CEO’s Blog: “And then one day you find, ten years have got behind you.”

Welcome to the New Year, and to a new blog. 

It was almost ten years ago to the day that I began my association with John Taylor, by taking up the headship at John Taylor High School.  My most vivid memory of 4th January 2010, which succeeded a somewhat sleepless night, was to be greeted at the snow-covered entrance to the school by a member of our admin staff, who enquired with an outstretched arm and an upturned palm, “So, are we opening today, boss?”  Welcome to headship!

Joining a school in January was something I’d never done, and it was akin to jumping onto a moving treadmill.  Everyone was up to speed, cracking on, getting busy, while I was hastily trying to remember who was who, who did what, and where I needed to be at any given time.  Having an amazingly supportive team of staff made such a difference, as did working with fantastic young people, their parents, and within the wider community of schools.

Fast-forward ten years, and the landscape is very different.  There was no snow on the ground when I returned to work on Monday, now as CEO of JTMAT and based in a different building).  But more significant than meteorology has been the change in the system within which I work.  In January 2010, John Taylor High was a maintained, local authority school, and it was a Specialist School for science and leadership.  Now, as an academy within a Multi-Academy Trust, with a Teaching School and more recently a Research School, it is markedly different.  The differences extend to the site itself, with two new blocks, new facilities and spaces developed over the last decade.

Looking beyond the school itself, the system has experienced more change in the last ten years than arguably at any other point in our history of formal, state-funded education for all.  In the last decade, we have fallen under the responsibility of six Secretaries of State for Education, had five individuals to whom the school as an academy is held to account (two Schools Ministers and then subsequently three Regional Schools Commissioners), witnessed four General Elections with their competing manifesto pledges for education, and seen three Chief Inspectors of schools (HMCIs) come and go. 

I could continue, but this is a blog – not a book!

What remains a constant is the imperative for our children and communities to be provided with the best quality schools that we possibly can, together with the commitment, passion, resilience and enthusiasm for staff in schools, supported by governors and now trustees, to “make it work” for our children and their families – whatever “it” is!  The willingness and ability of my colleagues to adapt and thrive in a turbulent system, through holding fast to moral purpose and their core values, is a source of daily inspiration. 

Ten years ago, as the snow fell, a senior colleague encouraged me to consider a new technology:  the wholesale texting of alerts to parents and staff.  Ten years on, that seems old hat as I write this blog – which itself in a world of Vlogs and other new technologies is hardly cutting edge!  But, as with systems and buildings, technology comes and goes.  Children – their learning and their wellbeing – remain an ever-present in our work, and I’m certain that in ten years’ time that will still be the case. 

Finally, as I’m sure many readers will have identified, the title of this blog is a line from the Pink Floyd classic “Time”.  I remember a senior teacher playing this song to us as teenagers sat in a school assembly.  Whilst there was some foot tapping as he played the song to us, there was also the sneers and eye-rolling of his self-declared immortal audience.  Now, that line about “And then one day you find, ten years have got behind you” rings very true.  Whilst John Taylor has consumed a huge part of my professional life, that first day in the snow feels like it was yesterday.

Thanks for reading.

Mike

CEO’s Blog: Front and centre: “The Sage on the Stage”

Welcome to the 2019/20 academic year to you all.  At John Taylor Multi-Academy Trust we particularly welcome Church Gresley Infant and Nursery School to our family, our tenth primary phase partner.  As with a new school to the Trust, I also welcome all colleagues, children and families that have become part of the JTMAT community this year.  I am excited about what you will bring to us, and what you will share alongside us. 

The content of this Blog was prompted when hearing feedback from colleagues – both within JTMAT and beyond – on tests and examinations that our children and young people sat in the summer of 2019.  A consistent theme was how new test requirements, new syllabi and specifications, all demanded from the teacher a considerable level of specialist subject knowledge – arguably more so than the tests and examinations sat, say, ten years ago.  Comments such as “this used to be covered in the second year of a degree, and now it’s in the A Level” have been forthcoming with such regularity as to make them more than mere personal opinion or anecdote.  From compulsory and lengthy essay questions through to synoptic papers based on more subject material than previously, the imperative for the teacher to be highly knowledgeable is clear.

Perhaps by way of reinforcement, we know that the new Ofsted inspection framework will promote a “deep dive” into curriculum content at subject level, whereby a triangulation will take place between lessons observed, work produced, and the planning from the teachers that has underpinned it.  For those colleagues who have undertaken the planning, delivery, and assessment the justifications for their choices will inevitably be framed in their understanding of the subject area being considered. 

To many readers, all of the above may appear very obvious: Teachers know “stuff”, and can do things, that children cannot – and it is therefore their role to impart to the children the knowledge and skills they possess.  However, in my opinion there was a “corruption” of this message for a number of years that created a misconception that somehow this wasn’t so important. 

