I arrived in Thomas Tallis in April 1991 to take over the role of 2i/c of maths. It was, in a way, a dream come true as I had always wanted to teach there and was so excited to get this post and little did I know I would be there for the next 21 years. Its reputation in the borough was fabulous and all my teacher trainee peers who were lucky enough to be selected for a teaching practice there were looked upon with jealousy and, dare I say, resentment, by the rest of us.
My first ‘task’ was to finish off teaching the Year 13 A-level curriculum with my partner teacher Dave Ellis. Up to now I had had limited experience of teaching A-level and certainly not Year 13. During a phone call in advance of starting at Tallis, he suggested I take on possibly the 3 most complex topics in the syllabus. “Sure,” said I, “no problem”. I spent the Easter holidays in a perpetual state of fear ensconced in maths problems, past A-level papers, textbooks, writing and re-writing lesson plans, having panic conversations with fellow newish teachers, those I had trained with, never once suggesting to Dave this was a tad outside my comfort zone. I got through it and, in a way, this set the tone for what became my joy for and love of teaching and doing maths. And so, I thank Dave for this taster of what was to come.
The department was made up of extraordinary maths teachers. The A-level teachers including Liz Stewart, Tony Antonioni, Jenny Ward-Ure, Dave, all of whom were inspiring to work alongside. I knew from the off I just wanted to be as good as them. The culture of loving maths was contagious. That first summer I was initiated into the silence of the department work base while everyone poured over the papers at the same time as the students were doing their actual exams in the hall. Nobody was allowed to share what they had got for each question until everyone had a chance to finish – we still had to teach other year groups in between doing the papers. And in later years, when we didn’t have the time to do this, we would spend parts of our summer holidays doing the exam papers. In fact I remember handing my papers to Jenny every September, asking her to mark them for me and give me feedback. Thanks Jenny!
The culture there felt unique at the time and like none I have experienced since. It permeated outside our work base such that students knew we loved what we were doing, so much so that maths became a bit more acceptable, possibly even trendy. The number of students in A-level groups increased dramatically. Rather than the one group of 8-10 students, we were filling two groups each year. We were blessed with some wonderful students, many of whom gave us another dose of fear as their maths skills/knowledge were far more advanced than ours (or mine anyway). Many a time we could be found taking deep breaths outside the classroom concentrating on how to ensure we could challenge the likes of Christina Goldschmidt, Kechi Nzerem, Dixon Poon and Ben Colburn, to name just a few.
Then, thanks to Jenny, Danny Brown, Angela Taylor and Jeannette Harding (the latter two to this day inspiring young people to shine brilliantly in Tallis maths), we were given the opportunity to teach further maths. As a group who needed to be prepared. We did just that. On Monday lunchtimes, the potential further maths teachers met and went through topics. Allocated in advance, we ‘taught’ each other from studying the topics and how we could counter misconceptions, linking them to prior learning to provide a seamless curriculum from A-level to further maths. No fear here obviously….
Over the years, more teachers came and went, more students did the same. I can’t mention them all but know I have huge respect for and thank them all as they encouraged my love for maths, regardless of whether they taught or studied A-level. Students at any level challenge their teachers to be better all the time and they certainly did at Tallis. My love of maths remains a constant for me. I still try to keep up with the changes and continue to do problems and the odd A-level paper when I can – I just don’t get Jenny to mark them anymore, though I think she would.
-- Trish Dooley
A trainee teacher on practice with us said to me recently, “You know when you just feel comfortable somewhere? When somewhere just feels like home? That’s where you want to stay.”
And so it was, when I walked into Thomas Tallis School in 2008 for an interview for the Head of Wellbeing. As I passed through the front gates I was met by two towering, colourful, cartoon-looking… robots? people? They turned out to be bin covers but were like big, friendly guards, welcoming me to some mythical place. The buildings looked old and ramshackle, but there were bright flashes of art and imagination everywhere. Hanging from the ceiling, just visible through cracks in walls, artful graffiti. At lesson changeover there were boisterous but happy voices, coloured hair and odd assortments of shoes and socks rushing by. I liked it.
It's strange how you can walk into a school and feel something. I’m sure that not everyone feels the same thing. Schools are made up of the people in them and, just like individual people, we might not always click with the places we go or the people we meet. But Tallis clicked for me. I was happy to be offered the job later that day, and even happier to be beginning a project that was not wide-spread in the UK at that time. My job was to set up the Wellbeing Faculty, which was a combination of PSHE, Citizenship, RE, Careers and Work Experience, Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL), Alternative Accreditations and a whole host of small and large projects – the Jack Petchey Speak Out Challenge, Circle Time, the International Schools Award, the Healthy Schools Award, Student Council, Debating, the Health Hut... we took on anything that would make a difference to the lives of the students who passed through our gates. We set up a thematic curriculum and built up a wide range of experiences that were not usual in schools. Or, if they did exist, were side-lined or tokenistic, while our offer became central to the Tallis way of doing things. They were exciting times.
