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

CEO’s Blog: “We have done so much, for so long, with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.”

Readers of my blogs will recall that earlier in the year (March 2020) I drew my inspiration from Michael Palin’s “Pole to Pole”, a book I had chosen to read during the most restrictive phase of our initial Covid-19 lockdown. 

For my blog this month, I return to Palin but this time via his earlier journals from “Around the World in 80 days.”  Restricted to travel options that did not involve flight, much of his time was spent on merchant ships as they traversed the world’s oceans delivering and collecting cargo.

Naturally, with such protracted periods of time at sea, Palin became very well acquainted with many of the sailors and other crew members aboard ship.  In the final chapter, a sailor left him a message in his cabin.  It read as follows:

“We the unwilling, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful.  We have done so much, for so long, with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.”  This quotation, attributed to politician and historian Konstantin Josef Jirecek, is something of a mantra for the crews of the merchant navies of the world.

Being a merchant sailor is a hard life.  It has dangerous at times, and monotony at others.  With such a sentiment, the question begs as to why they still do it?  The answer lies in the worth of the job.  The cargo is precious, and those who expect to receive it will suffer if it does not reach its destination. 

Those of us working in schools may, at times in our career, have felt similar.  There have certainly been times during the last six months where I have heard and seen such a view expressed, often forcefully.  And yet, we’re back in September and working as hard as ever.

We do so because of our ‘cargo’.  Schools and their staff bring learning, opportunities, experiences, friendships, personal growth and collegiality to all within their communities.  The impact of us not carrying such precious cargo would be devastating on those who rely upon it.  Perhaps, after months of remote learning, creative solutions to providing support, and working differently in many areas where orthodoxy seemed to dictate our practice, we really are “qualified to do anything with nothing.” But let us all hope for calmer waters and more favourable tides than those we’ve encountered most recently.

Thanks for reading.  Take care, and stay safe.

Mike