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Ten years of The Key

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This week The Key celebrates its 10th birthday. In human terms we are leaving early childhood and will soon be moving to those difficult teen years, so expect some bolshie blog posts, self-righteous but at the same time apathetic responses to queries and disastrous fashion choices from the team. Don’t worry, we’ll come back to you in about another ten years, and you will learn to love us all over again.

2007 certainly seems a long time ago. In a world where a white paper can be launched and dropped within a few months, trying to remember everything that has happened over ten years is a daunting prospect. It feels a bit like I’m accepting an Oscar and have to say that there are so many people I want to thank so if I forget you, I’m sorry and I love you.

In some ways, schools in 2007 were easier to understand. There were only around 50 academies open, a free school was a progressive school where children make the rules and grammar schools were a small and politically unimportant feature of the landscape. Ten years on and we are in the throes of a shift in school structures not seen since the 1944 Education Act. To those outside the sector and some of us in it, who is accountable for and who holds sway within a school has never felt more confusing. Is your school maintained? Or is it an academy? Ah, but which type, sponsored, converter? Is it part of a multi-academy trust? Or is it a free school (which is actually just an academy once open)?

And between multi-academy trusts, ethos can differ greatly. To some, autonomy is their guiding principle. For others, a strong, uniform approach is the best way to raise standards. It sometimes feels like we are in the rough and tumble of growing up, where you are still trying to work out who you are. This loss of certainty and uniformity has been baffling and chaotic to some, liberating and exciting for others. Either way, schools have had to think more than ever about where they see themselves sitting in the wider system and how they view leadership within a group of schools, rather than just what happens inside their own four walls.

Other, once taken-for-granted things have left the ecosystem.

The removal of national curriculum levels, well intended though it was, created another moment of uncertainty. We certainly saw that at The Key, as we helped members trying to work out how to design their own assessment systems.

Long relied upon support from local authorities has been reduced due to funding pressures. A school now is much more likely to need the skills of business procurement to buy in HR, school improvement or legal support, or have to club together with other schools in a MAT to design their own set of services.

These ever-changing choppy waters have swirled around our schools while teachers have also dealt with the usual pleas to deal with society’s problems du jour. Schools should teach ‘character’ and ‘grit’, but also use ‘mindfulness’ to help children deal with the intensity, competition and pace of the modern world. Schools should teach pupils how to deal with the peril of fake news, as well as teach British values and spot the signs of radicalisation. Schools must help our kids deal with the increasing pressure of social media, cyber-bullying and feeling that they are getting older quicker than ever before. Concerns over mental health have grown steadily and worryingly over the last few years, as we have found in our State of Education surveys.

This uncertainty and external pressure is now being dealt with during increasingly tough times, funding-wise. After seeing big investment during the 2000s and a protected DfE budget from 2010-2015, schools are now being asked to make very difficult choices over how they spend their money. Add in to the mix a new National Funding Formula and you fling school funding high up the list of not just school leaders’, but the general public’s, list of concerns.

These very real issues are now chewed over by a boisterous and vibrant community of tweeters and bloggers. Social media hasn’t just transformed pupils’ lives over the last decade, it’s also revolutionised the way teachers, school leaders, governors, think tankers, journalists and campaigners interact. The sector now talks to itself in a completely different way. Vigorous online debate plays a huge part in shaping the narrative around education policy and what needs to be done. We joined the debate by launching this blog.

But amongst the serious challenges, and the constant hum of tweeting to dissect them, it’s easy to forget that day to day life within schools goes on. At The Key we’ve helped schools deal with some pretty odd, surprising and head-scratch inducing problems over the years.

How do you deal with a ‘brazen’ fox?

Are schools required to have a fax machine?

What should we do about a parent who keeps taking photos of another parent they fancy on the school grounds?

I could go on.

Helping school leaders make informed decisions about how to boost attainment amongst disadvantaged pupils or create an inspirational vision for their school community, but also helping them carry out a risk assessment for a pogo stick gives you a terrific insight into the lives of those working in our schools.

At once, they are asked to transform young lives, be role models in their communities and prepare the nation’s future workforce, but manage to do this while working in the most unpredictable of places – somewhere where the majority of people are not yet adults. They are asked to do more with less, impart skills and knowledge, and help pupils deal with growing up, all while having to respond to the constant change the sector has become accustomed to. Inspiring.

Our mission at The Key has been to empower school leaders and governors by giving them the time, knowledge and peace of mind that they need to perform this extraordinary role. We’ve loved doing this for ten years, and hope to do so for many more.

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