Cultivating different thinking

saz-up-treeDo you remember the scene in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” when Brian tells the crowd “You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals… You’re all different”. The crowd replies “Yes, we ARE all different”, apart from one wee voice who says “I’m not…”

In the future those who are prepared to separate themselves from the crowd and affirm that they are different will be increasingly important. It is by thinking “different” that new products are invented, that new services are conceived and that the “same old, same old” gets turned around. The value to European economies of SMEs, including new starts, cannot be underestimated. Two thirds of private sector jobs across Europe come from this type of business and the European commission has identified them as being primarily responsible for economic growth in Europe – rather than government spending on infra-structure. But businesses wax and wane so there is a really critical need to encourage young fresh innovative minds to take up the challenge of starting new business.

American business start-up site has a list of 10 key characteristics they have decided are crucial to business success. These include management skills like goal setting and communication, and being able to learn through failure.  It strikes me that a great way to prepare young people to be the kind of people to build the kind of businesses the future needs, is to let them go wild and unfettered in the summer. Unplug the TV /playstation / PC, make sure the fridge and freezer are just full enough to prevent starvation (and give confidence that a new found friend brought home can be offered an ice-cream) and then arrange, organise and set up as little as possible. Initially boredom will make the days seem very long… but gradually some alluring plan for adventure will germinate – involving recognising opportunity, being creative, learning communication, being a leader – in fact many of the other key characteristics identified by  What opens endless potential is for any 13 year old to stare into the distance from the heights of a tree and wonder “what if…”, or for them to discover that if they ask 2 like-minded chaps to come and join their game of basketball they’ll have a good time (rather than having team games organised for them). These are some of the moments that form the bedrock of understanding the potential in the world – whether the outcome is fabulous or if the newcomers knick the ball.

My thoughts were focussed by a recent outing with friends. Having gone through a long queue to show our tickets our host decided he should have availed himself of the lavatories at the entrance. As he headed off to either vault the fence or squish himself between the fence and the hedge rather than re-tracing his steps his wife lamented “Why can’t he ever take the same route as everyone else?”. Her husband is a celebrated and visionary architect and his passion and ideas thrive off taking his own approach to whatever he is doing; his buildings are so successful precisely because he does not take the same route as everyone else. New business, ideas, innovation and creativity are not going to come from the young people who take the same route as everyone else, change will come from those that got the chance to think differently.

11 ¾ things to do before I’m 50

11 challengesThe National Trust have a fabulous list of 50 things* to do before you are 11 ¾ – there are loads of brilliant adventures to be had from trying to do everything on the list including star gazing, eating an apple straight from a tree or playing Pooh sticks. As a milestone birthday looms I considered how the list applies to the things I have done, and whether there were any gaps. As it turns out, I had quite an outdoor-tomboy time, albeit in foreign parts where we didn’t so much set up a snail race as watch to see which blue tailed lizard could escape the swimming pool changing rooms first.

I started to wonder, what haven’t I done that I want to by the time I’m 50? In “The Chimp Paradox” Dr Steve Peters says “the person you want to be is the person you really are”.  So, I am the person who wants to have done the following by the time I’m 50….. (few caveats here, this is not a resource-rich list more of a budget fantasy; it’s not a bucket list either so no Taj Mahal, or bathing in warm mud in Iceland, or watching the whole of the Ring (Wagner not Tolkein) and there is a time constraint of completion by 23/08/2013 so I didn’t include reading Proust’s “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu”).

  1.   Learn to play “Farewell to Stromness” by Peter   Maxwell Davies on the piano
  2.   Climb a Munro
  3.   Find one rap piece that I like
  4.   Swim in the sea
  5.   Paint a flower or plant, frame it and display   it
  6.   Accompany myself singing a song in front of   someone else
  7.   Learn to play poker
  8.   Make a many coloured, layered cocktail
  9.   Identify (consistently and correctly) 20   different species of trees
  10.   Swim a mile in a pool
  11.   Learn to juggle
  12.   Create a family portrait

I appreciate for some people these challenges are so everyday you might be amazed that anyone hasn’t done them – but by the same token not all children have played Pooh sticks.  I have done some of the things, I just want to do them again.

Finding time to get in enough practice for the physical challenges will be quite tricky. Getting my family in one place for a portrait over the next month will probably be impossible, so I shall have to think laterally on that one (I feel an element of collage coming on).  The other tricky element is setting myself 11 ¾ challenges – how to define ¾ of a challenge? If I’m a quarter from the top of a hill I don’t want to turn round or if I’ve only got the chorus left of a song I don’t want to stop. I might let myself compromise on the swim by technically aiming for a mile but feeling good if I stop at ¾ of a mile… but that is slightly mind-scamming.

If anyone fancies joining me – or knows how to play poker, do let me know!


