CEO’s Blog: When no one is watching.

I hope this Blog finds all its readers safe and well, as we continue to live and work through these times. 

There are numerous writers and broadcasters who have made the timely, and expedient, connection between the 75th anniversary of VE Day and the current Covid-19 situation.  This may appear contrived in some ways, or even exploitative – of our history, or the current times we face, or both.  However, there are clearly ways in which we can look at our own experience today and then apply that lens to observe wartime Britain. 

A nation subject to restrictions on movement, concerns over supply of essential goods and even the rationing of them is a common factor then and now.  Daily governmental briefings, global updates, and speeches of victory, collective support, and expressions of admiration for those that work to protect us are all abundant now as they were throughout the wartime years. 

I am in no way attempting to compare scale of suffering or sacrifice, however.  Clearly, these are very different times in as many ways as they are similar. 

What I choose to highlight here is an essential sense of ‘goodness’ that we will commemorate tomorrow for VE Day and how that same goodness is still found in abundance today.  We know that during the war there were black marketeers and spivs, there were those who flouted blackout restrictions and engaged in “careless talk” which did indeed “cost lives.”  But the overwhelming majority of the population would “keep calm and carry on” with stoic fortitude and kindness to others, for example by “digging for victory”, taking in an evacuee, or housing a family ‘bombed out’ of their home during a raid.  They did this not through compulsion or fear of consequence, but because it was the right thing to do.

Similarly, we read stories today of those who fall short and flout restrictions – the fly-tippers, the panic-buyers, the Covid-inspired internet scammers, and the irresponsible socialisers.  But again, we know that the overwhelming majority of people now, as then, are driven by kindness, compassion, and a sense of collective duty to support each other as best they can. 

CS Lewis wrote that “integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.” Peter Hitchens defined “conscience” in the same sentiment.  In our school communities, it would be naïve (and we know for a fact that it would also be untrue) to claim that every single child is working hard to fulfil their potential, to learn and grow, and that every parent and adult is doing all they can to support them.  However, we also know – for a fact – that almost all of our children, their parents, and other adults are carrying on: working hard, learning and growing, and supporting each other.  Like the citizens of 1940s Britain, they do so because it is the right thing to do today – and that there will be a dividend on this investment tomorrow. 

So, as we continue through our time of restrictions I want to thank all our children and adults who are working so hard, being so supportive to each other, and so kind.  We serve amazing communities who are resilient and courageous, and also full of goodness.  When we return to full provision in our schools, and in the wider community, let us all do more than hope that these admirable traits persist and strengthen – let’s work to make certain they do.

Thanks for reading.  Take care, and stay safe.


CEO’s Blog: Learning: a precious resource.

Learning: a precious resource.

For the past week or so, I have been reading Michael Palin’s “Pole to Pole”, in which he charts a journey from the North to the South Pole, passing along the line of longitude (30 degrees East) with the greatest land coverage.  This takes him from Greenland, through Norway and the former Soviet Union, through Egypt and the Middle East, to East Africa and finally down into Antarctica.  Originally broadcast in 1992 but filmed in 1991, it is an extraordinary documentary of some extraordinary times, featuring the fall of the Gorbachev presidency in Russia and the breakaway of the Baltic states, and the election of a new government in Zambia to replace the seemingly-irreplaceable Kenneth Kaunda.  At a time when we cannot go anywhere, the opportunity through great writing to travel, at least in my mind’s eye, across the globe is a welcome one – and something that I’d recommend to you all.

One recurrent theme, from country to country and continent to continent, is the importance that is placed upon education and learning.  In countries where state repression and censorship is routine, Palin sees citizens seeking truth and enlightenment via underground and foreign media, whilst yearning for a free press and the opportunity to expand their understanding of the world.  In the most impoverished countries, he writes about young people tuning in to the BBC World Service to learn the English language – and to follow our football!

See the source image

When resources are scarce, people are innovative and creative.  Palin sees this in the households he visits, where resourceful families ‘bulk up’ small amounts of meat to feed many mouths through the addition of lentils, potatoes and other staples.  He sees this on a grander scale with rusted iron ships and steam trains reused and recycled, given new life as bicycles and ploughs.  Our powers of ingenuity seem boundless.

