20th February 2017
Sunday morning, the first weekend of the February half term break. I’ve settled in the kitchen to catch up on essential admin. Streaming Aimee Mann over the speakers – the album ‘Lost in Space’ this time – has however put me in a reflective mood and unsolicited thoughts from the previous few weeks of term are now diverting my attention. I’ve given up putting them to one side. Some are now about to be ‘blogged’ if only for my own benefit as I try to organise them before getting back to more routine business.
Back in 2014, before I returned to Yorkshire, the School worked with consultants to engage existing and prospective pupils and parents, teachers and alumni to elicit views about BGS, its perceived strengths and weaknesses, its core identity and whether change was desirable. The findings have since been added to and developed. We have surveyed all parents, Year 13 Leavers and colleagues and will continue to do so as appropriate. Consultation continues on key issues in small groups, for example Student Voice, and it underpins our evolving strategic and development plans.
Ultimately all of this feeds into BGS’s direction of travel which safeguards School heritage but also keeps our minds and practice open to innovation. We do not stand still. The blend of the traditional and the modern continues to define us. As part of the changes we are making, opportunities for all to be heard by the Senior Leadership Team and the Headmaster are increasing and our breakfast and afternoon tea sessions with parents have been hugely useful and positive in this context.
This doesn’t mean that all conversations are comfortable, but BGS is able to embrace a diversity of perspectives given the mutually respectful relationships we have with stakeholders (I have to admit it, I don’t like that word – it’s too cold and impersonal – but I’m struggling to find an alternative without having to type a long list of names). We are, as I think is now clear, keen to engage in dialogue and contemplate making informed changes as a result.
We are honest, grounded and in no way complacent; we recognise that excellent schools like ours look intelligently for opportunities to improve. Feedback is helping BGS to do just that as part of our routine. Reflection runs deep and we are constantly asking ourselves ‘is there a better way to do things?’ Honesty is important to us.
I spend a great deal of time talking to prospective pupils and parents and it is a joy to extol the many virtues of our students and School. As I’ve said on many occasions, it is a great privilege to lead BGS and to that I hold true. But prospective families do not get a sugar-coated sales pitch when I talk, but rather a straightforward appraisal of where we are at and where we are going, acknowledging at the same time all the many things that make our School a very special community to be part of.
As alluded to above, feedback is not always easy to hear. The recently instituted sessions with members of the Senior Leadership Team have given rise to some excellent dialogue, never a debate, from which consistent themes have emerged. I’ve learnt a great deal and at times been afforded a useful opportunity to reassure and explain and justify some aspects of School policy and practice. I think this has been welcomed.
Those who have attended these meetings will know that I sometimes challenge perceptions and in so doing I trust to the sure-footed relationships we enjoy with parents. Well intentioned dialogue and open communication is a wonderful thing and only good can come of it in the long run. More than anything else though, my senior colleagues and I do a lot of listening. I’ve mentioned some of the generic, non-specific issues that have been raised to my teaching colleagues at our weekly briefing, reflecting our commitment to openness.
I’ll be honest, some colleagues have been affected by what the messenger boy has reported because they care deeply about doing the best job they can. But the things that come up when feedback from stakeholders is encouraged can only help us to improve. It offers stimulus for professional reflection; holding the ‘mirror up to nature’ provides a reason to pause and look closely at what we do. On balance, there may be no mandate to change, although perhaps it would be helpful to communicate things a little better. On other occasions we may determine that there is something significant to learn, an issue to understand better and resolve.
One thing is guaranteed, the teaching and non-teaching staff at BGS are engaged and feedback is never received with indifference. This is all wholly positive. The mixture of specific comments that we teachers receive in the privacy of our offices and those broader perspectives that are now given voice through open, public dialogue, signals I believe, the health of Bradford Grammar School culture, of our community. Let’s keep talking.
Aimee Mann has now sung her last notes and Natalie Merchant is soulfully plying her way through ‘Motherland’. With these melodies I expect that the reflective mood will continue. So, one last thought: we teachers are expert at giving advice, I’ve read much thoughtful commentary in this vein during the latest round of BGS academic reports and tried to pen some of my own. I’m glad to say that at BGS our ears are open and we are good at receiving advice too; after all, we teachers must do our bit to walk our talk and set a positive example.