EDDi XXXIII - In Conversation

February, 2021 (In Conversation With...)

In Conversation with Deborah Eyre

Interview by Dr Stephen Whitehead

Only very occasionally does one meet an individual, an educationalist, who transcends the ordinary or even the exceptional.

And yes, education is full of exceptional people, individuals who are passionate, committed and determined to make a positive difference to the world. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and work with many such professionals.

But if you can find me someone more passionate about education as the vehicle for human potential than the woman who is the focus of this article, then I’d love to meet them.

Deborah Eyre, Founder and Chair of High Performance Learning.

I first came across Deborah exactly six years ago, when she wrote an article in The Guardian titled “Why do so few women apply for top jobs in international schools?’. That caught my eye, especially when I noted she was the Education Director for Nord Anglia Education.

Clearly, here was a woman leader, a Senior Executive, who had not only risen high in the then rapidly expanding corporatised world of international schooling, but who kept a firm eye on the issues that really matter in education - equality and equity, for instance - and was happy to publicly declare such.

Six years on and Deborah’s passion for change and improvement across all aspects of education is as strong and bright as ever. Only now she is running her own company, HPL.

Deborah founded HPL in August 2015, and in a remarkably short time has made it a serious global player in education. An impressive number of institutions have signed up to become accredited HPL schools, ranging from top international schools (e.g. Harrow, Bangkok; GEMS Wellington Academy-Al Khail; Doha College) to a host of independent and state schools across the UK.

But what is High Performance Learning?

The core philosophy of HPL is that every student can achieve high performance. So rather than categorise students by ability, we expect high performance from everyone and systematically build towards it. An HPL school will have systems in place that steer students towards this objective.”

Who could argue against that aspiration for all our students?

Unfortunately, as we educationalists well know, the ‘no child left behind’ philosophy has translated into an unhealthy obsession with outcomes; schools more concerned with meeting targets and their standing in league tables.

“The focus on outcomes, in the UK particularly, has led to these unintended consequences which is that people game the system. For example, the education up to Year 11 is not particularly strong and then in Year 11 they push in extra resources and train students to get through the exam.”

What and HPL are focused on is a much more constructivist paradigm which recognises that a student’s progress is a journey with students moving through their education in a way which is a positive experience that leads to a positive outcome. All the evidence suggests, and my own research, that more students could reach that positive outcome. But unfortunately, we’re still in that bell-curve with most schools expecting some students to do well, most to do okay, and some to struggle. And when schools are in that mindset, that is the outcome they are going to get.”

And this is where HPL becomes not just another important player in global education, but an organisation determined, as Deborah puts it, “to changing that story.”

Most educationalists may well be open-minded liberalists, motivated by intrinsic, altruistic values, but they can also be diehard reactionaries and conservatives, especially when it comes to results. That ‘bell-curve’ mindset is well and truly embedded in global education, reinforced by traditional teaching and learning methods, rigid assessments, and a performative work culture.

There are a great number of educationalists who’d like to see an end to that culture, but not many working as determinedly as Deborah, and HPL, to bring that end about. Indeed, there is an urgency in her narrative, which stems from her realising the world is changing fast and global education now needs to catch up.

“When we at HPL are talking to schools about what kind of students they need to create for the future there is still this tendency to think in terms of competencies and grades. We at HPL think these are important and much of what we do is build the cognitive competencies that deliver them. But we also believe that in order for students to thrive as adults, they need to be independent, think for themselves, be enterprising, they need to learn fast and with confidence, because we cannot predict what they are going to need to learn, what skills they will require as adults. But at the same time, they need to develop empathy, open-mindedness, emotional intelligence.

And these are all teachable!”

As Deborah stresses, these are not just value-added traits for students to pick-up in some ad-hoc fashion:

they are absolutely fundamental, essential for people to thrive in their later life and therefore we need to be developing them systematically in schools.”

By this time, and I am only a 10-minutes into recording the interview, I’m realising that Deborah Eyre is not just an educationalist, she’s a revolutionary.

And I’m fully on her side.

At the same time, what she is espousing is not revolutionary but common-sense, backed up by all the evidence, both empirical and subjective.

If schools around the world could turn out students who were emotionally intelligent, confident, open-minded, empathetic, reflective, and enterprising, humanity’s future would be assured.

Which right now, it is not.

So, having identified the fundamental ideas and philosophy behind Deborah’s company, HPL, how does this link to her own learning and career path?

