1966 and all that

Well, thank goodness that’s all over for another four years: the crescendo and crash of hopefulness; the torn allegiances of head and heart. Football that didn’t come home. At least I can start wearing my waistcoat to work again without feeling like a turncoat. As the late Poly Styrene once sang, “Identity is the crisis, can’t you see?”

There comes a day, when you have to stop talking about ‘back in the day’. You find that the people you’re talking to weren’t even alive on that day. You learn that your teenage children are studying your own childhood in school as ‘History’. You realise that you sound like Methuselah.

They say that if you remember the Sixties, then you weren’t really there. Well, I remember the Sixties, at least the back end of them, but only from the viewpoint of a skinny little blond-haired boy wearing shorts, with nobbly knees. I still wear the knees. The end of the Sixties shaped my life, each year a milestone signposting dreams and highlighting conflict and contradictions. And it all began in 1966.

It was so exciting. We had just won the World Cup. For the first time ever. I could hardly contain myself. How exciting was that?! We had actually won the World Cup!!


No one told me it wasn’t us.

It’s my first proper footballing memory. All through that July I was glued to the TV. I remember dancing around my grandparents back garden in Coleraine at the half-time excitement of it all. North Korea! North Korea of all people, the minnows of the minnows, were three-nil up against the Portuguese in the quarterfinals. We all loved an underdog, especially one with no hint yet of a nuclear deterrent. Portugal came back to score five goals of their own of course, and caught the minnows hook, line and sinker, but then we put paid to them in the semis, didn’t we?

And so to the final. Wembley Stadium filled to the gills and more Union Jack flags than you could shake a stick at. Or shake with a stick. Our flags, our team. That opener from Haller was a sickener of course, though not as much as the equalizer from Weber in the eighty-ninth minute.

And then the extra time. Breath-taking. The Russian linesman (who turned out to be from the Ukraine, but that was one and the same thing, wasn’t it?).  The counter-attack. The breakaway. All those ‘some people’ on the pitch. How right they proved to be. It was all over! We had won the World Cup.

Or rather, England had. With all those union flags, I had thought we were one and the same thing.

I don’t know where my fixation with football came from. There’s no history of it in our family. It’s not in my genes. My father went to a school where he played rugby and learned the bagpipes. My mother hid in her school’s changing rooms for a quick smoke when she was meant to be playing hockey. I kicked a football up and down our street from dawn to dusk.

Maybe it was the World Cup. Or maybe it was growing up in the same part of town as Georgie Best? He was the local hero, pudding and pie. The girls wanted to be kissed by him, and the boys cried just to be him, to play like him. Football: it was always going to get me into trouble. I mean, I’d already thought we’d won the World Cup.

The next year it got much worse. For the very first time a British team got through to the final of the European Cup. Our bhoys were about to become the Lisbon Lions. Another great television occasion, in ultra low definition. An early goal for Inter and then wave after wave of attack down the wings until those two second half goals secured an historic victory.

Celtic were European champions. Magazines and newspaper pull-outs were cannibalised as I plastered hooploads of green and white pictures, posters, and pennants all over my bedroom wall. Last year the World Cup and now the European Cup. How good at football were we?!


No one told me that young Protestant boys in Belfast weren’t supposed to support clubs like Celtic. I blame the parents. They weren’t into football, and they weren’t into bigotry either.

There were lots of us boys living in and around our street.  We did lots of gender-specific boys’ stuff, and most of the boys’ stuff we did was play football. We shared our pitch with badly parked vehicles and quite a few moving ones. Matches were interspersed with shouts of “Car!” to evacuate the pitch, and endless interruptions to clean dog turds off the ball or off your feet. Some of us were Georgie Best, and some of us were cloggers. Me, I was becoming a blogger.

I wrote one of those babes-and-sucklings pieces on “My Family” so beloved by Primary School teachers. Tittering parents gathered round my contribution to the class’s wall display, reading something along the lines of “My dad is very sporty. He spends every Saturday afternoon lying on the settee watching the rugby on Grandstand.” How they laughed.

