The “knight’s move”

As you will appreciate, my time available to read for pleasure is a scarce luxury – but one which I look forward to when a half term break or longer holiday is approaching. This half term, I’ve been reading “Hitch 22: The Memoirs of Christopher Hitchens”.

I was first introduced to the ideas and works of Hitchens via his debates at the Oxford Union and Smithsonian Institute, readily accessible via YouTube, and marvelled at his power as an orator both in terms of his ability to convey an intellectual or philosophical position with conviction, passion, persuasion and a savage wit, but also his command of the English language.

Describing a particular debate he was engaged in, Hitchens described a twist and turn taken by the argument as the playing of a “knight’s move”. This reminded me of a session I attended at the WomenEd event last month, hosted at John Taylor Free School, in which all attendees had to select an object from a diverse, and seemingly random, set of items – and describe why we have picked the item we have as being of significance to us. The various artefacts included a light bulb, a deck of playing cards, and a model of a dog to name a few – and a knight from a chess set.

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Feeding back to the group as to why I had selected that object, I began with references to strategy: that in my capacity as CEO, an important aspect of my role is to scan the horizon for forthcoming opportunities and challenges to ensure that the Trust is well-positioned to move forward positively. In turbulent times, this is much more problematic, but also much more important. Having a network of colleagues to whom I can turn for advice and candid opinion is invaluable and, like sentries on watch in outlying areas, they can see and report forthcoming change that gives us time to consider our options and subsequently prepare.

Beyond the strategy, there is another significance to the knight as a chess piece, and this is where I was prompted by my reading of Hitchens this half term to write this blog. The knight isn’t the most important piece on the board. Players don’t win the game through its capture, and it has a “value” in points that is only above that of the pawn. But the knight can make a move that no other piece can make. It can ‘jump’ other pieces in play to obtain a new position and can change direction easily. So, when Hitchens referred to a “knight’s move” in the aforementioned debate, it was an oratorial device that transformed the direction of travel the debate was heading in.

As CEO, I have the positional role in the Trust that means that occasionally I can achieve something that others cannot – access to key decision-makers, representing the Trust in a range of forums, seeing common themes and threads across all our schools. If our children, their teaching and support staff, and school leaders are the “kings and queens” on our metaphorical chess board, I’m perfectly comfortable not to try and emulate their role and their position, but to add something different – and to play a part that they cannot. For me, this is what the knight embodies.

Thanks for reading.

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Mike

Official Opening, John Taylor Free School

As many readers will be aware, last week saw the official opening of John Taylor Free School by His Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester. I have been asked by several of our guests that day to share the contents of my speech from the event, and so I thought I would take the opportunity to do so in this Blog post.

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It was a real privilege to welcome so many of the individuals and groups who have supported us, and continue to do so, along the way. Here is the transcript in full:

Your Royal Highness, distinguished guests, colleagues, children, and friends.
“We believe in the power of education to improve lives – and the world.” Those here who know John Taylor well will be aware that this statement is the guiding principle of our Trust, and of the High School from which it emanates. Those here who know me well will recall that I have made much of this aspiration on many occasions and with many audiences. Typically, and perhaps predictably, I would focus on “the power of education”, or “improving lives” as a key theme for an assembly, a staff presentation or a prize giving address. But not today. Today is about belief. That “we believe”.

As we sit in such a wonderful new school, we are surrounded by so many individuals and groups who believed in us, and there are far too many to name all individually. As we prepared, planned, prioritised, and presented we were helped generously by many of you, with expertise and advice, practical help, and – equally important for an endeavour such as this – unwavering encouragement. Consequently, we transformed our dreams into a proposition that those with authority to make decisions about the school’s future could believe in. From the Trust board, through the Department for Education and the Education and Skills Funding Agency, to Staffordshire County Council, we thank them all for that belief in us – to deliver. Gareth Moss, Chair of the Trust Board for sharing and fuelling our dream, endorsing our strategy and steering our ambitions, Stuart Lane from Staffordshire County Council for his initial identification of a site, and a school, and devoting so much of his energies towards the project. Chris Nightingale from Entrust for his work to steer the building project along its two-year trajectory to completion. Andrew Baker, Jo Kemp and Julian Kennett from the ESFA, for ensuring that our local partnerships remained tuned in to the national programme of new school places. These individuals have always been utterly professional, always available, and totally committed to working collegiately with everyone.

Moving forward, we shared our ambitions with the community – to secure their support, and to build a team of staff that would be worthy of our school. Moving from successful positions in excellent schools, and sometimes moving house too, I cannot overstate the sheer bravery of colleagues who took a leap of faith with us – based on a vision, and a blueprint. Here I must commend our Head of School Sue Plant, for taking such a leap, and for working tirelessly to foster a culture of learning, firing the passions of her colleagues, and subsequently the children. I’m minded here of the French proverb that “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” We’ve done that, and you can see here just what it is we’re building. We thank them for that belief in us – to join our voyage.

