When I first heard of Thomas Tallis School, it was the Spring of 2005, and I was a 24 year old Newly Qualified English Teacher looking for his first job. Knowing that I wanted to leave Kent, where I had trained, I was looking for a comprehensive school, like the one I had attended myself as a child, to work in, rather than the grammar system in which I had trained. Although I knew the kind of school I wanted to work in, I was less sure about where I wanted to move to: Brighton, near where I grew up, and where many of my old friends now lived, or the big smoke of London for a fresh start? Hedging my bets, I applied for two jobs, one in Brighton and one in London, figuring I could make my final decision at a later point.
Why Tallis? Well, when I visited the website, it talked of creativity, of the arts, of being a ‘Leading Edge’ school (whatever that meant). The English department was heavily represented on the website, and described as a strong one. And the website celebrated diversity and inclusion. As a former A-Level Music student, I also knew who Thomas Tallis was (and my friend’s dad was a founder member of the Tallis Scholars). If I’m honest, though, the main thing that really sticks in my mind all these years later was a picture of a teacher I would later come to know as Mr Bradshaw, with a broad grin on his face. The website mentioned that lots of school staff were proud to educate their own children there. It all seemed good enough to me. Applications duly sent, I waited. The school in Brighton never got back to me; Tallis did – they’d like to invite me to interview. So off I went.
Making my preparations, I mentioned to a neighbour at the time where I was off to. ‘Kidbrooke!?’, they exclaimed, ‘Rather you than me!’ was their not very helpful comment. Alighting from the train at Kidbrooke Station on a warm Friday and being confronted by the breeze blocks and broken windows of the by now crumbling Ferrier Estate, I began to see why they might have felt as they did. The old school building itself wasn’t much more inviting: further breeze blocks and broken windows and a sign reading ‘DEAD SLOW’ in red block capitals. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t feel like turning round and heading back home.
But on I went, stepping into the old Reception. Mrs Roberts herself has said that you know within just a few moments of setting foot in a school whether you like it or not, and I immediately felt as if I hadn’t made a mistake. The school felt vibrant, lively, happy and, in spite of its exterior appearance, welcoming. The students didn’t turn and stare at you as soon as you walked in, as I was used to from my experiences in Kent. They were friendly, as were the staff I spoke to, who also had an air of casual happiness in the t-shirts and jeans that most customarily wore in those days. I met the department (‘It’s great here – you can teach what you like!’) and felt like the interview had gone well. Walking back to the station I felt I had found my school. I awaited the phone call impatiently.
But if it was love at first sight for me, evidently my own first impressions weren’t quite as strong as I had thought. I didn’t get the job – it had gone to another candidate. Oh well, I consoled myself, plenty more schools out there to apply to. I drowned my sorrows and moved on, vowing to forget all about Thomas Tallis School. All until the next Monday morning, when a frantic phone call advised that I’d had a reprieve: a second post was available, teaching A-Level philosophy (and a bit of KS3 drama – a one year experiment about which the less said is the better!) in addition to the English. I thought for all of a few seconds before excitedly accepting. I believe I have the still smiling Mr Bradshaw to thank for that one.
As was customary at the time, before starting for proper in September, it was agreed that I would spend two weeks in school at the start of July. I didn’t know at the time quite what a momentous two weeks they would turn out to be for me. If you would have told me then that I would still be here 17 years later, that I would eventually find myself as Head of School, I wouldn’t have been able to believe it.
So, let’s rewind to the 7 July 2005. It had been decided that the whole school was going to go on a trip that day: every tutor group to a different location around London in order to experience and appreciate the architecture and landscape of the city. The Big Day Out was an excellent plan long in the making, and it would prove to be a memorable experience for all concerned – just not for the reasons we might have expected. My group hadn’t made it far beyond Kidbrooke when urgent calls started to be received on our, in those days far from smart, mobile phones. Terrorists had attacked central London, killing 52 people and injuring hundreds more. It remains the worst single terrorist atrocity on British soil.
Thankfully, no members of the Tallis Community were injured that day. Checking orders, we returned to school, with the staff remaining calm and the students, as ever, keeping in good spirits, engaged in fervent debate about the relative merits of Flaming Hot Doritos or Olive wraps. Later that evening, still feeling shocked and confused after the events of the day, I agreed to meet some friends in a pub in East London, where I would find myself introduced to the woman who is now my wife and the mother of my three children. A momentous day indeed.
In addition to teaching English and Philosophy, and (with a colleague) introducing A-level Creative Writing (RIP), I have been fortunate to hold many fantastic roles at Tallis: UCAS Assistant, Head of English, Assistant Headteacher, Deputy Headteacher, and now Head of School. I have loved every single one of them. Why have I stayed so long? Well, aside from a lack of imagination and a dislike of moving, the Tallis values, which predate any of us and will outlive us all are a significant factor. Creativity, Inclusion, Community, intellectuality, celebrating diversity, non-conformity – these are I think the essence of what one of our governors refers to as our Tallisy-ness. Over the last decade, we have done some work on formulating these values more coherently: we want students to be Inquisitive, collaborative, persistent, disciplined and imaginative. We want to send out young people into the world who are honest, respectful, fair, optimistic and, most of all, kind. Looking back on my own experiences, these more recently defined attributes of the Tallis community have always been there, I think, in my beloved colleagues – the staff - as well as in you, the students.