What’s in a name?

social classIn Wells-next-the-Sea last week, doing a workshop on interview skills with a great group of Year 10 pupils, we were asked “Does it matter what kind of English I speak in an interview? Will the way I talk count against me?” The experienced English teacher with me was quick to point out that the school was teaching ‘Standard English’ which emphasises correct grammar and appropriate vocabulary but encompasses all accents. As she pointed out, however, the tricky bit comes in knowing where the difference between accent and dialect lies. For example, in Norfolk there’s a frequent use of “do” instead of “does” and “done” instead of “did”. Other verbs also change – such as “shew” instead of “showed”. Some words are special to the county , like a Bishy-Barneybee or Jollificearshuns (lady bird and having a good time). The accent is gentle with a rising intonation. I find it tricky to follow when people are talking Norfolk very quickly, but pretty clear when the speaker slows down. So, no worries for our anxious Year 10 then?

The same week saw the clip* of Katie Hopkins on This Morning TV show go viral-ballistic. The topic was whether you could judge enough about a child from their first name to know whether, or not, you might want your child to be friends with them. Hopkins was pretty clear – as soon as she hears the child’s first name she can not only tell what social class they come from, but also how they will behave. So she cuts short the heart-ache of having unsuitable playmates but not letting her children even become friends. And the names that can tell her so much? Well, names like Tyler, Chardonnay, Chantelle… and seasons… and place names like Brooklyn… and India? (No, not India because her daughter is called India, so maybe she just means cities?) The Queen’s grandson Peter Phillips’ family wouldn’t cut the Hopkins mustard – what with a wife called Autumn and their daughter Savannah (pretty sure geographic features would be on the Hopkins “no mates” list too). She explained that these dodgy names are an indicator that the children will be loutish, do poorly at school, not do their homework, and probably use the wrong cutlery. In fact, to use a really old unpleasant acronym, NQOCD – don’t know that one? It stands for Not Quite Our Class, Dear.

While I’m not so naïve as to imagine that class prejudice no longer exists – we are all tribal at some level after all – what is most unpleasant is the idea of it being publically validated now, in 2013. One of the ways – possibly the most usual way – British people used to define class was based on spoken English, judging a combination of vocabulary and accent sometimes as quickly as within a single phrase to literally classify the speaker. As Professor Higgins famously sings in My Fair Lady:

“An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him

The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him”

Increasing use of Estuary English and greater prominence of regional accents has gone a long way towards narrowing the gap.

Poor Katie, names are getting more exotic – she doesn’t seem to have met children called Griffin, Phoenix or Blue Ivy yet, but she will. For the sake of her children I suspect she’ll have to change her point of view.

Our young people need to be confident in their futures and they need good speaking and listening skills. The new draft of study for KS3 students doing English has changed “Speaking and Listening” to “Spoken English” (omitting ‘Listening’ in the topic title – cue for a joke with reference to listening and Mr Gove? Bit obvs, as the bros in my fam would say. Soz guys, probs shouldn’t of, I’m only a rent). Speaking still remains an important feature of the curriculum. I’m concerned that when discussions like This Morning one about class / language / behaviour hit the social media network they can add, unnecessarily, to the anxieties of young people like the student from Wells. As students rest before the next academic year I hope they, and their teachers, will continue to focus on spoken English, putting the emphasis on what they say; being confident in who they are; and not feeling undermined by any shadow of class prejudice. There simply isn’t room for it in the Britain of today. To quote Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet”

*Want to see the clip?


Class Reunion

Oxenfoord Castle School

We go together like ramma lamma lamma ka dinga da dinga dong – Remembered for ever as shoo-bop sha whada whadda yippidy boom da boom”

The film “Grease” came out in 1978, a couple of years before I left school – but its sound track defined an era. At the end of the movie, as everyone sings, Sandy and Danny rise above the school in their 1948 Ford ‘Greased Lightning’ off to the future. This weekend my class of 1980 landed together in the Braes of Balquhidder for our first reunion since we left Oxenfoord Castle School. Lots of people had seen lots of each other since, but this was the first time so many were gathered together at the same time.

The boarding experience we shared was fairly usual for its time – with some extra twists of its own. It’s hard to pick the key defining characteristic, there are several: the cold; the food; being semi-cloistered from the rest of the world; or the priceless Sèvres china collection in the Adam dining room where we ate all our meals.

Cold? We knew about being cold – there was no heating above the ground floor and the radiators in the classrooms were barely effective. Our shampoo, toothpaste and lipgloss regularly froze solid – this is a whole level of cold above having a thin layer of frost on the inside of a window pane. When it snowed the drive got blocked and the oil truck couldn’t make it through. We all remember melting saucepans of snow in the domestic science room to wash our hair.  (Though to this day none of us could understand why there was a regime of only washing your hair once a fortnight…the melted snow option was quite a rebellion).

Food? Memories of tipping a plate of mince so that the fat collected in a pool away from the grey meat. Curious combinations never since repeated – crisps and ravioli, yoghurt and digestive biscuits, fish and chips with pickled beetroot. Eating countless baps and golden syrup. And talking about food – whispered conversations between top and bottom bunk about asparagus and melted butter and how many roast potatoes could have been had at home. Sweets from our tuck boxes – we were only allowed 3 single sweets a weekday, 4 on Saturdays and 5 on Sundays… we all got very good at smuggling, it was a real bonus when you got old/big enough for a bra! Sneaking walnuts from the school kitchen, only to be caught as they tumbled out of a hole in a dressing gown pocket. Liberating an egg from the same kitchen and then cooking it by boiling it in the kettle.

