, do, discuss, derive meaning and move on, over and over again. I found a professional home while helping a group of internal consultants in the civil service to gain certification as management consultants. The scheme was new, as the Institute of Consulting was attempting a similar effort to assert its credibility. The consultants I was managing were also attempting to assert their professional standing in an organisation that valued more conventional career progression. 

Together, we put together our portfolios and submitted them before our interviews. After ten years in the business, and as a leader, I expected to sail through. My recall for a further scrutiny was salutary. Judged by my peers, I hadn’t adequately demonstrated how my experience and development had made an impact on my work. Though the errors were quickly remedied, this insistence on evidence for the impact of my continuing professional development was important. Similarly, when I was accredited as a leader of reviews for high risk government projects (the Ofsted of public investments), it was a judgement by my peers, subject to a continuing need to demonstrate that I was still up to the job.


In a blog post supposedly dedicated to my continuing professional development as a teacher, it might seem strange to have waded through so many words before it even comes up. In fact, even before this, I qualified as a swimming coach and gained another degree, a first in English. I have, in short, a never-ending thirst for development. But management consultancy wasn’t meeting that need. In the words of a colleague, I’d been coasting for some time.

So I retrained as a primary teacher. Approaching fifty, this was hard. After a career in management, I had little desire to lead a school: my ambition was to be an advanced skills teacher. I chose the Institute of Education because its emphasis on the academic aspects of education, and on reflection as well as practical grounding, appealed to me. I found the guidance of my tutors invaluable, and probably made far heavier demands on them than my younger peers, to explore the meaning of what we were learning. 

Like most PGCE graduates, I recognised that I went into my NQT year only half formed. I was fortunate to work for a local authority that afforded me the time and opportunities to learn and meet up with my fellow NQTs, but I found the collaboration with my NQT mentor, a colleague and former deputy head, most valuable. For me, observation, and evaluation are essential, so I sought out her feedback. I watched her, she watched me, we team taught, we planned together and we talked a lot. She rapidly made practical sense of what I approached in an idiosyncratic and overly theoretical way. Teaching can be a lonely pursuit, and once again I owed a lot to my head, who invested more of the school budget than he might have done in supporting my development.

My experience in the private sector was brief, unusual and illustrative of the value of unorthodox opportunities for professional development. I found myself teaching alongside a colleague who also taught adults. While I had some opportunity to observe her in lessons, I wanted to understand her approach, the way in which she set such high expectations for pupils, filled them with enthusiasm and gently but persistently facilitated their learning. So I enrolled in her evening seminars on James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. Over twenty weeks, I watched her apply the same approach with adults, discussed what she did and why, and explored how I could apply it myself. I learnt a lot more than just one summer’s day in Dublin.

Last term, at a school in special measures, I experienced even steeper development. Early on in my career, I learnt about the ‘transition curve’, a graphic way of illustrating the levels confidence and typical attitudes at different stages of development. With a significant number of new teachers in the team, we couldn’t afford to take time to settle in. So I very quickly went through the stage of assuming that all I had to do was apply my prior experience, into the slough of despond associated with lessons that just weren’t working for the students and up towards lessons that offer the opportunities that these pupils demand. I did this through the calm direction and trust of my head, through some well-timed and practical interventions from the senior leadership team at a neighbouring school and through close collaboration with our assistant head. Once again, we observed each other, we planned together, and we reflected. Though younger than me, she is far more experienced: I have a lot to learn. But she is also hungry to learn, and our development felt mutually satisfying. We’ll be staying in touch.


Making sense of this, I have come to the following conclusions:

1. CPD comes in varied and often unorthodox forms: we must recognise that and sometimes look for it in the strangest places.

2. In professional development, impact matters: we learn, we practise, we make sense of it, we are transformed, we produce better results from our lessons.

3. We have to believe in our unlimited capacity for development, seek out opportunities for it and be open to others’ well-intentioned, well-framed and well-timed interventions.

4. Colleagues are vital. We are at our best together, learning with and from each other; at our worst and loneliest if we think we are on our own.

