So what if it's a cult: now I'm a believer
I have been brainwashed. A single weekend embedded on a Future Leaders residential training course in the company of 60 teachers desperate to become heads of some of England's toughest schools, and I'm a believer.
At times it felt like an episode of The Apprentice and at others like being co-opted into an evangelical religious cult.
Actually the Apprentice comparison is probably a little unfair. The gaggle of sharp-suited young(ish) teachers waiting at St Pancras station did look as if they could be on their way to a boardroom grilling from Sir Alan.
And there was plenty of go-getting language from this very driven group of "mission centred", "on the bus" people.
But unlike the BBC reality show, the Future Leaders scheme is not a competition, no one gets fired, and the idea is that everybody - the participants, their pupils, teachers, schools, communities and the country as a whole - wins.
The aim is to give a carefully selected group of qualified teachers the training and support they need to put them on a fast track to leading "challenging urban schools" and transforming the chances of the pupils that attend them.
And instead of the dog-eat-dog culture of participants ratting on each other and doing anything to save their own necks, Future Leaders is creating mutually supportive networks that should last for years.
At the heart of the scheme is a very simple premise: all children can achieve no matter what their background, and for that to happen expectations must be high.
It is all about belief. If the teachers believe it is possible, so will the pupils. And if the pupils believe it is possible, they will succeed.
For a journalist like me who has spent years writing about the inequities of judging schools on their exam results without taking pupil background into account, that is a challenging concept.
My conversion began the minute I got on the train to Nottingham for the course at the swanky National College for School Leadership.
Sitting next to me was Dan Morrow, who less than five years ago was a highly paid Hollywood accountant living in LA, working on blockbusters such as Pirates of the Caribbean and hobnobbing with Keira Knightley and Johnny Depp.
Today the 30-year-old is a passionate assistant head at Ashburton Community School, Croydon (soon to become Oasis Academy, Shirley Park). He chose the secondary specifically because of its archetypal "challenging" urban intake, with high percentages of minority ethnic, asylum-seeker and refugee pupils, low achievers and those eligible for free school meals.
"If it hadn't been for a number of teachers I would never have got where I got to," he says, explaining his decision to swap the glamour of Hollywood for the grit of Croydon.
"It is about seeing that potential in other people and seeing that you can make a difference."
Brought up in a single-parent family in deprived, working-class Gillingham, Mr Morrow was the only one of his primary class to gain entry to a grammar school in middle-class Rochester before going on to Oxford University. He remains conscious that dropping a few marks on his 11-plus would have led to a very different future.
"Those people who I grew up with were not stupid. They had lots of potential, but they were failed and it is not fair."
Is it really realistic to expect schools to get all children to achieve despite the handicap of deprived backgrounds?
"Social background is not a handicap," he says "It is something that needs to be factored in with a more tailored approach, but it is not a handicap."
My resistance was already crumbling, and the course hadn't even started. Over the weekend a series of encounters with relentlessly friendly, positive and frankly inspiring Future Leaders continued to knock huge chunks out of my natural scepticism.
And they were going through the same process, as course leader and Future Leaders co-founder, Sir Iain Hall delivered a continuously positive mantra about what could be achieved in "complex urban" schools.
A former head with 23 years' experience leading inner-city schools in Manchester and Liverpool, he is keen to promote his concept of the "100 per cent school" where everyone succeeds, with no exceptions.
"Deep down I really believe that every child can achieve," he tells the course. "But if you don't believe it, it will never happen."
He doesn't pretend it will be easy, warning participants that they will have to "slay the four horsemen of the urban school": social, cultural, aspirational and basic skills deprivation.
They are played inspirational speeches from Shakespeare's Henry V, JFK, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. At one point the Future Leaders are encouraged to chant, "Yes we can". Sir Iain says he wants them to become "awesome heads".
If it all sounds a bit American, that's not surprising. The scheme was originally conceived during a conversation in a New York diner between Sir Iain, representatives of Ark, the children's charity, the NCSL and the founder of an existing US programme called New Leaders for New Schools.
Now in its fourth year, the English scheme has been such a success that its American cousin has adopted many of its methods.
The belief that everyone can achieve is only one side of Future Leaders. Running alongside the evangelical positivity is plenty of hard-edged practical training and advice, from people who know, on how to tackle the many obstacles they are likely to encounter in urban schools in England.
The trainees are told they should learn the names of every single pupils in their school - even if that means taking home a book of photos and learning them by heart.
