As the boss and leader of nearly 300 employees at Ashford School I am continually thinking about how to get the best from everyone of them, whether they work directly with children or support that work. I may be deluding myself but I'm confident that if you asked anyone of my 300 colleagues what their job is they would reply that their primary task is to model the behaviour and attitudes which we seek to inculcate in our pupils and their secondary role is cleaning, teaching, accounting, coaching etc. Of course, this is the same as the cleaner at NASA who, when asked a similar question, replied "I'm helping to put a man on the moon".
An effective school harnesses the power of this collective will and finds creative ways to multiply its impact. For example, at Ashford School, we offer every employee the opportunity to learn a musical instrument or learn to sing, all at the school's expense. This year, over thirty people from all sections of the school have put themselves forward for individual lessons in the violin, drumming, the double bass, voice, guitar, brass and woodwind instruments. Because of the high demand, we have given priority to those who are taking a significant personal challenge; that is, those who have never played or sung before.
Employees take their lessons at the same time, in the same places and with the same instrument teachers as the pupils. When they are ready, they play alongside the pupils in ensemble groups, in orchestras, in choirs and in bands.
So why spend a good deal of time and money on such an initiative? What benefits does it bring to pupils?
The impact on pupils is subtle yet profound. Pupils waiting for the own lessons observe adults struggling to master the same skills in playing the trumpet, say, or in interpreting music. They witness their progress, or not, from week to week. They hear the frustration and joy that is often involved in learning something demanding over time. They take charge in rehearsals and learn to direct the adults. They share, as equals with the adults, those moments of excitement as a piece comes together prior to performance and the elation and satisfaction afterwards. In other words, they are learning resilience, perseverance, compassion, empathy, focus, leadership, encouragement, comradeship and teamwork. Most importantly, they begin to understand that learning is not something that is done to you, it is something you do yourself, throughout your life, Could the pupils explain it in these terms? Probably not. Do they recognise the importance and benefits of the opportunity to work alongside adults in this way? Absolutely! Given these opportunities and encouragement, it is not surprising that our pupils were recently described as "exceptionally creative".
The benefits to the staff are equally profound. That is, not least that they come to remember just how hard learning can be and just how rewarding the challenge can be. As a result, my colleagues are even more passionately engaged with and connected to the values of the school and, therefore, are much more effective in their roles. For both pupils and employees, these are the key lessons.
The initiative reflects our Adventurous Learning approach. Put simply, this means providing opportunities for individuals to be challenged even if, no, especially if, that means they might fail. Indeed, it's probably true to say that if you have never failed then you have never challenged yourself sufficiently. This is our approach.
Why music? Because it's one of my interests and is easily accessible for most people. Next year, I think I might see if anyone is game for training as a standup comic. Now that would be a challenge!
By Mike Buchanan, Headmaster, Ashford School