CEO’s Blog: “We’re cathedral builders – and we always have been.”

It is probably far too late in the month to wish readers a ‘Happy New Year’, but somehow for this first blog of 2021 it would seem impolite not to, especially in the context that the closing words of my previous piece was to wish you all a good Christmas. 

With so many developments and challenges in our sector, our country, and our world right now, I was surprised how difficult I found it to think of a theme this month.  That, plus the reality that other priorities inevitably pushed the writing of a blog to the bottom of the in-tray, has resulted in this edition just about squeezing in through the closing door that is the month of January. 

I decided to explore a phrase that was used by an acquaintance from the charities sector in an online seminar I attended recently.  As we discussed our roles and our work, he quipped “I have to remind myself sometimes that we’re cathedral builders, we take on the work of others and don’t ever really see our work come to a conclusion.”  I was struck by how much this resonated with me in terms of the role we play in our schools. 

Working for a Trust that sees its youngest children join our schools at the age of two, and where our eldest young people leave us at eighteen, there is an inclination to see this journey as stretching from its embarkation to its destination.  In some ways it is:  for the entirety of a child’s compulsory school education, John Taylor MAT and its schools may be the sole provider.  It is a privilege and a joy to see our children grow, develop, learn and enjoy their school days exclusively with us. 

Yet we also know that a child’s development begins long before school, and our development as adults extends far beyond our School Prom or Sixth Form Ball.  In that sense, we too are the cathedral builders – we take the achievements and hopes of those who were there before us, make a profound contribution and then pass the responsibility, and the opportunity, on to others.  If this sentiment conjures up an image of schools as construction sites, or that our children and young people are as passive as pieces of masonry, it should not.  The cathedral we build is not the child, but their experiences, skills and attitudes, and they literally co-construct this with us.  It is “done with”, not “done to”.  Nor is there a fixed blueprint or set of plans.  Anyone who has studied ecclesiastical architecture would note that changes in styles and building methods will be incorporated – sympathetically – into the structure as it develops.  So it is with the cathedrals we build.

Finally, we have become used to viewing our work, and having it evaluated, at regular and relatively short-term intervals:  phonics tests, SATs, progress tests, GCSEs, A Levels, Ofsted inspections, SIAMS inspections etc.  The cathedral builder can step back from the spirit level and the theodolite and look beyond this to the greater cause.  That may sound grandiose, but I make no apologies for that.  Our cause is a great one – certainly greater than buildings of stone, lead and stained glass.  We should all take the opportunity to look at our work in this way.  When writing this, I found a poem entitled “Cathedral Builders” by John Ormond.  The last verse is fitting here:

To leave the spire to others; stood in the crowd
Well back from the vestments at the consecration,
Envied the fat bishop his warm boots,
Cocked up a squint eye, and said, “I bloody did that”.

“Cathedral Builders” by John Ormond

To all the amazing cathedral builders out there: You all “bloody did that”!

Thanks for reading. 

Mike

CEO’s Blog: “The Shape of the Spoon”

As we move toward the end of the term, and the end of the calendar year, we will all be taking some time to reflect on what 2020 has meant to us.  Writing in a personal capacity, as I do for these blogs, there have certainly been many lows as well as highs as I am sure you, my reader, will have experienced also. 

One of the most positive aspects of 2020 has been the near-exponential growth of independence and resilience of learning among children across our schools.  They are upskilled technologically, engaged intellectually and challenged academically in ways that are profound – by staff who know that all of this is only really effective when children and young people can connect emotionally, feeling safe and valued.  Through their professional expertise and their personal kindness, they have helped and supported our children and young people through what has been a school year like no other, and they continue to do so.

E.M .Forster once wrote that “Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.” He was right.  Eventually, if we believe that the purpose of education is to help our individuals and societies be resilient, innovative, sustainable and adaptable, we need to recognise that none of these attributes are supported by provision that is more directive and structured than the absolute bare minimum requires. 

A much-respected and experienced Deputy Headteacher with whom I served used to present the parents of a new intake with a slide at the Year 7 Induction Evening.  It read simply:  “Do not do for your child anything that they can do themselves.”  She elaborated that, once shown how to pack their schoolbag, sort out their equipment for the day, lay out their uniform, check their stationery etc., it should become their responsibility.  As a parent, I must confess that I haven’t always followed this advice to the letter myself, despite nodding approvingly in the school hall when she delivered it.  Sometimes we cannot help ourselves and become involved, not least when there would be a negative consequence to any mistake or omission on our child’s part, but I do try to allow my children that space to grow and learn.   I know many parents feel the same.  Striking the balance between support and independence is something that schools and parents must continually try to get right – and it is far from an exact science!

As we move towards the end of the year, I want to thank all those associated with the John Taylor MAT community for their support, kindness and generosity to me and to each other, and to those beyond our family of schools.  It is a privilege to be alongside so many amazing people who give so much.  The famed basketball coach John Wooden wrote that “things turn out best for people who make the best of how things turn out”, and during these times I’ve seen that sentiment played out hundreds of times across our fourteen schools and beyond. 

So to close, I will return to E.M. Forster, whose work I wish I had discovered a long time before I actually did.  In ‘A Room with a View’, he wrote “Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice.”  As only an occasional blogger it would be more than a little inflated to describe this as a ‘chronicle’, but I can concur with the latter part of his sentiment!  2020 has, at least at times, been somewhat bewildering.  I’m sure you will join me in wishing for greater clarity, and happier times, from 2021.

As always, thanks for reading.  Wishing you a restful and safe festive period, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Mike

Our vision for Fradley Park Primary Free School

John Taylor Multi-Academy Trust wishes to build on the success of the existing primary schools within its MAT and use their expertise and educational leadership in the area to copy many of the key areas of the curriculum.

The Trust will encourage a wide range of groups such as scouts/guides, sports clubs and community groups to use the school facilities to enable all age groups to come together.  The Trust will facilitate summer schools, weekend activity courses and some learning opportunities for the local community.

The curriculum will mirror many of the successes of the broad and balanced curriculum on offer at our Primary Schools and build on the Ofsted-praised ‘STRIPE’ (Self Manager, Team Worker, Reflective, Innovate and Create, Participate, Enquirer), skills curriculum that enables young people to become independent learners with excellent attitudes to their own learning.

The new primary free school will follow and further develop the high quality pupil leadership programmes at all levels. The new Fradley Park Primary School will work closely with our ten primary phase schools.

The Trust already has strong relationships with business, universities and is the host school of the National Forest Teaching School Alliance and the Staffordshire Research School. We will use these relationships and expertise to enable the Trust to push all pupils, whatever their background to achieve their very best.  The Trust has already been praised for its work with disadvantaged pupils and intends to develop this strongly in the new primary free school.  As with all primary schools within John Taylor MAT, Fradley Park Primary School will feature in the admission arrangements for John Taylor High School as a contributory primary school.

The school will:-

  • Have an inclusive approach.
  • Be non-selective, welcoming of children of all faiths, social, ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
  • Offer a broad, balanced, high quality curriculum underpinned by exceptional support, care and guidance.
  • Be a learning hub for the wider community, seeking to contribute to cohesion in an area of new housing development with limited alternative local amenities.
  • Work effectively alongside neighbouring schools.
  • Equip its young people with the knowledge, experiences, skills and attributes to enable success beyond school.
  • Further the innovate heritage of John Taylor MAT, through the extension of its founder school’s strengths; the achievement and progress of the most able, the acquisition of key learning skills, and the development of leadership attributes and experiences – both within and beyond the taught curriculum.