Coming together-staying together-working together-The journey of collaboration

Last night, May 15, I was delighted to have the opportunity to deliver my inaugural lecture as visiting professor of education at the University of the West of England in Bristol. I took as the theme of the talk the following quote by Henry Ford, which was the perfect “hook” for me to describe the journey of the Cabot Learning Federation from 2007 to today and where I believe it needs to go next.

Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress and working together is success-Henry Ford 1863 to 1947

Thank you for that very warm welcome and to the University of the West of England, for the invitation to become a visiting Professor. This is a special occasion for me personally as it is for my family and for the Cabot learning Federation. Collaboration and partnership are two themes that are close to my heart and I have chosen to build the lecture this evening around this quote from Henry Ford.

Ford revolutionized the automotive industry and the way the world moved, but he also came to be known for his unique labour policies. Underpinning his view was the notion of teamwork. By eliminating inequalities among his workers, Ford created an environment in which innovation was encouraged and individual accountability was paramount.  What Ford was looking for was “a lot of men who have an infinite capacity to not know what can’t be done.” He wanted a team that would be inspired to work hard and look for potential ways to improve efficiency and production and not be inhibited with a legacy of obstacle builders. “You will find men who want to be carried on the shoulders of others, who think that the world owes them a living,” said Ford. “They don’t seem to see that we must all lift together and pull together.” Indeed, that was what Ford tried to inspire in his workers – a sense of working and pulling together. It was only in doing so that Ford was able to generate such a hardworking team, who stood proudly behind his rise to the top.

I grew up in Cardiff and was supported by a caring and loving family. My Mum and Dad have been my inspiration and their support and encouragement enabled me to follow my interest in music and sport. A music degree at Royal Holloway College in the University of London preceded what this year will be 29 years of a teaching career that has provided me with opportunity after opportunity. I want the same for my three sons and I want the same for the children of every Mum and Dad who chooses to send their son or daughter to a CLF Academy.

I went to Llanedeyrn HS in September 1971 and was the second cohort of children to join the school after it opened a year earlier. Following the re-organisation of secondary education in Cardiff it was one of the new breed of schools in that it had a comprehensive ability range. A fore-runner perhaps of the academies that have become such a part of my life today.  I borrowed the strap line from their website and whilst I cannot remember if my experience was “all about learning” it is a great statement about their intent for children who attend the school today. It was a great experience. The teacher who left the biggest impression on me was John Wickett who taught music and PE-seriously he did! My report has gathered dust at the bottom of a trunk but it is here for me to share my early experiences with you tonight. What I love about it is the way that it formed a book and every report from year 7 to year 11 is in the same book so the progress, or lack of it, is easy to follow. Sir Michael Willshaw would love it!

When I am working with leaders, I often wonder how much of their leadership style is the product of their upbringing and how much from the experiences they have which form the person they have become. For me, Music and Sport have and always will be key ingredients in my make up. Working in a team or as a member of an orchestra, the hours of practice to perfect a piano solo and memorise it or the resilience to keep going when the requirements of the sport I am playing or the music I am learning are stretching my skills to breaking point are all part of the leader I have become

The Cabot Learning Federation has been my greatest joy and biggest challenge since 2007 and is one that motivates me every day. We have over 5700 children in our academies and over 900 adults earn their living as members of a unique and special team. We have ten academies that are based in Bristol, South Gloucestershire, BANES and North Somerset and an 11th about to open in September less than a mile from this building. We hope to hear any day that our application for a 16-19 academy in our part of the city has been successful. Our teaching school adds authenticity to our work. We could be forgiven for focusing all of our energies on our own academies, but we choose not to as we learn so much more from working with other schools. This keeps our knowledge fresh and I have yet to visit a school anywhere in the world where you cannot take the germ of an idea and make it your own.

You will see as the lecture develops, the quote by Henry Ford will permeate the different sections and hopefully provide a sequential route map through the presentation.

