I write this as part of a celebration of 50 years of Thomas Tallis School in 2022. This reminds me of 1997 when, as Head of the Staff Association, I organised the 25th Anniversary event, held at The National Maritime Museum Greenwich. Former and current staff came together for a wonderful evening of celebration in a tremendous setting; indeed a perfect metaphor for Tallis - the centre of the world, the Mean Time.
I worked at Tallis from 1985 to 2019 under all its Headteachers, whilst fulfilling a wide range of roles and responsibilities - Head of Pavilion (On site Unit); Youth Centre worker (in the early days Tallis had both a Youth Centre and a Community Centre where on most days OAPs were welcomed – this later became the 6th form base); Deputy Head of Year; SENCo – I have probably done more IEPs, (Individual Education Plans) than are healthy to do – one year they took 400 hours+ at home and they were still not completed; Head of Citizenship and PSHE; teacher of Social and Religious Education (SRE), Pastoral Studies, Humanities, A-Level Sociology, A-Level Psychology, which I introduced into the school; Chief Invigilator/Exams once I retired from teaching; and also Parent Governor.
Our son, Lewis, went to Tallis and his words are salient:
I went into a tutor group, year 7, where there were 30 pupils and for about 10, English was not their first language. I was so lucky to have that, such richness of diversity. The school portrayed the best of humanity. All children were given a chance and it was so wonderful what it stood for, in its inclusivity, collaborative learning, every child being given a chance, and demanding and producing excellent results. At its best, people were not allowed to fail and there was a focus on the Arts - and winning football teams!. A child was allowed to be!
In its early days, possibly due to the rather unfortunate reputation of the Ferrier Estate which was on its doorstep, Tallis was certainly not the flavour of the month. However, by the 90s, according to National league tables, it was considered to be in the top 200 schools in the country, at least for A-Level. How did this ‘bog standard comprehensive’ in SE London attain such pre-eminence? No doubt the headteachers: Beryl Hussein, Colin Yardley, Nick Williams, Rob Thomas and more recently Carolyn Roberts, and key Deputies – Allen Skuse, Agatha Maguire (who sadly passed away so young), Spyros Elia and Rosemary Leeke, all helped set a tone and create an environment where teachers and pupils could thrive. However I am sure that they would all say that it was everyone - all teachers, pupils, support staff, even the building itself that helped make and ensure that Tallis was a very special place. While always maintaining respect for others, Tallis was an institution that had a clear sense of confidence in itself, its identity and practices, and this led to creative innovation, self belief and solid teaching, and dedication that demanded the best from its teachers and pupils. There was envy around. I once heard a teacher from another school say in a public meeting, “Oh, Tallis, you have to be a girl with a double barrelled name, play the cello and live on the Cator Estate to go there”. And such myths were marvellous because the facts were quite different. Indeed as SENCo, each year, I organised reading age tests for all incoming pupils, and generally at least 75% of the year were at, or more usually below, their actual age. Obviously as a local comprehensive we had no say regarding entrants, even our own children. Lewis was initially 93rd on the waiting list. Only the parents of Statemented children had that right and many, many used it, no doubt attracted by the overall success of the school and because Special Needs had a very good reputation. The school was the first in London to gain the prestigious ‘Basic Skills Agency Quality Mark’. Also, the Local Authority chose Tallis as the home for the Speech and Language and Hearing Impaired Units.
So success must have been due to the practices developed once students arrived. The old school was crumbling but not in spirit! There was a clear sense that both the pastoral and the academic – the whole child – were important. Great emphasis was given to extracurricular activities - after all, if you ask a student about memories it is usually what went on outside the classroom that first comes to mind. For myself, I am very proud that as football manager for the older students I managed to get to a few London Cup Finals, including beating private schools on the way, and winning the competition later became the norm under Richard Ankar. Also, when I moved into Debating after an invite from a competition the day after I was sacked as Football manager by the inimitable Terry Richards (after a couple of sendings off and the worst refereeing display I had ever witnessed, including a goal being disallowed for offside after our captain, in his anger at decisions, had dribbled from just outside our penalty box past every one of the opposition team and put the ball in their net). Not only did we win various debating competitions but we were also asked to represent London in Paris as part of the Entente Cordiale celebrations. Various public schools requested that we join their Debating League. Turning up to compete at Westminster School will be remembered by us all as one the scariest moments of our lives. John Bradshaw’s generosity of spirit also led to us to representing the school in a discussion group at 10, Downing Street for a meeting with Tony Blair and George Brown. Wow!