To enable my dad to develop this sporting prowess without interruption, he was more than happy for Barry to call round and take me to the football. Barry was a member of the local Youth Club and his dad was a director of Glentoran Football Club in East Belfast. Barry would pick me up on a Saturday afternoon, walk me through the ‘entry’ to catch the Mount Merrion bus down to the Oval. He’d carry me over the turnstile and into the black green and red world of the Cock ‘n’ Hens, the ‘Glens’.

glensbenfica.jpegOnly weeks after Celtic’s greatest triumph, Glentoran were drawn against Benfica in the first round of the next season’s European Cup. It was a dream tie for fans brought up on a diet of Irish League football and pre-season friendlies against makeshift English League sides. The Glens took the lead at the Oval and held it until Eusebio scored a late equaliser. In the away leg they held on for a scoreless draw. This was the first year the “away goals” rule was used in European football. Benfica went through to the next round because they had scored one more away goal.

It was floodlight robbery. This was the season that Benfica went on to play Manchester United in the final of the European Cup, again at Wembley. To this day I swear that the away goals rule robbed me of seeing Glentoran in that final against Man Utd. As it is, United won that famous night at Wembley, and Bestie, our local hero, scored two of the four winning goals. From that moment, I was a confirmed lifelong Man Utd fan and, because I knew that all Man Utd fans have to live in Manchester, the day I left school was also the day I packed up my Glentoran hat and scarf and set off to enrol at the nearest university I could find to Old Trafford.


When, some years later, I settled down, I still settled only a short tram ride from Old Trafford. The person I settled down with had had the adolescence I had been denied – watching Bestie play at Old Trafford, driving past his goldfish bowl house in Bramhall, hanging round his night club hoping for a glimpse – though none of that influenced me at all in my choice of life partner, you understand. We announced our engagement in a United v Sunderland matchday programme and watched the game as usual from the Stretford End.

This World Cup in Russia has left me confused and conflicted. The person I have lived with all these years outgrew football, fell out of love with the beautiful game, fell into more than occasional exasperation with my continuing obsession. Yet as this 2018 World Cup progressed, I realised that she wasn’t just watching all the England games, she was totally absorbed by them, wrapped up in them, living every kick of every ball. I feigned indifference to it all, my country hadn’t qualified…

“Don’t start all that Northern Ireland nonsense!” she began. ” You’ve lived and worked most of your adult life in England, your children have all been born and bred here, you haven’t…”

She hadn’t been suckered in by 1966. She hadn’t been betrayed by bigotry in 1967. She hadn’t moved her life lock, stock and barrel based on 1968. She doesn’t understand that loyalties and identity in football aren’t up for negotiation. Football is always about your first love, never about a latest fling.

And yet I’m secretly glad that England did so well. I loved the great humility of their early expectations. I loved the way their youthful multi-cultural team has grown together in a way that assembled prima donnas seldom can. I loved a nation overcome by surprise at unity in this most fractious of times. I loved the way their manager, through all his unassuming ways, laid waste to our assumptions of how ‘management’ has to be.

And I love that even in this day and age, there is at least one other unpretentious person in the world who wears a waistcoat to work!

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Tokyo storm warning 

There’s only one thing worse on social media than other people’s holiday pics. And that’s your own holiday pics. Or more specifically, mine.

And yet I do now have quite a lot of pics to share. So what to do? Well, when you travel from your town of 6,908 inhabitants to an urban metropolitan area of 37.8 million souls, it’s less of a holiday and more of a total immersion sensory experience.

So here is some total immersion son et lumière to share my recent experiences of the storm of the senses that is Tokyo. This is not intended as a thoughtful critique of Japanese culture, nor even a list of the top 8 things that should be on your Japanese bucket list. Rather, it is an impressionistic view of just some of the things that to date make Tokyo my absolute favourite, and most fascinatingly ‘other’ big city to be in.

1. Trains

Japanese trains just impress the hell out of me. They’re very long, they’re very fast, and they’re very full of people. They arrive two minutes before they’re meant to leave, and
they leave on time. Inter-city trains on major routes run every five minutes or so. They’re regularly patrolled by a conductor who will never leave a carriage without first turning round and bowing to all the passengers. That’s class!

My week of intense field research revealed that over 40% of Tokyo train passengers now travel wearing face masks. Some are well and don’t want to become ill. Some are clearly ill, and don’t want to infect the well. My six-foot-one Caucasian offspring tried to blend in and turned a tickling cough into a fashion statement. He did keep his germs to himself, but I’m not sure whether the blending-in worked so well.

