The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Bray the master builder

As headteacher Ollie Bray prepares to take up a global post at the Lego Foundation in Denmark, he explains why his experience in a progressive education system will stand him in such good stead

Ollie Bray, headteacher of Kingussie High School (KHS) in the highlands, is not leaving because he’s fed up of teaching, or because he’s stressed out or disillusioned. He’s not leaving for the money either, which he speculates will be “comparable” once the hefty Danish taxes are paid.

No, he’s leaving because he wants to bring the varied, transferable skills he’s honed via the Scottish education system to bear on the Lego Foundation’s global platform. His brief there? As initiatives lead, connecting play and learning, he’s tasked with promoting the value of play in educational settings, particularly beyond the primary years.

Lego’s corporate mission to “reinvent learning” and ensure learning is “fit for purpose, as well as playful”, says Bray, mirrors the personal mission he’s been on for the last five years as headteacher at KHS, where he’s turned the school around from low to high performing. He sees the move to the Danish toy giant’s charitable arm as an opportunity to continue this calling on a bigger scale.

He’s especially excited at the prospect of working with partners like MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten. Bray sees its ultimate goal – to create “a world full of playfully creative people, who are constantly inventing new possibilities for themselves and their communities” – as an extension of what he’s been trying to do in Scottish education for the last 20 years.

In fact, for the Englishman, working in Scotland has been the perfect preparation for the job because of its “progressive, world-class” approach to education, which gives educators “absolute permission” to achieve these ambitious goals.

“That permission is written into some of the core principles of Curriculum for Excellence (CFE). Some schools are embracing the possibilities really effectively. Lots of schools are starting to do it better. Some are not making it a priority when they should be. But the clear permission is there to innovate, play with the curriculum, create technology-rich environments and create more interdisciplinary learning.”

To explain how and why he believes the Scottish system is so flexible and permissive, he gets out his Lego kit, gives me six bricks and asks me to “build a duck”. He then takes mine apart, and makes his own version, putting the bricks together differently.

His point is that there’s more than one way to skin a cat, build a duck or, indeed, create a curriculum and culture within the Scottish educational framework that works for your particular pupils and community.

The joy of the Scottish system is that educators can arrange the bricks pretty much as they please, and he talks about having had the “professional freedom to grow my own school around the needs of the community”.

“Imagine that the ‘bricks’ are the system or curriculum in Scotland,” he says. “We’ve got the policy ‘bricks’, so how do we interpret them? We’ve got the qualification ‘bricks’, so how do we interpret them? And we’ve got the technology ‘bricks’, so how do we use them? For me it’s always been about putting those bricks in the best order.”

To answer these questions for his school, Bray has made getting out and about and into other schools, to see what is working best for them, a priority. For the most recent in-service day, for instance, every member of staff visited another school in Scotland to collect inspiration to improve KHS

“We take the best ‘brick’ from another school and adapt it for our local context to create a unique KHS foundation,” he says. “By doing that, we’ve been able to create something that is a little bit different, special and very targeted at individual users.”

This magpie-like skill of cherry-picking best practice is one he fully intends to exploit at the Lego Foundation, along with everything he’s learnt about creating a culture of collaboration and sharing. A key tenet of his leadership style has been encouraging his staff to “think of other schools and pupils in Scotland as important as their own”. This way, the entire ecosystem lifts. “Sharing ideas is a simple thing but it can have a massive impact on the whole,” he says.

Naturally, many headteachers facing the same challenge of approaching CFE creatively will argue there’s not enough money to do this effectively. That’s a perennial complaint, says Bray, but it’s not a lack of funds that primarily holds schools back, it’s a lack of imagination: “We’ve been able to do it, probably, with as much resource, or less, than any other school in Scotland working within exactly the same parameters.

“It’s about being optimistic and going out of your way to see what is possible and doing the best you can with the resources and children in front of you. If you do that, you will make a difference.”

Arguably, however, it’s been much easier for Bray than the average headteacher to flex these policy parameters to their limits because, thanks to a stint working for Scottish government, he has a deep understanding of the framework.

Arguably, too, innovation is easier when leading a failing school because something different has to be done as the status quo isn’t working, and so the stakes are lower. But Bray believes that complacency is a danger to the naturally progressive nature of CFE, and even high-performing schools should be constantly experimenting with the possibilities.

“It’s all very well to say ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, but businesses that have that attitude don’t innovate and they fail,” he says. “You don’t want to be the Kodak or Woolworths of education, resting on your laurels and, meanwhile, failing to keep up with the times.”

Sitting on his laurels is not something Bray does, always having a plan in his mind to stay at KHS for around five years before seeking the next challenge. As he prepares for his globe-trotting role at the Lego Foundation, he looks back at his years in Scottish education affectionately and feels “genuinely very positive” about the current state of the system.

“I wish that people would celebrate it more and realise some of those positives that we’ve got, especially the flexibility,” he says. “There’s just so much good stuff that goes on, we need to get better at sharing it.

“I’ll certainly be championing Scottish education in my new job and making sure people realise that we have a different education system, outwith the UK, and it’s got a huge amount of strengths that can be transferred to other systems.”