Trustees’ Meeting 25th May 2010

To all trustees:

Stormy Weather

As the leaders of the three main Parties began to move into unchartered waters last Friday afternoon, so did we.  Our storm (which has a relationship to the national political cross currents) started with a most difficult situation for me in our part of Bath where plans to move towards establishing an all-through school to replace a failing 11-16 comprehensive school hit the immovable rock of a 1960s socialist head teacher seeking to employ every distraction in the business!  The only significance of this to you is that I now know even more about why it is so hard to modernise schools, and to empower new generations not to become – as too many obviously are – dependent on the state.

The real storm hit me with Colin Skellett’s quick rejection of the Route Map I had proposed for the Merchant Venturers.

That it hit me hard was because, as several of you (together with my wife) have told me in no uncertain terms, that I have become so involved in this (and working excessively long hours) that I take such matters very personally.  As I did 18 months ago with Esmée Fairbairn.  That Colin and I had been talking since September, and that after giving him just what he had asked for he had turned us down without even the courtesy of a meeting, sent me into emotional overdrive.

I have a double problem – not only am I sensitive to the 25 years of effort that got us to this stage, I could be in a difficult financial situation as a result of this.  Three years ago, with the book at last coming on well and the early interest of the Conservatives (Dominic Cummings), I concluded that I was going to be extremely busy for the next three to five years.  Working on that assumption Anne and I went ahead and split our house to give us a self-contained, spacious, lower house that we could eventually move into sometime in the future, while retaining the four floors of the upper house for ourselves at the present time.  My calculation was that the rent from the lower house over a three-year period would enable us to recuperate some £60,000 of the cost of the alternations.  It is necessary for me to do this.  The prospect of losing some £45,000 salary from the Trust has been something of a sort of Damocles sword hanging over me for the past few years.

It is why, if I look at my desk and see the endless piles of correspondence that I daily push on to Susanne, I can now see that I have been rushing around like a mad thing.

This has been well brought home to me in recent weeks when having discussions with two much younger people each of whom, having read the book, feel that they really want to do whatever they can to help bring this about.  One of these is Richard Hornbrook, who I first met in my first year of teaching as a 12 year old and who, now at the age of 57, has just retired as Chief Executive of the Chelsea Building Society.  The other is a much younger person, Johanne Grosvold, a Norwegian who has travelled widely, was educated in the international schools and has a PhD in Business Administration, and is now a lecturer in Environmental Management at the University of Bath.   They say that they need no further proof of the value of our ideas – Richard from his experience in managing a large commercial operation, and Johanne with her knowledge of the weaknesses of the English school system as exemplified by how ill prepared are so many undergraduates for the work which she is doing with them.  What they fear is that the Trust is trying to do so many things at the same time, and I’m spread so thin, that we are effectively tiring ourselves out, and failing to achieve the scattered goals that we set for ourselves.

When both Richard, and two of the trustees, told me that I was exhausting myself by putting in a full five days a week (and frequently working at weekends), and getting progressively more tired and no longer being quick enough to realise when we are on the wrong track, we need to change our direction.

Because I had wanted to believe that Merchant Venturers would come through I have persuaded myself that that would enable us to return to the strategy of five years ago when (with the support of Birmingham and Manchester) we had the glorious opportunity of having 8-10 teachers a week here in the office using the library facilities, and then working with them to develop a change of strategy in their regions.  That was not a bad objective, it’s just that it never worked – partly because 3 or 5 days was not enough, and partly due to government legislation drastically reducing the numbers who could come.  It was by connecting to that way of thinking that I had assumed the office would have been a focal point for teachers from Bristol – should we have gone ahead with Merchant Venturers.

But, said Richard and Johanne, given the enormous value of what you are saying in the book, is it not short-sighted of you simply to pour all your energy into a Bristol, or Birmingham or Manchester, when your message should be going out all over the country?  (a sort of ‘don’t hide your light under a bushel’).  I have to agree with this… and that is what has been driving me to distraction because, quite simply – even if I had the right contacts – I can’t work under a national dissemination and get stuck in the details of rushing off yet another local book launch.

So, I suppose, I have exhausted myself to the stage where I couldn’t see the wood for the trees nor have I been able to see who it is who could help me to become better targeted.

Yesterday I realised that I had to rethink everything.  Looking at our budget I noted that, once we got to the end of August, we were likely to have only £34,000 left (plus the offer from TG to put in a further £10,000 sometime in the next financial year).  I immediately found myself questioning my earlier enthusiasm to spend some £16,000 on the office rent for the next 12 months, leaving only some £19,000 for all the other costs together with my salary.  Was the price of a ‘home’ for our books worth half our funds?

Not knowing really how to do this but accepting that I could perhaps exist with only the most relevant 1,000 or so books, I could store everything else.  Consequently, I notified the landlord’s agent yesterday that I could not sign the lease until I had met with you at our meeting on May 25th.  They accepted this in an email of this morning but said that they had another possible tenant (should we not sign up on the 25th) who they wanted to show around the premises this Friday afternoon.

Then there is the matter of the new government.  Working on the maxim that “the edge of chaos” is always the best place for radical ideas to be really considered, the current political landscape could emerge over the next few months as being just the place into which our ideas could seep.  If there is an opportunity to be taken the Initiative needs to be better equipped to explore this than I personally feel myself to be at the moment.  Not only do I need to be much sharper, but for us to be taken notice of the Initiative needs to be seen as having far more substance.

It is not just me who needs to be energised but it is the Board of Trustees that, after this interminable struggle, needs to be freshened up.  I hope I have not jumped the gun but I have already asked Richard if he would be prepared not only to become a trustee, but immediately (in advance of the trustees’ meeting) to help me prepare an action plan for the May 25th meeting on Strategic Issues.  Johanne is also very willing to help but so far I have not directly asked her to become a trustee.  With perhaps two or three of the existing trustees, these two or maybe one or two others, we should  have the core for a future Board of Trustees able to take us through the next few years.

As soon as I have this Action Plan I will mail it to you.  In the meantime could I have your approval to inviting Richard, and perhaps Johanne, to the trustees’ meeting?  If they do come may I please warn you that Johanne is probably young enough to be a grandchild of most of us, and Richard while only young enough to be a son, could easily give the impression of being a grandson!  The look of youth!

John Abbott

13th May 2010