Should I feel guilty?

Whenever I am out of school for a day there is always a nagging sense of guilt that I am not there to perform my usual role. Should I feel guilty each time I am not in? Over the last two weeks I have been out of School a few times for a variety of different reasons attending conferences and meetings. I am very aware that there will be some who feel strongly that a Head should always be in their school and that being away is not a good thing. However, whilst I agree that one’s own school should always be the prime focus there are definite reasons as to why it is good to leave one’s School from time-to-time. Furthermore, I believe that the School also benefits.
Meetings – I have attended three cluster meetings. These are when groups of Heads from various independent schools get together, thus I have been to one of the Large Independent Day Schools in London, one of schools in the Eastern Region and one of a more local group. At each of these meetings the focus is on discussing issues of common interest, at each of them I put items on the agenda of direct interest to our school to find out more about what other schools are doing on the particular issue and whether they have encountered any issues along the way. It is important for any school to have the opportunity to learn from others. Indeed, my own involvement in Twitter and blogging also serves this same purpose with an even more diverse range of professionals working in all types of school. Such discussions help to develop me as a school leader but are also a fantastic source of advice, tips and inspiration on a wide ranging set of topics. I always return invigorated by the experience, reassured too as often we have already been considering the idea or have indeed had it in place for some time but this sharing of good practice lies at the heart of educational leadership in my view.
Conferences – I have addressed two national conferences over the past fortnight as well. Again I will have my detractors for doing this and some will see it as a rather self-centred way of raising my own profile. Again this is far from how I see it. Being honest, it is flattering to be asked to undertake such a task but there is a great deal more to it than this. Firstly, it is a sign that one’s own school is seen to be a beacon in a particular area. I spoke on both occasions about school marketing and how we use such things as my blog and twitter as part of a wider strategy to embed good marketing principles into all that we do as a school. We are thus seen in the wider world to be innovative and I have received some excellent feedback on both talks which shows that people have taken back some useful ideas to their own schools. Part of the reason for doing it is that I personally have gained so much from various conference speeches over the years and in education I do fundamentally believe that you improve by listening to others, this is also why I spend time on Twitter, a fantastic resource for new ideas. It is though also the case that on both of the days listening to my fellow speakers I have again picked up some excellent ideas and these will help to inform my future planning.
Old Boys events – last week I was again away, this time at an Old Boys reception. Such events are a crucial part of our development of a community for life. I find these events uplifting because they give me a real chance to let everyone know about all the exciting things which are going on in school and it is very apparent how interested our Old boys are in what is happening in school at present. I spoke to them about our efforts to link the current and future generations of pupils with those who went before. All heads have to look outwards to the wider community as well as to their internal audience and the sense of community with our ex-pupils is an important strategic direction for our school.
I am very aware that any absence places a greater burden on those that remain behind in school. I never underestimate this and am very grateful to those who pick up this burden. However, it is also the case that I maximise the use of my travelling time. Every train journey is undertaken with the laptop powered up and indeed usually by the end of the journey home the inbox is clear. Any other tasks are done the weekend following such trips and thus in the end very little real time is lost.
It is easy in schools to get bogged down in the day to day tasks and thus, to conclude, I feel that it is important for the Head to have this outside focus, whether through things like Twitter or by attending conferences so that you continue to be inspired by others, you learn from their experience and to help recharge your own batteries. I think it is also really important for any Head to realise that they are not indispensable to their schools and it is always really reassuring to know that you have not really been missed! I also return genuinely pleased to be back, to catch up on the news and to have a chance to re-engage with all the issues of the day, sometimes with a new perspective or having had the chance to mull things over on my travels. Thus, on balance, my view is that I should not feel guilty when I am out for a day but others may think differently – do feel free to leave your comments…

Linking the generations – thoughts on Remembrance Sunday

As I write this on Remembrance Sunday I am reflecting back on a week which has seen both our school remembrance service and the Annual General Meeting of our Old Boys Association. In our remembrance service boys spoke of their reflections on the recent school visit to the Battlefields of World War One. I want to share with you what one boy said:
“What do you think of when you have a minute’s silence? I think that for some it is exactly that – being silent for a minute, trying to shut out other thoughts on homework and lunch – trying not to smile at that earlier joke that comes back at the worst possible time. For others though, it’s bowing your head and trying, somehow, to imagine what life was like. From the sources in our textbooks, films such as ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and our own imagination, we try to build up a picture of suffering, warfare, death. Mental images are provided by the latest computer game – details are filled in by half-remembered facts: on the first day of the Somme alone around 19,000 British troops were killed – an absolutely horrific and genuinely terrifying death toll.

I suppose it was for that reason that, standing in Tyne Cot cemetery, before hundreds of headstones and thousands of the names of the missing, I was disappointed. Not in their brave struggle, or the sheer number of casualties, but in my reaction. I had come on the trip eager to learn more, but also with expectations. Expectations that I would see life in a new way, that through being distressed and moved I could mourn the dead.

I took a school emblem and a page number from Mr. Williams, under instructions to find Private Johnson amongst the missing, an old boy of the school. I walked past panel after panel, each bearing over one hundred names, reading as I went along. Wilfred Johnson was the son of Ellen and John –a litho printer- from Bramcote Street, Old Radford and served in the Honourable Artillery Company. There was no picture of Johnson but in my mind I thought of what he may have looked like, what friends he had, what his hobbies were – what we may or may not have had in common. As I walked past panels 40, 30, 20, and into the single figures, I eventually came to number 7, and began searching.

When I found the name, I suddenly realised that I had built up this man in my head; obviously I never knew him or even what he looked like, but that’s when the scale of the conflict struck me. I had made the mistake of coming to this cemetery with numbers in my head, with the image of dusty old bones and vast waves of white headstones. But I think that it’s far more important to remember lives lost than deaths – each digit in a textbook represents someone just the same as Private Wilfred Johnson, each weathered carving on a memorial wall was the name of a living, breathing person.”

Our remembrance service made clear links between the current generation and those that went before as another boy said:
“Overall, this trip has given me a unique insight into World War 1, but it has also reminded me about the unity presented by many people of different nationalities, in the midst of battle, and the brave sacrifice many made for our country along with many others, not alone, but, as brother-in-arms.”
Later that same day I went to the AGM of our Old Boys’ Society and I was delighted with the interest that so many of them show in what the School is doing today. The link between past and present was again very evident and as a School we are very keen to build this ‘Community for Life’.
At the unveiling of our school war memorial in 1922 the Duke of Portland said:
“This memorial should serve to remind many coming generations of pupils of this school that at the time of the severest struggle in which this country has ever been engaged, their predecessors in this place obeyed the call of duty and sacrificed themselves in the common cause of humanity. Not only should this memorial stir feelings of pride in, and gratitude to the dead, but it should be a source of inspiration to the living for all time. The young men here commemorated were absolutely unselfish. They thought of themselves as part and parcel of one great enterprise. It is to them and to all those who were animated by the same high purpose that we owe our independence as a nation and our freedom as individuals. Henceforward one of the traditions of this school will be the tradition created by its sons who took so noble, so honourable, and so self-sacrificing a part at the time of the Great War.”
We are proud to link the generations in this way and hope that such links will be a feature of school life for many years. We want to continue to welcome back those who were pupils at the School and to take pride in their achievements but also to let them know about how these traditions are being built on today. The greatest contribution of all though for all of us was made by those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom and it is right on Remembrance Sunday that our thoughts are with them.