#ILConf2014 The good, the bad and the beautiful


The Beautiful

Returning from the Inspiring Leadership Conference (#ILConf2014 to you) I realised that I really like Birmingham. This is a nice thing to feel, especially considering how the city’s education has been represented in the media recently. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting a city full of Trojan horses, indoctrinated children and extremist nutjobs skulking in the shadows trying to convert me when all I was trying to do was to find the damn car park; but I also wasn’t expecting to (whisper it or Bristol will get jealous) love the place.

The contrasting architecture of the equally gorgeous museum and library; the canal, with its gently flowing water, ducks and barges, allowing you to forget you’re in a massive city; plus, the sun was shining (I appreciate this isn’t actually down to Birmingham, but it helps). And then there are the people. The best way I can describe them, apart from being kind, friendly, helpful and nice, is, well the word I would use is: light. Walking around the city it felt light and breezy. There was a positive attitude that permeated the atmosphere of the city centre and made being there feel intimate: quite a feat for a major city.

The Bad

Before I start I should put this into perspective. We’re talking about a major conference with many, many speakers who were brilliant. For every speaker to be successful would be unrealistic and you could call me mean spirited for highlighting the odd one that didn’t quite hit the mark. But what I want to highlight here is a particular type of bad speaker. I’ve seen terrible speakers before and forgiven them instantly because of why they were bad: often at these events talented and successful individuals are invited to appear, but because they’re not used to public speaking they don’t deliver polished presentations peppered with gags. But you don’t mind because you can see they’re nervous and, more importantly, they have something significant to say. The message out-ways the delivery. No, these are not the people to whom I am now referring.

I am referring to the ‘professional speaker’. These are people who have tended to have worked in education for a bit and, I don’t know, maybe they found it too hard, got out, wrote a book and now go on tour. They’re clever, don’t get me wrong; they know how to get re-booked, and their performance is consistent with that of a cruise ship comedian. Experiencing them is like eating a fortune cookie: quite sweet, with a message inside that makes you think for a second, but then you realise that not only are you still hungry but that the message was blander than the cookie. Luckily there are some clues that you can look out for to spot these phonies and ensure you don’t waste your time with them again.

  1. Third person referencing. If someone repeatedly says their own name (especially when acting out a conversation they’ve had with a famous person) then it is more than likely this person is a pillock.
  2. Name dropping. If they continually keep mentioning the famous people they’ve met since leaving education, and if there is no apparent reason for the meeting except for the fact it might help sell the book or dupe you into thinking that they must be wise in order to have met said famous person, then be rest assured that this bit of the talk is drivel.
  3. Stand-up. If the ratio of material is more weighted towards jokes than insightful message, and if the jokes are lame observational comedy about education (‘you know the feeling when you realise you’ve used the wrong mug in the staffroom…’), then you can happily discredit whatever it is they’re trying to tell/sell you.
  4. Number of publications. If they’ve only written one book with a single premise and from that premise they set up a company and now travel around the country talking about this premise, and if during that time they haven’t done anything else that contributes to or evolves the premise in any tangible way, then that voice in your head telling you that this guy’s a bit of a sham needs to be listened to.
  5. Generalisation. If during the talk they make grandiose claims and big statements that everyone agrees with (education should be more than tests….all children deserve to achieve…tomorrow’s prime minister is in our classroom today…walk the walk don’t just talk the talk…breathing is quite good for you) then you can quickly deduce that this person is not challenging your thinking and has nothing of merit to add to the ongoing debate on improving education.

Now I’m not going to name and shame but all I will say is that there was a particular person who displayed much of the above; they were the penultimate speaker of the entire conference and they have written books which, based on what we learnt from their talk, I urge you not to buy.

The Good

The fact that I only have one person in mind when thinking about all that was bad about the three day conference should be a clear indication about how good the whole thing was. What amazes me about conferences such as these is that despite each speaker being completely different there is always a single thread that binds all their thoughts and teaching together. This year the link was learning from research, and using research on a local, national and international level to meet the needs of your pupils and communities. Now, whether this link comes about from similarities in governmental approaches to education on a global scale, or the conference organisers having a clear picture of what all these people are thinking and doing at this particular moment in time, or that maybe all the speakers Whatsapp each other the night before – whatever. It works and I love it.

I am not going to summarise what every speaker said but I will say why they were good.

It’s simple really: they are good. I mean they’re really good at what they do and they have achieved things, often on an international scale, that are way beyond us folks sitting in the stalls. Not only have they achieved but they understand why they have done so. They have vision. But that is almost the smallest part of their success. I mean, we all have vision, we all know what ‘it’ should be like, even the bad speaker. But that is why they are bad speakers: they only talk about the vision and they get applauded because we’re all sitting there thinking ‘yes, that is what it should be like, I think that too. Brilliant!’

The good speakers got where they are today because they realised that vision is not enough. From the vision comes the plan, from the plan comes action, from action comes evaluation, and from evaluation comes an increase in drive: do better and do more. And they keep on going. They’re still at it and they’ll never stop. That is why they inspire us and make us think beyond our vision. And they show us, through their examples and their contexts, that we can at least keep on trying to do better.

