Matthew Savage portrait

Written by Matthew Savage

Former international school Principal, proud father of two transgender adult children, Associate Consultant with LSC Education, and founder of #themonalisaeffect.

a wind has blown the rain away and blown

the sky away and all the leaves away,

and the trees stand. I think i too have known

autumn too long

(‘a wind has blown the rain away’, by e.e.cummings)


The westerly gales that frequently collide with our corner of Scotland at this time of year were so fierce last night that our front door was actually blown open. After battening it shut, I listened to the gusts howl across the moor, and began to think about the blog post I would write today. 

It is difficult to read about education today without some reference to raising attainment after the disruption of the pandemic, but chasing better outcomes is hardly a new phenomenon. However, under the scrutinous spotlight of inspectorate or government, we can too easily overlook the powerful winds that buffet our students daily, influencing their learning and, even more importantly, their wellbeing far more powerfully than ever could, say, the quality of their teaching or the effectiveness of their curriculum.

These winds are manifold. Specifically, as we know, they can so easily be blown off course by their physical and mental health; by their diet, and their exercise or sleep (or lack thereof); by their media, and social media; by their peer and their family relationships; and by their identity and its complex, shifting components. Above all, however, a perfect storm of societal pressures batters each student with two prevailing winds – of performativity and normativity.

On the one hand, students receive a strong and consistent message that they must perform; indeed, their performance is measured, celebrated, prioritised and, above all, always visible. A consequence of this is that they can quickly identify their own worth in their performance, as strong a root as any for poor mental health in the future. On the other hand, students receive a contradictory message that they must be normal, and that normality is another means by which value can be conferred.

What, then, for the student who is not able, at any given time, to perform in the arena and against the criteria which have been arbitrarily allocated? And what if their own characteristics, the very building blocks of their identity, do not conform to the model that has been arbitrarily imposed? This is when many a student will choose borrowed robes, in a relentless effort to be seen to perform, to be normal, to be validated, convinced that their worth is conditional. But these robes sit heavy, and they do not fit.

A decade ago, I began to develop a concept I call #themonalisaeffect®, a data-fed, data-led approach to personalising the learning and wellbeing experience for every single student. And its mission? To ensure that each student can:

  • be seen;
  • be known;
  • and belong.

Known and seen for who they actually are, and able, as a result, to belong, in their and our worlds. For it is with belonging that they can thrive, and, ironically, the thriving student will also be able to perform, but on their terms.

I have written at length about the unconditional love that has shaped my relationship with my own two children, because of, not despite, the characteristics they inhabit, and which the world must protect. Our schools must be places devoid of conditionality, for inclusivity, equity, justice can have no conditions. As long as the students in our schools believe that our attention, our affection and our validation are contingent on anything, we simply perpetuate an inherited paradigm. And as long as we do that, the winds will just keep blowing.