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.


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.


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.