Fancy Lunch at the Palace?

I was very surprised when one morning my boss asked me “Fancy lunch at the Palace?!” – not least because she knows that I am not a fan of the British monarchy, but it turned out to be one of the best days of my career!

The invitation was from the Duke of Edinburgh, to several Housing Associations, to promote greater take up of the DofE Award scheme – after all most Housing Associations do a lot of community development work with young people so it would seem like  a natural partnership. Our Association had been invited as a bit of a role model, as we had been supporting DofE for some while, by sponsoring some young people and training staff as Leaders. I was to be there with some successful participants, to help persuade other organisations about the benefits.

I arrived at the Palace armed just with my passport and made my way into one of the ridiculously lavish rooms, with a posh buffet laid out, a polite sprinkling of primped CEOs and 3 of the most terrified teenagers I’ve ever seen – in their brand new, ill-fitting suits, waiting to receive their gold, silver and bronze awards personally from Prince Edward. Despite my republican tendencies, I have to say “Ed” was a star, he immediately put the 3 youngsters at ease by asking them

“Have you tried the venison sausages? Are they any good? I’ve never had them before!”

followed by an entertaining chat about what he’d got up to on his DofE, getting them to relax and share their experiences.

There are around 2 million children of workless families in the UK, and Housing Associations know, that unless we can provide the right  opportunities and support, many will struggle to break out of a cycle of worklessness. The DofE Award programme is one way that young people can gain the skills and confidence for life and work and get that all-important piece of paper to prove it to potential employers and colleges. But more than that, the programme encourages young people to play an active role in their community, to think beyond what they need and to give something back, to help make other people’s lives better.

And it is on this issue that I got the biggest thrill of the day – not the royal company, the opulent surroundings, or even the glass (or two) of HRH’s own-label wine! But in listening to these three inspiring young people talk about their communities, where they had come from, what they wanted to do in the future, how they wanted to make a difference with their lives, their ambitions to make the world a better place. One was already training to be a Leader so they could support other young people to take part in the programme, another was making plans to do voluntary work overseas, and we’d made arrangements for the third to get work experience at our Housing Association, as she was interested in social work, or social housing, or something along those lines.

We hear so much rubbish from the media about benefit-scroungers and young-offenders, and this was a great day for reminding me what’s really important and inspiring me to keep on making the effort to provide decent homes and opportunities for training and work experience, for those that need just a little leg-up to make their way in the world.

If you want to find out more about the Duke of Edinburgh scheme, check out


Why do Governors do it?

Many School Governors had never thought about being one, until the opportunity was advertised, or a colleague/friend suggested it to them. I asked my fellow Governors why their response was

“Yes. Why not?”

  • To contribute something to the local community
  • To have an interest outside of work
  • To be involved in decisions that affect the future of the school
  • To be more involved in my child’s education
  • To better understand the way in which a school operates
  • To fulfill my Christian faith and beliefs.
  • Because I am passionate about education
  • As a way of saying thank you
“I remember my first meeting as being quite daunting but as time went on I began to realise that governors are just ordinary people trying to do what is best for the school.”

What do you get out of it?

I enjoy learning about how the school functions and contributing to the various discussions and debates.

It also offers the chance to get to know more about where your kids go and to influence things about it you want to change.

A sense of community and shared goals.

The chance to work with an impressive group of professionals from a diverse range of professions and to learn from each other.

The work sometimes dovetails with my day to day work so it complements my professional interests very well.

Contact with the school where my four children were students for a total of 15 years, and an opportunity to give something back.

I enjoy feeling that as a governing body we make a real difference to the ethos and strategic direction of the school, ensuring that all our students can grow into informed and well-rounded participants in society.

I’m fairly new in the role so I’ve spent my first year listening and observing at meetings and I’ve attended a few training courses too so I feel better equipped now to know how to fulfil the role.

“It’s all about putting something back”

The School Governing Body comprises people with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, which all make a difference and add something to the running of the school. For instance:

Having worked for 20 years in business I believe I can offer both level headed and analytical skills to go alongside deep pastoral concern for the fate of every child and member of staff in school.

As I work in education I can offer knowledge and skills in policy, research and professional development as well as information about resources.

I’ve learned business management and leadership skills over 30 years at work, which I can use to help make good decisions and support the school.