Almost all the passengers on a Tokyo train will be carrying a mobile phone. The one thing you won’t find any Japanese person on the train doing is shouting “I’m on the train!” into their phone. That would be just too rude. Instead, they’ll all be sitting there quietly, using their data.

I’d always assumed they were checking their emails, messages, or stocks and shares, but a few sneaky sideways glances at their screens have made me realise that, in fact, most are just playing games. So if you want to suss out the latest Apps that you might like to play, check out first what that guy next to you on the Yamanote line is playing.

Now that station names are numbered  and are also given in English, there’s less excuse for you to get lost on the railway network. So, my final tip, if you’re heading out of Tokyo on the Shinkansen ‘bullet train’ to Kyoto, don’t forget to keep a look out on the right hand side windows. You might just spot a landmark.


2. Shopping

I have a very functional view of shopping. I don’t like it. When I have to do it, I treat it like a military operation. I plan the action, execute a lightning fast strike, and withdraw as quickly as possible with the prize. In the crowded main street of Harajuku district though, clinical shopping strikes, as you can see, are not an option.

My first visit to Tokyo was in the era of the ‘non-sequitur T-Shirt’ where you saw people sporting tops with three words emblazoned on them such as “Fragrant Effort Balcony” that would have no obvious connection between them.

This time round I ambled through department stores with a metaphorical green pen in hand, like the functional skills lecturer I used to be. At some, I mentally corrected the spelling. At others, I just scratched my head, equally as baffled as in the non-sequitur days. What does “If Construct Seduction” mean?

There are signs, though, that the typographical boot is moving to the other foot. Even now, vendors down Takeshita Street are selling tourists T-Shirts with memorable slogans written in Kanji and translated as:

“Suitable ideologist”

“My personality is really not bad”, and

“Handsome man but overbite”.

And that’s before any typos kick in.

The greatest thing about shopping in Tokyo, however, is the sheer enthusiasm of the sales techniques. While in the quieter parts of quieter towns, client interaction is determined by the ritual “Irasshaimase” greeting for every single person entering the shop, down Shibuya way there’s a lot more exuberance employed to grab your attention. It’s almost enough to make me want to go shopping.

3. Toilets

Are you sitting comfortably? I said ‘sitting’ madam. I just love Japanese toilets. I fell in love with them the moment I first cleared Japanese passport control and stumbled into the Gents in a remote coastal train station. So many choices to make!

How warm do you want the seat? In which way and with what velocity and at what temperature would you like to direct water at your undercarriage (answer = none of the above, thanks). And best of all, what sound effects would you most like to mask the sounds of what you are about to do – a flushing sound effect, birdsong, orchestral music? Any society that shares such an unhealthy unease with its bodily functions is alright by me.

It always catches me out when the toilet seat sensors set off a pre-flush cleansing of the bowl just as you sit down to do your business. And the choices don’t end there. The Shinkansen toilets often have two hand-activated sensors to complete the task. One, as you would expect, activates the post-business flushing of the toilet. The other, and this is one for the ladies, allows you to lower the toilet seat without use of your hands. It does so at great speed, so be wary gents of premature activation of the wrong sensor.

And in the midst of all this hi-tech toileting there is occasionally a surprise. Every so often you come across a hole in the floor type apparatus as used to be prevalent many years ago on continental European holidays. Perhaps with this in mind, the Tokyo airport toilets now have the following warning in case unsuspecting visitors are confused that the same historic crouching position should ever be used on the computerised ablution facilities.

At least that’s my theory, given that I couldn’t understand the Japanese script that went alongside these instructions. I suppose a more interesting interpretation could be that this is a warning never to dismount the toilet using a backward somersault. Now there’s a challenge!

4. Power napping

Wherever you go, in and around Tokyo you’ll find people sleeping: slumped over their table in a restaurant, propped upright inside the door of a metro train, or fast asleep in the front row of a lecture theatre. There’s so many people doing it, they have a special word for it – “inemuri”.

If you caught one of your students asleep in a class in Britain, you’d probably be very unimpressed. You’d tell them to stop burning the candle (or whichever other substance they were using) at both ends. In Japan however, so many people work way above their contractual hours each week, exhaustion seems to be accepted as a positive sign of dedication and hard work. Work-life balance? Nein danke.