School to school collaboration is not knew. What is different in 2013 is that it is done better than ever before in my experience. When I was headteacher at Cirencester Deer Park School in 1997, we had the opportunity to apply to become a Beacon School. This was a model that was predicated in the view that a good school could do good deeds in a weaker school and that the miracle cure would happen. Everything I have read and know about school collaboration tells me this could not work and of course if didn’t. We shared the occasional INSET day and I think we might have given them some old BBC computers but other than that I can think of very little that improved my school or sadly the schools we partnered with. Through leading edge, the SSAT family of schools and the early models of school trusts we arrive today where we see an array of soft and hard federations, cooperative trusts, and national chains of schools. Whilst the desirability of being part of a 50 strong academy chain can be debated another time, what is clear is that the landscape of school leadership that I inhabited in 1997 looks very different and more exciting today.

Dr Dan Nicholls, the Principal at Bristol Brunel has introduced the CLF leadership team to Simon Sinek. What I love about Sinek’s thinking, is the simplicity with which he describes the shift from moral core purpose to solutions based activity. His work is a constant reminder to ground our planning in the reasons why we exist before we move to planning How we will implement a solution and certainly before we decide the detail of what to do

The three golden circles represent the WHY, HOW and WHAT of change leadership and sustained growth. As a profession we have come to value the contribution of the problem solver and in times of challenge they are worth their weight in gold. However, one of the defining differences between management and leadership is the flow from the outer circle to the inner which characterises the manager who solves the problem and then reflects on the core purpose that may have been in dis-harmony and thus created the initial problem. The leader defaults to the why to understand the context for the solution  before reflecting on how to respond before designing the solution. For me, this is what any collaboration needs to understand. If we don’t know why we are collaborating, and we are not sure how to do it, we end up swapping BBC computers and having joint INSET days as substitutes for taking shared responsibility for the educational journeys of our children

The WHY that underpins the Cabot Learning Federation is simple. By working together, the sum of our parts gives us more capacity, more talent, more creativity and more strategies to give the children in our schools a better chance of success than if the schools work on their own. If we succeed, then we help to re-generate our part of the city. It is no coincidence that our current improvement plan carries the title “Educating a City” as we move into a phase of increasing our capacity to work differently with our post 16 students, their families and our staff. The future employability of our young people, at post 18 and post 21 will be significant and I believe that the alumni of the CLF will help Mayor Ferguson in his desire to make Bristol one of the top European cities in the next 20 years, but only if we create a generation who in their early twenties see education and skills acquisition as a lifelong pursuit. The rapidly changing job market and the need to acquire skills and expertise that we can only imagine at the moment, means that survival in the middle decades of this millennium will be almost impossible for the leaver of education who has no desire or motivation to learn again. Schools, Universities, cities and business leaders need to join together to help us manage the educational equivalent of global warming

Collaborative cultures never stand still. They mature and move at pace whether we like it or not. The first two years of the collaboration that formed the basis of the CLF took place between 2007 and 2009. We were then two schools. John Cabot Academy and Bristol Brunel Academy, became linked on 1 September 2007 when both became academies linked by educational sponsored partnership. It was a difficult time. John Cabot as a CTC had no relationship with Speedwell Technology College, the school that became BBA. The admissions policy of the CTC meant that children were admitted from across the city whilst Speedwell served its local community. The relationship I developed with Armando di Finizio who was appointed to the Principal post at BBA, and who today is in his second CLF Principal role at Hans Price in Weston, was pivotal in breaking down some of the barriers and misconceptions. But it was hard and looking back, I am pleased we took time to build trust and confidence, to enable both academies to learn more about each other and to create the foundation for what we have today.