But, like many things in schools (or organisations in general), what is considered important enough to give time and space to can be dependent on the people in charge. The importance of a head teacher cannot be underestimated, I have found. A change in leadership meant a change in direction and Wellbeing was no longer something that was seen as valuable or relevant or necessary. Although the Faculty of Wellbeing disappeared and my role was diminished to something less than what I had arrived at Tallis with, although my work and reputation practically disappeared overnight (over a number of agonising months in reality but that is a drop in the ocean compared to all that can happen in our lives), the essence of Tallis survived. There were enough people among us who held onto some essential idea of Tallis, that thing that I felt when I first walked into the school, so that when the next (and current) head teacher came along we could rebuild.
Wellbeing became Guidance. We created Tallis Character and Community Days and Ways to Change the World. Some of these things might once again, in some future Tallis, be taken away or be deemed unnecessary or simply replaced by something new. But some are woven into the fabric of Tallis. These Tallis Tales are another aspect of what it is to belong to Tallis. Like all things Tallis. Tallis Habits. Tallis Character. Tallis Futures. Tallis Choices. Tallis Voices.
We are Tallis.
-- Michelle Springer, Director of Guidance
Have a look at this prospectus (click image below to open). It’s a flag planted firmly and carefully in a disputed territory lately won for the people. It is a sign and a symbol, a snapshot in time and a work of art.
What does it represent? The first comprehensive schools were opened in the late forties, but they were rare. Our neighbour, Kidbrooke Comprehensive, was purpose-built in 1954 but selection at 11 continued. In 1965 Harold Wilson was PM and Antony Crosland Secretary of State for Education and Science. On their watch, Circular 10/65 The organisation of secondary education  boldly stated the Government's objective to end selection and eliminate separatism – and therefore, to enable comprehensive schools for every child in every community.
That this House, conscious of the need to raise educational standards at all levels, and regretting that the realisation of this objective is impeded by the separation of children into different types of secondary schools, notes with approval the efforts of local authorities to reorganise secondary education on comprehensive lines which will preserve all that is valuable in grammar school education for those children who now receive it and make it available to more children; recognises that the method and timing of such reorganisation should vary to meet local needs; and believes that the time is now ripe for a declaration of national policy.
In this, they hoped to create something very particular in the nation’s schools.
A comprehensive school aims to establish a school community in which pupils over the whole ability range and with differing interests and backgrounds can be encouraged to mix with each other, gaining stimulus from the contacts and learning tolerance and understanding in the process.
Though difficult, the task was honourable and worthy of brave endeavour.
The Government are aware that the complete elimination of selection and separatism in secondary education will take time to achieve… But the spontaneous and exciting progress which has been made in this direction by so many authorities in recent years demonstrates that the objective is not only practicable; it is also now widely accepted. The Government believe that both the education service and the general public will welcome the further impetus which a clear statement of national policy will secure.
Thomas Tallis School was born in 1971, part of the ‘further impetus’ and the artefact under advisement is a prospectus – perhaps its first – from 1975.
I love the photo of Beryl Husain. Yes, school prospectuses are full of headteachers at their desks, but she isn’t posing smugly for the camera with some spurious award behind her. This is a woman who gives the impression of being a bit distracted, perhaps mildly irritated by a mildly irritating problem – a sudden change in the noise level on the yard, a staff absence. Her desk’s got stuff on it and the biro’s a long way from a gold fountain pen. While this is a woman who could leap into action at any point to give something a bit of a shake, she looks like a thinker.
And she writes clearly, staking her ground. ‘Good facilities do not necessarily create a good school. more important are the policies and long-term aims which determine what happen to the children’. Equal opportunities, no labelling, no discrimination, a progressive school with traditional standards. Informality, and friendliness without abandoning courtesy, politeness and behaviour. Consideration for others. Service to the community. I might just replace our prospectus with this one.
The prospectus talks of transition, grouping, Heads of Year, teachers, Deputy Heads, communication with home. The organisational chart with ‘your child’ in the centre is a perfect representation of a school, without verbiage or risible claims. In the description of the curriculum for the older children there’s a line about making ‘provision for those who prefer not to take exams’ which has a beautiful dignity completely lost from a current system hyped-up on aspiration and its tragic die-stamping and funnelling of children.