5. Eating and drinking

If all your dining is fine, and all of your menus written in French, then look away now. This section is not about seeking out the haute cuisine of the Japanese kitchen. It’s about finding the right things to eat and drink in a country with three alphabets, none of which look anything like yours. The answer of course is in pictures, or rather, in three-dimensional copies of your meal, presented in the window or at the entrance to your cafe.

It’s not for every meal of course, but there comes a time in every tourist’s visit when you just need something recognisable to eat, and you want it now (though not mummified in a spray of plastic veneer, of course). You can size it up in the window before ordering and hey, you can maybe even guess whether it’s gluten-free or not.

And as for drinks, then in this land of the vending machine you can have hot or cold drinks waiting for you at the end of every street (more or less), to keep you hydrated and at the appropriate level of caffeine or blood sugars. Red for hot, blue for cold. It’s that easy. And if, like me, you have traveled from the world’s whisky capital in Speyside, there is also the possibility to visit distilleries where some other world-famous drams are made; but that’s another story.

And one final hint on restaurant life. You know that ornamental snow globe-sized piece of table furniture nestling beside the condiments, the menu holder and the toothpicks? Leave it alone. Stop fiddling with it.

It’s not a snow globe. It’s a buzzer. It’s the reason the waitress has appeared to be so attentive in the last five minutes, checking if you have any further requirements. So stop buzzing her. Put it down. Get on with your meal.

That’s my tip.


6. Crossing the road

The people of Tokyo have made crossing the road an art form. There is little or no jay-walking. Pedestrian crossings offer the possibility to cross most junctions from almost every conceivable angle. The “Scramble” outside Shibuya station takes crossing the road to a whole new level. At peak times there is a whole sea of humanity on the move and it becomes unclear where the road ends and the pavement begins.

In the evenings the soundtrack for the crossing is provided by giant illuminated advertising screens blaring out their wares, and the edges of the crossing are populated by commuters, Karaoke sales staff, and informal groups of young people offering “free hugs”. It is best viewed, as below, from the lifts of the Tokyu Excel hotel. And always expect the unexpected. I have seen couples posing to have their wedding photographs taken there, right in the middle of the mêlée that is the Scramble.

7. Cherry blossom

Cherry blossom happens throughout Japan for one week each year, although for different weeks depending on exactly where in the country you are. As well as weather forecasts, there are  also “Sakura” forecasts, counting down the days to the blossom’s arrival. By luck or good fortune we arrived during the Sakura in Tokyo, and spent one day walking and busing between different parks just to see it. (Clockwise from top left: Yoyogi Park; government buildings in Shinjuku; Ueno Park at twilight; and at the entrance to the zoo).

Most of Tokyo seemed to spend most of the week doing something very similar, and it was truly spectacular.

8. Lost property

And finally, one last recommendation. I am a fairly experienced traveler, both for work and for pleasure, and usually know how to keep my stuff together. As I checked into our hotel in Tokyo I realised I had lost my ‘man-bag’ somewhere between airport and hotel. With my bag I had lost my passport, my tickets, all my cash, my cards and keys. The only thing that helped me keep my mental stuff together was knowing that this was Tokyo.

Six hours later my bag had been handed into the lost property office of a railway station, completely intact. The only problem with retrieving it was that my signature was so unlike the one in my passport, the official almost had second thoughts about returning it to me.

So if you’re going to lose your stuff in a major city, then my advice is: lose it in Tokyo. It’s the place you probably have the best chance of getting it all back again.



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Hello again. What we can become is quite exciting!


Don’t think that I can’t hear you. Even from this lofty latitude, perched on a coastal shelf alongside the Highlands and Islands, I can still make out the distant mumble of your 1990’s football chant echoing round the end-of-season emptiness of the Borough Briggs stadium:

“Well it’s all gone quiet over there. It’s all gone quiet over there. Well it’s all gone quiet, all gone quiet, all gone quiet over there!”

And indeed it has. Very quiet. I’ve not posted a blog since I drove up here at the end of February with a car full of warm jumpers and sing-along CDs. True, I’ve sent a few tweets in the meantime, but mainly infuriating pics of empty golden beaches or landscapes replete with wild yellow flowers.


So why the long, golden-sanded silence?

Well, partly because I’ve been in listening mode. I arrived in a college that I knew needed a new Plan. In my first few weeks, I put aside small talk and instead engaged my new colleagues with big questions. Questions like: What is the point of this college? What do we want to be famous for? How do we want to behave?

