I’ve just returned from the UK where I had been invited to participate in the CSCLeaders conference. CSC is an annual global conference that brings together about 100 leaders from across the Commonwealth. The conference is run in partnership between Common Purpose and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Study Conference which began in 1956.
Aside from being a great privilege to participate, the conference was very much PBL for leaders. Here were 100 culturally diverse leaders from all sectors including government, military, police, education, banking and finance, not for profits, religious groups, activists and the arts coming together to tackle a global challenge. This year, the challenge set for participants was how do you get disparate communities spread across the world to become bridge makers in the global networks of the future?
The conference spanned eight days and was structured in three parts. The first three days we had input from prominent speakers on the political, social, economic, cultural and environmental challenges of the 21st century. This was followed by discussion within our groups. The next three days included site visits to one of five cities in the UK which contextualised the challenge by giving us an opportunity to see how local communities were tackling the challenge of becoming ‘bridge-makers’. Groups were able to then meet with local community, educational, business and faith leaders. I was fortunate to have spent my study tour in the London borough of Tower Hamlets because Hargreaves and Shirley include it in their book The Fourth Way as a turned-around district for its schools.
Tower Hamlets is one of the most culturally diverse boroughs of London and a stone’s throw away from the financial and media district of Canary Wharf. There is a huge population of Bangladeshi migrants – the largest community in the UK. It also has the highest rate of child poverty in London but as Hargreaves and Shirley state the schools in TH were able to dramatically turn around in a decade from one of the worst performing to performing above the national average. The reason for this dramatic turnaround was the community coming together to create and build new capacity.
According to Hargreaves and Shirley, the schools improved because services were integrated, school leaders were visionary; they were able to attract high performing teachers who stayed and positive partnerships have been developed between schools, business, community and religious organisations. The Tower Hamlets schools became responsible for each other by setting their own ambitious targets for students. One of the directors quoted in the Fourth Way said “poverty is not an excuse for poor outcomes.”
I spoke to the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman and the head teacher at Swanlea School, Brenda Landers. Swanlea has 1000 students enrolled and was judged by OFSTED to be ‘outstanding in all areas’. Brenda attributes the school’s success to a sharp focus on the data and an investment in building the capacity of teachers.
The final three days were spent in Oxford where groups shared their reflections of the study tours. We synthesized ideas and data then tried to identify innovative practices that the Commonwealth nations might adopt to build leadership capacity at local and global level. We also reflected on how we could collectively try and tackle some of these 21st century challenges.
A major element of the conference was networking opportunities which included lunch and dinner engagements with HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and HRH Princess Royal and business leaders. These networks aside from creating the opportunity to bring more people into an ever expanding network of critical thinkers, problem-solvers and exceptional leaders will hopefully sustain the work in years to come. The next part of the conference takes us to Mumbai or Johannesburg in June where we get to explore the challenge in the context of a vastly different city.
In reflecting on this experience, two important things struck me that were neither obvious or explicitly stated. The first is that CSCLeaders brings together culturally diverse people who share a common purpose of leading organisations into the 21st century. Despite the diversity, there are common threads uniting us all. These threads include a passion for the work we do, a drive to seek new ways and solutions to challenges and the recognition that in this century you cannot do this alone, interdependence demands collaboration at every level.
The second is that depending on which nation of the Commonwealth you were born in, your perception of the world is vastly different. Members from developing nations are looking for the recognition that they have something valuable to contribute. They do not seek “a leg up” but want to be active citizens in building better societies.
The above made me think about how we go about the work we are doing with our school communities here in Parramatta and raised so many questions for me. Have we have tapped into the rich diversity of our school communities and started from where they are rather then where they should be? Are we stifling innovation or failing to nurture it? What are the new models we need to explore to build leaders capacities and so on.
This conference taught me many things but key was the value of multiple data sets and the evidence it draws as well as the critical need to interrogate the data from several different points of view. Listening to other leaders and hearing what the data and evidence says to them was a real eye-opener and often altered my own understanding.
For me the most important message I can share is that no matter your experience or expertise base, there is always something to learn. Living in a global village demands that I need to be a life-long learner as well.