So this brings me to where we are.  Not sub-Saharan Africa, but facing a time when, through necessity, we are working in a very different way – being similarly innovative and creative.  Our schools thrive on routine and planning.  Timetables, calendars, and playtime bells chart our day and rule the working lives of our children and adults.  Much of this, but not all, has been stripped away right now.

Our staff, and our children and their households, are finding new ways daily to work around the current restrictions that we face.  The “school resource” is currently very scarce, but our creativity and innovative spirit is not. 

The typical curve of technological innovation comprises a small number of “early adopters” at the forefront and, the other side of the “herd” in the middle, are the “laggards” – a euphemism for the cynical, the unskilled, the generally baffled and the technologically-terrified.  Recent weeks, and especially the last few days, has seen this curve squeezed.  We’ve seen vlogs, blogs, tweets, YouTube videos, Vimeos, Skypes, Teams and every other conceivable way of engaging creatively in teaching, learning, collaborating, sharing and working. We seen this from our children and adults alike who, through their compulsion to keep learning moving, have ventured into territory they had previously feared or never felt the necessity to tread. Hats off to them all! 

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We can look forward – and we must.  In the short term, I look forward to more broadcasts of assemblies and lessons in schools, photographs and files of work undertaken with vigour and enthusiasm by children, subsequently assessed with care and expertise by adults who care for them and their education deeply.  In the long term, I look forward to many of our newly-acquired skills becoming regular features of learning once we’re back in school.  This must be part of the legacy from all the difficulties and sadness we face now.

I’m going to sign off now, but I’ll look to blog again soon.  I’ll close by thanking all those working to keep learning going – our children, staff, and parents.  You are amazing. 

Thanks for reading.  Take care, and stay safe.


CEO’s Blog: The great outdoors

Perhaps writing this blog in the aftermath of some of the worst and most damaging storms for decades may be unwise, but it was prompted by several occurrences last week that I wanted to share with you.

For those of you that follow some or all JTMAT schools on Twitter, you will be well aware of some of the photographs that are regularly posted by my colleagues from schools showing children undertaking ‘forest schools’ activities and other outdoor classroom experiences.  These pictures invariably show, at least at this time of year, mud, puddles, wellies and coats – and plenty of smiling faces!  We photograph such scenes to capture the moment, to share that moment with others, and to convey a sense of pride in the part that we take to make these moments happen. 

However, sometimes such learning – and that’s what it is – can be misconstrued, even by those with an educational background.  I recall in this context one of my colleagues, a primary Headteacher, very patiently explaining that the reason why there was still time for English and maths and other subjects in the curriculum was that some of the delivery of those subjects was undertaken through forest schools.  In addition to all the benefits of outdoor learning – working together, engagement with the natural world, development of resilience – there is still a focus on more conventional learning outcomes.  This extends to our secondary schools too, in which outdoor learning is highly valued.  This can take the form of trips and visits or experiences on site in outdoor settings – the domesticated farm animals at Kingsmead, the woodlands at John Taylor Free School…

Of course, the most common regular outdoor learning experience for children in our schools is Physical Education.  I was asked last week by Youth Sports Trust to attend a panel session in which we discussed the challenges and opportunities facing sport in schools.  Those challenges range from curriculum squeeze, obesity and health issues, insurance and risk management, to resources for team kit and travel to fixtures. They are well-known to colleagues from across the country sitting in the audience. 

The opportunities created by PE are also clear:  I relayed experiences of working with young people for whom their best day at school was a day in which they had to take their PE kit.  These were opportunities to shine and achieve, maybe to be the best amongst their peers, or a new chance to achieve a personal best.  In PE, children can so often feel the progress their making.  It is literally tangible. They develop resilience, a sense of fair play, collaboration and competition in equal measure.  Importantly, they learn a crucial life lesson: that everyone is NOT equally talented, skilful or physically endowed.  There will be those who can jump higher, lift more, throw further, run faster – if not in school, at County level…or regionally…or nationally…or internationally…or in the next age bracket up.  In short, there will always be someone better.

For our children to benefit from these opportunities, parents need to support us, and staff need to be generous with their time and expertise.  For all those memories that last a lifetime, we and the children are indebted to them.

A Nobel Prize-winning surgeon was asked what spurred them on.  His answer was simple: “If I think I’m doing well, then I’m comparing myself to the wrong people.”  This, in a context of nurture and support, is a message for us all as we strive to be better at all we do- and outdoor learning is as good a place as any.  The “great outdoors” indeed!

Thanks for reading.