Questions like that deserve a lot of listening; and then quiet reflection, not over-exuberant blogging. Those three questions shape how we describe the mission, the vision, and the values of our organisation. They are the three highland ducks that we have to get in a row to start our strategic planning.

I’ve also been busy putting names to faces, getting to understand the politics (with a capital and all other sizes of ‘P’), and learning new skills. I used to be a teacher, you know. The last time I had a full-time lecturing job, we were in a different century. I thought I was at the cutting edge of technology then, but recently frankly, I’ve been embarrassing myself in planning meetings with my ‘innovative’ use of flip charts and post-its. An urgent DM to some of my #ukfechat collaborators gave me some new apps to master and use. Thank you all.

So how am I? I’m surprisingly well actually. Thanks for asking. We’re not short of issues to resolve at the moment, but despite the pictorial evidence to the contrary, I didn’t come up here for a seaside sinecure. I came up here to see how great at teaching and learning we could become. I think what we can become is quite exciting.

I’ve always been a big fan of paradox, and the contrasts we have here are full of it. I’m in a college that’s relatively large for the part of the world we are in, and relatively small for where I’ve come from. We have the headquarters of some world-famous companies on our doorstep here, and yet a student cohort whose rurality and remoteness drives us to deliver learning in very different ways. We’re an FE college, and we’re a university, delivering a truly tertiary offer of further education, work-based learning, and degrees. We’re a self-standing institution and an integral member of an academic partnership that spans roughly half the land mass of Scotland. I love paradox.

I’m a sensitive soul too, or I’d like to be. I’ve tried recently not to talk very much about what goes on south of Hadrian’s Wall. That would be bad form, though I have sneaked a few good ideas across the parapets. Whatever people up here might think, the Scottish ways of doing FE and HE have very much to commend them, starting with the fact that they all come under the one unitary funding council. The ‘Scottishness’ of how we approach education and its challenges here is, I believe, a real advantage to us all.

You’ll be glad to know I’m getting over the language barriers too. I think my Northern Irish DNA has helped with this. Some local terms (like, “it’s a bit of a guddle”), I’m embracing wholeheartedly. Others I have resisted, though I’ve finally agreed to treat “outwith” as if it were a real word. I’m still opposing “timeously” though (pronounced timmy-us-lee) as a realistic alternative to timely.

I’m also learning to treat acronyms with particular caution. Although the fundamentals of running a college don’t change drastically as you head further north, there is a whole new set of language and acronyms to come to terms with. The dangerous ones are the ones you think you recognise from your old life. I spent my first three weeks happily discussing success rates (SR) until I realised everyone else was talking about student retention.

When I first arrived I said that governing bodies and senior management teams talk too much about budgets and buildings, and not enough about teaching and learning, our core ‘business’ process. I said we’d be different. We have tried to be. Through hello and high water we have talked teaching and learning. But, you can’t escape the tyranny of budgets in these cash-strapped times, and there are some of our buildings we need to escape from in the very near future. (Not the ones below!)


This blog is about me re-establishing contact with you. I’m still here, just not where you saw me last. The thing about ‘remote’ places is that although they may be more difficult to get to (and this one is only 35 miles from a regional airport), once you’re there, they aren’t remote at all. They’re full of people, and work, and culture, and learning.

There’s also 4G and broadband, so there’s no real excuse not to be in touch. You could also come and see us. There are some lovely places to stay, and I’ve invested now in a bed for the spare room.  So if you want to share in British tourism’s best kept secret, or be welcomed at one of the friendliest colleges I’ve been in, then let me know. I’ll refrain from sending you any more sea view pics but be assured, our spare room is a room with a view; unfortunately the view is over the car park.


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Seeing the wood for the trees: leading, teaching, supporting


“I can’t see the wood for the trees.”

That’s a phrase that has always puzzled me. Which wood are you talking about? You might be thinking that I think too much, but it’s important. And I really like trees. Let me explain.

wood (wʊd)


  1. the hard fibrous material that forms the main substance of the trunk or branches of a tree or shrub, used for fuel or timber.
  2. an area of land, smaller than a forest, that is covered with growing trees.

You are surrounded by trees, or you spot them a short distance from the Motorway Service Station where you have stopped on your way to your new job. For someone who really likes trees, that is a good thing. I took this picture of trees off the M74 at Abington. But which is the wood that you think I can’t see?

