Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Learning from Nepal

A deeper sense of knowing - cherishing the simple good things we can do...

In my last BLOG, before my Autumn 2014 vacation, I ranted on about overcomplexity and called for simplicity.  In this BLOG I am trying to get closer to what I mean..

Last week I returned from a trek in Nepal amongst the furthest and highest Himalaya.  It was, as they so often are, a life enhancing experience.  Here I try to explain why....

From the Monastery in Samagoan

On our penultimate day I wrote....   Our Manaslu Trek is almost over and it's quiet, for once this night – no dogs barking.  We are in Bhule-Bhule, suddenly and surprisingly, in the midst of a huge Chinese hydro electric project, plonked in the midst of this beautiful valley.  Which valley isn't beautiful here?  We have been saying how there is massive potential and there certainly is need for such a development but having this ugly industrial landscape intrude is an assault on our senses, after the quiet, terraced subsistence farming we have witnessed and lived within.  It is quite distressing.  Of course it's good for the country but it's a worry we might lose some of this special place. So, what has been so special?

Collecting water

It has been like turning back time.  Like being returned to a naive boyhood - which I have deliberately never left – in which I saw things, as though for the first time.   I prize being childlike in my outlook – it’s about being open, enquiring, divergent and exploring – about looking for new things everywhere and anywhere and asking, “Why?”  So, on the Manaslu Circuit, for nearly a month, I think I have seen something missing in much of the supposed developed, or modern world.  It seemed at first to be about kitchens and women but you’ll see it was also about monks and temples. I’m not entirely sure yet but I think it’s about having a better sense of hearth, home and community... 

The Blue Lake
Cold but refreshing

Typical smile and typical rice terracing

Manaslu and the glacier

The trek was stunning. It has outclassed Dualigiri in many ways - more varied scenery - more beautiful - grander and our company has mixed and fitted together so well.  One of our team turned back at the pass, as many did, not trusting his skills and strength, and retraced his long steps, back down to Jaggat.  It will have taken him longer, but we all knew it was the right decision and part of each of us envied that retracing because the first valley was awesome, wide, finely carved by glacier and cut by thundering waters and falls.  Every niche was crammed with foliage, on the approach to clean, white, grey-blue, snow and ice.  Any approximate level had been terraced for rice, maize, wheat and potatoes between dotted medieval stone villages, increasingly ringed with inventive modern dwellings in a variety of wooden, corrugated iron, bamboo and poured concrete figurations. 

Arughat Bazar

Yak Kharka

The tea houses were wonderful and, at best, the hub of each village.  Their hearts were the wood fires in the kitchens. These dark glowing places touched our deepest emotions, for here strong, always smilingly, women worked wonders with local produce - rice, flour, vegetables and meats over their wood stoves. There is bottled gas and electric, of a quaint kind but those iron, welded home-made wood stoves held a special warmth that drew the folk to them.  And what warmth!  And what folk!

Another warm hearth

I've many tales to tell and pictures to show but these kitchens were the heartbeat of the trek and are probably the heartbeat of Nepal.  They go to something we have almost lost in our modern, developed world. Those fires draw in and literally capture, the communal life of the place.  Of course we have kitchens, real and magazine versions. We have splendid, pristine, designer kitchens, but very few do what each one of those we visited did - welcomed the community, the travellers, the hungry and inquisitive. Even the lonely, otherwise outcast Yak herder, with a unique personal hygiene was welcome here.  On one occasion a horse poked his head through the open door and I would not have been surprised had he entered and been fed.  On another, a black goat totted in dog like with a woman, shat on the floor, left quietly and no one seemed concerned. 

Typical Kitchen

Yes, there is dirt, natural dirt, human and animal dirt but I saw no illness - amongst locals at least. We were all careful with our filtered water and alcohol sanitizers and our group seemed fine apart from a circular cold, sore throat and chesty cough.  I evaded it but it almost scuppered a friend’s summiting but antibiotics, a day's rest and various other medications saw her scampering over the summit pass - with me the weakest of the group at a breathless rear.  It was tough, took all my strength and I could find no reserve in that thin air but hey ho, it felt good and I would not have missed it for the world. And, as always, clambering down from 17,000 feet it’s increasingly energising as you inhale the thicker, oxygen richer, air.