So why am I leaving now? Well, like Thanos, change is inevitable, and unavoidable. Having been at Tallis for a third of its 50 years, now seems like as good a time as any to move on. I have found another community comprehensive school, this time near Brighton, looking for a Headteacher to help make it the leading creative and inclusive school in its region, and I think that I have learned enough from my time at Tallis to help to lead it towards its goal. Although I may be leaving Tallis, I remain fully committed to the comprehensive educational ideal, believing that the community comprehensive school is the best tool society has for enabling its young people to understand the world and change it for the better.
Tallis isn’t a building (the breeze blocks of the old site or this more appealing one), and it isn’t any individual students or staff. It’s an idea, a principle; values, habits and character. And as I prepare to move back to Sussex with my family, it is these that I will be carrying with me, in my heart.
-- Jon Curtis-Brignell
These remarkable pictures represent a small sample of an archive that I inherited from the 'old school'. I've had them for about 11 years, carefully stored at the back of a filing cabinet in my office. The celebrations this year have prompted me to get some of them scanned and this is the result.
As a photography teacher, I'm impressed by the quality of many of these pictures. Some of them have a surreal charm. Some are hilarious - the children rolling around in the snow, for example. Some have a purely documentary interest. One or two of the portraits are striking. They capture a variety of activities - school trips to Scotland and the Alps, cooking and eating, DT projects, sports days. They remind us that the school used to have cherry trees on the concourse and the Ferrier Estate once loomed over us.
Many of the individuals in these pictures must now be grandparents. As I'm never tired of telling my students, (mis-quoting Roland Barthes) photographs remind us of things lost. My favourite image is of a young boy wearing flared jeans and Doctor Marten boots gently extracting something hot from a school oven with the aid of a tea towel. He doesn't yet know whether what he's cooked is beautiful or edible. I can't help thinking that this is the perfect visual metaphor for education.
-- Jon Nicholls
The life of the father of English choral music Thomas Tallis is an enigma. Historical documents that reveal his character and thinking habits are like finding a needle in a haystack. What does survive in abundance is the huge volume of musical scores that illuminate many of our inferences about the qualities he must have displayed during his 45 years of working for four Tudor monarchs at the Greenwich Palace of Placentia.
With so little to go on other than the musical scores, how was the History Department going to conceive of a celebration of his life in the form of a KS3 visit and historical enquiry? Where should we go? What might we see? What would we ask the students to consider? What use might it be today as the school that bears his name celebrates its 50th Anniversary year?
In an attempt to solve these puzzles, staff members made their way to the Church of St. Alfege and the Old Royal Naval College Visitors' Centre in the heart of the world heritage site of Greenwich in the summer of 2021 and from there the vision began to take shape.
The wonderful staff of St Alfege Church would help illuminate the artefacts in their Tallis corner and a visit to the crypt using torches to investigate further. Similarly, colleagues at the ORNC Visitors Centre would reveal evidence of the former Greenwich Palace of Placentia where he worked for the best part of five decades. The aim? To exercise student inquisitiveness and consider the relationship between Tallis the man and the place where he worked. Furthermore, to explore the connections with the character and habits that the school encourages the students to develop in their journey through Thomas Tallis school, in the 5 decades of public education provision it as provided in this part of southeast London.
The result? Ten consecutive days of trips for the whole of Year 7 and 8 that witnessed the collaboration not only of our school with external providers but the invaluable contribution of staff from pastoral, special needs, administrative and kitchen staff ably supported by our Senior Leaders Team, too many to mention.
The legacy? Our students know who he was, where he worked and the incredible character and habits, he maintained throughout his time here in Greenwich 1540-1585. Our students understand the reason these characteristics and habits remain of such significance in their own journeys in life, wherever they may lead. A webpage documenting the visits can be viewed here. And, thanks to colleagues and students in the media arts, here's a film version of our shared adventure:
Here's what some of colleagues had to say about the experience:
I attended Thomas Tallis between 1973 and 1980 with my twin brother Simon.
It could be a rough environment for someone with a posh accent who liked learning, but there were good times. Highlights included a fantastic library, drama productions and some great teachers. I once visited a really, really posh private boarding school with a dedicated arts building and remember thinking, "well the art at Thomas Tallis was just as good as that".
There were lots of hilarious times in class. I remember once my brother told a joke in maths that people didn't get and he explained it was "a J O K X squared", which made the class fall about (lots of maths equations with kxsquared).
One time a lorry full of oranges spilled its load on the Rochester Road outside school. The school filled up with the smell of oranges and there was peel all over the carpets. The Deputy Head came over the tannoy saying "I know they literally fell off the back of a lorry, but..."