Is it the hard fibrous material, the living breathing thing that is the essence, the heart of what the tree is, and is also what you will use to create the home, the bed, the chairs, the goalposts, the cricket bat, the boat, the dining room table… in short the shape and structure and fabric of your life?

Or is it the bigger picture of the collection of trees clumping across the countryside, setting the context of our landscape, a landmark, a habitat, a flood defence, a visible presence to us of the changing seasons… in short the shape and texture of the land we live in?

As ever, with two really good alternatives, it can be both. And usually should be. Which is why I get confused. If I’m not seeing the wood for the trees, then there’s two things I can be missing.

If you’re a leader in education, or a teacher, or otherwise supporting the learning process for learners, then seeing the wood for the trees is of vital importance. Otherwise you will just keep bumping into trees. You’ll get tangled in the undergrowth surrounding trees. And in education, there are a lot of trees to bump into. Trees of all shapes and sizes and, to someone like myself, trees of endless fascination.

There is policy, and policy with unintended consequences. There are funding rules, and funding changes. There are meetings, and 101 ways to be held to account. There is action planning, progress monitoring. There is marking, and the moderation of marking. There are validations, approvals, verifications, audits, inspections…

The tyranny of trees is that they distract you from the wood. And there are two types of wood we need never to miss.

  1. We need to see the essence, the essential of what we do. We teach, we facilitate learning, and that learning transforms individual lives. That’s what we do.
  2. We need to see the bigger picture. We need to know the needs of the communities we serve (individuals and organisations), and see how to meet those needs with positive impact.

Everything else is just so much foliage.

You can’t have wood without trees, and you can’t have a wood without trees. The challenge for us is to order our working lives so that our vision is centred on what is essential and on the bigger picture of what we are trying to achieve. Everything else is only useful to us if it enables us to achieve that vision. Everything else should be a slave to that vision, not make us its slave.

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Trams or Tractors? Tractors or Trams? Twice.

I wrote this (prophetic!) draft blog last Spring. As I’ve almost failed to publish a blog in a month for the first time since I started blogging, I thought I’d better publish it now – as originally drafted but with one new photo!

IMG_2331  IMG_6549

It’s funny sometimes how our personal worlds and our professional lives collide. Actually it would be funnier, more strange, if they didn’t. So much of what we do comes from who we are, and so much of who we are is defined by what we do. I am a… [insert profession/mild term of abuse here].

Having taken the decision to move on from where I am now, I am currently challenging myself as to how open I really am as to what I might do next, and to where I might do it. Hence one of the questions I’ve been asking is “Can I work equally well, whether surrounded by Trams or Tractors?”

I’ve usually been seen as a townie. Born and bred near one big city and then settled down and raised a family on the edge of another. My townie credentials are watertight – if I want them to be.

Yet a number of interesting opportunities recently have lain outside the big cities: some have had a strong rural theme to them; some have even been perilously close to the seaside.  And Manchester, as we know from Ian Brown, has everything except a beach*.


When I think of it, though, I went to secondary school with people whose idea of the ideal driving machine wasn’t a Maserati or Ferrari but a Massey Ferguson. My parents actually moved to live in the town of Harry Ferguson’s birth, with bullocks grazing beyond their back garden and alpacas fussing about across the road out front. I grew up as close to tractors as to trams.

The other Trams or Tractors question is more fundamental to colleges than my own personal future location. It’s about the model we use to describe and understand what it is that we do in education, and how we do it. Ken Robinson touched on the issue a couple of years ago here (at 14 mins 18 secs).

My description of it goes like this…

In colleges we are driven by data, just as schools before us have been driven by data.

Why? Because of the input-output model we have adopted for our education system. We use data to describe our inputs: prior attainment, initial and diagnostic assessments, range of learning needs.  We use data to judge our outputs: qualification completion rates, student progression and destination rates, value-added measures.

In between these two sets of data, these inputs and outputs, we have a black box, the black box of the business processes that we use to process students. Inside the black box are the things we do.This input-output model is a manufacturing model, an industrial model, as befits us as the descendants that we are, the children, of the industrial revolution.


But when you look inside the black box, you don’t find an industrial process. The process you find is closer to an agricultural one: planting, feeding, watering, nurturing, pruning, training, harvesting – activities designed to encourage nature to take its course, in the best possible way, a course that is about growth, development and maturation.