Larkya Lar 5160 metres

Manaslu Glacier


So, back to the world, our world, we come, refreshed, revitalised and startled by its reality, no better exemplified than by the monster Hydro Electric Plant.  But we have been reminded of what a world can, or could be.  I've been thinking for a long time about a deeper sense of knowing – my last BLOG was about the senseless complications we have clothed and hobbled ourselves with.  In this BLOG I'm trying to find a simpler way forward. That's what I meant by the trek enhancing my life.

Children at Samdo

I know I'll despair on returning home and that I still struggle to see - even by coming this far - what some have always, instinctively known.  It may seem daft for some who read this next bit but I think mothers would understand better than most.  Mothers would fit in here in unnoticed - they'd assume their place and, with that surety they often have (and people know they have) be a powerful part of it.  I am trying to be very careful here - there is no intent of patronage or sexism.  I am trying to get at that deeper sense of knowing, about a maternal nous.  DH Lawrence got close.  Dare I say that mothers, women who think like mothers and even the fewer men who think maternally run the machine of our world?  They know, deep down, it’s about driving the engine of family, of community,  It’s about ensuring the lower levels of Mazlov’s hierarchy are in place – keeping the warmth, the food, the relationships going.  I know I’m struggling to explain it  - better I try to describe it and how I saw it working, back in those kitchens.

Kitchen at Samdo

It was a privilege, we all recognised and spoke of, to be in those heart-warming kitchens - to need no invitation to be welcomed. We were warmly ignored and worked around in these glowing, clanky homes for the  village.  How do those women stay calm on the melĂ© of meddling men, who jabber and poke the fire, re-stir their pots and dangerously risk adding herbs and advice to the communal pot?  I never heard a harsh word and only once saw one of our Sherpas - Sarkey - put in his proper place - for daring to touch a bulging pressure cooker hissing, spitting and wriggling on a stove. I didn't see what she did, there was no slap.  No, something was understood and accepted in these places - something deep and coolly sensual was clear. The women are in charge - their men, sit, squat or stand close by and attend. The men are, we were, an audience to a playing out of something we have almost lost - genuine, true and meaningful care.  This was communal living.  These are proper kitchens. They are communions, where pilgrims wander to be ministered bread and wine. They feed the bodies and souls of the community and welcome all who suffer by.  I'd say temples but there were temples too - yet another level of spiritual, social and cultural life in this gem of a country.

Kathmandu Temple

Samagoan Gompa Monastery

The temples, called Gompas, also glow in the dark and here the monks mostly men, but women too, chant and drum, blow horns and smile the Buddhist rituals. The Gompas also feature food and offerings for those present, the needy and poor and, failing that, the sparky crows that wait to scavenge the flung remnants.  And recalling these temples rescues me from my fear of sexism, for here it was mainly the men who made us welcome, who let us sit and watch and take pictures of their rituals.  The monks offered us food and smiled and worked around us with our naive looks and modern clothes and gizmos, just as the women do in the kitchens.

Monastery Kitchen

It all now falls into place to makes sense. “Namaste” was the greeting we were taught and with closed hands we offered it whenever we passed a fellow traveller – Nepal or visitor.  I never met a Nepalese who did not reply with a cheery voice, although I sometimes forgot and many of my fellow visitors ignored my proffered greetings.  Translated it means, “I recognise the divine in you” and that sums it up – perfectly.  This was the tangible and unconditional regard, respect and care we felt in Nepal.  Yes, the kitchens and the temples were powerful examples and hubs of this but I now realise that we were genuinely welcomed, wherever we went and this was demonstrated by the greeting, the hospitality and the smiles. Don't we all have more in common than in difference?

A 60 year old and a 66 year old

Buying trinkets from Vorghes

So what am I now thinking?

Couldn't we be so much better at recognising and respecting the people we meet?  Is what I describe in Nepal, something we could reinforce, remember and replicate?

In terms of work, education and leadership (my last BLOG) Wouldn't we be better starting by welcoming and listening to the thoughts and ideas of colleagues, rather than beginning with a set position defined by statistics, targets and external expectations?  

Don't the very best leaders and teachers create the permitting circumstances for the equivalent of fireside chats and space for respect and reflection?

In what ways do we sit around an actual, or metaphorical, fire-side to chew over ideas, feelings and thinking - with colleagues, let alone strangers?

Is it at all possible to say to colleagues and mean, "I recognise the divine in you"?

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Emperor is wearing too many clothes!

I'm angry on behalf of young enthusiastic teachers...

