Monthly Archives: March 2014
As I’m sure you know, there has been considerable attention given over recent weeks to the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ controversy and on Friday (28/3) the Leader of the Council, supported by Cllr Brigid Jones, Peter Hay and me, wrote out to all schools making a clear statement about the authority’s position on the matter and the action it is taking. You can read the letter here: http://cypfbirmingham.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/3042-letter-to-heads-re-trojan-horse.pdf
I don’t want to reprise the content or sentiment of the correspondence here as it speaks for itself.
Rather, what I do want to do is write with this matter in mind and share some reflections about the purpose of education from my own perspective as a former teacher, head teacher, as well as someone who has had, and continues to have, significant responsibilities for this area in my local government role.
Like the Leader I believe in fairness. In the context of education, I believe, first and foremost, that this is about ensuring that every single child and young person in this city has an equal opportunity to benefit from the highest quality learning and teaching in order that they can fulfil their potential and realise their ambitions and dreams. Anything less, as we know, sells them short and so achieving this ambition must be the shared objective for every teacher, governor, parent, community and, of course, the City Council, its partners and the Department for Education. And I know that there are many, many dedicated people out there in our schools committed to, and making this happen every day. I value highly the combination of vocation, enlightenment and courage that drives them; it needs to be universally recognised, prized and perpetuated.
But fairness is about more than this. A great education system is also a great leveller – and one that levels up. By this I mean that it will recognise all the different aspects of the society that it serves – the social, economic, cultural, religious and other features of our multi-faceted world – and allow none of them to get in the way of putting a child’s success front and centre. By exploring these differences it is possible to enrich and stimulate a child’s natural curiosity about the amazing world in which he or she lives. This knowledge and insight, in turn, ultimately empowers children and young people to make informed choices for themselves.
It is, of course, a school’s role to serve its local community (or communities) and even in areas of alleged uniformity there is always difference – so, in addition to our personal responsibilities as citizens, as parents, as friends and relations, as community leaders – these critically important institutions play a vital role in recognising, promoting and valuing this variety. I agree with John Donne that no man is an island; the same should apply to our schools. They should be open and outward looking institutions.
And recognising, promoting and valuing these differences is a reciprocal activity. If I am to be respectful of you and your values and beliefs, then so should I expect that you will be respectful of mine. To celebrate diversity is not to ask someone to believe what you believe and be the same as you; but it is to ask them to show understanding and empathy – and to offer likewise in return. Where there is not this reciprocity then indifference, intransigence or, most worryingly of all, disconnection, radicalisation and, ultimately, confrontation can occur. And it is this that we must guard against for we know where it can lead.
So, it is vital that our schools are, and are seen to be, places that can put the realisation of the aspirations and potential of our children first – without fear or favour. The laws and regulations that govern our education system are there to support this endeavour, and we have a collective responsibility to uphold them not just in the letter, but also in the spirit with which they have been enacted – that of securing the delivery of a broad, balanced and inclusive education that delivers skills, knowledge, understanding and – above all – tolerance. This is expected irrespective of the character and governance model of the school concerned.
As we know, Birmingham provides a wonderfully diverse range of individuals, groups and communities. For example, there are now more than 180 languages spoken across our city. With such a powerful mix of people, our collective mission – with the unparalleled transformative power of a great and open education system at its heart – must be to celebrate our differences, be richer for understanding them, and to work together to challenge and change the hearts of those who would see difference as a blight rather than a blessing.
To quote Franklin D. Roosevelt: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. So, let’s continue to be brave together in our pursuit of realising the dreams of our children and young people.
Soapbox article first published in the Municipal Journal (26 March 2014)
I recently took part in a debate hosted by one of our Universities about whether or not Birmingham is “second city or second best”. Against a backdrop of Peaky Blinders, Benefit Street and Mind the Gap, it seems to me that the media pundits have conferred with each other and agreed to pose just one lazy default question: “where’s better – Birmingham or Manchester?”.
This is hugely annoying and, much more importantly, not a little disrespectful to all the other wonderful cities we have across the UK. Whether you are a Core City, a Key City or any other permutation, I don’t think any of us consider that what we do is some kind of local government equivalent to Strictly Come Dancing.
Rather, our collective aim is ensuring that, as the nascent economic recovery takes hold, there is benefit spread from this to all our communities – urban, suburban and rural. If national and LEP-level economic and industrial policies and strategies are effective then, firstly, we will ensure that there is more than enough good growth to go round – automatically making competition subordinate to complementarity and collaboration; and, secondly, we can set about effecting the much-needed re-balancing of the economy so that all our communities get their fair share of the growth and jobs.
Such common purpose doesn’t mean that we’re not proud of the places we serve; indeed, we shouldn’t be ashamed to boast about them. But for the chattering classes to keep harping/carping/barking on about who’s top dog (forgive my mixed metaphors but Crufts has just been to the NEC) is to miss the point – and, worse, potentially misdirect effort.
If we have to be subject to comparison then let’s at least use benchmarks that are meaningful and personal to the people we’re here to serve. For Birmingham this means being a city where the pursuit and achievement of Prosperity, Fairness and Democracy are the goals. We know that our citizens and communities want – and are entitled – to help shape a future city in which the rhetoric of an equal chance to fulfill potential becomes a reality. People want to share in the kind of growth that reduces, for example, the still unacceptably high levels of youth unemployment, or enables the unskilled or wrongly skilled to access the new and emergent labour markets.
We also know that our cities need to have a rounded and bespoke offering. Securing good growth and attractive, well-paid jobs are crucial, but so is sustaining a differentiated educational, sporting, cultural, retail, food, public realm, etc, etc offer. And, beyond their economic role, councils need to ensure the provision of great services (albeit far fewer of them delivered differently), working hard to maintain some focus on prevention and early intervention, challenging the education system to be the best it can, whilst still safeguarding and empowering the most vulnerable.