“I’ve had a long career in education, moving through the trajectory of teacher, Local Authority Advisor, into academia. I spent a significant amount of my time as a university researcher and academic leader and I ended up running the National Academy for the Gifted and Talented for the UK government. Then I moved into international consultancy and onto Director of Education for Nord Anglia Education.

That might look a little like a jungle gym, as to why I went from one thing to another, but the thing that ties it altogether is my interest in why some students find it easy to learn and others don’t.

“The reason why HPL came around as a concept and then as an organisation, is the conclusion I came to around 2007-8, backed up by mine and others research, which is that there isn’t a sub-set of the population who are more able than others. Educational attainment is the result of circumstance, personal motivation, a complex range of things which make some people perform highly.”

As Deborah goes on to point out, many ‘gifted’ students don’t necessarily do well in adulthood, while many who failed to shine at school can be high achievers later in life.

As she spoke these words I couldn’t help but be reminded of all the 60- something British academics I know (PhD holders) who failed their 11+ exam. Me included.

Faced with this messy human complexity, where no one can accurately predict future success based on educational achievements at school, where does that leave teachers, struggling to get the best out of all students while also being judged against often crude targets and performance indicators?

“There are characteristics of those who do well at school, how they think and learn, and these are potentially replicable, so you could teach other people to demonstrate those behaviours. I did a big research piece for Routledge which led to me reviewing all the evidence on this, and in 2010 I wrote a Think Tank paper [for the London based Think tank Policy Exchange] which said that on the basis of everything we know - neuroscience, psychology, sociology, education, genetics – we should be abandoning concepts of ability as being fixed and determining students’ outcomes, and instead recognising that we now know we can build people’s brains and not a little. Far more people could become high performers”

That’s a big one – teachers as the ultimate brain surgeons.

And why not?

The plasticity of the brain is now acknowledged by all but the most diehard biological determinist. Brains are not fixed, they are adapters. They respond to external stimuli, and change accordingly. What you and I are is nothing more or less than the product of a lifetime’s input into our brains, input we’ve had little or no control over.

That is both frightening and encouraging.

Frightening because one can see very clearly how years of toxic input creates toxic individuals. Encouraging because it shows how positive input can benefit a person enormously, not just at school but throughout their lives.

Unfortunately, so much is left to chance: our parents, our time and place of birth, our gender/sex, our class, culture and religion, all the discourses that coalesce to make the individual.

The one common factor for virtually all children is, of course, schooling.

They get to go to school. They get to be taught. By teachers.

Children spend more time with their teachers than with their parents. Teachers, schools, ministries of education around the world, they are certainly influencing the minds of millions of children, but are they doing so in a positive way? Indeed, do they really know what they are doing, other than getting young people to pass exams, replicate social and cultural norms, become another ‘brick in the wall’?

Perhaps all teacher education should begin with advising novice teachers that they are the ultimate brain surgeons, building the brains of the next generation. At least that would alert them to their massive responsibility.

The problem with this approach is, of course, that it places responsibility for children’s future firmly in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats as well as educationalists. Which is why politicians tend to prefer biologically deterministic approaches; testing ability, categorising from those tests, labelling, predetermining people’s life chances (e.g. the 11+ plus exam).

If we accept that we can build children’s brains, then maybe we’d think more carefully about what type of schooling our children need, deserve.

Indeed, we are building children’s brains whether we realise it or not. The difference is that Deborah’s and the HPL approach is not happenstance, where a child who succeeds largely does so through circumstance, it is structured and based not only on research but worthwhile and immensely important human principles.

Unfortunately, as Deborah can attest, moving to this ‘promised land’ won’t be easy.

“In 2010, when I made that statement, the response to it was two-fold. One response was to say ‘you’re wrong, in many parts of the world we are identifying people as early as possible and putting them on different flight paths and what you are suggesting is the polar opposite.’ But there was also a more positive response from those who were intrigued by the idea, recognised it was strongly evidence based, but couldn’t image what it would look like in school, as school practice.”

“That was the challenge to me, to see how I could codify this into a system that could be used in schools.”

Deborah then set about deploying her research conclusions, regarding the universal potential of all students to be high performers, and during her time at Nord Anglia, using some of this work in their schools.

“The results were compelling, they exceeded my expectations. This convinced me that the research was correct and therefore this concept had legs. At which point I realised I wanted to spend the last part of my career to make use of the forty years of experience and research I’ve done to make a system-wide difference to the lives of children and young people.”

Enter then, High Performance Learning.

“HPL is set up to help schools move across to this way of thinking. I codified the competencies which make a difference to student attainment, and established schemes to enable schools to adopt this approach and become accredited as HPL schools.”