I’ve been working hard in this profession since 1970 and I’m just as passionate about it now as I ever was.  That’s why I’m still working flat out way after 60 years and, damn it, still feeling guilty about going on a trek for a month leaving colleagues working away in school.

Some of my passion is anger and it's welling up again and I know I have to get it off my chest before I go, or I’ll burst.  I am angry, really angry and I have been angry for years on behalf of hard working and well meaning teachers, many middle leaders and some senior leaders who are thrashing around in our Educational Empire, struggling under data mountains and forms and plan formats that are quite frankly too complex to consider sensible.   So, here I am, an old man now, screaming out, “The Emperor’s wearing too many clothes!

When I started my NQT year in 1970 there were few, if any, actual requirements to plan in much detail.  As a teacher, I had a foolscap mark book.  As a head of department I had a thicker one. There were no School Improvement Plans and the only legislation was the 1944 Education Act.  A little boy somewhere must have said, “The Emporer is wearing no clothes” because before long, The Taylor Report (1980) started clothing our profession with ever more layers of bureaucracy.  I won’t list the paper-chase  – if you've read this far you’ll have your own list.  Then the computer’s capacity to number crunch,  word process and spew out data and emails to inflate an expanding internet fuelled the virtual pile of plans, targets, in evermore bewildering formats.  And the legislation landslide buried us.  Surely, it’s time to scream, “The Emperor is wearing too many clothes!” 

“Go do teaching”

All I’m asking is that we take a step back and look at the bloody mess we’ve created and start with some principles..  All I’m asking is that we look critically at our literal and virtual paper mountains. 

Pile yours up and examine it.  This is your educational clothing.  I bet it doesn’t fit you, your wardrobe, let alone your desktop, or pocket.  Do you know how much time it takes you to just to tidy and file the stuff?  All I am saying is, if you are suffocating, sweating and restricted by it – take some layers off!  I dare you take it all off and only put back on what you need to stay cool and unrestricted and then... Go on - do what you are paid to do....  “Go do teaching”.

Hounded professionals seeking ways to prove their accountability.

Two true recent stories.  I was invited to a Senior Team meeting of an Academy Chain in London.  It was in a Hotel and, on the surface, all very civilised.  It was about School Improvement.  We were there to demonstrate iAbacus –  our bespoke suit for the Emperor with no clothes.   Two things struck me.  First, the meeting was identical in content, process and emotional tension to the Senior Team meetings I attended as Deputy Chief Inspector in a Local Education Authority 20 years ago.  The table was covered in Ring Binder files, full of paper, stared at and leafed through by tired and hounded professionals seeking ways to prove their accountability.  There were plans for each Academy to fill in (including:  Post Ofsted Action Plan, School Improvement Plan, Raising Achievement Plan, SEF); response forms for their Link Adviser to complete (about the plans the Academy had submitted); summary forms (of the response forms) for the Advisers, to send to their Seniors and the Senior Senior was considering (quietly panicking about) ways to report to the Board about all of these.  It was obviously too much and weighing them down to a sad paralysis.   Second, no-one in the meeting appeared capable of listening to what we were saying to them – they were like Stepford Wives pushing their trolleys of paper aimlessly around the Emporium.

A deep sense of hopelessness was tangible

A few days later I was in a school, to give a talk to a Sixth form about “Enterprise”, wearing my "Business Speakers for Schools" hat.  I was welcomed into the staffroom and sat with teachers, who clearly assumed I had nothing to do with education.  Not missing this opportunity I naively asked, “So, what’s it like in your profession these days?”  Their heartfelt sadness poured out in their witnessing: long hours, overwork, over-detailed planning and persistent calls to justify their actions.  Their professional learned helplessness and deep sense of hopelessness was tangible.  I was upset for days, still am, by the hunted looks of despair in their eyes.

What could I do?  I’ll start by pleading:
  1. Don’t ever give up.  If you too despair, scream about it and talk to colleagues about the clothes you might take off without being exposed.
  2. Re-tailor the fewer items left to fit you and your needs.
  3. Enjoy the new freedom of movement – talk about it – window dress – parade.
  4.  Go do teaching!
What can you do?

Pack your bags (and your head) with only the necessary - try living by these maxims - they've served me well:

  • do less well rather than more badly
  • keep it simple, it'll get complicated anyway, start complicated and you don't stand a chance
  • take more time to write shorter letters and speak concisely
  • know your priority

I’d love to think that, by reading this, someone somewhere will end up: doing less better, having a shorter To Do list and using more freedom of movement.  If you are that someone - make some time to write me a short note...