So, let’s stop asking the wrong question. Or, more importantly, let’s stop answering it. If Birmingham – whether that be the council, its LEP, the Health and Wellbeing Board or whatever – is to be subject to some kind of ranking, then it should be on the basis of setting and achieving relevant, stretching targets that mean something tangible for local people. In this way, each city needs to have its own agenda based on its uniqueness, whilst simultaneously benefiting from the common objective of securing more than enough growth to go around.
So, let me hear no more of who’s second and who’s second best. I’m focused on delivering a city that’s first rate – as are all my peers.
Two weeks under my belt and the first thing I need to say is a very big thank you for the extensive, warm and genuine welcome I have been given on my arrival. Councillors, officers, partners, peers, members of the public, the Twitterati, bloggers, etc – all have conspired to make my first fortnight the best start possible and I am grateful. As David Gedge once said “I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles”: your encouragement is having the same effect on me.
And why this pretentious blog title (other than, of course, to show off my pseudo-muso credentials)? Well I needed a framework that would help me build on the messages in my first outing – as well as give a much more obvious musical reference point than last week’s title.
It was a fabulous piece of luck that the Friday of my first week coincided with two Managers Voice events at which I was invited to share some of my thinking with City Council colleagues about the collective and ongoing challenge we face to make a difference to people’s lives in rapidly changing policy and financial environments. These sessions provided me with the perfect platform to argue, face-to-face, for the importance of showing empathy in all that we do, using this very humble, but also very powerful human behaviour, to build the respect and trust that should be expected of us as public servants.
The exchanges, along with other meetings, briefings and encounters, also reminded me of my promise that I wouldn’t presume to work from a blank canvass – continuity and progression being the watchwords. Let’s make sure we keep what’s already good, great and relevant for the future – and then build on them. So, I am already building my appreciation and understanding of existing values of commitment to excellence, respect and trust – with the customer at the heart of all that we do – and I am determined to take these and run with them, as well as future proof them and see them in evidence universally across the council. This will help take us from good to great.
As well as this attention to what the jargon might call “emotional intelligence” (read Daniel Goleman if you’re interested in this stuff), I also wanted to get across a clear message about the importance of having clarity of purpose in all that we do so that the priorities that we then select (which should be few in number), the strategies we write (which should have brevity in mind), and the delivery plans we put into action (which should be based on evidence of what works) are all underpinned by a consensus about our common purpose. I promised more dialogue about this, but also made it clear – I hope – that at the highest level it is still the gaps of inequality that must be the target of our efforts: eliminating unacceptable differences in key outcomes and in the opportunities to fulfill potential are, ultimately, our top line mission.
And I believe I left everyone with two very clear statements of intent: firstly, that we all have a leadership role to play in this. It is my view that if you can influence someone about values and common purpose then you are de facto a leader; and secondly, that the starting point for our endeavours must be the pursuit of improving lives – all lives, but especially those of the most disadvantaged in our communities.
The rapidly reducing money with which we have to do this is a massive ongoing headache, but we can avoid succumbing to a corporate migraine if we remember why we are here in the first place.
For me, this is the magic we must weave. And I believe we can and we will because, through all my contacts over the last two weeks, everything I have heard, heard about, or seen makes me believe that there will be more than enough of us who want to carry on with a values-based and people-focused approach to our work.
Excuse the somewhat dramatic element now introduced, but I also want to kill some things off.
Number one: money talks, but values and common purpose talk louder.
Number two: our mission is just that – our mission. Not somebody else’s. Tune in or join a different radio station. (Sorry to be so blunt so early on but in our future world there can only be drivers; due respect to Iggy Pop, but there is no longer a place for passengers.)
Number three: there is no monopoly on good ideas – we need to ensure that there is a culture in which creativity is a dominant characteristic and valued highly.
Who makes the weather? We do.
Sure, we cannot kid ourselves that there aren’t powerful external forces that are shaping our future. But only we can authentically stand up for Birmingham – the City and its City Council. And whilst Westminster’s actions are impacting severely on that future, nonetheless the more important matter of determining our ultimate destiny is in our hands!
Oh, and some other stuff
If you haven’t seen the YouTube clip of the moment (event though it’s not actually new at all), then here it is for your convenience:
It could be our BCC leadership manual set out in 2 minutes and 57 seconds.
And then to restate my commitment to doing things with you, I have also been sent the following link which describes the “4 enablers of engagement” in a far more succinct and cogent way than I could.
In summary, an effective, functional organisation is characterised by:
- Having a clear story (a “strategic narrative” no less)
- Ensuring effective leadership by: being clear about what success looks like; treating people like human beings; constantly coaching for success
- Being in listening mode and seeing its people as part of the solution
- Demonstrating a genuine sense of integrity and “keeping it real”
Our own organisational development principles set out in 4minutes and 36 seconds perhaps?
And why do I have this interest in engagement? Why not just issue orders and be done with it?
Well, I don’t know about you, but I always perform better when I have a say in what I’m doing and why. I feel that I have ownership because I’ve been listened to and, more importantly, heard. In terms of our communities, we agree that “doing with” is so much better than “doing to”; so we are entitled to the same acknowledgement within the council for ourselves. This way, I believe, lies good morale, a healthy working environment, a greater willingness and ability to effect change, and an environment where innovation and leadership can flourish.
This must be good for the people of Birmingham and ourselves.
I make no apology for going over ground I covered in my inaugural blog. I am, deliberately, addressing with you the critical pre-requisites for future success – and, at this stage of my tenure, I need to focus on creating our story, one that is driven by shared values and a common purpose.
Here’s to thinking in public.