5. The sponsorship of senior leaders is also vital, be it direction, belief, trust, resources or opportunities. But most of all, we need time from our leaders: time in the week to pursue development and time over the terms to make sense of and properly assimilate learning.

I am looking to the College of Teaching, as a classroom teacher, to help in advancing these five enablers for my continuing professional development.


What next? Teaching will take me through to retirement, as I have so much to learn. Beyond that, I’m eyeing up a place at Oxford to read PPE, perhaps to pursue my doctorate. But only when I’m ready. So much to find out, and only one life.

Libraries Day

It makes me bloody furious to hear that libraries are being closed.

But it’s Saturday, so I’ll chill out and remember the libraries that meant most to me.

First, a sunlit room at the edge of my memory, at my primary school in Lahore. I discovered Tintin there at six and began my lifelong love of graphic novels. 

No pupil in any class I teach will hear that their graphic novels are somehow not ‘proper reading’.

Secondly, the central library in Luton, where I continued my primary education. Here I found Tove Jansson and her pared-back prose. Visits to the library ranked closely alongside the Saturday matinees at the cinema. My only worry was when I lost a book at school: I thought the people who ran the library there would talk to the central librarian and I would be thrown out of the building. 

Note to self and to library staff: don’t persecute forgetful young readers.

The library in my prep school boarding house was a wonderful mixture of ageing paperback storybooks, tattered novels and – joy of all joys – National Geographics going back to the thirties. I found out about so many other times and other places. It was a copy of Hard Times I found there that most gripped me. I was twelve and had just come through the living Hell of the previous year (the housemaster, a former inmate at Changi who had allowed a boy-led regime of utter brutality, had died during the previous term). There was something about the lives of the children, and the awfulness of Gradgrind, that so gripped and angered me that I sat up all night, hidden in a toilet cubicle, reading it from cover to cover. 

Once again, I cannot criticise any pupil who yawns in class and can convince me that they were up late in the company of a good book.

Bedford School’s library was a memorial to the hundreds of boys who had briefly been men before they died in the service of their country.  I loved the gloomy recesses, the randomness of the knowledge available to me and the age of so many of the books. Here I found a book by Kingsley Amis: The Riverside Villas Murder and one by Virginia Woolf: Orlando. By no means clever or edifying, they spoke to me at a time when I was trying to understand myself. 

I have to think carefully about what is ‘appropriate’ for a pupil to read, as I cannot know all that is going on inside their head or outside the school gates.

Queen Mary College’s library was largely a place where I could find the books I needed for my frantic essays. Somewhat cynically, I chose to study medieval history because there were fewest books in that section (so I assumed it would be easier than the more book-laden modern subjects). The very randomness of the available books (there were never the ones that my tutors recommended so I had to be very creative when applying and citing what I was able to find) actually made me think harder about my essays than if I’d been better equipped, I think.

The glorious randomness of a visit to a library, knowing that you don’t have to pay for your exploration, is quite different to a bookshop, though the best shops allow ‘extended browsing’.

My great love as an undergraduate was for the Senate House library. I especially liked Saturday mornings there, quieter and more relaxed. Behind the bronze and limestone grandeur of this fascist stump of a building, the shelves were labrythine, the back staircases and creaking lifts were claustrophobic and the little nooks for reading were a welcome hiding place. One of the joys of an arts degree in the eighties was the lack of pressure on us. I was able to wander widely with my reading, and learnt about far more than the reading list.

Reading is a state of mind: I try wherever possible to associate it with warmth, safety and private comfort. Libraries may be the only place where that is possible.

As a graduate student, the echoing, cavernous reading room at the British Museum was exciting and distracting in equal measures. It was thrilling to think that Karl Marx had worked in the same space. I can’t say that I managed much research there, but the manuscript room was a different matter. When the librarian brought me my twelfth century cartulary, it was like handling a saint’s relic. Sometimes, the vellum still seemed as fresh as when the scribe had stroked his quill across its surface; sometimes it would be a shrivelled scrap from the Cottonian collection, so damaged by fire and water that I could only guess at its contents.

