Community Soil and Lessons from Mycology: Mother Nature and the Wood Wide Web (Trees Can Count)

This blog develops ideas explored in one posted earlier in this series Community Capacity Building: an organic ecological approach, no hothousing. It speaks of connectedness, interdependence and soil. More to the point, what goes on in that soil.

Soil is important for life on Earth. Because soil holds water and nutrients, it is an ideal place for plants to grow.

Simple English Wikipedia

Dr Suzanne Simard, Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, tells of the way trees communicate, negotiate space and actively support one another. She does so in a way that is utterly compelling. Simard says that “Through back and forth conversations they [trees] increase the resilience of the whole community.” We need to remember that “Forests are not competing with each other, they are super-cooperators.” I am particularly struck by Dr Simmard’s saying that “We have to give Mother Nature the tools she needs to use her intelligence to self-heal.” And so, you will not be surprised to hear that I have been thinking on how this revelation might inform the way we look at and operate as school communities. I share my thinking here.

My interest was piqued by German forester and writer Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees in which the author makes the case that the forest is a social network. I urge you to find the time to read the book itself. You will not be disappointed and, as it says on the back cover, ‘A walk in the woods will never be the same again.’ I also recommend listening to Trees: a wood wide web (Radio 4 Start the Week, with Andrew Marr, featuring Peter Wohlleben – broadcast Mon 10 Dec 2018).

In Marr’s programme, Wohlleben explains that he deliberately sets out to offer a written guided tour, not encumbered by unnecessary technical terms, and yet based on hard science. Not a simple task, as we know, but he does it quite brilliantly. Trees, Wohlleben says, have memory, can taste, smell, hear and, get this, count! A tree has in its root tips something like a brain structure. They are able to communicate via aromatic gases (stress signals) and by an underground network using chemical interactions and electrical impulses. All totally fascinating (I say, mind blowing!) but it is the underground network idea that I want to pull out and expand on.         

Fungi were the first organisms to come to land, 1.3 billion years ago. What is more, when that asteroid hit, some 65 million years ago, the debris jettisoned into the atmosphere switched the lights out and fungi inherited the Earth. Fungi do not need light – they use radiation as a source of energy – so those organisms that paired with fungi were winners. The largest organism in the world, 2,200 acres in size (2.4 miles across), 2000 years old, is a mycelial mat, one cell wall thick. Armillaria ostoyae (AR-mill-air-ee-yuh ahst-oy-ee), aka, Oregon’s humongous fungus, grows in the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon. All fungi of the Armillaria genus display so-called “honey” mushrooms, which have yellow caps and sweet-tasting fruiting bodies.

These only represent the visible sexual phase of the fungus’s life. It is what goes on underneath that is the big story. A story of the long, microscopic filaments called hyphae that connect these fruiting bodies, underground. A story we would do well to listen to and learn from because its fruit has stood the test of time; a long time.  

Mycologist Paul Stamets (Did I say, mycology is the study of fungi?) believes the invention of the computer internet is ‘an inevitable consequence of a previously proven biological model’. The Earth invented the computer internet for its own benefit, he says. This is where, for World Wide Web, we read Wood Wide Web, or ‘w.w.w.’ I know, but let us be fair and remember, Mother Nature got there first!

Most plants live in symbiotic relationship with soil fungi. As said above, we tend to think of forest fungi as mushrooms above the ground but they only display themselves after sexual reproduction. The mother fungus is a mat of elongated cells spreading through the forest floor. The trees provide the fungi with sugar and the fungi help the tree to gather water and soil nutrients. Many plants and trees can be joined underground by cells of the same individual fungus.

Suzanne Simard says that “a forest is much more than what you see.” Referring to the underground networks as a ‘world of infinite biological pathways’, Simard says that such communication networks allow the forest to behave as a single organism; “a sort of intelligence.” Trees share information underground and competitors become cooperators.

Dr Simard’s work really took off 25 years ago when she carried out controlled experiments, in the forest, dodging grizzlies along the way. She was exploring an idea she held that there was two-way communication going on between different species of tree; in her experiment, Paper Birch and Douglas Fir trees. Simard’s conclusion: the two species were interdependent, “like yin and yang”. Solid evidence of a massive below ground communications network. The web is so dense that there can be hundreds of kilometres of mycelium under a single footstep. The mycelium connects different individuals in the forest, individuals not only of the same species but between species. Trees share information and offer one another sustenance in time of need.

So, trees talk!

“Through back and forth conversation they increase the resilience of the whole community… Forests aren’t simply collections of trees, they’re complex systems with hubs and networks that overlap and connect trees and allow them to communicate, and they provide avenues for feedback and adaptation, and this makes the forest resilient.”

And so, what is going on in your school community soil? Is the mycelial mat that connects and sustains your community in good health? Is it functioning in a way that promotes community resilience, through back and forth conversations? Is it fit for purpose, serving as a community wide web that fosters super-cooperators? Are we offering our Mother Community the tools she needs to use her intelligence to thrive and, when necessary, self-heal? How do we weave our mycelial mats? Are we actively constructing our own community wide webs?

Whichever metaphor we chose to represent the system in our school community context, we would do well to lend an ear to Mother Nature. We may think on lessons from mycology, we might take a leaf out of the Lakota cosmology and view community as they view mni. In the language of the Lakota cosmology, water is mni, an action of living. Emphasising commonality and connectedness rather than separation; an action of living.

No tree is an island. No school is an island. No school community member is an island. We need that mycelial mat.

Dr Simard had hoped that her discovery would lead to a change in the way forestry giants operate, from clear cutting and herbiciding to more holistic and sustainable methods. “What was I thinking!!” she says. Yes, we have all been there haven’t we?! Which takes us back full circle to ‘hothousing’ does it not, and that earlier BLOG (click on image below).

More on the community capacity building coaching provision I am offering schools here

If this is something that interests you and you would like a first conversation then please contact me on 07793055719 or email me at

Shhh… What a save! The Sound of Silence, Arrheton, The First Principle, and Silence as a Tool

Two weeks ago the Radio 4 Book of the Week was Silence in the Age of Noise by the adventurer and philosopher Erling Kagge. I listened (available for another 15 days, as of today’s date) and also bought the book. I read the book in two sittings. I have spent a good bit of time since thinking on Silence and the messages in Kagge’s book. I set out on a walk this morning, searching for a little bit of silence. Kagge says that it was only when he understood that he had a primal need for silence that he was able to begin his search for it. I have a need. Kagge has completed the Three Poles Challenge: North Pole, South Pole, and the Summit of Mount Everest. He was the first person to reach both the North and South Poles unsupported. Not being superhuman, I settled for parking up at Clay Bank, close by ‘Chop Yat’ , and headed off…

Ironic, then, that as I walked along I felt compelled to draft this blog. I could not resist. This, courtesy of Google docs, and a signal wavering between 3G and 4G as I went. I know for sure that getting any sort of signal out there just a year or two ago was impossible. We really cannot get away even if we want to! I say ironic because Kagge urges us to set our iPhones aside as we search for that silence. Ping! A text from my mum, firming up arrangements for the weekend. Ping! BBC News app; announcing the death of Gordon Banks. More of that, later.

As I walked, I focused on relating the idea of silence to the research and work I have immersed myself in over the past few years. That work is, essentially, all about listening and conversation, and how schools work with and within their communities. Kagge talks of silence without the existence of words. He draws on the work of the ancient philosophers Aristotle and Plato who spoke of the knowledge of eternity, and with it truth, as worthless. Plato called it arrheton, ‘the unspeakable’, and Aristotle aneu logou, which means ‘without speech’ or ‘without words’. Where vocabulary ends, the two philosophers claimed, is an opening for the possibility of understanding many great truths at once. Not only the great truths but the small truths too. I reflected on how we typically seek to put things in words. For that, read ‘minutes’ and ‘action plans’, populated by key, in vogue, words. Whose language, ‘speak’, is on the page? I wonder what is lost in that? Before the written stage, whose words carry weight and whose language is being spoken? How many and which truths get lost, great and small?

Silence can also be a tool, says Kagge. The serial entrepreneur Elon Musk spoke of being someone who dwells on his own inner silence, often shutting out the world in order to open up his thoughts. He listens to a quiet space inside himself. He turns new disciplines on their heads. Musk is particularly good at using what Kagge refers to as the first principal. Instead of relying on sanctioned truths, Musk uncovers what is fundamentally true in order to reason from that basis. He disconnects from the world. He does this in opposition to the normal way of operating, which is listening to what others say is possible. Walking, I reflected on how we, as unique school communities, may raise a few questions about sanctioned truths. How can we, together, reflect on our inner silence, as communities. Turn things on their head. Hear one another. Uncover and establish what is fundamentally true about us as a community, and then identify, harness, and use the power in that.

In his book, Kagge offers the example of travelling in a car and realising you are lost. As the driver, you call for hush as you tune into what the SatNav is advising. Thus enabling you to gather your thoughts and find the right direction. A little bit of silence amongst the chaos.