For a mixed comprehensive to be successful it has to ensure that all abilities want to go there and that it maintains a healthy mix of girls and boys. Colin was brilliant in managing to get middle class parents to demand and trust Tallis instead of sending their children to private or selective schools, of which there are many locally. This was achieved not only by going on a ‘Ferrier Watch’ every lunchtime and chasing after any miscreants, but also emphasising the importance of Art, Drama, English and Music, ably assisted by people such as Howard Nicholson, Cath Barton, Geraldine O’Mahoney and Keith Lark, in leading their subject teachers; too many people to mention, all brilliant. Speaking of Colin, as a ‘Gooner’ I always saw him as George Graham, with Nick Williams as Arsene Wenger – keeping up the great defence but with a bit more style. Indeed the old school could be seen as Highbury, without the grandeur, and the new build as The Emirates. It looks good but perhaps something is missing.
When every teacher left they were given a farewell speech and if they had been there for a couple of years they were expected to reply with their own. When Colin left it was a bit more special… far more song and dance, including a rendition of ‘Love Letters’… In the breaks I read out, totally flat and without dramatics, words from the many disciplinary letters he gave to me. I don’t think anyone could fully understand why I got so many. One was because I had been absent – in fact I did not have a day’s absence for more than 22 years. On the day in question I had organised paternity leave anyway; however, sadly, on that day, my mother died… and yet there was his disciplinary letter! But I loved the man.
A few more words about The Pavilion. It was the on-site unit for pupils who were struggling, or creating struggles in the classroom. One boy ‘just’ came to the unit for drama. That subject ruined his entire week. Another could not face any ‘normal’ lessons. Each student had their own reasons, their own stories. I came with quite a therapeutic, psychoanalytical background, and it was interesting to introduce these approaches both in the 'Pav' and in training sessions in the school. I grew to be doubtful about the convergence of therapy and teaching, but it was really fascinating at the time. There was only one pupil who frightened me in over 45 years of working with young people. I interviewed them all on entry to the Pavilion. He sat so tightly, saying nothing. I was quite fearful that he might suddenly explode and attack me. My dog Charlie came in and rested by him. I was very afraid for my dog. The boy did not move and did not respond to my words. Charlie’s head rested next to his knee. This seemed to go on forever, and then the boy’s hand moved and he started stroking Charlie. Symbolically he was joining the group, and Charlie had done all the sophisticated work.
Beryl Husein was invited to a pupil-cooked lunch at the 'Pav' a couple of weeks after I started. From day one, without asking, because I thought if I asked then refusal would have been the only reply, my dog Charlie (golden retriever/border collie mix) had come to school with me, as he had in my previous place of employment. On her return to the main school Beryl said, “I was given two wonderful pork chops”, whereas what I remembered most was the incredible lick that Charlie had given her and her look of bliss. Charlie worked there for the rest of his life. Interestingly the whole area was an RAF base during the war, with the Pavilion being a hospital for injured airmen. Charlie seemed to feel their ghosts.
There was something wonderfully ‘Napoleon’ about Beryl, diminutive but colossal. Indeed when I arrived a couple of minutes late for my first SSC (Senior Staff Committee) meeting, having in that short time sorted and cleared up the blood after a very rare contretemps in the 'Pav', she said very clearly and firmly “Richard, I do not want to hear the reasons why, but if you are ever late again, do not bother to come ever again”. Clear messaging!
I was Deputy Head of Year to ‘Mrs Tallis’, Margaret Young, another wonderfully formidable woman – there were so many at the school. Pupils thought her very hard, but she had a very kind heart; indeed she was often soft cop to my hard. She would have hated the pupils realising this. Every day she wore her ‘Thomas The Tank Engine’ apron. It always seemed incredible to me that by the end of the first week of term she could put names to faces of all the 210 children. Our year base overlooked the concourse; marvellous for her to keep an eagle eye over all proceedings! Indeed, one summer, Colin and I knocked down the dividing wall between classrooms so as to make a proper sized year base. Not sure too many headteachers would do, or be allowed to do that nowadays. The NRA, annual National Record of Achievement Ceremonies, probably called ‘The Prom’ nowadays, were started by Margaret but evolved into the most wonderful events, especially led by Tim Joyce and Cath Barton, when all the leaving Year 11 students, their parents and special guests came together in celebration. In 1992 Margaret asked me to ‘run’ it. No Deputy had ever done this. I bought a special Hugo Boss cream linen suit. Everyone wore their finest. I shall never forget turning around on the stage and seeing Colin in an almost identical outfit. It was also raining heavily, and totally worryingly I had lost my speech – I had raced home twice to try to find it, which I did 3 weeks later in my car - and the moment for coordinating and giving the welcome and core speech of the evening was getting ever closer. One of my tutees, Chris Williams, said, “Don’t worry Sir, you will do fine”. I didn’t feel it.