When I am recommending books, I treat them as precious objects, not because of their physical state but because of the exciting treasures they contain. Libraries offer these riches for nothing.

My relationship with libraries as a parent evokes memories of curling up in corners with my daughter and a pile of books, which I’d read and then we’d read and then she’d read. And memories of gathering armfuls of books to take home for bedtimes together.

Many adults ‘get’ this. Library visits with children shouldn’t be transactional, supervised expeditions: they should be the pursuit of a shared pleasure. Children, alert to what we think, say and do, will ‘get it’ if they see us joining in with reading.

Libraries have to fight hard for my attention now. I have the Internet, bookshops, ebooks and more tangible demands on my time. I still visit my local libraries to pillage their reference shelves for topic-related books (and ring up huge fines when I return them after they are due back). Until I have a grandchild, until I begin my next part-time programme of study and until I exchange time for money in retirement, I’ll probably see far less of libraries. 

I just hope libraries are still there when I need them.

Flipped Learning for Teachers?

I woke up this morning with my Saturday-morning-curious head on.

During the week, I tend to lower my head, brace my shoulders and just Get. On. With. Teaching. On Monday evening I’m shocked by the new week. On Tuesday evening I’m stifling a yawn. By Wednesday evening I’m tired. And on Thursday evening I’m thinking about 3:30 on Friday.  But after our traditional Friday night Waitrose curry in front of whatever crap there is on telly and a ridiculously early bedtime, I’m alive and alert again. 

This morning I was fortunate enough to read an article quoted by Greg Ashman about the influence of context on the transfer of knowledge and understanding. The subject immediately engaged me, and I found that I had the conceptual capacity to think through it rather than just read it. I wanted to try out the concepts in my own classroom. I also read John Dexter’s blog about CPD in his school. That excited me too, and gave me some ideas.

But I know that when I get back to work, I’ll stop being the excited twelve year-old who wanted to test every new concept and become the 52 year-old pragmatist. In some ways, it’s unrealistic to expect a teacher to sustain the open curiosity of their younger self: we’ve changed and the context has changed.

But what came to mind this morning was a big think-bubble above me. What if – just possibly WHAT IF – I could experiment at school? That was the twelve year-old talking. The 52 year-old said, “No. We’re too busy and too knackered. Great idea, but we’ll never sustain it.” Somewhere in the conversation, a third voice entered (I’ve yet to work out who it is). Here’s what it said.

Twilight INSET sessions are a living death. Tired teachers ploughing through PowerPoints, pointless exercises, preparation for Ofsted or ‘Show and Tell’ from someone’s recent CPD. Ours is on Wednesday evening. I actively and eagerly participate, mostly because it keeps me awake.

PPA is mostly spent not planning. We chat, we explore resources, we make tea, we chat some more, we look around for some more stuff and we flip listlessly through exercise books.

How about a bit of ‘flipped learning’? Some schools are encouraging their students to read around and prepare in their own time for topics that are then actively and collectively explored in lessons. That worked really well for me as an undergraduate, where my contributions to seminars were animated and well-informed.

I can plan unconsciously. I don’t need to be at my creative best for the ritual of writing and revising my weekly plans. On those Wednesday afternoons, armed with some high octane coffee and a packet of chocolate Hobnobs, I think my colleague and I could motor through our plans for the following week.

And instead of spending our PPA on planning, why not spend it on learning? Whether simply as a pair, or with colleagues who share our PPA slot, why don’t we spend some or all of the time in some intense CPD or pursuit of research into our pupils’ learning? We’ll be more alert for an activity that demands all of our consciousness and a good helping of energy.

Within a school, the cycle might be a half or whole day INSET each term and one twilight INSET and three or four CPD weeks each month. The INSETs might actually be more engaging because they will inform and be informed by our own learning. A wider, more animated ‘show and tell’. And, given a whole-school consensus on what colleagues want to learn and research, the body of professionals might become more active learners as well as great teachers.