In reflecting on Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”, Don Saliers (William R. Cannon Distinguished Professor of Theology and Worship, Emeritus) talks of its historical context in the 1960s, its theological underpinnings, and his personal connection to the song. “Silence can be a refuge,” he says, “and silence can be a phenomenally ambiguous, difficult reality.” Saliers says that there was a lot of chaos building in the early 1960s; JFK, Martin Luther King. Of the song and its lyrics, Saliers says, “Silence is refuge. Silence is friend. It speaks of the fact that people talk a lot and don’t listen.” The song speaks of, “Unexpressed melancholy that existed underneath all the rage, and all the chaos.” Thinking on the song and reflecting on the times, Saliers says it puts him in mind of the prophet Isaiah and his saying, “People talking without speaking. People hearing without listening.”

Back to Gordon Banks, as a point of interest, and to mark the remarkable man and goalkeeper’s passing. Kagge asked a world-class footballer about his experience of noise down on the pitch, in the midst of a noisy stadium. The player replied that, in scoring, just after he has kicked the ball, he can’t hear a single noise. He lets out a ‘whoop’. He is the first to know it is a goal. Gordon Banks is famous for being the goalkeeper when England won the World Cup in 1966, and for that save, in 1970. Pele, a good friend of Banks, was interviewed. He said that as he headed the ball (that save) goalwards he was the first to know it was a goal (not in so many words but allow me some licence here) and shouted, “Goal!” Alan Mullery, also interviewed, was the England defender out jumped by Pele. Mullery heard Pele shout, “Goal!” Well, as we all know, Pele may well have experienced his moment of silence, but Banks pulled off that save. Watching it again, you have to say, What a header! The leap! The power! And yes, What a save!

There is so much more in Erling Kagge’s stuff but I really do think you should explore it for yourself and relate it to your inner silence. I urge you to do so. It is well worth investing your time plus £6 and a bit.

As I walked today, I reflected, too, on heading out that way with our weekend walking group – made up of children, parents and teachers. It was one of my favourite days. We walked all the way from Clay Bank to the Lion Inn at Blakey. Orange juice and chips for the children, beer (Theakston Old Peculiar, on draught) and chips for us older young ones. A happy chaos in the beer garden, with a very real absence of silence! A lovely way to get to know one another, share good news, and say what is currently rattling our cages.

Midway through my walk today I yomped up Ingleby Incline.

Looking back down Ingleby Incline (Tuesday 12/02/2019)

This is where wagons travelled down from the tops of the moors, having made their way from the ironstone mines at Rosedale, on their way to the open jaws of the ravenous furnaces that used to line the Tees in and around Middlesbrough. A sight commented on by Gladstone in 1862, thus

This remarkable place, the youngest child of England’s enterprise, is an infant, but if an infant, an infant Hercules

Middlesbrough, ‘Ironopolis’, bestowed upon itself the motto, Erimus, We Shall Be.


What do we dare to be? I work with school communities in exploring just that. And yes, I would say that we do explore that collective inner silence. We search for the formerly ‘unspeakable’ (arrheton) so that we might unearth fundamental truths and work from there, invoking activism and seeking local solutions. We clear a space, away from the chaos. A space where silence is a friend, a refuge; a listening space, a space to be.

I would very much welcome contact from anybody who dares to walk this walk with your community, asking, What shall we be? If an infant, an infant Hercules… pursuing outrageous possibilities, together.

My contact details:

Mobile: 07793055719

Homeward leg... Cleveland Hills in sight (Tuesday 12/02/2019)
Homeward leg… Cleveland Hills in sight (Tuesday 12/02/2019)

I Have a Question for Socrates

I have a question for Socrates, When is a Hearing not a hearing?

Socrates never wrote a single line. We are told that he spent most of his life in the city squares and marketplaces talking with the people he met. ‘The trees in the countryside can teach me nothing,’ he said. Socrates art rested on his inclination to hold discussions with people rather than seek to instruct or, least of all, judge people. He had an overriding desire to learn from those he spoke with. He worked from the premise of knowing nothing and asked questions, all the while pursuing shared understanding and insight, through connection.

Plato wrote a number of Dialogues (dramatised discussions on philosophy) in which he uses Socrates as his principal character and mouthpiece. Lies assume numerous forms in Plato’s dialogues, particularly in the Republic. Plato has Socrates explicitly claim that “some lies can be useful.” In Plato’s discussion, two questions arise with the problem of lies: the question regarding falsehood and its relation to the truth, and the question that asks if something “truly false” can still be useful.

It is said that we rest in an era of post-truth politics. The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 was ‘post-truth’ – an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. Think on the noise, claims and counter-claims surrounding Brexit. And then the all too bizarre happenings in and around the Trump presidency. It seems that we can construct ‘truth’ around most anything nowadays, with willing participants ready to oblige and, yes, ‘lie’.

In looking to build capacity across school communities, as explored through this series of blogs, I return time and again to the importance of listening first, in order that we truly connect through understanding. Offer families a Hearing. I explore the use of the terms we use across school, families and communities when referring to one another; stakeholders, partners, allies… friends. I believe that true friends have an interest in the truths that underpin a friendship, have no use for lies, and then accept you for who you are, absolutely knowing and accepting your intentions. It is my view that we, across school communities, can be friends. The journey to that may well leave us feeling vulnerable at times.

Intensely vulnerable is how I have felt over the past two traumatic years. I take comfort in the fact that I have received, and continue to receive, incredible support and compassion from so many of those stakeholders, partners, allies… friends who know me and understand me best. I thank each and every one of them.

Ho‘oponopono, the Hawaiian forgiveness process, allows us to clear out preconceptions in how we view others to create new connections and rejuvenated relationships. In Huna, the ancient Hawaiian discipline of energy and healing, the ho‘oponopono process is critical if we want to be pono (right and congruent with ourselves). The Hawaiian word ho‘oponopono comes from ho‘o (“to make”) and pono (“right”). The repetition of the word pono means “doubly right” or being right with both self and others. So, ho‘oponopono is a process by which we can forgive others to whom we are connected. All the while, looking within. Socrates, whose mother was a midwife, used to say that his art was like the art of the midwife. She is there to help deliver, rather than give birth herself. Socrates worked on helping people to ‘give birth’ to the correct insight, since real understanding must come from within. Only the understanding that comes from within can lead to true insight. I have much to reflect on as I work on developing true insight, drawing on the many – some painful – lessons life has taught me of late.  

I have enjoyed sharing my thinking through this series of blogs. I am not sure if this will be my last. That final Robert Frost stanza…

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

My question for Socrates remains, When is a Hearing not a hearing?

And, maybe… If we are not listening then is it a Hearing?

4 Conferences, 3 Jam Roly Polys, 2 John Smyths, 1 HMI, and a forty foot Megalosaurus in the School Dinner Hall

I have recently had the privilege of participating in, and contributing to, three very different education conferences and I have just been invited to do the same at another –  different again – at the turn of the year. The three were not just different from one another, they felt different in themselves. I am aware that the work I do, through the method I advocate, is boundary spanning and so is accessible and wholly relevant to pupils, parents/carers, local community members, teachers, school leaders, researchers… So, I am going to see this as a sign of things to come and that excites me greatly. A sort of reciprocal broadening of horizons. More of the same, please.

The first of the conferences was the Prince Albert Community Trust (@PA_CT) #illuminatingminds2018 Conference held in Sutton Coldfield Town Hall in October. Walking in, both the setting and the mood had something of a rock concert about it, music filled the place. Not 02 Arena styley. More, the vibrant, yet somehow more intimate buzz that I recall from watching The Jam at Newcastle City Hall in my college days. No one person put more into making the day work than the wonderful force of nature that is Kathryn Morgan , Director of CPD and Research Based Learning at PACT. Although, I am sure that Kathryn will be the first to tell you that you cannot pull off things like this on your own. I sat alongside fellow contributors Nina Jackson and Dr Tim O’Brien and marvelled as the collective body of each of the four Trust schools, brought together under this one roof, positively lifted that roof, with deafening cheers as images of their respective schools appeared alongside their school name on the big screen, centre stage. Note that I say ‘collective body’, for all school staff were present; premises staff, through to teachers. Governors, too. This tide of energy and enthusiasm marked the event and culminated in a rousing reception for PACT CEO Sajid Gulzar , and equally enthusiastic receiving of Sajid’s heartfelt exploration of WHY we do what we do, and HOW that might be carried out, with respect, kindness, dignity, empathy, equity, equality and social justice our watchwords; values at the forefront. By the way, you would be sorely mistaken to even begin to imagine this as something of a PACT “love in”. There was a very serious underlying intent; the laying out of a mission. Deputy CEO, Phillipa Downes , just as well received, shared her thinking on ‘Transparent Leadership’, and called for all PACT community members to sign up to that and share responsibility for chasing the very best outcomes, in the broadest terms, for the children attending all four schools. It was a memorable day, I learned so much.