The diversity of speakers, many not from education, all had something tangible we could relate to and learn from. I would be very surprised if any single person who attended doesn’t approach their work differently from Monday onwards as a result of what we heard over the three days. Whether it will be a big thing like taking the school development plan in a new direction or a change in personal mindset or a tiny thing like an assembly idea (I intend to do all three), we will all move forward.

That is why #ILConf2014 was a success. We got to learn from the best.

FYI: I am available to give an inspiring and hilarious talk at the 2015 conference so @steve_munby and @InspLdrshipConf, give me call.

Seizing Success Conference – Day three

Image(Sorry for any grammatical errors but I’m writing this on a phone)

Despite my best efforts and Birmingham’s extensive number of shops, I failed to purchase a pair of trousers. This is unbelievable; it’s not as if I have specialist tastes. I found one pair I liked (it had nice blue turn-ups) but when I picked them up I realised they were in fact a pair of shorts and I didn’t fancy attending our final evening meal with my knees bare. So it was back to the suit trousers.

Anyway, day three signalled the beginning of the end with a talk by Ben Page; Chief Executive of Ipsos MORI. An hour of statistics flew by where we discovered that people’s perceptions of ‘truths’ were influenced more by the media and their age as opposed to statistical fact. Most interesting was how even when gathering opinions to create statistics, the language of questioning was highly important. For example:

You are told that you have a life threatening illness. There is an operation you can have. The Doctor tells you a statistic that may help you make an informed decision: Half the people are told that:

In the last two years, out of all patients that had the operation, 75% of them continued to live for another 5 years.

The other half are told:

In the last two years, out of all patients that had the operation, 25% of them died within the next 5 years.

Despite the ‘Maths’ being identical, more people chose the operation when presented with the 1st statistic.

Very interesting, although those of us that have ever been presented with a Raise Online pack where there are significant amount of BLUE will have a firm understanding of the power of language when reporting statistics (‘lies, damn lies and statistics’ I believe the quote goes).

Next up was Pasi Sahlberg, a school improvement activist from Helsinki who was talking to us about the Finnish model of educational reform. He was a measured and quiet speaker whose messages rang out loud and clear. The talk focussed on the pitfalls of the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) that is sweeping its way across the UK and many other countries; that focusses on Competition, Standardisation, Test Based Accountability and Choice. The ‘Finnish Way’ changes these to Collaboration, Creativity, Trust Based Responsibility and Equity.

One point Pasi Sahlberg made really clear was that Finland didn’t set out its goals to be ‘the number one education system in the world’ but to create an educational system that reflected the needs of its children. Now as it happened, in doing this, they have pretty much got the number one education system in the world BUT by proxy as opposed to target. He also talked about the level of professionalism and talent needed in order to become a teacher. He presented a statistic that Ben Page would have been proud of on the number of student teacher applicants compared to the number of accepted places and graduates. I haven’t got the figures but think of a bar chart with one massively tall bar on the left and a really tiny small one on the right and you get the basic idea. It’s tough to become a teacher in Finland and no fast tracked system would ever cut the mustard.

The highlight was possibly Pasi’s offer to Gove to come and visit Helsinki for three days in order to see the principles and practice of their education system-not to copy but to observe and see how anti-GERM it is. Around the conference hall you couldn’t quite distinguish between the noise of applause and the noise of hands in pockets trying to find enough loose change to pay for the plane ticket. Seriously Mr. Gove, that’s a very kind and generous offer from Pasi, you would be silly not to take him up on it.

Next up was Chris Holmes, a Paralympic swimmer, owner of NINE Olympic gold medals and Director of 2012 Paralympic Integration. This was a truly wonderful, inspiring, moving and at many times hilarious speech. He talked about breaking through the barrier of blindness to fulfil his dreams of becoming an Olympian and the journey of helping to create and broadcast to the world the greatest Olympic and Paralympic games the world has ever seen.

I can’t even try and convey on how many levels Chris’s speech inspired the room. What resonated was the repeated notion of not focusing on what the end result would be: instead focus on the tiny improvement you have to put in place today. Combine that self-determination with a complete trust in the team around you and the end goal will soon be in sight and ready for winning.

Finally we had Jim Lawless who holds the record for the deepest free dive in the UK and also trained to be jockey in one year-despite being too old, too fat and never having ridden a horse before. It was a master class in ‘motivational speaking’ and I don’t mean that as a back handed compliment. He was very funny and made some poignant points on the notion of tackling your inner demon or ‘taming your tiger’ in order to achieve your goals.

My final thought that I took away from Jim’s talk was the idea of your life being a book and only you are holding the pen. (Now at this point, I would normally roll my eyes, vomit and ask for my money back) but to be fair to Jim he put it across very well (well he is paid for this so you would hope so). If your life was a book, it would only have a certain number of pages before it ends, so what are you going to do on each page to make sure that when you reach the end it was all worth it? Again, this mirrors the idea of the little steps that you need to do in order to win big. Plus he did get the whole room standing up, squatting pretending to ride a race horse which is something Charlie Taylor might want to work into his routine next year.

And that was in. Jane Creasy said goodbye, I picked up my packed lunch, went around the exhibition room one more time to see if there were any more free pens, sweets, bags I could take home and off I went.

As my first ever conference I thoroughly enjoyed it and as it went on and I saw more and more and more people talk on a variety of different things, the more clear and focussed the overall lessons became.

And all of that in one pair of trousers!