It’s a Saturday daydream, just like my plans go enter a team in the national schools swimming relays (which began in a burst of enthusiasm last night and died when I realised I wouldn’t have enough boy and girl swimmers to make up two teams). But maybe it’s worth mentioning to my colleagues. I’ll be interested to hear what they have to say. I’d also be interested to hear what you have to say.



A brief one.

One of the pleasures of living in my head is the pile of dog-eared pages of history and etymology lying on my dusty mental shelves.  

Last week, as I was taking the register in Year 2, I explained the significance of their names to as many children as I could. 

I told Matilda about a mighty empress who fought the king of England for year after year so that her son could claim his crown.  Eleanor, I said, married Matilda’s son and became queen of dominions that stretched from Scotland to the Pyrenees. Alexander learnt that his namesake had ruled an empire that reached almost to India. One or two of the pupils’ heads turned at this, their history touched by this long-dead man. Lucy heard how people in Denmark celebrate the longed-for return to longer days on a day named after a saint whose name, translated, means ‘light’. Sophie gave a gap-toothed smile when I said that her name meant wisdom. Later, when I told Laetitia that her name was ‘happiness’ in Latin, one of her friends joked, “That’s not what her parents think.” So much for names.

Yesterday, I was thinking about teaching and obsession. I can be quite an obsessive person, though the sieges are brief. 

I mention this because the word ‘obsess’ comes from obsideo, to besiege. We talk about people being obsessed with things or ‘obsessing’ about things; I’d like to retain a translation that is truer to the original metaphor: we are obsessed by things. It can become a passive state of mind, one in which we lose control.  Like a medieval town, or starving Stalingrad, we allow our thoughts to be surrounded by concerns, ideas, enthusiasms or pursuits that may cut us off from wider conversation, experience and company.  Obsession can constrain or narrow thought.

I’d rather be committed. Originally meaning ‘to entrust’ from the Latin conmittere (con meaning ‘together’ and mittere ‘put’ or ‘send’), there is something more active about this. I commit myself to my job and my profession. And I commit myself to my family and friends. 

Of course, if I allow the former to become an obsession, the latter may be obliged to have me committed…


This handful of doggerel was nagging at me when I woke up today. It will disappear into the ephemera of blogposts and tweets, but demanded to be written down.

I wake with a tumble of problems
rolling round my snot-filled head,
so I turn myself to the other side
and dream of you instead.

I move and see your blood on my bed:
I couldn’t care less about stains;
I’ll wash the sheet but they’ll remain
when you, too brief, are dead.

Outside, while I’m caught in thought
and the throes of this filthy cold,
coriander, kitchen window-framed,
clings to life in a plastic pot.

Quite banal, but based on the morning’s anxieties and Friday evening’s worry, when I came home to hear that my dog had been bleeding uncontrollably from a wound on her chest. She’s fine, but it made me think about her mortality and the huge consolation she gives me. It’s difficult to worry for long when you have a dog beside you.  I really did look out of the kitchen window and see that coriander. Against all reason, this throwaway ingredient has survived for months on top of the sundial in our courtyard. We live, we hang on to life, we die.

My daughter’s version


I found this story on an old memory stick. My daughter wrote it almost seven years ago, when she was thirteen.  It’s a well worn anecdote within our family (here and here are my own versions, in verse) but I’d never heard her version.  Here it is.

The crudely cut hillside was covered in dark grey slate. The roads were rough and winding, framed by irregular hedgerows. The car purred slowly along the track towards the Llanberis pass, sheep dotted randomly outside the window.  There were two passengers inside the car. A girl and her father, both silently hypnotised by the steady beat of the music playing on the car radio.  The girl was sleeping, slumped against the cool glass of the window with the crumpled map draped across her knees. The car rounded a corner and the small town of Capel Curig came into view. The welcoming lights at the windows woke the girl and the car came to a stop. The bags were unloaded quietly in darkness and the two people sleepily climbed the steps up to their usual room on the second floor without noticing anything.