The second of the conferences was organised by the formidable Emma Parker . Emma has done more than most to draw everyone’s attention to the #SENDcrisis. Some say that politics and education should be kept apart. My response to that is, How? They are inextricably linked. Although it would be good to kept certain politicians out of education. My view. The remarkable thing about the #SENDhelp Durham Conference, for me, was the mix of people in the room, on a Saturday. There were as many ‘parents/carers’ (as a category) in the room as any other group. Emma may have fulfilled many roles across the day, event organiser, ATL Executive member, teacher, to name but three, but, as she made crystal clear at the beginning of the day, Emma was present as the proud parent of a remarkable boy who had, that very week, accompanied her in delivering a 34,000 strong National Education Union SEND petition to the Department for Education in London. Just as there was a raw, and focused, energy in the room in Sutton Coldfield Town Hall (above), so there was at this conference, held at the impressive Durham County Cricket headquarters at Chester Le Street. The day closed with questions asked of a panel made up of Kieran Rose (The #ActuallyAutistic Autistic Advocate), Dr Mary Bousted (Joint General Secretary National Education Union), Nick Whitaker (HMI, Specialist Adviser, SEND), Emma Lewell-Buck MP, (Labour Member of Parliament for South Shields & Shadow Minister for Children and Families), Elaine Chandler (SENDIASS), and little old me. No ‘parent/carers’ on the panel, no, but many of the challenging, no nonsense questions were indeed asked by ‘parents/carers’ in the room, looking for answers to the significant challenges they faced.   

A couple of things more from that particular day…

There was one gentleman, sat front and centre, attending my session, who seemed particularly engaged and interested. I shared my thinking and the work I do with schools across the UK on community capacity building, and we, as a group, discussed some of the key concepts. That included my questioning of the value of Ofsted Parent View, and surveys, on the whole. I think I used the word “nonsense”. In fact, I am sure I did. Rather, why not seek out stories and perspectives and work with them; a genuine attempt to work with parents/carers and school community. The gentleman came up to me afterwards and said he was very interested in the ideas we had explored, could he contact me in the near future and arrange for us to meet up and have a further conversation. His name? Nick Whitaker, HMI, Specialist Adviser, SEND. If you know me, you will understand my delight at this offer. The power of conversation, with everyone in the room.

And so, before we leave Chester Le Street and move on to Manchester… Kieran Rose, simply to say, a big thank you. What a role model, what an example. I attended Kieran’s session. He shared a bit about the fantastic work he does and then just threw the thing wide open, we all had a conversation about how things play out in our worlds, focused on the particular area of interest shared. Kieran had made the weather in the room, a range of perspectives were shared, respectfully received, and good healthy conversation flowed. Just as it should be. But how often is it?  

The third of the conferences took place in Manchester this weekend gone, the ResearchSEND Conference at Manchester Metropolitan University, organised by Michelle Prosser Haywood and colleagues. The truly remarkable thing about this event was that across the day I had many conversations with fellow attendees who ranged from ‘parents/carers’ (I will apologise again for categorising people so. After all, I am a parent myself!) to SENCos, to professors of education, ending with a fascinating conversation with the delightful Britta Koerber, Director at Jessie’s Fund (‘Music can speak where words fail’). I did not know one from the other, who was who, until we reached a point where we said a little about ourselves. The interest was the same. A shared passion. The uniqueness of the event, for me, was capped by the fact that I was presenting with the brilliant Elly Chapple . Elly is the almighty force behind CanDoElla and #flipthenarrative Elly’s groundbreaking work and mission is inspired by her position as ‘parent/carer’ (mother) of the amazing Ella, but I would not and could not assume to categorise Elly, other than to say, she very much is an educator. We would all do well to listen to the story of Ella and Elly. Really listen, on every level, and learn at every turn. If you take nothing else from this blog, please accept this link as a valuable gift, here. I am thrilled and proud to be moving forward alongside Elly, planning and pursuing a truly exciting project. One that has inclusion and equality at its heart.  

As said, I met and talked with many people on Saturday. I want to mention Gareth Morewood because he made me smile inside. He made me feel proud of the profession I belong to. Gareth spoke with intelligence, knowledge, experience and authority about just what it really means to carry the responsibility of being SENCo in your setting, and so very much more. Gareth shared insights and key messages with energy, passion and a sense of fun, all the while proudly referring to his equally enthusiastic colleagues present in the auditorium (on a Saturday) who “do the real work”.

Another illuminating input came from Jo Billington . Jo shared her work and research on working with families, highlighting how language is, alas, too often one of combat, adversarial. Further, that we (society) blame families for a child’s ‘bad behaviour’. As in Sutton Coldfield and Chester Le Street (above), those present offered varying perspectives on this, enriching the learning experience for all. Making that connection with Jo, sharing our work and research, and promising to continue to do so, was a highlight.

I would also like to mention Professor Michael Jopling and his citing of Hargreaves (1996) on ‘How teachers often justify practice’.

  • Tradition (how it has always been done)
  • Prejudice (how I like it done)
  • Dogma (the ‘right way’ to do it)
  • Ideology (the current orthodoxy)

By the way, Professor Jopling was absolutely not being critical of teachers in sharing this. There was a point to it, and a point well made. I put it alongside everything else in the arsenal that fires up my believing in the mantra ‘better together’. Michael, building on his message, in a closing comment, stressed that we learning from and with one another is the thing.  

At all three conferences I gave my input the subtitle, ‘John Smyth to John Smyth’. I will say why. It is relevant here. Just to say, that both John Smyths carry equal weighting in the way their words and actions have impacted my learning.


My first headship. Three days in. Having invited all parents/carers and community members in, I was stood at the front of a considerably large, seated group. I was thrilled by the turnout. I had introduced myself. I kept that short. “So, what do you want from me? Where are we going to take our school?” I boldly declared.  

“What are you going to do about the school dinners?!”

The question came from a tall gentleman in the front row. The gentleman was Mr John Smyth, father of seven children in our school.

John, gesturing towards his son, alongside, explained that his son always came home hungry because he could not eat them. They were that bad.

Now, I am not sure why I responded in the way that I did but it was instinctive, I know that. I challenged John to come on in and find out for himself. In fact, I extended that offer to everyone present, and all those not. A school meal for all, on the house!

The following week, marked with promise of an Indian summer, they came, and they came. So, so much longer than the forty foot Megalosaurus Mr Dickens imagined waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Through the front door, into the hall where their children eagerly awaited them, out the side door into the adjoining courtyard, and back in by the fire door adjacent to the serving hatch. We had eighty odd take us up on the offer. We reckon over one hundred and twenty came on the day.

The crew in the kitchen had been in since 5:00 a.m. “Can we have roast beef and Yorkshire puddings?” I had asked Caroline, our redoubtable cook. “Oh, and jam roly-poly?” How self-indulgent can a man be?! Please excuse the irreverence but Jesus had nothing on these guys. The loaded plates just kept on coming.

Try as I did to suggest the adults might want to sit and wait rather than play at being a Megalosaurus, no way would they. We passed the word around that this must take as long as it takes and early afternoon lessons can slide. In something approaching a carnival atmosphere, children found parents and all were fed. Patience was needed and patience was exercised.

I spent a little time sat with father (John) and son. I told him that this was all his doing. His challenge had prompted this. I thanked him. He thanked me. We three tucked joyously into three good servings of Jam Roly Poly.

Before the end of that first half-term we called another open meeting. I introduced it by encouraging all those present (another big turn out) to think back to our first get-together, to consider any ‘promises’ I might have made and to evaluate our success or otherwise against those promises, and to challenge. “I ain’t going nowhere, I am here, listening.”


And so to John Smyth II… Professor John Smyth. A strand of my ongoing research has allowed me the opportunity to interview four world leading academics in the field of socially critical research. If I was to name the stand out thing that came from my conversation with Professor Smyth I would not hesitate. This is it, directly from the transcript of that interview:


One of the things I never presume is to know the existential reality of worlds I am investigating, indeed, I regard it is being presumptuous to even know what might be significant questions of the informants in these contexts.

What I am saying is that my ‘warrant to know’, comes from the lives of the informants I am working with, not from knowledge gleaned while sitting in my office or from the academy!


On reflection, I would say that John Smyth I’s question of me had triggered a sub-conscious way of being in me that viewed parents as informants, ones that I wanted to understand and get to know. Several years on, Professor John Smyth named it. John Smyth, the parent informant, afforded me a compliment I will treasure forever. On thanking me for all that I had done for his children (his words), he added, “You are not just a man in a suit are you, Mr Feasey.”

As the ResearchSEND Conference on Saturday drew to a close I was approached by a lady who is the founder of a Parent Forum in the North West. She asked me for my contact details and if I would be interested in joining them for a conversation on all that I had shared on Saturday, at an event she is organising. I will, I most certainly will.

Conferences come in all shapes and sizes. I wrote this blog because I wanted to share my experience. I wanted to applaud the efforts of those who organised the three concerts, for they all had a certain musicality about them (I am sure that Britta heard it too). Let’s hear it for the symphony of inclusivity and make sure that these events keep on happening and keep on being well supported. For all were as inclusive as they could be, befitting of conference aims and embracing of different perspectives. Indeed, I know the learning I took away from all three events was multiplied by the diverse range of interests and perspectives present in the room.