Henry Ford described the coming together as a beginning and his words were true for us. After two years we formed the hard federation that we are today and were joined by Bristol Metropolitan Academy and we could see that by staying together, now as a triad of schools, we could make progress. Steve Taylor the Principal at BMA often talks about BMA and the CLF being born on the same day, 1 Sept 2009, and he is right. For that reason, the bond between the CLF and BMA will always be a unique and precious one and each new academy that has joined us has brought with them a piece of magic that glues more of the federation together

Between 2009 and 2012 we saw more sharing, more exchanges of ideas and more joint training events than ever before. By last academic year the collaboration gene was viral! I frequently saw colleagues at one academy who I was pretty sure worked somewhere else only to find that they were working with a department for the day, or on one occasion had been appointed to a head of department post that morning. We grew more confident as a team of leaders. The team trusted each other to lead reviews as critical friends. Most significantly we asked Nic Garrick to set up and lead a CLF primary partnership with local schools which enabled our thinking to develop rapidly about learning across the entire age range. It was also the first time that we convened our annual conference in the conference centre at UWE. An event that in July last year saw over 60 workshops planned and delivered by CLF staff for over 850 delegates who attended.

  • If the WHY sets the foundation and core purpose, then it is the HOW that helps us to understand the compelling reason for staying together.
  • The WHY communicates the moral purpose of the journey and why we need to be successful
  • It is the HOW that gives the purpose and unifies our core belief around a set of clear aims. The WHY is applicable and vital in every single school setting around the world-great leaders know why they believe passionately in what they do. It is the HOW and the purpose that is different in a federation and is what excites me about the journey we are on.

I want to say a word at this stage about the role of our sponsors in the CLF collaborative journey. It is important that the CLF does not get seen as belonging to one individual. It is important and right that I take responsibility for leading the federation, but it does not belong to me. It belongs to every parent, child and member of our workforce and our sponsors provide the climate that enables discussion and feedback to inform the decision making process. The relationship with UWE is significant. 35 of our post 16 students have continued their own personal journeys here and the DNA of partnership work that permeates every pore of this institution has a clone in the CLF. Rolls Royce have been sponsors of the CTC before the federation and have been valued and supportive partners of Scientific, Mathematical and Technological learning for over 15 years

 Jim Collins is a brilliant writer on the work that great leaders do. His hedgehog concept outlined in “Good to Great” is particularly apt. The story of the hedgehog and the fox derives from an ancient Greek poem . In it, a cunning and brilliant fox grasps the complexity of the woodlands around him. He sets his mind on eating a hedgehog, and spends hours plotting the perfect attack.

Meanwhile, the hedgehog, described as simplistic and somewhat dowdy, goes about its business unaware. When the fox ambushes, the hedgehog rolls himself into a spiny, impenetrable ball. Undeterred, the fox keeps re-strategizing, but the pattern repeats itself over and over. “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” the poem famously concludes.

There are three core questions underpinning the hedgehog concept. What is the one big thing that schools and businesses and other organisations know best is the crux of the question.

To illustrate the point I want to use an example from Business. Walgreens is one of the most successful pharmacy chains in the world. They wanted to create the best and most convenient stores in the USA. They cared about their customer’s experience and thought about a strategy that must have seemed to some to be business suicide. Stores on the same side of the street on the same street was certainly unusual but the familiarity if the layout, the ease of access and the certainty that familiar products could be found and bought quickly paved the way for their success.

The model works for the CLF as well. We believe we can be the best federation in the country. We believe to do this we have to help our young people gain extra ordinary success and we care most about giving students a world class education

The notion of world class education was first introduced by Tony Blair in 1997 just after he was elected Prime Minister. Others have used the term but it is worth reflecting for a moment on what this means. Surely it has to be more than the OFSTED definition although a school claiming world class status would have to be outstanding in OFSTED terms in order to be credible. So how about this for a definition of world class schooling:

  • You must help others to be great
  • You should work with Universities across the globe to pioneer next practice
  • Your students should speak fluently two or three languages
  • Your students should have qualifications and knowledge but they should also show that they are team players, leaders, researchers and adaptable
  • Businesses will come to you to set up their innovation hubs and ask you to lead their development with your students
  • The Arts will thrive and be the pulse of your school and students will experience great arts so that they become participants and audiences of the future
  • Alumni will not need to be persuaded to support the next generation of students-they will see it as a lifelong investment for the future

So as I pull the threads of the lecture together how do we build upon the past six years? Bath Community Academy has joined the family and the schools who formed our primary partnership in 2009 under Nic Garrick’s leadership are now members of the federation. As we have grown so has the need for us to understand the journey from nursery to post 16. I want the reception teachers at any of our primary academies to know they were part of the success of the A Level student this summer even though they last taught the 18 year old 14 years ago. I want our post 16 team to recognise the quality of early years teaching and its impact on A Level study. In September we will be accountable for 11 Academies. Our leadership structure needs to grow and we need to put our succession planning training to the test. Our Principals need experience of leading across more than one school. Our Vice Principals need to find out if they are ready to step up. Our Assistant Principals and Middle Leaders need to move into Vice Principal roles. They will, of that I am certain. My role is to help them be the best they can be

So, our relentless drive for more improvement however carries on.