The girl sat up suddenly. The loud yelp from the bathroom had signalled her abrupt awakening. The familiar, tall figure of her father sprang from the room, fingers wrapped in a fluffy white towel.

“I forgot the water was so damned hot here! Do you know where the plasters are? I think they’re in my back pack, can you have a look?” said the man, who was obviously her father. She climbed out of her bed and looked in the old, blue Vango back pack that had been to this beautiful part of Wales many times before. She saw the turquoise first aid box wedged into the side pocket. She handed it to him. He fiddled around with the box for a couple of minutes before she took pity on him and opened it herself.  She took out a large square plaster and handed it to him.

They trooped downstairs with their backpacks and walking boots.

“Two bacon sandwiches in the name of ––––– please.” said her father. They paid and left the bar, both clutching hot sandwiches. They sat outside eating their breakfast whilst choosing their route up the mountain.

“But we always take the miners track!” she moaned.

“I know but it would be easier on our legs,” he replied.

“I think we should take the Pyg track and then once we get over the shoulder, carry on round.” she said.

“Well that is a possibility, ok, well yes,” he agreed. “Shall we get going?”

She nodded. They both loaded their heavy packs into the car. They followed the road round, up the hill to the Pen y pass car park. They went into the café and bought sandwiches, crisps and biscuits, enough for lunch and dinner. They paid and went out to the car and laced their feet into big walking boots.  Then they began to walk.

The track was steep and rocky. The landscape was breathtakingly beautiful. The way the slate and grass rolled along the hills in harmony was something that she had never seen before. Every now and then the bleat of a ewe, defending her lamb from a passing car could be heard. The two walkers walked hand in hand for an hour or two, talking about the things that had never been bothered to be said before. Suddenly, the view changed. They had reached the shoulder and were looking at the glacial lake. But she thought it wasn’t as beautiful as her father had described. The surrounding area was covered in thick snow.

“But I checked the weather forecast this morning!” he spluttered.

“The mountain weather forecast daddy?” she asked.

“No, the normal one! What are we going to do? We can’t go back, the slope will be to icy.” he replied, an anxious note in his voice. “We’ll just have to keep going up.”

They dug around in their bags, searching for scarves and jackets. They glugged some hot tea from a thermos and trudged on up. The snow was getting worse and worse. As the track got steeper, it became harder to walk due to the black ice. All you could see was a blanket of white snow and black specks, marching to the summit, guarded by the white, wet sentinels people had built along the way. A few hours later, the man and his daughter reached a queue. People were shivering and crying, all desperately trying to reach the shelter at the top of the mountain. An older man was lifting his toddler whilst trying to maintain his balance himself. The ice under foot was treacherous, waiting for someone to slip and fall to their death, down to the silent, snow covered rocks below. The queue was slowly becoming shorter as people managed to clamber to safety. When the girl and her father had climbed to the shelter on the top of the summit, they sat down and huddled together. The hug said so much, there was the apology from him and the regret from her and the fear from both that this was the last time they would embrace each other and that they would die on this god damned mountain.

They saw there was only one way down. The endless, steep track was called the mountain ranger. The track was covered in snow drifts that came to her knees. The wind seemed to be determined to claim at least one of the innocent walker’s lives as it was blowing strongly, pushing everyone to the edge of the cliff. The walk was slow and seemed never ending but then a light appeared in the distance. The pair walked faster, relief flooding through them. They almost ran the last few meters, desperate to get into the warmth. The light they had seen belonged to a small, old fashioned inn. The man inside told them to sit by the fire and brought them hot tea and listened to their story. The man had a dog. The dog went and sat next to her. She ran her finger through its coat, the course black fur warming her hands and making her feel reassured. She thought of home and desperately wished she was at home, in bed with her own dog on her feet and not this stranger’s one.  She squeezed her father’s hand and he squeezed it back as if to say, “Me too.”


We haven’t walked the mountains together for some years; I miss that company painfully.  This brings back so much more than just a walk.


Wow… One hell of a year

I find this difficult to write.

