Last week I drove to Greenacre Academy in Walderslade on the edge of Chatham, Kent. It was a crisp, cold day and it was all the usual bustle of the beginning of the school day. I was visiting this good boys' school, full of 11-plus failures, to see Angela Maiers' work on self-belief in action.
Angela has been a US-based educator for almost 30 years, and has spent much of that time teaching five-year-olds. Five years ago, she founded Choose2Matter. Since then she has grown a global movement, which claims to have engaged over a million children, evangelically telling them, "You are a genius and the world needs your contribution."
She signs off her emails with, “You Matter."
Last year I met Angela at a breakfast meeting in her newly adopted home city of Denver. It was three days after the Brexit referendum. I was still reeling from the clear message that swathes of my fellow Brits felt that they had been ignored for too long, that they didn't matter. To hear this whirlwind of energy talk about the importance of "mattering" struck a chord.
The last Labour government was proud of the "Every Child Matters" initiative – this woman not only believes that message, but lives it. This year I had the opportunity to get her over to London for the Bett ed-tech show, thanks to TES and Smart Technologies. I agreed to co-present with her on the Wednesday morning [today, January 25].
But first I wanted to set her the challenge of making this brash, arrogant-sounding approach work for children in reserved England – and in challenging areas like the Thames Estuary. Hence my visit to Greenacre.
Angela had to lead a session with 39 boys aged 11-18, and take them from their arrival at school on a cold Thursday to feeling empowered and committed to achieve change collectively and individually. In just two hours.
'One boy apologised for not identifying his own genius'
At the end I had two talking to me about the changes to school they wanted me to help them with. Angela’s alchemy had given them the confidence to press their case for change to an ex-schools minister and member of the House of Lords.
But next to me a young man in his late teens was weeping on Angela’s shoulder. He was apologising for not self-identifying as having genius at the beginning of the session, but promising he would never be too scared to promote himself and his talents again.
By the end of the day the group of boys had met again and decided they wanted to do more to scale this work in their school. They emailed Angela and asked to Skype her the next morning.
So as we arrived at St Clere’s School in Essex, we did that, and they all agreed to train the teachers in their school in this work over the next few weeks.
This felt like an extraordinary outcome. But it wasn’t a one-off. Angela pulled off the same trick in Essex with a mixed-gender pupil-premium group from Thurrock, and then with eight- and nine-year-olds in Paddington.
It seems that our young people find it much easier to reconnect with the unabashed enthusiasm of their five-year-old selves than adults. Our cynicism and reserve is ingrained, but it seems children can still believe that they have an important contribution.
Angela Maiers’ work shows us that every child matters if we empower and listen to them. In the three schools she has visited on this trip to the UK, she has done that and I look forward to hearing of their results.
Meanwhile, Smart Technologies is distributing free copies of her new book and TES' website has a complete set of lesson plans for teachers who want join her global community and roll out her work.
Jim Knight is chief education adviser to TES Global, parent company of TES, and a former Labour schools minister. He tweets as @jimpknight