The best heads are always on duty in their schools, establishing relationships with their pupils, Sir Iain advises. It is policy, he admits, that makes for tiring work, but one that has big rewards.
"You get paid to be Peter Pan," he enthuses. "It is a privilege to tap into that youthful energy."
Then there is the potentially thorny issue of staffing after you are installed as school leader. Or, as Sir Iain puts it: "Get the right people on the bus, get them in the right seats and very quickly get the wrong people off the bus."
The reaction to this message when I chat to trainees in the bar is illuminating. It is accepted that sacking bad teachers is something they may have to do, but there is nothing gung ho about their attitudes.
Indeed, one Future Leader says she believes that just as there are no pupils who do not want to learn, there are no teachers who do not want to be good at their jobs.
A "virtual school" - a fictional secondary complete with staff and pupils' profiles, stats, Ofsted report, potted history and lesson observations - is used to allow the trainees to try out their strategies.
On the weekend I attended, the students had to make introductory speeches to their virtual staffroom, with course coaches playing the role of awkward-squad teachers before providing feedback.
One trainee sounded quite nervous, but was complimented on her speech because she had managed to articulate her vision to try to get staff on side.
But another, whose speech sounded much slicker and more confident, was hammered in the feedback because of the "take no prisoners" attitude he adopted during questions from his sceptical fictional teachers. The same approach in a real staffroom would have provoked "open warfare", he was warned.
Humility, along with passion, self-awareness and resilience are all qualities looked for when selecting Future Leaders trainees.
An exhaustive application process ensures the quality is high. But isn't the scheme running the risk of repeating the mistake of the discredited "superheads" policy by expecting one person to make the difference, I ask Sir Keith Ajegbo, one of the course coaches and a former superhead himself.
"The course is looking at leadership, but in terms of how you work with others," he responds. "It is not saying you go in as a superhead and with the force of your charisma and personality turn the school around. It goes much deeper."
Will it work? At the very least it has created an ever-expanding network of school leaders, all passionately committed to helping their pupils succeed against the odds.
Their disadvantages will still be there, but they will have heads and teachers who genuinely believe they can be overcome.
"I would describe myself as a realist," is how Dan Morrow sums it up. "But why not change the reality?"
'THE ONLY OBSTACLES ARE LOW EXPECTATIONS'
Gwyneth Gibson is driven by the "baptism of fire" she experienced in her second teaching job, at a south London secondary.
"It really was a challenging urban school in every sense," the Future Leader explains. "Poor management, disaffected children and an awful environment.
"The kids came from Peckham and Brixton and you had all that gang culture. It was very violent and the teachers that worked there had nightmare lives.
"You had to have security - the kids let fireworks off down the corridor, the gangs would come in and drag kids out of your class to have a fight. A couple of teachers got beaten up by kids."
The final straw came when teachers were told not to approach certain pupils.
"I said: 'I can't work anywhere when I am not allowed to approach a kid'."
But despite the "absolute madness", Ms Gibson cried when she left. "I loved the kids, I just felt that they had no hope and that nobody cared. They were so angry with me."
Today, the 40-year-old's goal is to lead a similar school and build a real community instead of "just firefighting".
"I believe that all children can achieve. I don't think there are any obstacles to achievement other than people's low expectations.
"Every time I am knackered and I think 'I don't want to do this any more' I think of that school. And of those kids and their faces when I left them."
'CHANGE THE REALITY'
- Future Leaders trainees, who must be qualified teachers, attend three residential courses - two weekends and a fortnight in the summer - before taking up a year's residency as a deputy or assistant head in an urban school in London, Greater Manchester or the West Midlands.
- They are then supported in applying for a permanent job with the hope they can head their own school within five years. Four Future Leaders have already reached that goal.
- Now in its fourth cohort, 75 places were available this year, but only 60 of 400 applicants were accepted.
- The scheme is run by a partnership between the National College for School Leadership, the Absolute Return for Kids charity and the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust: www.future-leaders.org.uk.
YES WE CAN
Future Leaders is based around five beliefs:
- Every Child: all children can achieve even in complex urban environments.
- No Excuses: adults (teachers and other school staff, parents and carers) are responsible for ensuring all children reach their potential.
- High Expectations: providing a high-quality education is vital for a fair society that affords every child the full range of opportunities in life.
- Lead Learning: great schools are led by great leaders who focus on learning and attract and develop great staff to reach every child.
- No Islands: a large number of excellent school leaders can lead to a sustainable improvement across the education system.