My Low Points

I can’t easily discuss low points, just because. I am proud of three things: that I stood up for my colleagues’ economic welfare, that I took a principled stand on my pupils’ wellbeing and, despite a voice in my head saying “Why would they ever want a nobody like you?” became a trustee of the College of Teaching.

Five years after I made my decision to enter teaching, I sometimes wonder if I have sabotaged my own career. I’m very spiky – most of the time manically happy and collaborative, but sometimes in despair and extremely cynical. I try to keep these latter moments to myself. That’s when the black dog appears in my Twitter feed. I try to keep my eye on the highlights, my heroes and the horizon.

My highlights: 

  • seeing a group of pupils through the 11+ selection process with their heads held high (by no means a certainty at the outset) and watching their huge personal growth, sometimes with tears in my eyes at the enormous steps they chose to take; 
  • marching with a colleague alongside the trans teenagers and their families with Gendered Intelligence at Pride in London (could I use any more prepositions?)
  • teaching at a school in special measures, at which I encountered equally sparkling minds and beautiful personalities; 
  • working with and learning from some great colleagues, of whom I will single out five (below);
  • becoming a founding trustee of the College of Teaching, because it forces me to do something about our profession rather than just fretting about it. 

My heroes:

  • Toby Brothers, an extraordinary woman who seduces pupils, for whom she has uncompromisingly high expectations, into loving learning and literature (me included, as she taught me to love Ulyssses and complete it after thirty years of trying.)
  • Julie Pakbaz, a teacher who had no financial need to teach but did it because it was important. Sharp, bright, endlessly supportive, far younger than me and far more grown up, she challenged me and challenged our pupils to be our disciplined best selves.
  • Cindy Harnett, my assistant head, with whom I developed an immediate professional rapport and who, like Julie and Toby, both taught alongside me and taught me to be the best I could be.
  • Vicky McDowell, my fellow trustee, who offered me strength through vulnerability, wisdom in her quiet words and thoughts, and a sudden, unquestioning friendship
  • Steve Davy, Year 4 teacher at the Wroxham School, whose manic, amazing mind matches mine and then marches way beyond, forcing me to laugh and run behind him, picking up the ideas he scatters as he goes. We’ve drunk too much, sworn undying love on the Northern Line, swigged strong coffees and thought up wild ways to teach. Even my wife thinks he’s extraordinary, and she’s not easily impressed.

The Horizon

My goals for 2016 are to:

  • allow time to care for my wife and family, usually bottom of the pecking order;
  • take my personal health and welfare seriously: I am 52, rapidly gaining weight, doing no exercise and not at all happy with it. I have to get serious and make it sustainable;
  • have a fabulous and successful time with my Year 4 class (my first step outside Year 6) – again, in a sustainable way;
  • do whatever I can, and whatever I am called to do, in pursuit of the successful establishment of our College of Teaching;
  • learn German, just because.

See you on the other side x

Just a story, you understand…


Back in 1993, I remember Charles Handy, then professor at London Business School, and author of Understanding Organisationssaying, “I was once arrogant enough to believe I could understand organisations.” He was addressing a roomful of people with MBAs, veritable masters of business (I was an interloper, a guest).

This was one of the reasons I chose to read English at Birkbeck as a mature student, rather than pursue a Master’s degree in Organisational Behaviour. Stories made more sense to me.

So in lieu of understanding, I am going to offer a story.

In the beginning…

Twenty years ago, I became involved in a number of assignments to help an organisation assure itself of the quality – and safety – of its projects.

The chief executive of this organisation had, in his words, “the keys of the jail rattled at him” after a fatality on a project. Safety, always highly valued, was given an even higher priority.

Over some years, we focused on three aspects: process, organisation and people.


We took a suite (ie three binders) of impenetrable and often  contradictory procedures for managing projects and tried to create an easily understood statement of what had to be done (by who and when). We remarked that the one thing that seemed to be missing from the procedures was management. There was lots on planning, evaluating, reporting, learning lessons and, er, reporting on the lessons learnt. And, of course, there were increasingly complex and powerful IT systems to support and report (all of which required intensive feeding. In fact, the beasts required so much attention that there was little time to do anything  else.)

