Achieve More: Susan Young reporting on NAHT keynote delivered by Marcus

Marcus Orlovsky wows the crowd

Marcus Orlovsky, the morning’s keynote speaker, is possibly one of the most extraordinary individuals to grace a conference floor.

I’m one of the few in the room to have seen him speak before – at the NAHT’s previous Education Conference in York last month – where an extraordinary personal story unfolded, right to the last moments of his talk.

Orlovsky now runs an education-focused organisation called Bryanston Square which specialises in rethinking what learning is all about, challenging assumptions. Before this, his own personal history includes being a director of Ernst and Young, founder of IT consultancy Gresham Bell, and Project Finance Director at a company which recently recreated some of London’s iconic spaces, such as Ludgate. He was also, as Gail Larkin cheerily tells us, a used car salesman.

Orlovsky, however, is far from being the shark-in-a-suit you might expect from that CV. He tells, almost in passing, of the violence from his father which left him with impaired senses. And he’s now more than six weeks on from a massive stroke, which he’d survived just two and a half weeks before his last conference appearance. Over lunch, he’d revealed that he’d always been determined to make the date – but even in the moments before his opening words, he’d been wondering what would emerge. During today’s session, he shows footage of his struggles to relearn the basics, such as telling the time, and points out that he’s “passionate about people’s destiny and doesn’t give a shit about their history.”

So you get the idea, a bit. It’s hard to convey what Orlovsky says in many ways, because his presentation starts in a very stream-of-consciousness way, musing over the London skyline, the ubiquitous internet, creativity, bionic limbs, and very much more.

A favourite part of the talk is where he shows footage of a baby giggling madly as a pair of adult hands rips up paper in front of her. “That’s her father’s rejection letters for the jobs he’s applied for,” says Orlovsky tartly. The modern world is a mad place, and he’s both outraged and engaged.

But gradually his vision begins to take shape, and his love of children, creativity and education begins to emerge, to the obvious pleasure of the head teachers in the room.

He talks about the comet landing, shows us a photo of some children huddled together and reading, and continues: “We want to create magic. One of these is going to be the new Shakespeare, one will create craft which will land on a comet – and then be criticised if it bounces – but one of these is going to do that. The reality is that we can unlock things,  or just allow the rain to come and wash away rubbish.

“Do you remember being this girl, bursting to tell? It should be an Ofsted characteristic – how many bursting to tell moments are there in your school? Wouldn’t it be lovely if when kids go home they go on and on about their day? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Instead of texts saying your child is late, texts saying your Johnny is amazing today come and talk to me about how amazing your son was… wouldn’t that be wonderful? Let’s have bursting to tell moments  instead of kids wondering about what their future is, they genuinely make you really proud.”

Death Valley is an example he gives: there, it rains once in 35 years – and up pops a photo on his screen of the lush vegetation and flowers which appear shortly afterwards. “All this stuff is waiting to be rained on. I wonder how many of us know children who are waiting to be rained on?”

Insanity, he says, is  doing the same thing the  same way and expecting a different result. 

He suggests ways of letting children show what they can do, showing a film made by primary children about loneliness in their school. “Was that bloody good? They are getting the words and music in the right places, it’s phenomenal how am I going to unlock it if I just give them phonics? I have to see what they’re capable of. It’s about opportunity mindsets.”

Showing some amazing artwork and writing, where children were given as long as they need, he sneered at the thought that you’d instead say hurry up, we’re going to do phonics. 

He said: “Why not just make it lovely? School should be a place you love.” Install a bread oven, put displays all over the walls, he says. “ We can have fun. That is what is missing in a lot of our schools, having fun. We get caught up in data and rules and regulations. Where the hell is this going?”

And then comes the really inspirational educational stories and thoughts: about how Orlovsky and his team stuck a little hut for making pizzas in the grounds of one school, how they transformed a run-down special school into something called The Bee Hive, with a bit of lateral thinking. There, the hydrotherapy pool is part of a spa, open to all, where there’s a public restaurant staffed by students.

He concludes: “Now we’ve got conferencing and a spa: lets get rid of these mindsets. What are your dreams, your real dreams? What do want to feel proud of? What’s your bursting to tell moment? Let’s cut through all the stuff holding us back try and get there. Lets cut loose – loose and tight. Dare to dream. Let’s go and make it rain: the very best of luck”

You may not be surprised to hear that a queue of school leaders are waiting to shake his hand and thank him at the end of the session.


Susan Young, education journalist, will be commenting live from the NAHT education conference 2014

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