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Daring to be different and leading the change in the education sector – what’s next?

"We need leaders who are willing to ask the big questions. We need leaders who are able to listen to and engage with the experiences of the young people we serve.”

"We need leaders who are willing to ask the big questions. We need leaders who are able to listen to and engage with the experiences of the young people we serve.”


There are easier ways to earn a living. I mean, let’s be honest. We’ve all had moments of looking at friends and family who saunter into the office with a coffee for a 9.30 start and, well, wondered…

Working in schools has an intensity all of its own. And you don’t need me to describe that – you live it every day.

So what keeps getting us out of bed to stick at it? What is it for you?

Top of the head for most will be ‘the children’. We do it for the children, because we know that what we do in schools makes the most profound difference. Their openness, creativity and dynamic energy fuels us. We want to help them develop and grow into productive, happy members of society.

But for too many teachers and leaders, there are limitations and constraints within the system that mean we are spending too much time doing things we don’t really believe in. In the midst of exam season, this can feel pretty acute. Of course, most teachers would not argue for a second that a core academic education is not important and want their students to do well. But, well, it is just not enough.

And the stakes are so high for individual teachers, leaders, schools, local authorities and multi academy trusts, that the vast majority of our time, energy and focus is on those areas examined formally through tests and exams. It’s just true. It’s why my daughter in year 5 said to me this morning that the teachers say ‘art and IT aren’t as important as maths and so it’s ok if we miss one’.

I’m seriously not criticising her school – I think they do a great job. But it is the lived experience of very many children and teachers alike.

An education of the head, heart and hand

I founded Big Education with my colleague Peter Hyman in order to try and do something about this. We support our own schools, School 360, Surrey Square and School 21 within the Trust, and I could not be more proud of the continued dedication and tenacity of the leaders who run them. They implement a thoughtful approach to schooling, which we call an education of the head (academics), heart (character and wellbeing), and hand (creativity, problem-solving, making a difference).

We are also working to support other schools and leaders who want to take seriously the idea of a more expansive educational experience for their students. We call it a ‘big education’. We don’t have a set formula or silver bullet as to what that looks like. We are more interested in asking bigger questions and supporting teachers and leaders to work towards deeper answers to those.

Questions like;
● What really is the purpose of school?
● Do we have a balanced curriculum offer that involves the education of head (academics),
heart (character) and hand (creativity) giving students a wide variety of experiences that are
mapped and planned?
● Do we embody a strong vision of social justice and are we motivated to ensure equity and
opportunity in all our work, including developing students as active citizens?
● What is the balance between compliance and empowerment in the school and do students
feel they can show initiative, make choices and develop their leadership capabilities?

We developed our ‘diagnostic tool’ as a way for schools to ask themselves these questions – a way of evaluating our practice in a more holistic way. rigorous interrogation of our practices and promoting new thinking and ideas.

Change is possible. As Sir Tim Brighouse is minded to say, we must ‘find the gaps in the hedges’ – i.e. the spaces where we can make change happen. Despite high stakes accountability, our schools, Surrey Square, School 21 and School 360 do have a lot of autonomy.

I believe that leadership is key to that change being successful. We need leaders who are willing to ask the big questions. We need leaders who are able to listen to and engage with the experiences of the young people we serve. We need leaders who can explore their own relationship with risk, and allow for work which does not solely optimise for exam scores. We need leaders who empower others to research and pilot new approaches. We need leaders who connect powerfully with others and open themselves up to learning from different perspectives and contexts.

That is why we created our flagship programme for those leaders who want to make changes in their own contexts and also the system more widely.

‘The Big Leadership Adventure’ is a 2-year professional development programme for educators, those in schools, but also working in other organisations within education. It is an opportunity for those who are committed to change, and want to be emboldened, supported and developed in the toolkits that make that possible. The programme curriculum and teaching methodologies are based on a rigorous piece of research into the skills, knowledge and competencies leaders need in order to do this kind of changemaker work.

Already working with 180 leaders around the country, we are now looking for our next cohort. We know there are fully funded opportunities to do NPQ courses. We are not an NPQ, or anywhere close to being. This is a very different and complementary offer and opportunity and we know it speaks to those leaders who feel fired up by our mission and approach.

We feel both humbled and hopeful from the feedback we’ve had and the changes being made within schools already;

“I have been inspired by Big Leadership Adventure from the start to the finish and I feel excited that going forward I feel braver to take risks that I know will be of life-changing benefit to our young people.” – Headteacher, Doncaster

“Big Education provides such a wealth of opportunities, professional networks, and practical tools to realise professional fulfilment. Similarly, it certainly provides its membership with the confidence to take that step towards the unknown with determination! #Belief.” Executive headteacher, London

Is that you? Or someone you know or work with?
● Are you passionate that the education system needs to provide more than simply a set of
exam results for young people?
● Do you want to develop your leadership capabilities to be able to innovate and support your teams to do the same?
● Are you excited at the prospect of a different approach to professional learning?

“I described it as this innovative expansive program that speaks to the heart of education today. How can we rethink teaching practices and policies in the age of multiculturalism. A course full of passion, purpose and design thinking daring to raise critical questions about the future of teaching itself.” CEO/Headteacher, Essex

Written by Liz Robinson, Co-Director of Big Education

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