But management was, by and large, missing.

We produced some pretty brilliant procedures, backed up with great guidance and topped with a very short overview document, in a leather pocketbook. It really was good, though I say so myself. But it was still a steaming pile of proverbial because it didn’t fundamentally address management.


We advised on countless, endless attempts to fiddle about with the structure of the organisation (and I bore myself even thinking of the pretty PowerPoint charts that promised to ‘streamline accountability’ and ‘optimise control’). Suffice it to say, I wince when I see similar organograms elsewhere. They may support; they never solve.


“Ah,” you might say, “now we’re looking at the right aspect.” It’s who turns up that matters. So we helped to develop and implement a means of ensuring that the people who were managing projects were competent. Quite rightly, the client saw that this was important.

Project managers presented their portfolios to show they had the requisite education, experience and qualifications. They sat three tests to show that they had the necessary contextual and generic skills, knowledge and understanding for the role. And they were interviewed by senior managers.

I assessed hundreds of them. Some were brilliant – either on paper, in person or by reputation. Many were mediocre. The process weeded out the weakest: some received training; others weren’t used again.

I had some faith in this approach, partly because I’d waded through the portfolios, partly because I’d helped to set, run and mark the assessments and partly because I knew and trusted the wily old dog who interviewed many of them. He hated the ‘treacle layer’ of assurers and checkers who constantly scrutinised and challenged his project managers. And he was as interested – in fact more interested – in hearing about interviewees’ catastrophes than their triumphs. No true project manager has had a failure-free career; what’s most important is how how we dealt with it and what we learnt from it.


Despite all this, project outcomes were little better. Two reasons come to mind. 

Firstly, the organisation’s strategy was subject to such violent political storms that its direction, structure and very existence were in continual flux, and its directors either couldn’t or wouldn’t adequately protect its people from debilitating uncertainty. But people can cope with that if they’re equipped for it.

Secondly, and I think critically, the organisation’s culture, the environment in which its project managers had to work, undermined their effectiveness. It undervalued them (they’d get better pay elsewhere and they weren’t on the golden career ladder). It naturally suspected them (tests, ‘assurance gates’ and prescriptive procedures don’t generate much of a sense of agency, empowerment or true accountability). It constantly tinkered with their roles and structure. And, perhaps most difficult to pin down, it didn’t give a coherent message to project managers that they were professionals who were expected, and could be trusted, to manage their projects to deliver the best outcomes.


I don’t think there was an easy answer. But time and again our clients, and their masters, weren’t even responding to the right exam questions.

My last piece of consulting was for this particular client. I enraged one of the directors by observing that it was as if I had stepped out of the Tardis and found myself back in time, almost twenty years before. Nothing seemed to have changed (though it appeared that everything had). They were having the same arguments and making the same mistakes.

Our advice, at the outset and almost twenty years later, was that you can’t address the elements of an organisation, its people, processes, strategy or environment in isolation: all need to be directed towards what you are trying to achieve. That was the corporate – and correct – message.

My own belief is that bright, experienced, valued and empowered professionals can fight their way out of most stupid situations. Better still, adequately rewarded, well directed and trusted, they can usually be relied on to do a brilliant job. 

Of managing projects, mind you.  This is, after all, just a story.

Facts, facts, facts

Yesterday I found myself in a regrettable misunderstanding over an early day motion from 2004 signed by Jeremy Corbyn. It supported the assertion by John Pilger that the NATO intervention in Kosovo was based on a lie, that the Serbian forces had not perpetrated a genocide.