The fourth conference, at the turn of the year? I have been asked to present at a conference organised and hosted by Durham University, billed Teaching & Learning: The Reflective Practitioner. You can be sure that I will carry all my learning from the first three conferences forward in encouraging others to open their ears to all informants, prior to that reflection. And yes, I will use the words of Saul Alinsky again:

You organise with your ears, not your mouth.

And that includes organising yourself, marshalling your own thoughts. I learned so much from all of you in Sutton Coldfield, Chester Le Street and Manchester.

Thank you!


Parents as informants: Walk like (an Egyptian) a researcher to have IMPACT on lives (John Hattie, John Smyth, Jack Charlton and Tony Pulis)

I have a great deal of respect for Professor John Hattie, the man, and for his work. In a former role, along with colleagues, I immersed myself in his prodigious body of research and we worked on embedding elements of the principles John has drawn out over decades of study. Further, I have heard John present on more than a few occasions and, better still, have had the pleasure of two lengthy conversations with him. John holds strong views, he does not beat about the bush and, as he will tell you himself, he has been misquoted far more times than he has been quoted with accuracy. So, it is with some trepidation that I move forward with this but John has said it more than once…

Researching is a particular skill. Some of us took years to gain that skill. Asking teachers to be researchers? They are not. I want to put the emphasis on teachers as evaluators of their impact. Be skilled at that. Whereas the whole research side, leave that to the academics.

TES, 22 April 2015

I don’t care how you teach but I do care about your IMPACT!

If I have heard John say that once, I have heard it one hundred times. There is a debate raging on Teesside at the moment. Football supporters are the same everywhere. Take a look at the top half of the Championship Table as it stands today, as I write this.

EFL Championship Table 21st October 2018

Tony Pulis is having IMPACT, John. Yes, I know we are only 13 games in but this particular league table is pleasing to my eye. However, to some Teessiders, the football we are playing is not pleasing to the eye, and they are grumbling. Our most successful managers over the past few decades had us playing the game in significantly varying styles. Some big names, indeed. Get this… Jack Charlton, Bruce Rioch, Bryan Robson, Steve Umbrella McClaren, Gareth Southgate, Aitor Karanka… Very different in profile, personality and favoured style. All had IMPACT.

A tenuous link to my key motivation for writing this blog but I have spent so many happy afternoons watching the Boro with coach loads of children from school, along with parents. Treasured times! We did not always win but we made lots of noise, ate dodgy pies, and I enjoyed a beer at half-time with mums and dads alike. It was occasions such as those and the long walks we used to take on the North York Moors (always ending at a pub) where relationships were built, through personal stories told and listened to.

Those of you familiar with the content of my blogs will know that I have an interest in how schools might place themselves within and alongside their communities. How do we work with those unique families that choose each one of our unique schools, in a unique way, that absolutely has IMPACT on the personal, emotional and academic life of each one of our unique young ones?

I do wonder, then, just how Professor Hattie might respond to the suggestion I am going to put forward. My proposal is not so much that we be researchers in the field of family engagement (I am, John, but you know that, and I have taken a particular route and I recognise I have a long way to go) but that we might behave as researchers do; walk like them. I qualify this by saying we might behave as one particular heavyweight of socially critical research, Professor John Smyth, does. I will elaborate.

John Smyth offers the notion of ‘creating a space’ as part of a deliberate political process in his work, enabling communities – especially parents and students – to have a voice. What he sometimes calls in his writing, defiantly ‘speaking back’ to processes that demean and disparage. In order to do so, John suggests that critical scholars should exemplify a number of consistent ‘doing’ attributes:

  1. the need to actively listen to the lives of those most adversely affected by the workings of power;
  2. the necessity to not be neutral but to take on an advocacy position with the groups he/she works with towards improving things;
  3. to be an activist in working with schools, teachers, students and communities in producing ‘local responses’ to globally generated issues – which means opening up a space in which people who have been marginalised can speak back in the struggle for more just policies.

Professor Smyth’s use of one particular word encapsulates the beauty of his sociological imagination, for me. The word is ‘informant’. In being a critical scholar activist, view participants in your research as informants. This, in order to ‘get up close’ to how people live and experience their worlds. John says that one of the things he never presumes is to know the existential reality of worlds he is investigating, indeed, he regards it is being presumptuous to even know what might be significant questions of the informants in these contexts. John says that his ‘warrant to know’, comes from the lives of the informants he is working with, not from “knowledge gleaned while sitting in his office or from the academy.”

So, Professor John Hattie, I am calling you out on this one (Yikes! How dare I?!) but I am hoping you will see my point, if you ever read this. Ayresome Park and, now, The Riverside Stadium offers the space for the Boro Family to speak back. Jack Charlton, Bruce Rioch, Bryan Robson, Steve Umbrella McClaren, Gareth Southgate and Aitor Karanka knew that. As does Tony Pulis, regardless of impact.

Ayresome Park, 1972.

The question is, How do we create space for our families and community members to speak back? How well do we actively listen, aware of and accounting for the way power plays out in family-school relationships? How well do we take on the role of activist, encouraging activism as we work with our communities to seek ‘local solutions’.

One of the most fascinating things that I am finding in my work with schools across the U.K., in a community capacity building coaching capacity, is that what might appear to be deeply personal, private issues are often, in fact, shared public concerns. When schools and families get to work on those issues, the magic happens; relational power grows, relational trust multiplies, and outrageous possibilities come into view. We can do this by walking alongside our families and communities, as socially critical activists, viewing parents/carers as informants.


By the way, I think Tony Pulis, John Hattie and John Smyth would get along famously; all three call a spade a spade. And you keep on doing what you are doing, Tony. Up the Boro! #UTB

By the way 2, The Boro’s Chairman and owner, Mr Steve Gibson, regularly gets ‘up close’ (another of John Smyth’s anchor points) attending fans forums and being attuned to his community members, seeking out their voice. Name me one other football club chairman or owner who has his name chanted, regularly, every game, no exception. Teesside folk know when they are being listened to.

Walk like an Egyptian? Nothing more than the fact that I am one of those people who start to say/write a particular line and I hear a song from the archives… Probably politically incorrect but great tune!


More on the community capacity building coaching provision I am offering schools here

If this is something that interests you and you would like a first conversation then please contact me on 07793055719 or email me at

Morality, Civic Skills, Debate, and Rootedness in Meghalaya

This is a paper written for @UKPastoralChat Pastoral Periodical 3 published on 04.10.2018. I am grateful to @DaringOptimist for the opportunity to contribute to this special issue on Character Education. Maria deserves great credit for collating the views and insights of all contributors. I feel privileged to be amongst that group and hope the journal is well read. After all, the world of education is in dire need of recalibration, I say.

In north-east India, high in the mountains of Meghalaya, the summer monsoons are so heavy that the rivers running through its valleys grow wild and unpredictable, making them impossible to cross. Centuries ago, the villagers came up with an ingenious solution. They planted a strangler fig on the riverbank and began to tease its roots across the river until they took hold on the opposite side.

Through a slow process of binding and weaving the roots together, the villagers created a robust, living bridge that could withstand the deluge of the summer rains. Because it is a work that cannot be completed in any one person’s lifetime, the knowledge of how to bind and tend to the roots has to be passed on to each of the younger generations who keep the practice alive, contributing to what is now a magnificent network of living root bridges throughout the valleys of Meghalaya.

I have been catching up, this week, courtesy of iPlayer Radio, with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ series broadcast on Radio 4 Morality in the 21st Century. Rabbi Sacks speaks to some of the world’s leading thinkers about morality, together with voices from the next generation: groups of British 6th form students. Morality. A useful definition from Rabbi Sacks himself:

Morality is what lifts us above the pursuit of self interest and self esteem. It’s about the things we do not just because they are good for me but because they are good for us. It’s about collective responsibility for the common good.

In Episode 6, philosopher and Harvard Professor Michael Sandel charges schools and universities with the task of doing a better job of cultivating civic skills. Civic skills? He illuminates… the ability to argue, to reason, based on mutual respect. We are not born with these civic skills, he says, we need to learn them. Sandel contends that the media is deeply corrupting in the way it amplifies shouting matches, and with its emphasis on spectacle and sensation. Sandel advocates “reasoned debate about the common good”. And that, in the form of “public conversation”. Although the internet offers open access to public debate, social media has spawned an atomising form of public discourse. Unless very carefully structured, Sandel says, online discussion can be “… very rude, vulgar – it does not teach people to listen very well. The kind of discourse needed has to be cultivated, through practice:

Human presence, people gathering together, whether this be in the classroom or the Ecclesia. People arguing with one another, seeing one another, hearing one another, having to contend with one another, even when we disagree.

