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: July 2019 Letter to Year 13

Before I commit this blog to print, a confession:  What you read below is both from a professional and personal perspective.  From the professional view, I have worked alongside hundreds of amazing young adults in Sixth Form settings for many years.  From the personal, my eldest son has just completed his A Level studies at his school’s Sixth Form.  My letter here is to them all.

Dear Year 13,

I want to take a few minutes of your time to share with you some of my thoughts about the times you’ve had at school, and the time that is to follow.  You’re well beyond clichés of “crossroads” and “milestones” by now.  However, if you’ve got your head screwed on, then you won’t be beyond some plain old advice – dolloped out in a spirit of humility and love.  Like so many things in your life, you decide what to do with the contents of this letter.  You have attained an age, and therefore a right, to make those decisions yourself.  You also bear a responsibility for those decisions too –  the accolades of accomplishments and the ownership of problems are yours.  May you be thoroughly prepared and equipped to deal with both. 

So, here goes.  I’ve written you a list.  I hope it makes sense.  If it does, that’s great.  If any of it resonates with you – even better.  The list is in no order, other than that in which the ideas came to me, which has little bearing on their importance.  It’s also by no means exhaustive, as you’ll see, but it is based on some of the challenges I know that some of you will face.

  1. Your identity is your most precious asset.  Don’t trade it for conformity, but neither parade it for provocation.  It isn’t a hairstyle, a tattoo, a fashion sense or a particular taste in music.  All those things are other people’s creations that you may admire to the point of emulation.  But, they’re not you.  Treat them as the superficialities they are.  What your identity actually is, is something for you to discover for yourself.
  2. The predetermined groups of which you are a member don’t define you.  Don’t be taken in by the misconception that there are traits or characteristics you should exhibit or actions you should take because of a group you are deemed to be a part of:  your gender, your ethnicity, your age, your abilities, your background.  Do not allow others to place guilt upon your shoulders for the actions or opinions of others in your ‘group’, or place expectations upon you for a ‘cause’.  This is the worst form of identity theft, and should be resisted.  And don’t judge others by their predetermined groups either!
  3. In an age of polarisation in so many parts of our world, do not confuse abstinence from debate as agreement with you.  Descartes wrote that “he who hid well, lived well.”  More recently, university students in the United States have coined the phrase that “silence is safe”.  Encourage dialogue with others as a means of finding truth.  There is a difference between legitimate and civilised debate over issues that matter and the deliberate intention to cause offence.  Don’t ever do the latter, and don’t ever allow those with differing views get away with accusing you of it as you engage in the former.  There are plenty who’ll try to.
  4. Read.  Read opinions that will challenge you, and those that will be affirming too.  Don’t believe all you read to be true, but do believe that you can find truth through reading. As with all things, don’t sell yourself and your abilities short when choosing what to read. Nothing is “beyond you” – but you may need to read something else first!  Be prepared to be profoundly moved by what you read. 
  5. It is better to live with remorse for your actions, than regret for your inaction.  So be active.  The world hasn’t agreed to give you anything, or make anything easy for you.  But statistically if you’re reading this blog, you’ve already been given chances in life that most of the planet’s other seven billion residents have not.  Don’t be a confirmatory embodiment of the stereotypical “entitled, snowflake, millennial”.  Your actions can change the world in as profound a way as those of previous generations, and they will.
  6. Never write lists with more than five key points in them.

Thank you for reading, especially those young people who will have read the above with consideration and scepticism.  Equal measures of both will serve you well in education, and in life.  If you’re able to do so, then my colleagues in our schools have served you well.  Time for you to “pay it forward”. 

I wish you success, happiness and fulfilment.

Mike