I believe that this is a major cause of disconnect and misunderstanding between most senior leadership teams and their teachers.

One group of people is trying to run a multi-million-pound, industrial-sized, input-output machine – in an environment that demands the justification of measurable results. The other is a group of horticultural experts lovingly pruning their bonsai and training their raspberry plants to climb up vertical bamboo canes.

But which group is right?

Well, neither of course, and both. Colleges are not, and cannot function as, collectives of subsistence farmers or experimenting green-fingered experts, disconnected from the rigours and demands of a modern economy and its shrinking public sector budget.

But nor is teaching an automatable, mechanised process that generates the same predictable, standardised outputs of progress from each teaching intervention.

Colleges are factory-like organisations operating in a post-industrial age that are having to learn how to adapt, survive, and thrive in a persistently changing and probably ever more hostile environment. But even our image of agriculture is changing. Just as  Agri-Tech conglomerates are moving us from traditional farming techniques, those at the technological edge of education are moving us towards educational hydroponics** where we have to learn how to grow our crops with neither soil nor a field to plant them in, teaching more with less, learning without classrooms.


People (and societies) will always need skills, just as people (and societies) will always need food. The people who understand learning and learners are going to have to work very closely with people who understand how to make multi-million pound corporations work. Or be the same people.

Otherwise, we may well end up with a learning and skills sector that is unsustainable, dysfunctional, or maybe even, not there.

As for me, I’m moving on. Not sure yet where, nor what to. But life is all about change and all about learning. So I’m choosing change, and will continue learning.

Trams or tractors? Yes please. Both.



* the new pic is the view from my new front doorstep

** the hydroponics pic was from cfgrowers.com

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Route N165: the Road to Teacher Well-being


“I often wonder if the job of leadership is to look after the staff.”

Well that’s not something you hear every day. I can sense some of my past leaders snorting at the very idea. That’s the joy of Twitter, I suppose, the beauty of Blogs. Every now and then you read something that stops you in your tracks, turns you back into a reflective practitioner.

I am from a people who like to celebrate anniversaries. It’s a habit that in general I have tried my best to get out of, but sometimes I just can’t help myself. Today is the first anniversary of that blog by Martyn Reah, the one that gave wider attention to the thinking that he and others had been doing around teacher well-being. I thought we should celebrate it.

If you read no further than this, then please proclaim with me now: “Happy Anniversary, Teacher Well-being!!”

If you were ranking the major impacts of social media on the teaching profession in the last 12 months, then I would suggest the following list:

  1. the demise of graded teaching observations
  2. the explosion of interest in teacher well-being

Though not necessarily in that order.

Whereas the nutrition-based 5-a-day can be constructed from any available fruit or vegetable, the teacher 5-a-day has a more defined structure. What Martyn presented was an evidenced-based model of well-being, hung upon the following framework:

  • Connect… with the people around you
  • Be active… (exercise makes you feel good)
  • Take notice of things… (be curious, be aware, reflect)
  • Keep learning… (it makes you more confident)
  • Give… (Thank someone. Smile. Volunteer)

This will not be new to you, unless you lost your WiFi connection 12 months ago and have not since had the pleasure of meeting a teacher with a curious smile on their face. If you want to catch up, just search  on Twitter for #teacher5aday with or without any or all of the following hashtags: #connect, #exercise, #notice, #learn and #volunteer.

You may also like to take a look some of the 5-a-day spin-offs such as #teacher5adayPE, #teacher5adaysketch or #teacher5adaycalendar

My only problem with this valuable initiative was that I kept forgetting which the 5 things were that comprise the teacher’s 5-a-day.

I am from a people who liked to take their small children to church every Sunday. It’s strange the things that make an impression on a small child. I may have just imagined this, but I’m convinced that the hymns in church were announced on a board by their number and that the psalms to be sung were denoted by Roman numerals. The Romans may have built wonderfully straight roads but even the youngest version of me could tell that their number system had no practical logic to it at all.

The older me, however, noticed how many strands of #teacher5aday  start with a Roman numeral: Connect, Learn, eXercise, Volunteer. Noticed that too? I also noticed that CLXV is 165 in real numbers. So N165 became my own personal mnemonic for teacher well-being (until I shared it with you just now).

And that is how in turn the Route Nationale 165 from Brest to Nantes has become for me the symbolic road to teacher well-being.

