A new job…

Sep 01, 2006

Miles Berry

So farewell, St Ives. Yesterday was technically my last day as deputy head at St Ives, and today my first as head of Atlon Convent Prep.

There is so much that I will miss about St Ives. I remember talking to friends teaching elsewhere when I started there in 2000, and describing working at St Ives as “Teaching as it was meant to be.” No-one could have wished for brighter, more committed, engaging or creative pupils than the seven classes that it has been my very great privilege to with these last few years: teaching them has been a real joy. I’m very grateful to both Miranda Greenway and Sian Cattaneo, the heads I worked with there, for allowing me to take a lead in innovation, particularly in mathematics and computing: the pace and opportunity for pupil involvement that have been afforded by using the Maths Enhancement Programme in years 5 and 6, the higher profile for ICT within the whole of the schools’ curriculum, and of course our use of Moodle and Elgg to support and enrich work at home, would not have been possible without their support.

I’ve been thinking about the factors that allowed us to do so much innovative work at the school, and wondering how one goes about encouraging a culture of innovation throughout a school. Obviously, I’ve been thinking principally about the IT side of things, but it would be misleading to suggest that this was the only area in which we’ve done things innovatively; there are many other aspects of our curriculum where we’ve experimented and adapted others’ practice to our own setting.

As an independent school, we’ve enjoyed a huge degree of autonomy, free from local authority control, and thus we’ve taken ultimate responsibility for pretty much every aspect of our educational provision, from the structure and content of its curriculum (based now, like almost all independent schools, on the National Curriculum), down to the every aspect of IT infrastructure. This responsibility requires the school to think through all of this stuff for itself, drawing appropriately on advice and good practice from elsewhere, but is accompanied by a great freedom for us to do things our own way, subject, of course, to direct accountablity to our pupils’ parents from whom the school derives its income, as well as meeting the relevant regulatory requirements.

This financial dimension was also something of a lever for innovation, partly through a desire to offer something distinctive and thus differentiate ourselves from local competitors, but also because spending on ICT came from the same ‘pot’ that went to pay for everything else, and thus getting best value and seeing some sort of return on the investment in cost-benefit terms have been motivating factors for doing more in-house than current best-practice guidance for schools suggests. I think there’s a case here of necessity being the mother of invention: it’s unlikey we’d have used Moodle and Elgg to the extent we have if we’d had unlimited money to spend.

Both Miranda and Sian have been very good at devolving lots of autonomy to the staff and, with appropriate checks and balances in place, letting us try things, and largely letting us teach our own way. I suspect this is a high risk strategy, and something one can only do when confident of the abilities of the team that’s in place, but there’s much to be said for trusting teachers’ professionalism and individuality over conformity and consistency.

This leads on to another point, of being willing as a school to take risks for the children’s benefit – I fear that far too many UK schools are too worried about exposure to risk, and thus their pupils miss out on so manyeducational opportunities: this ranges from not taking part in educational vistis to preventing access to blogs and even email. Yes, there’s a duty of care, and of course the risks have to be assessed and reduced, but I doubt whether effective learning can take place without some exposure to the inherently risky real world. Simulations may be safer, but they’re not good enough.

We’ve also been very willing to learn from experience elsewhere – looking beyond the narrow confines of the prep school world, or even English primary education, to seek inspiration from other countries (as with the Hungarian inspired MEP scheme) and other sectors of education – both Moodle and Elgg afterall started life in Higher Education.

Whilst many look on open source as just a cheap way of getting software, by making use of open source software, participating in the communities around it, and buying in to the philosophy of collaborative peer-production, which, as I’ve noted elsewhere, has much in common with social constructivist pedagogy anyhow, we’ve exposed ourselves to the cutting edge of technological development, and, I think been inspired by this. Although I’d take issue with James Farmer’s technology determinist position, I think the pace of technological change has certainly opened up lots of opportunities for teachers and students, and it would be foolish not to make the most of these just because pedagogy hasn’t caught up yet.

The other thing that has allowed us to do the stuff that we’ve done is the splendid pupils we’ve worked with at St Ives, particularly the way they’ll throw themselves into things wholeheartedly and have a go, and the way they respond responsibly to the freedoms and opportunities they’ve been afforded: that essentially they want to please their teachers, support one another and do their best, and thus the trust we’ve placed in them has been entirely well placed.

Very excited about starting at Alton, and can’t wait to get to grips with the challenges and opportunities of headship, with its potential to make a difference to far more aspects of school life than my previous role provided. It’s going to be strange stepping back somewhat from the hands-on ICT stuff that’s been such a significant part of my work at St Ives, although I suspect geek-hood is in my blood now, and I have every intention to remain part of the ed-tech community.

Lots of ideas at the moment about the sort of head that I want to be, and sharing (in) a vision for the school. All this of course needs working out with my pupils and colleagues there, which I’m looking forward to. I hope to take a little of the St Ives magic with me: the enjoyment of school life, the sense of honour, the love of learning, the care for one another and the chance to make a difference.