You may well be familiar with the now-clichéd expression that the teacher of the future will be the “guide from the side” and not the “sage on the stage.”  This sentiment, often appropriated by technologists, suggests that in the Information Age the role of the teacher is little more than a curator: to navigate the child through the myriad of YouTube sites, Internet pages and web packages in order that they learn what they need to know.

In an attempt to find the origin of this cliché, I (ironically) looked online for the earliest reference I could find to it.  Stumbling upon an article by an American educationalist from California State University from 1993, Alison King implores teachers to move beyond mere ‘lecturing’ to embrace ‘active learning’, which she defines as high level questioning, problem-setting, peer work and hypothesis generation.  Her article was far from a prediction that specialist knowledge would be any less important.  Those of us who’ve taught know that in order to ask meaningful questions that move learning forward, one has to have command of the subject being studied.  Technology has its place as a tool for learning of course, but it was not envisaged as a substitute for the expertise and knowledge of the teacher by King.  In a previous blog (May 2018), I wrote about my cynicism for ‘one-size-fits-all’ technology in schools, in which expensive hardware is shoe-horned into lessons irrespective of whether the learning lends itself to it or not.

This week saw an announcement regarding the starting salary for teachers being raised.  Recently we have seen the advent of the Chartered College of Teaching (of which I am a Fellow).  Both of these, together with many other instances, are ways in which we can show the value that the teacher brings to learning.  We underestimate the impact of great teachers, whose knowledge is as considerable as their joy of working with children, at our peril.  At John Taylor MAT, it’s my privilege to work alongside so many.

To conclude, teachers don’t all need to be a Confucius – and nor can we be.  But teachers can and should be proud of their academic credentials and the credibility it affords them when teaching.  There is still room in schools for a “sage on the stage”!

Thanks for reading.

Mike

CEO’s Blog: March 2019 Words fail?

I found myself in a situation last week in which, far from the first time, I used the expression “words fail” in describing my response to a shocking piece of news. It is a common enough phrase, and is valuable when, in the moment, our limited vocabularies cannot convey the sentiments we feel at that precise time.  It is also a shorthand way of demonstrating the significance of such a moment in that the richness of our language makes the communication of almost any series of emotions relatively straightforward for most of us – and the greater our command of the English language, the easier it should be to represent ourselves through it. 

As educators, we know that language acquisition in young children is both highly efficient, and of crucial importance for their development.  The ‘language gap’ between children from disadvantaged contexts and their peers can be above 19 million words of spoken and written experience by the time they start school – and such a gap once opened is extremely hard to close.

So, the week after World Book Day, I feel compelled to put pen to paper (or more precisely tap finger to keyboard) to express my thanks to all of those children, parents, staff and governors in our schools who promote and embrace the joy that comes from the written word.  Cynics will, and have this week, made comment on costumes superseding reading – and just how “literary” is Star Wars or Wonder Woman?  However, for those of us who see reading as an experience as opposed to an activity, developing a culture amongst children that embraces all that writing can give is more important than the finer details of what constitutes quality.  James Patterson wrote: “There are kids who love reading, and kids who are reading the wrong books.”  I believe that, and I see that in our schools.  Finding a ‘hook’ to get children to read may necessitate compromises on quality which, we hope, they’ll find for themselves as they begin their reading journey.

My own reading journey has most recently taken me to Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens”.  A chapter within this book was the prompt for this blog.  When discussing the development of civilisations, Harari refers to the earliest written records belonging to the Sumarians of Mesopotamia.  This civilisation was remarkable.  They are responsible, through their use of “base six” numbers, for the 360 degrees in a circle, and the 24 hour day.  They also used “base ten” for economic transactions and describing quantity. Their written records are solely, in effect, receipts for the buying, selling, and renting of goods, and title deeds for ownership.  Their language is described by Harari as “partial” (meaning that one could not write everything that one could say).  They had no written poetry or fiction for example, or written legal statutes and histories.  Other “partial” languages include those of the Inca and Mayans in the Americas.  Conversely, Latin, Greek and more latterly English are “full” languages in which all spoken words can be written. So, apart from when “words fail”, there is the opportunity to convey feelings, emotions and meaning through written as well as spoken word.  With this freedom, poetry, fiction, and a wealth of genres therein, were and are able to flourish.

However, Harari conveys in his book a warning for the future.  He argues that the truly universal language now is number.  Like musical notation, and Sumarian, number and mathematics is a “partial” language.  It is also the language of the computer, and the language of money.  Indeed, this Blog has been converted into a series of numbers in order for it to be recorded, and shared.  The ubiquity of the “arabic” numeral (although these actually originated in India) has made number a truly global language:

In modern times, not even all numbers are equal.  The world is dominated by the “zeros and ones” of the Information Age.

Perhaps reading, and enjoying the experience it gives, is part of our defence against a return to a “partial” language – of txt spk, Insta, numbers, and emojis?  If we lose the richness of our language, our young people are much more likely to find that “words fail” them far more frequently than their parents do. ☹

Thanks for reading – and not just this Blog! K?

Mike