Coincidentally, the N165 is also the road we took from Quimper to Carnac on our last mega-family holiday. Carnac was the place my mother-in-law (whose advanced age I am forbidden to disclose) was seen swimming far out to sea, followed by her duckling daughter and grandchildren, holding out in front of her an old ice cream carton containing a soon-to-be-liberated crab, bought for that very purpose that morning in the hypermarche.

All five strands of teacher well-being were there, present in that one episode. If I had been a teacher at the time, and not a disquieted father on the shore, I would have considered myself as being very well indeed.

May your next twelve months be replete with innovative and adventurous well-being too. 


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More. Less. Better. Clever. Here in the Hay Day of Further Education.


A former colleague of mine retired about ten years ago. When I asked him why he was leaving, he replied with one phrase.

“The halcyon days of FE are over,” he said. You may feel that he was a man of prophetic gifts. He was also a brickie working in a department of electricians. The next day, one bright spark had stuck a poster of him up on the staffroom wall, cheerfully misquoting him.

“The halogen days are over!” it read. Dark humour?

The Hay Day* of this blog’s title is a proprietary brand, not a typo. It’s an App. My entire household** are now using the entire sophisticated electronic wizardry of their smartphones merely to make-believe that they are highly successful farmers developing increasingly impressive farms.

At any hour of the day, and often night, I am likely to be disturbed by a disembodied Moo, Baa, or a low sustained booming noise coming from my partner’s handbag to inform her that the cows need milking, the sheep shearing, or that the ship is about to dock to collect her ordered produce. Preoccupations of what I was mistakenly considering to be ‘real life’ are pushed to one side in the interests of simulated agriculture.

One aspect of this game has caught my attention though. It has a PEGI 3 rating, which means that it is suitable for all ages. There is nothing in it to scare the children. In other words, Hay Day farming does not use abattoirs. When the pigs have been sufficiently fattened, they are placed into some sort of high pressure sauna contraption that sweats their ready-made bacon right off them. They never have to leave their pen. They emerge from their ‘saunas’ in rude good health, pencil-drawn thin and ready for their next feed.

Which brings us back to FE. Despite the Chancellor’s recent apparent Spending Review generosity, the mantra of ‘more-for-less’ has embedded itself deeply in our psyche, coiled itself around and into our DNA. Whether on an institutional basis, or by regions across the country, efficiency and cost-effectiveness have become our watchwords. And that is why we must guard against engaging in the Hay Day version of Further Education.

That PEGI 3 version of FE is very scary. Those who can leave, leave. Those who are left, are left doing what they do, and also covering some of the leavers’ tasks that we thought wouldn’t need to be done, but now find that we can’t do without.

More-for-less cannot mean that we keep doing what we have always done, and keep doing it in the same way, only using ever fewer people and ever less resource to do it with. We cannot run round and round our pen, faster and faster, in ever-decreasing circles, and still hope that our sector will emerge from its sauna of severances anything but stick-thin in terms of capacity, resilience, and innovation.

More-for-less can only be justified if it is also better-for-less. It only works if we end up working more ‘clever’ not just working more. Some of the instinctive finance-driven responses to this new financial reality have been as thoughtful as jerking knees: close buildings; cancel courses; disband support services; move away from hard-to-reach and hard-to-teach; work longer; work more.

Could pedagogy-driven responses think our way into better and complementary solutions? There is so much that we need to be more clever about: clever about how we free up our teachers to do what they do best – teaching and developing teaching; clever about freeing up our leaders and managers to lead and manage – not just to document their proficiency in leadership and management; clever about how we work with other services to join our services up, to fill in the gaps and to unduplicate the duplication.

Of course the worst time to try to think about all this cleverness is the very time when the cows are mooing, the sheep are bleating and the low sustained booming noises are booming lowly and loudly in a sustained way. An even worse time, though, will be to do it when others have done the thinking for us, and taken the decisions that we would never ourselves have decided.

Which is why many colleges now are thinking hard and thinking fast; and sometimes thinking the unthinkable.

The halcyon days are long gone, and good riddance. I was never a great fan of smoke-filled staffrooms and long liquid lunches. But we might all just be a bit more clever than we think. Just imagine what it could be like if now was about to become the start of FE in its heyday…


*Hay Day by Supercell. Other farm simulation games are available.

**Except me.  Just in case you wondered.

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