Of course, teachers are not short of experts suggesting now how education needs to be improved, but they are short of time in which to implement and test out new teaching and learning approaches. Added to which, many schools, come from conservative education traditions and are not even close to implementing student centred learning styles or differentiated teaching, never mind HPL.

What Deborah, and HPL, require from a school is not lip-service to ‘another good idea’ but a wholehearted, uncompromising, commitment to adjusting and strengthening the way they teach.

“The HPL approach is not prescriptive, it is a not a programme, it is a framework that allows some autonomy, but it has to be holistic. It cannot succeed if a school simply attempts to add it on to everything else they are doing. It has to become the DNA of the school. And it is not just about the students. HPL is more optimistic about what students can achieve, therefore it ignites teachers’ interest. We find teachers like working in this way. And as for parents, what is not to like when a school tells them they believe every child can be a potentially high performer?”

If only we could get schools (and politicians) to move away from the current binary model of education as success/failure; where kids get tested as young at 5 years of age, spend the next 15 years being assessed against limited, prescriptive, often outdated forms of measurement, all of which places them on trajectory which ends up confirming the expectations of adults, be it their parents or their teachers. This current obsession with performative measurement may suit political agendas, but it certainly doesn’t suit those that matter in education – the students.

“HPL creates a more positive culture within a school, and a better sense of well-being. So when you ask what impact has this had, the response is ‘Yes, all our students are performing more highly.”

“And our data proves it. Last year, 67% of our schools had the best academic results in the history of the school, and that includes some very prestigious International and UK independent schools. But the cultural aspects are at least as compelling and important, because it is the more satisfying and enjoyable journey the students are having, in fact all those in the institution.

Deborah’s aim in establishing HPL was to improve the life chances of people, young and old. That aim is as strong as ever but now she recognises other benefits beyond learning outcomes.

“The best schools in the world or those looking to join them was where we started but in the medium term, this approach has massive potential for students in more disadvantaged situations. One of the things that stops students from doing well is that they don’t understand how to do well. No one is explaining this to them. With some families, that understanding is part of their day-to-day life, in other families it is not there at all. So we are now starting to do pilot work in this area. We currently have a big project with White Rose Academies Trust in Leeds (UK) working with schools in very challenging areas.

According to Deborah, HPL can:

work with any curriculum in any language. It is flexible to work in any culture. But there are many schools where we can pretty much guarantee it will make a big difference.”

When talking to Deborah about HPL and education more broadly I quickly realised I was I interviewing someone who not only understood the pedagogical aspects of teaching and learning but who was fully embedded in the academic paradigm. Which is not surprising given she spent a good many years as a university lecturer which eventually led to a Professorship at Warwick University and a Visiting Academic position at Oxford University.

But as most academics can confirm, university life can be slow, meandering, and removed from daily realities, and Deborah is none of those, plus she was in a hurry to put her HPL theories into practice.

“I’ve always been a quite practical academic. I’ve wanted to theorise but then I’ve wanted to try it out in practice. My life has reflected that desire to have time to theorise and research but also to work in practice. In this latter part of my life I am prioritising the practice.”

“Most educational research rarely impacts on teaching practice. If I have a claim to fame it is that I codified the known knowledge about high performance learning and then made it useful in the school context. I’ve bridged the research and the practice. I find that very satisfying and worthwhile.”

Deborah is now working hard to create a critical mass of schools that are HPL accredited. These schools will adopt the HPL systems and from that, the wider school teaching and learning climate will change as more and more teachers become familiar and comfortable with HPL and adopt its methods.

I put it to Deborah that what she was attempting to achieve was global educational change regards HPL, with her organisation providing the knowledge, research, practice and systems for all schools to follow. Over time, and as more teachers engage with HPL, so will it become normalised within schools, functioning as a positive virus across education. And this will bypass governments and ministries of education, because it will happen despite government, despite political intransigence, tardiness or ignorance.

“Yes, you are exactly right. We are deliberately by-passing governments for that very reason! You’ve absolutely got it in one. The idea is we create a critical mass of schools who exemplify this way of working and they infect the system while acting as HPL advocates.”

And Deborah is certainly increasing the number of HPL advocates around the world.

“Last year, 62.2% of staff in HPL schools said they would always seek to work in an HPL school when they take their next step, professionally.”

Teachers like HPL, and if teachers like it then so will school leaders, especially if it helps create a healthier work culture and a climate of well-being for both staff and students.