Now open, I turn my attention to the young people here. They and their parents have believed in us too, choosing to be amongst the first students at a brand new school, in many cases not the school of their friends and, by definition, not the school of any older brothers or sisters. Their belief wasn’t based on spreadsheets, staffing models and demographic projections (important as those things are) – but on their passion to be the best they can be, and entrusting us to fulfil their potential in all they do. They have given us the most precious of gifts: their futures. We thank them for their belief in us – to commit their future to our care.

Finally, the path to get to today’s monumental occasion hasn’t been an easy one. It is our belief – in our vision for a great school and in one another – that has sustained us through these challenging times. I’m indebted to those who’ve worked towards today – each and every one of them. My thoughts in particular are drawn to Barbara Mahoney, the Trust’s Chief Operating Officer who, together with being the Trust’s presence on the project management board during the construction phase put together a financial model that works for the school, in a context when so many schools are encountering difficulties. There are arguably few COOs who would spend a dark winter’s evening in a village hall putting out trestle tables for a community outreach event – but she is one who willingly did so on several occasions. This she did in the company of Sarah Boyce – the Clerk to the Board, my personal assistant, and an invaluable travelling companion from day one of this adventure. Her local knowledge, organisational expertise, intuitive sense of timing and sage counsel contributed more behind the scenes than will ever be recorded in the school’s history. Thank you.

John Taylor Multi Academy Trust continues to grow as a community of schools, as does the positive impact it has on young people. We look forward with relish to further free school developments, including the primary and nursery school at Fradley Park. Moving forward here, in this hugely impressive building, is an equally impressive community of people, translating our belief into a truly remarkable school we can all be immensely proud of – lesson by lesson, day by day, term by term. The expertise and enthusiasm of Mrs Plant and her team should give us all great confidence in the future. A future for these wonderful young people to embrace with hope and vigour – essential in an ever-changing landscape. “We believe in the power of education to improve lives and the world.” We believe in John Taylor Free School.

Thank you all for belief in us.

The guests were hugely impressed by the facilities and the site, which are exceptional, but also by the staff and the pupils who conveyed great pride in their school and what it means to them. This feedback, for me, is the most pleasing and the most important of all.

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Thank you for reading.
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Mike

New terms, new children, new schools – and old chairs!

The first week of the new academic year is always an exciting time, as we welcome new children and staff to our schools and look forward to the implementation of the plans and strategies that we have committed to in order to see further improvement to, and within, our schools.

2018/19 has been particularly special, as it has seen the opening of a brand-new school within the Trust (John Taylor Free School) and the re-location of myself and my team to the new building.  The excitement amongst staff and children at the new school was palpable – and contagious.  Looking smart, behaving impeccably, and embracing exciting opportunities to learn and play together, the children left on Friday tired but exhilarated. I know this scene was replicated across all our schools.

Welcoming new staff, and welcoming back existing ones, is always a pleasure.  Last week, I spent some time with our trainee teachers in the Teaching School Training Centre, and also visited colleagues at five of our schools.  On Monday (10th September), the Trust is hosting an informal get-together for staff new to JTMAT, and I’m really looking forward to getting to know some of our new colleagues a little better.

For this month’s blog, I wanted to share with you one of the messages that I delivered to school staff last week.  I recently read “Thinking for a Change” by John C Maxwell, and one of the analogies he used I felt was particularly resonant at the start of the school year.

Maxwell refers to the “old chair” that we all have in our thinking.  Once it was new, maybe even innovative.  Over the years, it has become more and more comfortable – a fixture and fitting of our lives – as it becomes moulded to our individual shape.  It’s cosy, familiar, and something we’re very fond of.  But to outside eyes, it may look shabby, and appear antiquated. Moreover, it will have lost the support and upholstery that it once had. In short, continuing to enjoy and experience it may be quite bad for us.

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The challenge of such “old chairs” is that they can be hard to get rid of – or even think to re-upholster – because of the familiarity and even affection with which we hold them. But the longer we do nothing, the more our posture will suffer.

Working with amazing staff in great schools with excellent outcomes is a privilege and a joy.  But we all need to think about the “old chairs” in our mentalities, ensuring that our hunger for growth, creativity, innovation, and excellence compels us to look with fresh eyes at our practice – and regularly. Even colleagues new to teaching have their “old chairs” – and I certainly have mine.  We all do.  Recognising this reality is the first step towards ensuring we don’t slump into them!

Thanks for reading.

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Mike