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!

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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.


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.