Originally posted on Big Education.
‘What’s your philosophy of education?’
This was the question I was asked by a Stockport local authority adviser when I applied for my first headship. The year was 1987 and I had been teaching for eight years. To be honest I wasn’t sure. My mind went back to philosophy of education lectures I had sat through, but not enjoyed, while training to be a teacher. I just couldn’t see the point and as you can tell I hadn’t really connected with them when I was asked this sharply pointed question. I made up something about children succeeding, kindness and a wide range of experiences. The adviser wasn’t impressed. He told me that I had done well to get shortlisted, but I wouldn’t get the job. He was right.
Nearly 20 years later with two headships under my belt and three years as HMI I found myself contemplating that simple question again. This time it was in relation to the development of a new school inspection framework with a focus on testing out the school’s central nervous system through self evaluation. It was a radical step forward. I was working on the guidance for the self evaluation form (SEF) and I was keen to ensure it gave space for the school to explain, in a pithy way, what it stood for. I had by this time appreciated the diversity of the English school system and how important it is for senior leaders, governors/trustees and staff to be able to demonstrate the values and principles that underpin the school’s philosophy.
In 2012, I left Ofsted having led the development and implementation of two school inspection frameworks within nine months. The SEF had been withdrawn by a certain Secretary of State as an attempt to reduce bureaucracy, which I continue to be believe was a major mistake. I had done my bit and to be honest I was exhausted.
I was fortunate to secure an adviser role in Stockport (what goes round comes round) and began my engagement with about 25 primary and secondary schools. By this stage assessment data and target setting were in vogue and these were seen as the way of judging effectiveness. Philosophy was still important and many headteachers understood this but there was less time to consider it. But then, I was asked to attend a meeting at The Co-op! I won’t go into the details here, but a series of events led to me being appointed the CEO (Trust leader, as Dan Morrow correctly points out) of their sponsored academies.
I was fortunate to secure the position, but I was even more fortunate to work alongside some amazing Co-op managers who demonstrated through their actions, behaviours and language what the co-operative values and principles mean. Little did I know that there were serious fault lines in the Co-op’s senior management team at the time which nearly saw the business collapse. But these events ensured that colleagues reflected on what the co-operative values and principles mean, where they came from and how, in their view, they should be lived out. As this period of introspection took place, I was able to reflect again on my own education values and principles. It was a deeply spiritual experience.
The appointment of Steve Murrells, as the new CEO at the Co-op, saw all 70k employees attend day long training events reflecting on the Co-op’s long history and how it needed to return to its core values and principles to succeed in the future. To help with this the creation of four ‘Ways of Being’ Co-op were established. These were:
- Be yourself, always
- Show you care
- Do what matters most
- Succeed together
I was struck by how the organisation re-energised itself through giving prominence to the values and principles of the co-operative movement. It was truly back to basics and its origins.
I would like to say that I insisted that the academies trust reviewed its values and principles in the light of the Co-op’s review but actually the momentum for this came from the academy leaders and governors. They could see how the ways of being Co-op could resonate with the pupils, staff and the wider communities. They could see how aligning our principles and values more closely would be a win-win. So, the trust embarked on a strategic review with values and principles at its heart. We used it to shape our staff and pupil engagement, our branding and this helped enormously in attracting staff committed to a heavily values-based education.
Now, I can answer the question ‘what is your philosophy of education?’ My response has been shaped by my experience, the people I have worked with and the pupils I have engaged with. But the turbo boost came from the Co-op experience.
I stood down from the CEO role in September 2019 and have been advising the Co-op on education and skills ever since. That work ended recently, but I want to thank the many co-operators, young and old, who have shaped my view on education and continue to do so.