CEO’s Blog: “Miles didn’t hear it as a mistake… He heard it as something that just happened: an event.”

Regular readers of my blog will know that I borrow mercilessly and shamelessly from several of my passions: notably sport, literature, and music. For me, all three provide wonderful examples of human endeavour, creativity, innovation and triumph over adversity.  When we look for lessons in life, we can tap into rich seams of experience beyond our own in these amplifications of our humanity. 

For this blog, I want to relay a story that is well-known amongst afficionados of jazz music.  I don’t claim to be amongst their number but, as with fine art, and literature “I know what I like”. 

I recently saw via YouTube an old interview (I’d guess from the 1990s from the fashions and picture quality) with the renowned pianist and keyboard player Herbie Hancock.  Quite why the algorithms at YouTube suggested this for me is a mystery but, as they would have intended and hoped, I clicked on the link. 

Hancock referred to a concert in Stuttgart from 1963, where he was a young pianist (about 21 years old), accompanying the legendary trumpeter Miles Davis in his band (and for any actual jazz afficionados who happen to be reading, Tony Williams was on drums!).  He sets the scene of a really amazing concert, where the music was “hot”, and all players were at the heights of their improvisational powers.  Then…calamity!  Hancock, mid-way through Miles Davis’ solo, plays “the wrong chord”.  Not a little wrong.  But very, very wrong.  Davis pauses, looks up, and then plays notes that engage the chord in a new direction and “make the notes right.” As Hancock states, and a fitting title for this blog, “Miles didn’t hear it [the chord] as a mistake…He heard it as something that just happened: an event.”

Pictured above: the precise moment when the wrong chord was played.  Tony Williams on drums looks to his right, as does Davis!

Aside from the musicianship required to turn the situation around, the strength of character – in the face of a live performance – is equally admirable.

Hancock concludes that the experience taught him a lesson about life.  “We can look for the world as we would like it to be as individuals.  ‘Make it easy for me’, that idea. But I think the important thing is that we grow.  And the only way that we are able to grow is to have a mind that is open enough to be able to accept situations, and to be able to experience situations as they are and turn them into medicine.  Turn poison into medicine and make something constructive happen.  That’s what I learned.”

I’ve written before about the resilience and tenacity shown by our children, our staff, and our communities in the face of challenges and turbulence.  They use these experiences as a means of growth.  It is far from easy, and far from painless – but it is positive, and sometimes the only way to move forward. 

To conclude, I want to share with you a quotation from the stoic and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.  In ‘Meditations’, he wrote “If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it.  And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.” May we all look upon misfortunes and mistakes as “events” with the resolve and skills to “make the notes right.”

Thanks for reading. 


CEO’s Blog: “You blow in one end, and move your fingers up and down the outside.”

It was wonderful to see our schools full again earlier this month when, in accordance with the national ‘roadmap’ all children were enabled to return – re-joining their classmates, vulnerable and key worker children, who had remained in our schools throughout. 

This return, like so many of our activities in schools, was only possible as a result of meticulous planning and attention to detail.  This included revised risk assessments, clear communications, and the introduction of new procedures – not least lateral flow testing.  I want to thank all my colleagues who have helped make the return of the full complement of our school populations such a positive experience, and thank our parents and children for just how brilliant they have been in their re-engagement with the expectations and requirements of the traditional school day. 

Such attention to detail extends through to all our staff, irrespective of their roles.  Our teachers and pupil support staff have been tailoring their planning to accommodate the learning needs of children who will have had a diversity of experiences of home learning and in-school provision.  Our site teams and administrative colleagues have been making adjustments to sites, managing matters such as financial changes, reprographics, first aid requirements, letters home and calendar changes.  Everyone has been examining their own responsibilities, and those of colleagues around them, to ensure nothing is missed. 

Like the clichéd swan on the lake, we see only the serenity above the surface and not the effort underneath.  This effort is supplemented, of course, by vast amounts expertise and experience – again which goes largely unseen. 

In a pastiche of children television from the era, the Monty Python comedy team performed a sketch, their own “take” on BBC’s Blue Peter, entitled “How to do it”, in which the presenters share incredibly superficial help for children to achieve amazing feats such as how to secure global peace, how to construct box girder bridges and – infamously…

“How to play the flute:  Well, you blow in one end, and move your fingers up and down the outside!” 

“Great, Alan.  And next week….”

Simply because we don’t always see the detail, or have it explained to us, does not mean that something is without complexity.  We all see things in our lives “from afar” and sometimes when a task is executed with real skill we may even note that the individual to be admired “makes it look easy”.  We know in reality that it is not.  Playing the flute requires mastery of facial muscles, a detailed understanding of musical notation, empathy with the composition and perfect timing – together with the lung capacity (‘blow in one end’) and manual dexterity (‘move your fingers up and down’) alluded to by “Alan” in “How to do it.”  So it is with our schools and those who work within them.  They too may make it look easy – and I hope they do – but I can confirm that it is anything but!

Thanks for reading. 


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.