Rabbi Sacks’ theory is that over the past fifty years we have outsourced morality to the market and the state. The market gives us choices, the state deals with the consequences, but neither passes any judgement on those choices. Supposed freedoms have come at a cost, that including loss of community, loss of trust in organisations and government, and “the vitriol that passes for communication on the internet”.

The writer David Brooks also features in the series. Brooks contrasts what he calls “resumé virtues” with “eulogy virtues”, as discussed in his book The Road to Character. As the name implies, “resumé virtues” are those attributes and achievements that we want to push in order to build up our own stature. Resumé virtues are about accomplishments, performance, and abilities. Brooks says our most valued, most treasured qualities and virtues are revealed in our eulogies. In honouring the lives of people who have passed away we talk about their empathy, compassion, and love for others. We talk about how they served and cared for those who were in need. Brooks suggests that these “eulogy virtues” are all too readily trumped by our pursuit of resumé virtues in the materialistic world we inhabit.

Toko-pa Turner is a Canadian writer, teacher, and dreamworker who blends the mystical tradition of Sufism with a Jungian approach to dreams. She did not feature in Sacks’ series but may well have done. Toko-pa has a fascinating take on Belonging, shared in her book Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home. Toko-pa says that the absence of belonging is “the great silent wound of our times”. She says that most people think of belonging as a mythical place. But what if belonging isn’t a place at all? What if it is a skill that has been lost or forgotten? Toko-pa speaks of “the ache of a life orphaned from belonging.”

There are many ways to be made an orphan, other than outright, by the parent incapable of caring for you. We are also made orphans, she says, by a culture that, in its epitomising of certain values rejects others, forcing us to split off from those unwanted parts of ourselves. And this is the worst orphaning act of all, because it is an abandonment in which we are complicit.

If Michael Sandel is right, and there is little to suggest he is not, cultivating civic skills is a moral obligation for schools, surely? If we were to place such cultivation at the core of our school curricula, might we begin to reverse the damage done over the past fifty years by seizing morality back from the market and the state? In so doing can we redress the balance of resumé virtues vs eulogy virtues, in favour of the second set? May we then request that Toko-pa lift the charge of us being complicit in the worst orphaning act of all?

In my view, there is no point in kidding ourselves that projects such as that we began with (above) – the bridges in the mountains of Meghalaya – would ever take off, never mind be sustained, in the West. My view. Think about it.

Hope. There’s always hope. Listen to the series. Hope rings clear in the voices of the 6th formers. They know. Our young ones feel it, instinctively. It is for us to give them the space. Space, slap bang in the middle of our ever burgeoning curricula. In the epicentre of our schools.

Imagine, just imagine, if all our schools had at their centre an Ecclesia, a debating chamber. A space of human presence. A place of public conversation. A place where young people argue with one another, see one another, hear one another, and contend with one another, even when they disagree.

Debating Chamber, Old Royal Grammar School, Edinburgh

And then reflect on Rabbi Sacks’ definition of that, he claims, we have outsourced to the market and the state.

Morality is what lifts us above the pursuit of self interest and self esteem. It’s about the things we do not just because they are good for me but because they are good for us. It’s about collective responsibility for the common good.

PURPLE: Shug, Pliny, Bourdieu, Truculence, Miss Hunter and My Mum

This is the purple for which the Roman fasces and axes clear a way. It is the badge of noble youth; it distinguishes the senator from the knight; it is called in to appease the gods. It brightens every garment, and shares with gold the glory of the triumph. For these reasons we must pardon the mad desire for purple.

Raphael’s fresco The School of Athens depicts Leonardo da Vinci (in the role of Plato) and Michelangelo (playing Heraclitus) – both in purple

Shug Avery, one of the main characters, supplies the title for The Colour Purple, the Pulitzer prize winning novel by Alice Walker. ‘I think it pisses God off,’ Shug says, ‘if you walk by the colour purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.’ For Shug purple is evidence of God’s glory and generosity.

Last week, I drove past a local secondary school, it had been “purpled” – fascias, soffits, box ends, bargeboards, window boards, plus all signage. I noticed, Shug. I noticed. It, too, had fallen.

I recalled a conversation had with a number of colleagues a while ago. A conversation on forced academisation and which particular schools were at risk of being “purpled”.

And so, I read with interest (And a good number of other emotions. Strong ones) an article published in the Guardian on Friday. The headline (click to access article):

‘She deserves an education’: outcry as academy excludes 41% of pupils.

The school is directly across the road from a council estate that we lived on for a number of years when I was a teenager. We attended the local Catholic secondary school down the road. A bit rough. In fact, a lot rough. Having said that, I will not name it. But it was. My wife and I, and so many ex-pupils that we bump into from time to time, laugh about it now. How we survived and took the ‘education’ we received there, moved on, and found our way in life.

I know nothing whatsoever, really, about the purple Trust or individual schools attached to the Trust. More than that, I know nothing of the – no doubt – hard-working and dedicated members of staff that populate the schools under the Trust umbrella. ‘Standards’ and ‘outcomes’ are reported as good. Ofsted approve. The parents of the girl featured in the Guardian article say that their daughter is not violent, does not use bad language, but can be defiant. On reflection, that is probably a fair description of me at that age. I remember our Head of Year once describing me as “truculent”. My mates and I scurried off to the library at break time to look the word up. Honest. This actually happened.

Truculent: Eager or quick to argue or fight; aggressively defiant.
Oxford English Dictionary

No way, Miss Hunter! (there’s a clue). No way. I had and still have an aversion to arguing or fighting. And so, Miss Hunter, with respect, I am not accepting ‘aggressive’ either.

My poor mother, alone (my father had passed away), made the long walk to the school. All the way down Cargo Fleet Lane (there’s another clue). The chat was had. My mum would not have me as “truculent”, either. My mum achieved a First Class degree at Newcastle University, in the classics. One of only four women on the course. As was typical in the day. Actively encouraged and supported by her own distinctly working class mother, as were her six siblings. Mum is no mug. She did, of course, support the school. She stood with Miss Hunter and expressed her disappointment in me. She expected more. They both did. I was not excluded. Of course I wasn’t. How ridiculous would that have been!

I was lucky. Engagement with school held no fear for my mother. On another note, I remember her challenging my poor teacher as he praised my creative ability in English. ‘Clouds jockeying for position in the sky…’ Get me!! My mum? “But what about the grammar? Do you not teach grammar?” Picture the scene. Those were the days when grammar very much took a back seat. Mum was right, of course. She was right to challenge, too.

This from Professor Diane Reay – Guardian article, November 2017 – here:

Research suggests it is the wealth and inclination of parents, rather than the ability and efforts of the child, that have the most bearing on a child’s educational success today.

If you’re a working class child, you’re starting the race halfway round the track behind the middle class child. Middle class parents do a lot via extra resources and activities.

There it is, the class word. The Working Class, edited by Ian Gilbert, is probably the most edifying piece of work I have read this year. Dave Harris, author of Brave Heads, writes the foreword. He declined an offer to contribute to the book, refusing to ‘rally opinion around an outdated term.’ Rather, he says, it is about disadvantage, pure and simple. I risk, here, lifting Dave Harris’s words, over-simplifying and misrepresenting his important message. I would read it yourself (the Foreword). I would also read the book if I were you. It is good. Extremely good!

Back to the colour purple, and the words of Pliny…

This is the purple for which the Roman fasces and axes clear a way. It is the badge of noble youth; it distinguishes the senator from the knight; it is called in to appease the gods. It brightens every garment, and shares with gold the glory of the triumph. For these reasons we must pardon the mad desire for purple.

Purple was the colour of power. Purple’s special status wasn’t confined to the West. In Japan a deep purple, murasaki, was kin-jiki, or a forbidden colour, off-limits to ordinary people.

Power. Social class. Let’s go a little deeper, and who better to turn to than the eminent French, sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu…

Bourdieu argues that schools draw unevenly on the social and cultural resources of members of society. Bourdieu finds that individuals of different social locations are socialised differently. This socialisation provides children, and later adults, with a sense of what is comfortable or what is natural (he terms this habitus). Bourdieu suggests that differences in habitus shape the amount and forms of resources (capital) individuals inherit and draw upon as they negotiate various institutional arrangements (fields) in the social world. Bourdieu argues in relation to education that schools recognise and reward the attitudes and practices of the privileged and it is primarily the types of parental participation practised by the white middle classes that are valorised and represented as normative (Crozier and Reay 2005). Further, Bourdieu’s theorisation of social and cultural capital highlights how existing structures and institutions perpetuate the system and minimise change.

In her Unequal Childhoods (2011), Annette Lareau employs Bourdieu’s theoretical model, focusing on time use for children’s leisure activities, language use in the home and interventions of adults in children’s institutional lives. Lareau’s study is useful in that it focuses on families rather than just at children or parents. Lareau’s claim for her work is that it ‘identifies the largely invisible but powerful ways that parents’ social class impacts children’s life experiences’ (p.3). Further, in line with Bourdieu’s theory, Lareau suggests that for working-class and poor families, ‘the cultural logic of child rearing at home is out of sync with the standards of institutions’ (p.3). Lareau speaks of the deliberate and concerted cultivation of children and their leisure activities that occurs in middle-class families, ensuring that their children are not excluded from any opportunity that might contribute to their advancement. She finds that middle-class children are trained in “the rules of the game” that govern interactions with institutional representatives.