Being semi-cloistered had its own impact. It wasn’t just that we didn’t have mobile phones (there was one phone we could use in the evenings – it had a flashing light to signal incoming calls, but answering it was always a bit of a risk because you then had to go and find the person and the castle was quite big). We couldn’t go out very often. In a 13 week term there was an allowance of 3 weekend days and 3 ½ days of half-term. You had to be back by 7pm and I still get the abdabs on a Sunday evening if I hear the Top 40 chart countdown on Radio 1. We just didn’t see anyone much apart from each other – for 6 years. One consequence of this was being able to sort out disputes.  If an argument developed, which they did, it had to be resolved quickly because no one could stand living in a crabby atmosphere for long.  The second consequence is emotional independence. Back then, children that boarded developed pretty tough outer shells.

And the Sèvres china and Adam architecture? Our school building was originally a tower house built in the 16th century. In 1782 Robert Adam re-designed and extended the building. The Stair family, who still own it, had an extensive collection of art and miscellaneous objects d’art. There was a Watteau in the Drawing Room, displays of cutlasses, epées and swords in the entrance hall and ghosts galore in the turrets and hanging staircases. It was a Georgian Hogwarts – castellations and all.

We got together because we hadn’t for 33 years and because one of our friends is not well and we wanted to see her. We got together at her house and did not stop talking and laughing for 24 hours. My smiling muscles ache. We brought food and drink – enough to last for weeks, after all those years of fantasising about it everyone was always going to bring enough. We brought flowers and photographs – for our friend and for our memories. Memories that began like an individual patchwork with gaps and scraps here and there became a tapestry. The threads of stories repeated and re-enforced by one to another filling in our narrative with many stiches: who had dissected the sheep’s eye ball; who had played piano so well; who had taken a coveted position in the lacrosse team from another; which teacher had warned us about “babies in the air just waiting to be born”; and, of course, who had snogged who at the occasional school dances with Loretto and Fettes.

We shared our individual stories since leaving – men, marriages, children, adventures. We remembered friends not with us at our reunion. And we talked about the future. We worry for our parents and wondered about the next generation. What will they take from the values we share – what will be discarded. We also talk about ourselves and what we will do next – forthcoming art exhibitions, business projects, weddings in the pipeline and expeditions. The ability to resolve disputes has mellowed into an ability to listen and empathise without competing.

You can tell by someone’s gait, or their laugh, that they are still the same girl underneath – but we have become a group of tough, kind, funny and wise women I care for very much.

Ready, set… WIN!


About 12 years ago I remember going to a non-competitive sports day at a middle school. Everyone did everything; everyone got a medal just by being there. The teacher organising it explained, brightly, that this way no one was marginalised or made to feel like a loser at a young and vulnerable age. No one was left out and everyone felt they mattered.  It was the most leaden, miserable sports ever attended. Boy, was it a sad, grey, nothing kind of sports day. The parents were confused and the children annoyed. The sporty ones felt ignored and the un-sporty ones felt patronised.

That was then, and this week I went to an infant school sports day that was a much jollier event. The children were divided into teams* and they ran a range of relay type races. The little ones from reception did the egg and spoon to hand over to a Year 1 child who did a sack race to hand over to a Year 2 child who did a skipping race and so on. Everyone got a go and by the end of the relay races Turner was a winner, narrowly beating Seurat on points.  Then there were running races – each year group had heats, then semi-finals and then finals. There was a clear winner – in the case of the Year 2 lot I was especially interested in the winner (a girl) was as greased lightning across the line, meters ahead of the rest of the field. The first three in each year group received medals – gold, silver and bronze.  The rest of the children had cheered on their friends and the ones that didn’t win medal were a bit disappointed, but rallied.

For readers who haven’t been part of the school sports day over the past decade or so this story will seem rather obvious.  But the change in attitude from ‘everyone a winner’ to ‘competing to win’ is a change which, I believe, marks a positive development in how we support young people. Firstly, young people know that everyone doesn’t win every race – the OIympics, Wimbledon, football championships are exciting because they are competitions with winners and losers. Young people also know that not everyone is good at everything, so they are not all expecting to win at every race or competition. All the management gurus, and philosophers, and wise people tell us that one of the most important lessons from competing is how we cope with not winning. The insight gained from looking back over what didn’t go right is what helps us find the tools to make the next attempt successful. The second thing these young children learnt by cheering on their team mates is the importance of being there for friends and for teams. I know it’s a cliché – but worth repeating, that lessons learnt doing sport are lessons for life. We need young people, in Sir Henry Newbolt’s words, to be able to “Play up! Play up and play the game!”

*(named after famous artists with work in the National Gallery)