Initial Responses 

The language of the motion seemed intemperate, but I had no knowledge with which to judge it.My first responses were thus:

  • I wanted to find the facts, as a lifelong student of History. When I was 15, my history teacher, Michael Barlen, reinforced the need for “Facts, facts, facts. Who, why, what, where, when.” As an undergraduate, I was rarely content with secondary sources and would ferret out primary sources, even reacquainting myself with Latin so I wouldn’t have to depend on translations. In my brief spell as a research student, I was similarly obsessive in my pursuit of facts.
  • I question anything I read or hear in any media, as a former communications professional (PR executive and marketing manager).  I used to create some of the ‘spin’ so I look for it everywhere. I recognise my own tendency towards naivety, so I force myself to be sceptical.
  • I want my daughter to understand and guard against inhumanity. I took her to Oradour-sur-Glane to see the consequences of inhumanity for herself. 
  • I need to understand what leads us to war. As a Quaker, I am a pacifist. But as the child of a diplomat and grandchild of a decorated bomber pilot, as a former member of the TA and as the friend of a serving army officer, I tend to listen to and respect what members of the armed forces say, and I’ve done a lot of listening over the years.
  • I want to understand what makes humans perpetrate acts of evil time and again. As my friend served in a military-civilian liaison role in Bosnia, Basra and Kosovo, I have taken an interest in her work and saw a common thread of inhumanity.  We just seem to keep doing it: why?

Distrust of ‘Authorities’

As an A level history student, I attended a debate at the Cambridge Union. Magnus Pyke argued that ‘History is bunk’. The case for the defence of History was led by Geoffrey Elton, not yet Professor of Modern History. Assisting him in its defence was David Irving, an urbane man who was introduced to us as an historian. He impressed me; years later, I shuddered at the thought of having been taken in for event a moment by this holocaust denier. It gave me even greater reason to question ‘authorities’ and to challenge my own first impressions.

Sources of Information

I feel no closer to understanding what happened in Kosovo, except that thousands died, far more were displaced and there were inhumane acts on both sides. I still feel ignorant and am not sure I will ever know. I will certainly not take John Pilger’s word for it, nor any source that’s readily to hand on the Internet. I will ask my friend, as she was there in the aftermath of the war, tasked with helping the civilian population to recover. I doubt that she will have a definitive answer but I will listen to her and weigh up what she says.

Implications for my teaching

I try to bring my own approaches and responses, in an age-appropriate way, into my teaching.

  • I encourage pupils to search for evidence to back up any assertions they make.
  • I encourage them to be sceptical about what they see, hear or read, to ask questions about its validity and to seek other reputable sources.
  • I convene discussions about inhumanity and its causes, suitable for the Year 6 pupils I have taught. This has included a morning’s discussion with a holocaust survivor and, for others, a topic theme of refugees and asylum seekers.
  • I try to offer a balanced view of warfare, honouring the men and women who fought in the defence of Britain and asking how we can avoid any future loss of life.


Quakers are, as well as pacifists, seekers after truth. When I am feeling tired and cynical, I sometimes wonder if I will ever find it; for the rest of the time, I’m the same obsessive dog with a fact-seeking bone that I was as a child.

On Metaphor

Derived from the Greek words meta (over or beyond) and fero (carry), metaphor is a powerful part of language. This morning, metaphor went beyond language.

I blundered into my Quaker meeting for worship a few minutes late. The usual three-rowed square of seats around a table had been replaced by a two-rowed circle. And there were children among the seated adults.

At the centre of the circle was a black cloth. Onto it, one of the adults laid out her story, about the universe, the Earth and our place on it. She surrounded Earth, a multi-coloured pile of cloth, with wooden figures.

The figures, small, simple, jigsaw-cut, lay flat. Another friend stood up and said she wish she knew how she could help to bring humanity to its feet. She felt small, she said, powerless to do anything. She sat down.

After a minute, a woman walked around to the figures. She knelt and began to bring the figures to their wooden feet. Another woman joined her, then I did. Then two children came to help. It was soon done.

One person’s statement of helplessness had provoked another’s action, which, in turn, had prompted us to act. Our actions, the actions of adults, had, in turn, prompted children to act. None of this was premeditated.

I sat down and breathed out heavily. I couldn’t have said this in any way that was as profound as the action, the image or the experience.  These words and my pictures are an inadequate substitute.