Lareau says that not all families have found ways to successfully connect with schools and not all schools have empowered families. One of the roots of inequality is inaccessibility of school and community resources for some families and their failure to participate in ways that teachers expect because they lack the social and cultural capital of middle-class families (Lareau 2011).

More from Professor Reay:

Another blow being inflicted on working class children is through the way they are treated in some super-strict schools, argues Reay. She says some academies operate on the principle that working class families are chaotic and children need school to impose control.

There’s lots of lining up in silence, standing to attention when an adult comes into the room, and mantras. I think it’s about disrespecting working class young people and their families.

A confession… We raided the tuck-shop one day. I am not proud of this. It was stealing, afterall. We egged each other on. Mr White had gone out the back for a ciggy. Yes, my mother made the long walk again. I was not excluded. Phil wasn’t. Ged wasn’t. Frankie wasn’t. Andrew wasn’t…

I am certainly not saying that it was socially or culturally acceptable for us working class lads to steal or behave in a truculent (I will both use and dispute this choice of word) manner. It was not. There were consequences, at home. Miss Hunter got that. She respected the families who chose to attend the school she served. Equally, Miss Hunter took the time to build relationships, get to know, and work through issues with heads of families such as my magnificent mother.

What I am suggesting is that schools set aside time and space to reflect on their approach to family engagement and family empowerment. Consider the key concepts of power, habitus, capital (social, cultural, economic) and build boundary spanning relationships between you as an organisational field and families, accordingly.

I do wonder…

If the school I attended was a purple school and my mother lacked the talked of social and cultural capital to the degree that a disconnect existed between our family and school what difference would that have made to me, my sisters, and my brother?

By the way, purple is my favourite colour. But you get my drift…

I am simply stirring it up a bit. Without a hint of truculence.

And if anyone out there working for the purple trust reads this I would very much welcome your feedback and thoughts. Exclusion never was the answer. It is not the answer now. Families and schools together can tackle this. It is my opinion that we schools need to shift our position on this. What is your view?



Bourdieu, P. and Passeron, J-C. (1977) Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. Translated by Richard Nice. Beverley Hills: Sage.

Crozier, G. (2000) Parents and Schools: Parents or Protagonists? Stoke on Trent: Trentham Books.

Crozier, G., and Reay, D. (eds) (2005) Activating Participation: Parents and Teachers Working Towards Partnership. Stoke on Trent: Trentham Books.

Gilbert, I (ed.) (2018) The Working Class. Carmarthen: Independent Thinking Press.

Lareau, A. (2011) Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Organise with your ears and don’t write Richard and Michelle off until you have heard their story…

We refuse to be
What you wanted us to be
We are what we are
That’s the way it’s going to be, if you don’t know
You can’t educate I

Bob Marley, Babylon System

NOTE: This is the longer form version of a piece submitted to the Times Education Supplement. The piece was published today (27.07.18). Unfortunately, in editing my script to match space available, the TES team reported that I was headteacher at Caedmon Primary School when we were TES Primary School of the Year in 2009. I was not. I became deputy headteacher at Caedmon and then moved on to take up headship in a school elsewhere. The TES have amended the on-line article but the hard copy has been published today. I am thankful to the TES (Helen Amass, in particular) for allowing me the opportunity to share my ideas on community capacity building. 

Mr Philip McElwee was headteacher at Caedmon. I was incredibly lucky to work for a headteacher in Philip who encouraged and offered so many opportunities for both professional and personal development – not only to me but to so many others who went on to lead in schools across the region and beyond. Philip afforded you responsibility and backed you to the hilt, offered an ear and wise counsel when you faced challenge, picked you up when you fell down, and stepped back when things came good and praise was on offer. Our profession owes a debt of gratitude to Philip and those like him who worked tirelessly and selflessly for many years, often in the most challenging of circumstances. Philip kept our feet firmly on the ground and never ever let us forget who we served; the families in our school community.

If you were to ask me for an example of a moment in my career when all that I believe in as a person and as an educator broke the surface I would offer this. I had been asked to present on work done in school around ‘community cohesion’ and ‘extended schools’. I said yes. I said that I would have two co-presenters with me. I asked the two. They agreed. We travelled together. I think it is fair to say that my two co-presenters were extremely nervous on the day and a good way out of their comfort zone. The conference began with an address by the Director of Education. He talked through a series of slides. The slides contained numbers, graphs and statements; a sort of State of the Borough address, featuring life expectancy indicators, crime counts, literacy levels etc. The room was full of headteachers, deputy headteachers and local authority personnel. I sat with my co-presenters: Richard (father of six children at our school) and Michelle (mother of three children at our school). We listened as the area our school serves was continually flagged up by the Director as poorly performing on all counts. Indeed, often top or bottom ranking, when it was not good to be that. To be fair, the Director did not know that Richard and Michelle were in the room. In fact, few did. I guess the expectation was that my co-presenters would be colleagues from school. They were, but you get my drift. The Director did not share the fact that the school serving this area (our school) had just been awarded the accolade Primary School of the Year at the inaugural TES Awards ceremony in London. He may not have known. We did not shout it from the rooftops.

Included within the judge’s verdict:

…a truly community-based school with great achievements… The development of school-parent-local community relations as part of the extended school has been first rate.

I was not particularly irritated by all of this. I knew the script. As the Director got up a head of steam I looked across at Richard and Michelle. Richard winked at me, knowingly. Michelle was taking it all in. The Director finished. We were introduced and did our thing. Richard and Michelle were mobbed at the lunch break. They were like the new kids in school. Everyone wanted to sit next to them.

I am not and was not the best teacher in the world. I enjoyed it. I worked hard at it. I have always been wide open to learning and development. I have always sought to get better at getting better. From day one, I had an interest in working with families and community. That has developed into a passion and something of a mission. I welcome this opportunity to say something on it, and to lay down a few ideas I have formed along the way.

I believe that the networks of support our young people need now are just as important as they ever were, arguably more so. Those networks must encompass families, school and community. Richard, Michelle and so many more community colleagues (I prefer, friends) totally got that.

We can do better. Especially in areas where thinking on aspirations and what is possible becomes muddled and stuck. Schools can work on building such capacity, placing themselves with and within their communities. We must believe that all schools, in embracing their communities and fostering solidarity can shape a better and more socially just world. To do so, we must address the needs of all those orbiting around our unique communities by listening to their stories and addressing traditional lines of power.

There is an ever expanding field of research that tells us, quite simply, that parental involvement with schools and parental engagement in children’s learning is a good thing and has positive impact on academic achievement and aspirations. Alright. But then we must pay heed to what the research also tells us. There is no one size fits all intervention for supporting parental engagement; not all parents are the same, have the same needs, face the same barriers or share the same conceptualisation of parental engagement. Also, we ‘professionals’ often make assumptions about groups of parents based on very little actual knowledge about them or their situation; this is particularly the case when parents and teachers do not share the same worldviews, experiences or social capital.

I believe the dominant paradigm of school and community ‘partnership’ is a pathologising one that is deficit driven; what is wrong, and what is required to fix it? Community capacity building, however, starts from the viewpoint that all communities have assets, skills and resources, but they also have constraints that limit what is possible. I say school communities can learn from the community organising tradition, where organising starts with listening and conversation at the ground level. No pre-set agenda. Responsive to local context. Working to engage passions and interests, encouraging action and participation. Saul Alinsky said, “The first thing you’ve got to do in a community is listen, not talk, and learn to eat, sleep, breathe only one thing: the problems and aspirations of the community.”

Hark the words of Thomas Sergiovanni:

There is no recipe for community building – no correlates, no workshop agenda, no training package. Community cannot be borrowed or bought.

We know that every school community is unique. Are we saying that community building requires active negotiation? Yes, and it is a departure from tradition. For, as Paulo Freire said, “Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is in solidarity; it is a radical posture”. We will feel vulnerable and will need to embrace that vulnerability. But it is a process that leads to socially engaged, connected communities. It identifies and addresses the constraints being experienced by those at ‘grass-roots level’. It is socially just.

Community capacity building is a process that requires interrogation of Power as a concept and how it works. It challenges us in the way it favours the approaching of parents with dignity and as full citizens above colonisation of the home and paternalistic condescension. None of this ‘hard to engage’ nonsense. Alinsky had a view on this. He said that “apathy” is the label put on people who won’t come to your meeting. Rather, he countered, “people didn’t want to bang their heads against a brick wall”. Let us not write people off until we have heard their story.

We lift the lid on Trust and the low-risk and high-risk interactions that impact Respect, Personal Regard, Integrity and Competence. A school community founded on Trust establishes relational power, as defined by Mark Warren: ‘If unilateral power emphasises power “over”, relational power emphasises power “with” others, or building the power to accomplish common aims’.