But international and independent schools, being outside state education, have no financial safety net. Inevitably they become focussed on the bottom line – profit. And this invariably leads private school owners (many of whom are entrepreneurs, not educationalists) to be wary of any initiative that they might not fully understand or which challenges more traditional teaching methods. What Deborah is engaged in is, therefore, a dialogue between herself, the teachers, the school leaders and the school owners, and that will be tricky in some contexts.

“I’ve worked in the for-profit educational environment and I understand it. The situation is that the unit of resource in that environment is student numbers. What we can and do say to such schools is that having HPL as part of your brand, on your website, grows student numbers. And we can prove it.”

“And why does it grow student numbers? Well it’s because parents like it. They appreciate HPL is a way for their son or daughter to become really good learners, now and for the future. Marketing and admissions officers in schools tell us that when they are having a conversation with a potential family about their child, and they can say to the parents, ‘it does not matter how well your child has done up to now, our view is that when you give them to us, we can grow them into a high performer’ what is not to like about that?”

“The HPL philosophy is that a school should be able to deliver this higher student achievement regardless of the starting point or backgrounds of individuals.”

That is one compelling sell to any parent.

But how many schools can truly and honestly make such a claim? Very, very few.

That HPL schools are claiming guaranteed higher performance for every child and producing the evidence to back it up, really does speak volumes for the success of this approach.

In this stifling age of performativity, where schools have been forced into obsessing with league tables and targets, leading to ‘gaming of the system’ and in many instances a deliberate avoidance of accepting students labelled ‘low achievers’, the HPL way is nothing less than a breath of fresh air.

Rather than teachers endlessly explaining to parents why their child won’t achieve, the HPL way enables teachers to say, ‘your child will achieve if they come to us’. As Deborah says, ‘what is not to like about that?’.

But the HPL benefits don’t stop with enhanced student performance, happy teachers and a positive school climate. There is one more, rather unexpected benefit which will be of particular interest to any private school owner.

“What is particularly important for owners of schools who are not themselves educationalists is that having this kind of robust teaching and learning framework (HPL) means you are less reliant on the ‘Hero Head’.

What Deborah goes on to explain is that it is “quite risky for an owner who is a non-educationalist put all their eggs in that ‘must get the best Principal’ basket”.

I’ve seen this situation arise in a few schools – state, independent, international - where a charismatic ‘hero head’ gets appointed and loads of good things start happening. And they continue to happen but only for as long as that Head remains in post. And in most schools, such leaders don’t stay in post very long, especially if they are highly capable, being head-hunted, and developing an international reputation. They also become more expensive to employ.

“Many owners of international schools are not even in the country where their school(s) is located. Therefore, they are putting a lot of trust in one leader – the Principal. That excessive trust and reliance creates one single point of failure. If you have a really robust teaching and learning framework – which will always operate better in the hands of a very strong senior leader –in the hands of a less strong senior leader your school will still thrive. So for thoughtful school owners and governors, HPL creates risk mitigation.”

HPL offers not just guaranteed student success, but the embedding of teaching and learning systems which will be robust and secure enough to withstand the comings and goings of all types of teachers and leaders. To me, that has to be one monumental benefit, especially for international schools which typically have low teacher and leader retention rates.  

But it doesn’t end there.

We have a scheme in place for those new international and independent schools which are making big investments in facilities and staff to ensure they become leading players in regional and global education. The scheme guarantees that four years from the point they open they will be world-class. It takes them on a very demanding and ambitious journey in terms of their teaching and learning and HPL supports them all the way through that process.”

At that point in our interview I had to take a deep breath, as the implications of what I had just heard settled in. I asked Deborah to clarify what she’d told me, because for any organisation to make such an ambitious claim, and to such a tight timescale, speaks of either great confidence or high-risk hubris.

“What we say to the school owners, many of whom are not educationalists, is that if they go with HPL within four years they will be world class. At the end of four years they will receive HPL accreditation as a world-class school.”

Definitely not hubris, most definitely great confidence in HPL’s ability to deliver on its promises.

As I stated at the outset, an exceptional educationalist, not just a high performing professional herself, but someone possessing that very rare combination of vision and pragmatism.

Deborah Eyre; educationalist, business-woman, entrepreneur, professor, teacher, researcher, academic, senior executive. A woman so infused with ideas and enthusiasm that anyone listening to her espouse her vision for global education couldn’t fail to be moved.

Our interview lasted 90 minutes and this article only recounts a third of that. There is so much more, which will now have to wait until I write a follow-up piece sometime in the future.

Meanwhile, keep an eye on HPL because my bet is you’re going to hear a lot more of this vibrant organisation, and of Professor Deborah Eyre.


You can find out more by visiting the High Performance Learning website.


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