The school uniform at the beginning was made of awful navy crimplene with a tunic and trousers - I was literally the only girl in the school whose parents bought it, so embarrassing. I was made to do a fashion show for new parents. The picture below is the closest thing I could find.
This picture made me laugh and the pinafore is about right, although Thomas Tallis paired it with lovely crimplene trousers for girls. Most girls wore skirts and tops and there were fantastic 70s fashion trends with very long and very short shirts, and tops with enormous polo necks.
Drama was a big part of school life at Tallis and we wrote all our own productions. I vividly recall writing about a miners' strike in the Minotaur's labyrinth (very topical in the 1970s) and designing the poster and program for our play about the Children's Crusade.
We once had a bit of snooty substitute teacher for music. He played us an avant garde piece of music and asked us to write a poem inspired by it. It made me think of a planet waking up with dramatic earthquakes, lava floes, volcanoes and storms, then subsiding again. The teacher could not believe the quality of our poetry and the sophistication of our vocabulary and use of language and actually apologised to the class about his low expectations. I hope we inspired him to take up state school teaching.
The school was built of lots of grey concrete and lacked plants, apart from the beautiful trees full of blossom at the front - their branches poked in through the classroom windows and girls put flowers in their hair. As a keen gardener I decided to address the grim situation with some daring guerilla gardening. (Apparently guerilla gardening was invented in 1970s California, so this was on trend). The school caretaker couldn't understand why flowers kept popping up in the empty concrete planters and between the paving stones!
The sixth form had a dedicated floor at the top of the school with its own kitchen and fridge. I took advantage of this to make ice lollies to sell to fellow students in the summer - very popular!
With the great teaching I got As in all my O, A and S levels except German, (ironic as I now live in German-speaking Basel, Switzerland), and was lucky enough to win an ILEA Inner London Scheme place at Magdalen College Oxford to read Chemistry, where I got a First and a PhD. After one year I was awarded a prestigious "Demyship" scholarship, so despite getting in on a special ILEA scheme and not doing the entrance exam, I definitely deserved to be there. I hope schemes like the ILEA once still exist - no way I could have done the exams as I was studying Nuffield science A levels.
I've had a really great career in the pharma and biotech industry and am very proud of having made a real difference for some nasty diseases.
Nothing in life has been anything like as challenging as what I faced at school, so it gave me a lot of resilience for which I'm really grateful.
-- Sarah Holland
In January, it will be thirty years since I started teaching at Thomas Tallis. I had had an unhappy time at my first school, under a head unsympathetic to my request to return part time after the birth of my first daughter. But walking through the gates on the day of my interview, I have never looked back. This is the place where I immediately felt I belonged, and it has remained a home from home ever since.
I have thrived in the English faculty, where under many different leaders I have been given autonomy as well as guidance and support. I have seen so many great teachers and great people come and go – Siobhan McCauley, Soren Hawes, Maureen Housden, Di Broughton, and the wonderful Cameron Sayers, who died so suddenly a couple of years ago – and working with such committed individuals has been a joy. Together with their clear-sighted intelligence, compassion and humanity, their sharp and often mischievous humour has seen us through some dark times.
I joined the sixth form team in 1999 after taking my first tutor group through from year 8 to year 11. (I campaigned hard as a part time teacher to be allowed to have a tutor group – imagine that state of affairs now). Under the exceptional leadership of Cath Barton, who had taken over from Tallis legend Stuart Turpie, the sixth form was a wonderful team to be a part of. Under Cath, the sixth from grew in size, and now there are over 700 students, coming from all over southeast London and beyond, from a vast range of diverse backgrounds, benefiting from an outstanding sixth from experience, as we benefit from their energy, wisdom and style.
I began to get involved in progression as soon as I joined the sixth from team, supporting the small number of students who were making applications to Oxford and Cambridge. Working with the great Brian Jones was a delight: if there’s one key attribute a teacher needs that I struggle with it’s patience, and I would give anything to be able to maintain the calm, gentle composure he showed. When Brian left, I took over the role of UCAS coordinator, in those days dealing with about 60 applicants a year. This year we have well over 300 applicants. This is certainly one of my favourite parts of the job - seeing students leave the school excited for futures that offer them so many choices and opportunities.
My eldest daughter joined the sixth form in 2010 and went on to study history at Oxford and is now a primary school teacher in Southwark. My middle daughter teaches maths at Greycoats and my youngest is finishing an apprenticeship at Invicta Deptford, and although I have never tried to influence their career choices, I’m sure their decision to join the profession is due in large part to the enthusiasm which they saw in me for teaching and life at Tallis.
There have been times of great upheaval and huge stress, and soon after the move to the new school I saw many of my close friends and colleagues forced out, but Tallis remains Tallis and resists any attempts to circumscribe or change it. That Tallis ethos and spirit is a powerful and enduring thing. I’ll finish with perhaps one of my favourite anecdotes. When my youngest daughter was in year 9, I remember talking about the upcoming Community Day. Her response – “that’s so Tallis. At my school we’d have Conformity Day.”
Community and non-conformity – that’s so Tallis.
-- Oonagh McGowan