I have a particular interest in addressing climate change, I am working with the student Eco Council to try and help them bring about greater environmental awareness and sustainability.

I realised the need for the school to have people from the community to share their knowledge and experience to improve the school, not just educationalists who can get stuck in one mind set.

Make a Difference. Be a Mentor

I am lucky enough to work with a school that runs a mentoring programme for the students, and I know what a difference it makes. If you have time and skills to share, give mentoring a go…

You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” – John Bunyan

I had the pleasure of mentoring a young woman, who was hurtling towards the end of her school career, predicted not to get the target of 5 GCSEs and not to pass English, or Maths, which would make her future career choices really tough. One of the key tenets of mentoring is confidentiality, but let’s call her Tess. Imagine a girl that’s bright, popular, finds teachers boring, and has been on a downward trajectory of poor results, feeding ever lower expectations, and a bigger “don’t care” attitude. In fact you may know someone like Tess, or even have been a Tess!

The school saw the potential in Tess and asked her (and her parents’ permission) to join the mentoring programme. The outcome was:

Tess passed 9 GCSEs, including English and Maths!

It works like this…. A mentor is not an authority figure; they don’t tell, they ask; their ideas and suggestions don’t come with emotional baggage or professional pride – you can’t let them down. There are no bad marks or penalties: the mentee’s actions are their own choices, they set their own objectives, and judge their own achievements.

As a mentor, I always focus on the positives: What are you best at/enjoy most? How can you do more of those? What steps forward and/or little successes have you made this week? What could you try next? And so on. Tess and I never discussed missed deadlines, things she didn’t or couldn’t do, problems in class or at home.

A mentor is not a counsellor, a teacher, or a friend. Mentors are people with life and work experience, who are giving their time freely, and this implies that there is purpose and value in the process and the person. The school must also value and believe in the student to have included them in the programme. Therefore – “I must be worth something”.

And of course they are, and an hour every week or so, is not a big price for such an important investment. In return you get the pride and reward of making a difference at a turning point in a young person’s life and, like me, you might find that you learn a lot too.

A little more conversation, a little more action

We all know how important communication is to managing successful change, and I’ve done a lot of change projects, involving a lot of communication. But I recently experienced, from the ‘other side’, the impact of getting the communications wrong.

To manage change positively, we use a variety of communication techniques to:

  • sell the vision for what we’re trying to achieve
  • inspire others to join in with enthusiasm
  • enable individuals to understand the benefits of the change and the impact on them personally
  • engage people in contributing to the change; ideas and making things happen
  • share progress and achievements, to keep us all motivated
  • listen to feedback and learn from the experience

But if we skimp on the communication, or do it badly, people can quickly become cynical or fearful of the change, lose the unity of purpose and start moving in different directions. They can conjure up all sorts of alternative, negative scenarios, or feel left behind and start criticising from the sidelines. If we don’t know what’s going on, we feel stressed, lose confidence, become less effective, maybe even disruptive.

Human beings are capable of amazing feats of courage, but left in the dark people imagine all sorts of beasties and become frightened of the bogeyman.

So, for a recent assignment, I dedicated a huge amount of my time and energy on thorough and creative communication and was really pleased with how things were going until…..

I started picking up on small signs from my client that there were some other changes in the offing: changes in reporting arrangements, conflicting messages about other corporate priorities, overlooked commitments, missed meetings, all got me thinking – “hmmm, what’s going on?” But nothing was being said.

So why, when it seems so obvious that communication is essential, do managers succumb to the temptation of saying nothing?

  • we’ll wait until we have all the answers
  • I don’t want to upset people until I have to
  • they might tell other people (and get it wrong)
  • I don’t want to distract them from their work
  • it hasn’t all been agreed by the Board yet
  • there are some confidential, or sensitive details, I can’t share

Despite all my experience as a manager, and many successful change projects, I  was taken aback by the impact the lack of communication had on me: I put 2 and 2 together and made 7;  started worrying that I hadn’t met expectations; thought of all sorts of negative scenarios; and lost quite a lot of time, energy and motivation. All of which could have been avoided if the client had simply shared with me what changes they were considering (which turned out to be no problem, by the way).

It’s almost never as bad knowing, as not knowing.

Something I have always believed, but this was a great learning experience, and reminder of why communication is so important to successful change management.

The art of communication is the language of leadership.” — James Humes