If we are to find the success that Henry Ford described through working together, we need a plan. The core strands of our improvement journey focus on teaching, leadership, progression, support for our children and their families and the quality of the work of our central team who at their best build capacity for the leaders in our academies to focus on the core mission of improvement. We need to build capacity or we slide backwards. We need to change the culture and create the expectation that we can be world class. We need to build resilience and inner strength as the journey will be hazardous like all the best ones are.

For me the key goal is around progression. When we talk about transition rather than progression, we usually mean the move from primary to secondary. It was in one of our recent Primary leadership meetings that we agreed this was no longer an appropriate term as there are we believe at least seven progression points on that journey I just described from reception to University. Each Academy and each Principal needs to lead one of our progression journeys. Who can say if the entry to school is more or less challenging than the entry to work or University? Who can say if the move to secondary education is more or less exciting than the move into post 16. Whatever the answer, over the next ten years the CLF has to be world class at this. If and when it is, then we will have demonstrated collaboration at its best creating the greatest impact.


We need a generation of school leaders who can work across more than one school and who see the potential in taking a collective responsibility for a large number of students, the majority of whom never attend the building that the leader inhabits. I doubt if we will ever lead in a system with no competition. I am not sure that would be a good thing anyway. Competition brings the edge that drives the challenge. However, the recent past has been about individual schools competing with each other. Fine if you are top of the tree-challenging and less motivating if not. We need a leadership culture that recognises the need for the strong to park the wagons in a circle around the school that is troubled and help it. No community is served well by any school being regarded as poor. It does not suggest that the strong schools are that great if they allow this to happen. This is what I mean by system leadership.

In the same way that world class schools help other schools to become world class, so the same is true for world class leaders. Last week, two of my former colleagues were appointed to be Principals in two new University Technical Colleges. Since I became a head in 1997, 15 members of teams I have led have become heads. I am not unique in that-many other great leaders do this and more-but it is part of the legacy of the collaborative leader to develop succession planning for the system and not just their organisation

So where next?  What is the challenge for today and tomorrow?

We have a national crisis in the UK which is encapsulated on this slide. Whilst we all believe that your birth location and neighbourhood should not make a difference to your educational success, the reality is that for many children it does. On almost every indicator on the screen, a child deemed to be dis-advantaged performs below the level of students who are deemed not to be dis-advantaged.

In Primary schools, there is an 18% gap nationally between students who attain level 4, the national expectation at age 11, in English and Maths when you compare dis-advantaged children with the rest

In Secondary schools, the gap between those students gaining 5 A-C grades including English and Maths is 27% when you compare dis-advantaged children with the rest. The gap just appears to be getting bigger and if we do not meet this challenge, then educational poverty map will get bigger and the implications for social and economic well-being are potentially catastrophic for the UK and cities like Bristol. So who owns the problem? We all do but we cannot solve it in a 1000 different silos. We need to work together and this is the challenge for the CLF, school leaders, Universities and the government of the day.

For the CLF we need our schools to be good, then outstanding the world class. We want to be able to describe the journey to success of the 3 year old. We need the parent of the child in 2030 to believe as strongly in the power of learning as those of us in the room tonight do. Only then can we say we have an education system to be proud of and the CLF wants to be a leader of that story

Thank you for allowing me to share our journey with you this evening. I believe in partnership and collaboration. I enjoy being part of a team and I know that working together brings success. My message is that collaboration works best when the group is small and focused, simply organised with a local community engagement.

Thank you for listening





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