Pastoral issues were always taken very seriously, and Tim, Cath and I had counselling training. I became a sort of specialist in working with older students, Year 10/11 and 6th formers, writing all the key reports and testimonials and supporting them in putting together their UCAS statements. And over the possible 5 years of staying with a tutor group one had the privilege of getting to know the parents really well, always phoning home that day if their child was absent, and it was embedded in the culture of the school that one worked alongside the parents in getting the best for their child.
Special times were the ’Reading Weeks’, held every year, where literature and reading took pride of place, largely organised by the English faculty. I was very pleased when Nick Hornby, of ‘Fever Pitch’ etc fame, and the future Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, each accepted my invitation to spend a day with staff and students. Carol Ann was a close friend of my wife’s family; indeed the poem ‘Warming her Pearls’, studied by so many pupils, is dedicated to Sara’s mother Judith, who had first alerted Carol Ann to what became the central theme of the poem. Neither writer demanded a fee.
Geography field work weeks are also fondly remembered. Many staff took part, although Stuart Turpie, another who has sadly passed away, and the Darenth/Dartford studies plus Margate trips remain vivid in the memory. There we were on top of a huge vacuous, empty gravel pit and Mr. Turpie says, “This is going to become a huge shopping centre”. Oh yeah right!? – and now it is: Bluewater! Coming back from Margate and the coach full of kids and breaking down on the M2 will also not be forgotten. Inverliever Activity Centre in the Highlands of Scotland became a regular venue for students, massively encouraged by Colin, Tim Joyce and Keith Lark; although for me, travelling up on April 15th 1989, and desperately trying to keep up with the Arsenal game I was missing, all became largely irrelevant with the news from Hillsborough.
Activity weeks were fantastically enjoyable with everybody undertaking incredible adventures out of school to all manner of places and things. Except, of course, for the day of the 7/7 bombings, when hundreds of Tallis kids and their teachers were stranded all over London, miles from Kidbrooke, and everything shut or closed down, and they all had to walk home safely.
Elliot Furneux and Martin Collier were two teachers who enthusiastically promoted pantomimes by the teachers for the kids at Christmas time. So many took part, but without their drive it is doubtful they would have happened. Very firmly in my memory bank at least is my ‘Loads Of Money’, (Harry Enfield) and Mr Blobby, but I am sure all teachers have their own stories. What is worth highlighting is that there were many times of fun, laughter and enjoyment alongside all the academic hard work. Have times changed?
Jamie Oliver’s TV series based on improving nutrition and school meals was filmed at Kidbrooke School and Tallis, and I remember Jamie serving me my lunch. Interestingly, because Tallis students took to his dishes so positively, and there were no parents lobbing chips over the fence to their distraught sons and daughters, the series seemed to be ¼ Tallis and ¾ Kidbrooke. There is a message there somewhere.
Because I worked most of all on the Pastoral, SEN, Arts and Humanities side of the curriculum my insights into Maths and Sciences are limited. They can tell their own stories. However Mr Carvin must be mentioned. He was so wonderfully old school, always in his slippers and his white lab coat. He was totally feared and totally loved. One look achieved impeccable behaviour and for this he was respected. The students felt absolutely safe in his company. They were going to learn.
There are so many stories that could be told:
In 1990, With Colin’s agreement, 9RS set up a business - ‘DK Enterprises’, with pupil Sonya Reader as CEO, a sort of lunchtime tuck shop. Soon we were making over £400 a week. Every child in 9RS was involved and paid for their work, and we had more money in our business bank account than the school had in theirs. Colin demanded our closure and put all the money to school projects such as Martin Dean being paid to restore the school exam tables!
Other memories include the introduction of formal organised counselling, headed by Jane Weinberg; ‘Red Rum’, perhaps the greatest Grand National horse ever, visiting the school; Fred the groundsman and his 32 procedures to create the perfect wicket; Sports Days and student/pupil games; uniform innovations, later followed by almost every school; Friday lunchtime football in the old sports hall, with year 11 for many years, each week a mini/massive epic which all ended with the a/b weeks; close links with the National Theatre; Brian Jones and my A-Level group achieving 100% pass and all A* or A; Nick Williams and his superb managing of the school throughout his tenure, especially during times of crisis, including tragically a murder; Nicholas Serota of The Tate Gallery being headteacher for the day; the move to a new build.
But, most of all, every teacher in every department and every student everyday and their hard work to achieve success and often with a smile on their faces. So here’s to 50 more years!
-- Richard Stubbs