Having established insight into Trust and the machinations of Power we think on and develop skills inherent to good conversations; dialogue. We live in an age of surveys. The problem is that surveys don’t work for social change. Freire said that ‘Without dialogue there is no communication, and without communication there can be no true education.’ Founding itself upon love, humility, and faith, dialogue becomes a horizontal relationship of which mutual trust between the dialoguers is a logical sequence.

Delving into such things is not the norm in our schools. It is unlikely to feature on professional development planning schedules. It does require time. It does favour and fit within a coaching model. Coaching that reaches across the community, touching all overlapping spheres of influence. It will lead to authentic partnership. So far as definition of authentic partnership is concerned I, for one, cannot top that provided by Susan Auerbach; it encapsulates all that I would aspire to. I would bet that Richard and Michelle wholeheartedly agree.

Authentic partnerships are respectful alliances among educators, families and community groups that value relationship building, dialogue across difference, and sharing power in pursuit of a common purpose in socially just, democratic schools.


Simon Feasey is a Community Capacity Building Coach

He offers schools transferable learning and lessons from his experience as a school leader and Primary Head (with a strong belief in community engagement), a researcher (doctoral studies focusing on relational leadership and community capacity building), and as a community capacity building coach working with schools across the UK.

More information and contact details here

He explores his ideas further through a series of blogs here


Saul David Alinsky was an American community organizer and writer. He is generally considered to be the founder of modern community organizing. Alinsky, according to Time Magazine in 1970, was a “prophet of power to the people,” someone who “has possibly antagonised more people… than any other living American.”



Auerbach, S. (ed.) (2012) School Leadership for Authentic Family and Community Partnerships: Research Perspectives for Transforming Practice, New York: Routledge

Bryk, A. S. and Schneider, B. (2002) Trust in Schools: A core resource for improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Sergiovanni, T.J. (1994) Building Community in Schools, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Warren, M. R. and Mapp, K. L. (2011) A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organising as a Catalyst for School Reform, Oxford: OUP.

COMMUNITY CONVERSATIONS Time and Space: Pochahontas, Snowflakes, Apple Cider, and a Bunny Rabbit with Big Ears

Today, Father’s Day, walking in a local park with my daughter.

“No, we haven’t got time. You can have ten minutes in the park and we need to go!”

A little boy stood before us, looking into one of the animal enclosures, having spotted a rabbit. One of those rabbits with extra large ears. He wanted his mother to share the experience with him. Mother’s response left him crestfallen. To be fair, mother was pushing a pram and had another little charge at the end of her arm.

Monday, beginning of this week gone. I took Highway 250 in West Virginia into the Allegheny Mountains. The car radio fades to static. Glancing illegally at my mobile phone I noted the signal had disappeared. I was in the National Radio Quiet Zone – 13,000 square miles of radio silence, just a few hundred miles from Washington DC. No Wi-Fi; no mobile phones; no radio signals.

I was not actually on Highway 250, I was driving, with full radio signal, absolutely not glancing illegally at my mobile phone, catching episode one of The Quiet Zone. Fascinated by it, I decided that I would listen to the whole series (five x 12 minute episodes) on iPlayer, come the end of the week. I did so, yesterday.

Pochahontas County is home to the Robert C Byrd Telescope at the National Radio Astronomy facility, Green Bank, West Virginia. The telescope is the largest fully steerable telescope in the world. It took six months to erect the crane that was used to place the telescope on site back in 1958. The Green Bank Telescope gathers radio waves from deepest space. It can detect radio waves emitted milliseconds after the Big Bang.

Taller than the Statue of Liberty, the Green Bank Telescope is the world’s largest moving land object. It has the sensitivity equivalent to a billionth of a billionth of a millionth of a watt… the energy given off by a single snowflake hitting the ground. Anything man-made would overwhelm that signal. Hence the legal requirement, for a radio frequency free zone.

Essentially, here, “on the edge of society”, affording the ability to listen in to moments after the creation of the universe, means the local population have sacrificed their connection to the outside world. Well, not exactly… there is broadband internet facility in the homes of residents, they just cannot take it with them, when on the move.

But, get this… we are told by residents interviewed through the course of the program that if you go to watch your child take part in, for example, a soccer (football) game, every parent is watching the game, and interacting with one another. That is, they do not have their heads down, consulting their mobile device, fearful of missing something or someone not present.

What delicious irony… as the Green Bank Telescope, towering above the soccer field, works on connecting us back to the beginning of time, we cannot connect, in the moment, to those other than those present in time and space.

The event in the park this morning, along with thinking triggered by listening to The Quiet Zone prompted me to return to the transcript of an interview / conversation I enjoyed with the relational theorist Dr Scott Eacott, last weekend.

Scott suggests that school communities (in the broadest sense of the term) are a coherent whole and that every school has its own trajectory. That trajectory shapes the way in which we engage with spatio-temporal conditions. The ways we engage actually generate those conditions. While saying that every school is unique we rarely put into action attempts to see what different groups want and expect out of schooling. The challenge is that there needs to be a way to recognize and acknowledge the many different perspectives that may come forward and doing the work (collectively) that translates it into some form of concrete outcomes. To achieve this, Scott says, we need to take the time to tease out what the community at XYZ look like. What are their distinctive features. All activities should contribute to this work.

Our conversation greatly challenged my thinking. Scott did, for example, problematise my partitioning of ‘schools’, ‘families’, and ‘community’, suggesting this was based on an orthodox social systems configuration of the social world. The implications there for my work? I really do not know either, yet! Scott directed me to take a look at Cecil Miskel’s work on organisational behaviour. Another road I must travel down.

It is not my intention here to expand on Scott’s thinking. I will, though, say that he was greatly encouraging of the approach I am developing, and our conversation continues. Scott’s advocacy of a relational approach sits with the intention to disrupt the orthodoxy he talks about. What Scott did impress upon me is that the act of engaging in reflection is shaping how we understand and in turn shaping what is happening. This relationship is ongoing.

My mission is to understand how a relational approach to family-school-community partnership be best applied to achieve concrete and desirable outcomes for all. For the process itself to be educative, and for the outcomes to be of educational benefit to students.

Returning to Pocahontas County… the program presenter in conversation with a local inn-keeper:

“With each day, as well, the quietness becomes quite loud. You hear such detail that is normally just masked by modern life.”

“Yeah, absolutely. It’s quite nice, it’s quite calming. It’s quite rooting, it roots you back into the earth.”

And the words of a young woman who left the area to attend university but then returned, settled, and married a local man. Returning was like stepping back in time, she said. She had not realised just how much she had missed the lifestyle. “Making apple cider, going over to each other’s houses and having movie nights. Making maple syrup. The lost arts.”

Now, I am not suggesting that we create ‘Radio Quiet Zones’ around our school communities. I am suggesting we give thought to those interfering factors that impact relationships in our school communities. I am saying that if we are still offering a snatched ten minutes at the park for parents every term then the child will miss the rabbit. ‘Community engagement’, ‘parental engagement’, ‘parental involvement’, ‘community cohesion’, is a far far bigger, deeper, and extravagantly more important issue.

If we are to challenge the questionable orthodoxy that Scott Eacott, for one, takes issue with, then perhaps we might do well to work on instilling a quietness that frees us up to hear such detail that is normally masked by modern school life. Moving towards the place articulated by the inn-keeper in Pocahontas County, “It’s quite rooting, it roots you back into the earth”. For us, placing our schools with and within our communities.

For me, this begins with Community Conversations. I work with schools across the UK in making this happen. I consider my practice to be one of coaching in nature, for I seek to empower all community members as we take the journey together, recognising the uniqueness of each and every school community; appreciating time and space. It does not take six months to erect the framework, as it did the crane that placed the Green Bank Telescope. But the parallels between the two sounding boards are striking. Noise is collected in a deeply comprehensive way, in an interference free, safe environment. Every single falling snowflake counts and is recognised. Everybody is watching the game. The diet is home-made.

I welcome a no commitment first conversation with anyone interested in discussing how this works; face-to-face (wherever you are located) or by phone / Skype.

Please feel free to email me at

I share more on my work here.

Family-School-Community: Whose job is it anyway? Any Questions?… “Complex hope”… Any answers? #UKpastoralchat

This is a follow up blog to the debate I hosted for @UKPastoralChat on Wednesday 2 May 2018, recorded here. I posted an introductory blog here prior to the event. I am grateful to @MattGovernor for affording me the opportunity to use the #UKPastoralChat platform in this way, and to the many people who gave up their time to participate.

This has proved to be an extremely difficult blog to write. I was quite deliberate in selecting the two questions that I did select. My response to both questions was lengthy and deliberately provocative. In my answers I unequivocally state my personal viewpoint. Maybe political leaning, too? Education and politics is inextricably linked is it not? I think so.

The questions and my answers…

I have reflected on responses given across the thirty plus minutes of ‘chat’, time and time again. I have recorded every interaction here. After much deliberation, I have decided to take a broad view and home in on my perceiving of an underlying angst shared, if nuanced, by all participants. In writing this, the word ‘angst’ came straight to me. I have just paused to ‘Google’ its definition:

a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general.

