School on a mission.

The school is giving a message through this picture. But what does it tell us about it's "mission"?

The school is giving a message through this picture. But what does it tell us about it’s “mission”?

In recent years I have noticed when visiting schools that they have established a  growing trend for posting a “mission statement” in a position of prominence where it is one of the first things encountered by the visitor. This is not a practice with which I was familiar either as a pupil or a teacher, though I must confess that when I was headteacher this idea was just beginning to take hold.

I suppose the idea is that the school community asserts its beliefs and philosophy and demonstrates these to the world. Presumably they are intended to reassure those who enter that the school will uphold values and instil these in the children entrusted into their care. This is, of course a noble sentiment and we would all hope that schools maintain high standards and endeavour to help children to attain appropriate levels of attainment, behaviour and social conscience. However, I do have some concerns that these can at times appear as platitudes and may be meaningless if all they do is provide a hollow message.

The adoption of slogans is not restricted to schools. Many corporate bodies and indeed nations have adopted a “tag line” to assert the image that they wish to create. A few examples of these include Tunisia – Freedom, Order and Justice, South Sudan – Justice, Liberty, Prosperity and India – Truth alone triumphs. Each is well intended, but I suspect it might be argued that there are times when these honorable intentions have been difficult to live up to.

When visiting a school today in Malta my Swedish colleague Per and myself saw a different and we thought, interesting approach to asserting the school mission. Whilst there was a board with text espousing the verities to which the school aspired, of greater interest was a piece of art that had been commissioned to represent what the school intended to provide and achieve. I have included a picture of this work at the top of this piece.

What particularly interested us was that here we had a representation that did not tell the visitor about the school and its intentions, but rather invited the viewer of this work to make their own interpretation of what the school might offer. It immediately drew us into a discussion and had us contemplating what the values of the establishment might be. It did seem to us that it made a statement about what the staff in the school would try to provide through the curriculum and in their general demeanour towards pupils. The picture represented some of the activities that pupils will undertake as students, but also the kind of learning that they might gain from this. The prominent positioning of the brain with its two distinct hemispheres seemed to us to represent not only learning, but possibly reasoning and stimulation. Then there is that flight of birds, gradually taking flight and moving off into the distance, what could this represent? Pupils leaving school moving into their futures or releasing children’s imaginations? Clearly their could be many ways of seeing this image and maybe this the whole point of the work.

As with all works of art, I am sure that this piece could be interpreted in many ways. Maybe this is one of its strengths as an assertion of the school’s mission. It could be said that it challenges children to gain what they want from the school and to think about what they are learning in a creative manner. It perhaps makes a statement about the breadth of learning that the school hopes to provide. Or maybe I am reading too much into this picture. However, it did seem to both Per and myself that this was a more original and less bland means of making a statement about the school.

We were made very welcome during this morning’s visit and the children who toured us around were undoubtedly proud of their school and pleased to talk about what they were learning and their many achievements. If it has become necessary to state a “mission”, perhaps this school has found an effective means of doing this. They have certainly produced a talking point for visitors to the school and having spent a small part of the day with pupils, teachers and the school principal I certainly feel that we had an opportunity to witness some of the ideas and ideals that we had interpreted from within the art work.

Maybe our interpretation was right, possibly not. What would you expect from a school that displays its intent in the pictorial representation above? I’d be interested to hear your views.

If you click on the picture it will enlarge

The student who leads her teacher

Valletta - background to a week of working in Malta

Valletta – background to a week of working in Malta

One of the great privileges of my job is that I get to meet and work with a diverse range of fascinating people, often in interesting and previously unknown places. So it is that this week I am working on an evaluation project for the Ministry of Education in Malta with colleagues from England, Wales, France and Sweden. Of course, when brought together for work with a team of colleagues, some of whom were previously unknown, this can be a recipe for disaster. What happens if we don’t get along? How might it be if we disagree fundamentally on issues to do with inclusion or management of schools? By contrast it can be a time for forging new friendships and gaining opportunities to learn from and with people who bring different perspectives and experiences of the world.

Fortunately Amanda, who was largely responsible for bringing this team together, had taken these matters into consideration and within no time we have jelled together as a cohesive unit. We appear to be working together efficiently and sharing our professional experiences as we tackle the tasks set for the week. I always think that a good indicator of how well a team will work is the ability to share in a sense of humour, and despite stereotyped images of all of our nationalities, we have already demonstrated an ability to laugh together as well as at each other.

A particularly pleasing aspect of this week’s work is to be working under the guidance of one of my former students. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to supervise Amanda as she completed her studies and research for her PhD. In all honesty this was a relatively simple task as she was highly motivated, bright and hard working. A copy of her thesis on teacher engagement with research in special and inclusive education has a position of prominence on my bookshelves at home. As with all my former doctoral students I have followed her subsequent work with some pride, noticing when she has published papers or chapters and seeing her gain promotions within the European agency for which she now works. She has attained a position of leadership and responsibility and carries her role with dignity and a friendly demeanour. To find myself now working under her direction and to witness her professionalism first hand is a great pleasure and brings back memories of the supervision meetings we held together. Today she acts as supervisor and I am very much in a learning role as we embark upon the week’s work.

I have in recent years had similar experiences of working with other former PhD students, Mary in China and Johnson in India being just two examples. It is rewarding to find that the theoretical models that they developed as research students, the methods that they learned and deployed and the knowledge that they gained is being put to such good use in their own countries. Even more heartening is the committed approach to inclusive working that they have adopted and the principled way in which they conduct themselves. Their focus upon improving the lives of children remains central to their work and they have already become effective leaders in their communities. As supervisors of research students we can offer guidance and critical appraisal, but this comes to fruition only through their own endeavours after they have completed their studies.

So, this week as I work alongside Amanda and watch how she directs the work of Verity, Per, Serge and myself I can reflect upon the value of her learning experiences and take particular note of the commitment that she is giving to teachers and children, not only here in Malta, but through her work across Europe. In observing her dedication I think about my current students and hope that someday in the future they too may find that their former supervisor is worthy to become a part of one of their teams.