OK I'm glad that's off my chest - calmer now... I feel more prepared for a break from work - into the high cold mountains of Nepal.  I will, by necessity, be very careful about the layers of clothing I wear and the weight I carry. Cool but not cold.  Warm but not hot.  And I know I will meet some monks, I always do, and I'll marvel at their calm.  Maybe we should think like monks with their quill pens - and only write what we are prepared to illuminate onto a careful scroll....  

OK off to pack my bags with only the necessary - always a challenge...

Monday, 8 September 2014

Ofsted 2014 - Linking the SEF SIP and PM to empower school improvement

If you want a free trial, or licence click here or email me directly 

To see a short video of it working click here

Friday, 11 July 2014

iAbacus is 10 years old

iAbacus the unique approach to School Improvement: self evaluation and action planning for everyone is 10 years old.

It's been hard work over the last 10 years* Can I reflect a little?  

Happy Birthday to us...

It's heart-warming to receive congratulations from users of the iAbacus on our 10th birthday! I'd still love to hear from you if you're using one of the real abacuses I made - In Sheffield, Hundred of Hoo and Nottinghamshire perhaps....

Where are you now?

You may be drawing dots on paper - Jenny and staff at All Saints, in South Wigston Leicester?  Or, are you still sticking boiled sweets onto a flipchart - North Lincolnshire SNIMPS Consortium?  I don't really mind but you will are missing the built in criteria of the on-line model - hint hint....

Maybe you progressed on-line with us in 2012.  If so, you're joining hundreds of users across the UK, and as far afield as Zimbabwe, Dubai and China.... and can be bolstered by our recent award for support to Leadership and Management

You users have one or two things in common

I'll bet you, like all our early users, love the visual and kinaesthetic way we get you to make judgements, justify them, analyse what is helping and hindering and then, most importantly plan for progress. As our first head Lisa in Stoke said, "It's deceptively simple".

You'll also share our view that starting from the professional's view of themselves is empowering because it builds the capacity of the workforce - their skills, knowledge and understanding.

I reckon the iAbacus is also becoming an established model for school improvement for you and your staff because you tell us it is collaborative, encourages team-working and interdependence.  

I don't like being negative so I'll be realistic. Many of you come to use because you tell me that Ofsted gets in the way because having teachers respond to an absent inspector's judgement diminishes their professionalism, is invariably dis-enabling, often frustrating and anti-learning.  That's why you chose the iAbacus - as Joe said at the very start, "We now get our revenge in first!" It starts with people and moves on to evidence NOT the other way round.

You also tell us that boring administration systems, that are little more than electronic filing cabinets of examination data, spew out over complex scatter graphs to bewilder your colleagues.  You do get over-awed with too much detail.  Who said," Just because a computer can doesn't mean it should".  I love it when Stuart quotes back at me, "Keep it simple, it will get complicated anyway. Start complicated and you don't stand a chance" 
Yes, Dan and I have spent hours taking out complexity in iAbacus..

At the very start you just used our “overall school” focuses but then you began contacting us with ideas for new templates. We loved that  So, we've rolled out our deceptively simple process, approach and format for Whole School Self-Evaluation to a whole raft of  templates - there are now 40+ available to all users.  Now Subject Leaders are using our expanding our range of focuses for the iAbacus process 

Expect more - keep reading your drop down menu of templates to see what's appearing
I hope you’ll have learnt, at iAbacus, that we care about how we help you.  We value your judgement - the professional perspective - and want to work from where you are. Be reassured, we’ll jealously guard the information you input - beware of systems that allow others to see what you enter....

And now you are writing for us

See our latest from Jasbir Mann related to Pupil Premium here  


Yes, we want iAbacus to an ethical, collaborative and CPD based approach to self improvement. We start with the professional and move onto evidence NOT the other way round.

If they want to find out more ask them to come to  where they’ll find articles, testimonials, videos and crucially the theory and research behind this unique approach to School Improvement or read and download Gerald Haigh's Review here 

So, if you know of someone else who is tired of bureaucratic, top down, boring, electronic filing cabinets of data hungry admin. systems – tell them WHY we do, WHAT  we do and HOW we do it so well.

* The idea came to me in Westfield School Sheffield in June 2004