Interesting. Let’s move on…

Given that the platform for this debate was #UKpastoralchat and its focus is wellbeing, I hoped to draw on two issues; 1. the apparent increase (crisis?) in young people struggling with mental health issues, and 2. academic and/or personal growth.

On mental health, there are those who question any idea of crisis, suggesting there is no confirming evidence. I will nail my colours to the mast here by saying that, for me, such a stance brings to mind the story of Thomas and his insistence on seeing and feeling the wounds suffered by Jesus on the cross. I listen to friends, parents/carers and school communities, fellow professionals, and witness the torment felt by so many people (young and old) trying to negotiate their own realities. At the very least, in my view, it is something that calls for immediate attention in our schools, in our communities generally, and in society at large.

Twenty five years ago, Marshall Berman wrote this.

To be modern … is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom, to find one’s world and oneself in perpetual disintegration and renewal, trouble and anguish, ambiguity and contradiction: to be part of a universe in which all that is solid melts into air.
Berman, 1983, p. 8

Overly dramatic? Troubling? Makes you pause for thought though, eh?

I admit to no little nervousness around pulling on data at this point. I find that I am developing an ever increasing – I think, healthy – criticality around Knowledge, Knowers, and Knowledge production.

From Ofsted Data View… more children attend a good or better school now than they did eight years ago. Official…

That has got to be good hasn’t it? Is ‘Good’ good? How often do we hear beleaguered colleagues in other schools talk of “the data” as a problem as inspections convert to a second day or because things are not going well and battle lines have been drawn. I raise a question: What weighting, if any, attaches itself to personal rather than academic growth/progress in “the data”? And then, if a leader’s school is judged to be less than good where does their ‘improvement’ focus lie? Indeed, if borderline ‘good’, where does the ‘improvement’ focus lie?

My specific interest and the projected theme of the debate aired on #UKpastoralchat was Family-School-Community partnership and agentic position. I queried this by floating role suggestions such as: parents as consumers? schools as fixers? school and families as allies? partners? friends?

For sure, parents are encouraged to be discerning when ‘selecting’ a school for their children, and are signposted to useful information sources. School Ofsted reports and judgements being one such source. As we well know, of course, parents like to visit the school site itself. My experience, in the schools I have had the privilege to teach and lead in, is that parents/carers are very insightful. My experience in headship is that visiting parents will look you in the eye and seek a sense of your values; all the while looking for assurances, scanning for evidence on the customary tour that what you say stacks up.

On the issue of wellbeing, and mental health in particular… In August 2017, the DfE published Supporting Mental Health in Schools and Colleges, a quantitative survey, with a sample size of 6,907 institutions. They reported on ‘parental engagement’ thus.


In the state sector, secondary schools were more likely than primary schools to provide information for parents and caregivers about supporting children and young person’s mental health (47% vs. 33%), and about mental health provision in the school (40% vs. 31%). They were also more likely to provide mental health support for pupils that included parents and caregivers (62% vs. 57%). In contrast, primary schools were more likely to offer one-to-one support such as counselling for parents and caregivers themselves (50% vs. 36%). Colleges appeared less likely than other types of institution to seek to engage parents in promoting positive mental health. Around a fifth of colleges (18%) employed none of the above named parental engagement approaches. This is likely to be due to the older age of college pupils. However, this finding is indicative only, as colleges (and other institutions) may have sought to involve parents and caregivers in ways other than those listed in the questionnaire.

Is this a picture you recognise? Is this your reality?

To mark Children’s Mental Health Week 5-11 February 2018, Place2Be published Providing Mental Health Support in UK Schools with partners, the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP), the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) and the NAHT. The report aimed to provide a clear view of the challenges and opportunities facing both schools and mental health professionals in the UK today. A survey conducted September-October 2017 included 655 responses from school leaders; almost two thirds from primary settings. The report makes for interesting reading. I am going to pull out two of the findings to illustrate a point here.

  • 90% of school leaders cited ‘financial constraints’ as being a barrier to putting in place a counsellor or therapist to support pupils’ mental health in school.
  • 93% of the schools providing counselling services used their own budget to fund this provision, making them effectively the commissioners of the service.

I figure that this will ring true with so many of you. I have had those conversations too. Parents in despair. Despairing in the reality of their particular situation. Desperately looking for help in supporting their child. And then finding that they feature as just another family name on an ever lengthening ‘waiting list’; whether that waited for provision be internally or externally provided.

Reports such as the DfE published Supporting Mental Health in Schools and Colleges (above) may well serve a purpose. When I come across them, now, I am often drawn back to the words of Rabbi Dara Frimmer:

We live in an age of surveys. The problem is that surveys don’t work for social change.

Rabbi Frimmer suggests that surveys will never be able to reproduce the feelings and the emotions and the sense of connection that people receive when you sit together and listen to people telling their stories. “Surveys are not stories.” Stories remind us that what we think are deeply personal, private issues are in fact shared public concerns. Imagine, Frimmer says, if we began to work on any of these shared issues together. I explore this issue further here.

I had to do a good bit of trawling to locate anything that remotely tied family-school-community partnership, pupil and young person wellbeing, and government activity/thinking/policy together. I am reminded of the Lamb Inquiry (2009) and Brian Lamb engaging with parents and schools around ‘Special educational needs and parental confidence’. It would seem that Lamb actually did go out and seek stories; lived experience. In a letter to Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls, dated April 29th 2009, Lamb wrote, in reference to parents consulted:

… too many reported that the system was not on their side and they had to ‘fight’ or ‘do battle’ with the system to get what they needed for their child.’
Brian Lamb to Ed Balls (2009)

Sound familiar? How does this match your own experience? Some of you, from both sides of the fence? I have been there. I have removed a child of mine from a school and placed them elsewhere. Consider the many voices on Twitter, alone, that speak of battling the system in SEN-related issues, still. Often we hear of family and school fighting that fight together. I have been there too, as a head. Often. Very often. All too often.

Returning to where I started and my detection of the angst that coloured participant contributions and my failure to draw any clarity in the form of neatly packaged and discussed themes shared during #UKpastoralchat. I had anticipated some discussion on agency and roles and that did happen. For me, the angst I speak of belies raw frustration and anxiety around an issue that we school professionals are deeply uncomfortable with and reluctant to shy away from. We are not very good around ‘Whose job is it anyway? type questions are we? Why? Because we never lose sight of that young person in the middle. Further, we find it impossible to deny families the time and support they ask of us.

Drawing on the work of Antonio Gramsci, Grace (1994) has defined complex hope as ‘an optimism of the will that recognises the historical and structural difficulties which need to be overcome’. It seems to me that complex hope needs to be encouraged when, perhaps, naïve and simple hope is what too often dominates when social justice matters get discussed in the education policy arena. Something that I have likely been ‘guilty’ of many a time? Blogging is a wonderfully liberating experience. I would add, though, that I do so with serious intent. For, all too often, when we scratch the surface, when we stop to listen, really listen, we discover that neatly constructed charts and surveys often cover up a multitude of sins and hurts.

I say this is a complex issue that requires us to extend the concept of complex hope to partnership for social justice.

In her 2009 presidential address to the American Educational Studies Association, Hytten (2010) stated that:

Hope and community building are intimately related; that we cultivate hope in part through creating, enhancing, and sustaining relationships with others.

I say we cannot move forward to a better place around wellbeing/mental health – or confidence in special needs provision, for that matter – without families and school as allies, friends and joint-responsibility acceptors.

Returning to that definition of ‘angst’…

a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general.

We are not in a good place with this are we? There is a feeling of deep anxiety around the mental health and wellbeing of so many of our young ones. We must accept the vulnerability that goes with this, lean into it and tackle it together.

I am very aware that this blog offers little if nothing in the way of answers. On the contrary, it raises many more questions. The question in chief being , How do we, as allies, work for a better fairer, kinder, more socially just school system… society… world?

I am with Professor Carolyn Shields:

We need leaders who are willing to look beyond the walls of their organisation to the needs, wishes, desires of their community at large, and to see how the current culture of power continues to marginalise and exclude some.

The #UKpastoralchat process is initiated with the request, Any questions? Not forgetting to include the hashtag #AskPastoralSimonFeasey

As said, we cannot do this alone. And so, Simon Feasey leaves you with this question, Any answers?


Berman, M. (1983) All that is solid melts into air: The experience of modernity. London: Verso.

Grace, G. (1994) “Urban education and the culture of contentment: the politics, culture and economics of inner‐city schooling”. In Education in urban areas: cross‐national dimensions, Edited by: Stromquist, N. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Lamb, Brian, Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), corp creator. (2009) Lamb Inquiry : special educational needs and parental confidence : report to the Secretary of State on the Lamb Inquiry review of SEN and disability information.

Shields, C. (2018) Transformative Leadership in Education: Equitable and Socially Just Change in an Uncertain and Complex World. New York: Routledge