The curriculum is described concisely, and I’m particularly diverted by what changes most, perhaps in the humanities where ‘man in society’ and social anthropology are key. Would we live in a more understanding world if social anthropology had been compulsory in all schools?
Prospectuses always show libraries and it’s great to know that children were sent to research using not only books, but LPs and slides. The idea of languages day trips to Boulogne always startles me about London schools but wait! What is THIS! A trip to Romania in 1974! No, I went on a trip to Romania in 1974, from Teesside! Did all socialist authorities send their children over, to see the mountains and the poverty, the soldiers with guns in the snow and the terrifying plumbing? In my head I’m transported to a cavernous guest-house dining room in the mountain resort of Sibiu, my first taste of fizzy mineral water and foreign sausages. Were there other teenagers there, cooler ones, from Tallis?
Readers of this site need no more information about residentials to Inverliever, though the near-misses don’t appear. Sporting clubs as well as competitive teams has a pleasant tone. Cycling at Herne Hill is still a thing.
Unlike, sadly, on the final page, the Youth Centre. That’s a dream that took root in some fields but was uprooted almost everywhere in successive decades. Youth work is fantastically important but easy to cut, until there’s nothing left. Soon the youth work historians with have to begin by explaining what it was. And why it mattered. And how well the nation’s young have done without it.
Youth work’s older brother, the Adult Education Institute appears at the back too. Good education, good youth work, lifelong learning: cradle to grave intellectual and social support. What was so bad about this that it needed excising from our national psyche? When did we become antisocial drones, measuring the whole of our intellectual endeavour by competitive examination, designed to keep the rich in their copper towers?
The seeds were sown before the year of our next prospectus (click image below to open), 1996, when the previous government declared no such thing as society and sold off its assets. By ’96 John Major was at Number 10 and Gillian Shephard the SoS. It felt pretty ropey at the time but in hindsight looks like a golden age of conservative government.
Tallis the man appears on the inside cover opposite a picture of the Head, Colin Yardley who, with a friendly preface and a sideways look, declares to transition drop-in visitors ‘I am always available for most of the morning’. That sets the standard pretty high. How? How? Obviously, sensible prioritising and a control of your diary. Good for him. I doff my cap.
This prospectus has a long description of the aims of the Tallis curriculum of which I heartily approve. Breadth and balance, opportunities in the arts, well-qualified teachers and plenty of support staff in very practical roles. A nod to children with special needs and the chance to repeat a year, under certain circumstances, if that’s right for the child: difficult then and nigh-on impossible now. Integrated Humanities appears on the options list and I have to go for a short lie-down, suddenly reliving a nasty experience with Int Hums in the Midlands 12 years previously. Planners are explained and parents encouraged to sign them: is it odd that we still do this 25 years later?
Yardley’s Tallis has a post-Local Management of Schools feel to it, necessarily so. There’s less talk about the LEA and more about school-based decisions and systems. As with the curriculum, he’s clearer about behaviour mechanisms. ‘As few rules as are practical’, sensibly agreed, and we hold that torch still, Husain’s legacy carried through fifty years, but how the context has changed. I was clawing my way up the greasy pole as a behaviour trainer at the same time so I’m familiar with the territory: exclusion ‘for a few days’ (up to 10), outside support for those at risk of 45 days exclusion in a year and therefore permanent removal. (If I may take a diversion, when I was a clueless Deputy Head at about this time, one of the Behaviour Support team we relied on for those most depressing 45-day cases was Dominic Cummings’ mother. I kid you not.)
Girls are not at a disadvantage, we are assured. Racial incidents are rare. Children from ethnic minorities do well ‘indeed, they may be doing better than the majority group’. How did that play out, post-school?
The third prospectus (click image above to open), tra-la, is one of my own, which makes me reconsider the earlier ones. I write a bit of stuff at the start, lifted directly from ‘the policies and long-term aims which determine what happen to the children’ , as Husain has it but the rest of it is other’s endeavour: Curriculum Deputy, Head of Sixth, Director of Arts who conceptualises and realises the product. Who were the others in the past? Did Beryl draw her own child-centred diagram? Did Colin write the lot, from Welcome to Sixth Form? I know every name of the people who lift Tallis into the air in this 50th year, but looking back at this beautiful brochure, from 2046 or ‘71, who’ll remember the others, the uncredited experts whose tireless commitment buoys up my silly face, in a frilly shirt, leaning on a pillar?
And if only I could say that it is our ‘policies and long-term aims which determine what happen to the children’. It's much harder to see, now, the clear path from principled, quality education for all to prosperity in an equal society. It’s much harder to plot that course now that so many principles have been abandoned, so many short cuts rebranded as motorways.
I was 10 in 1971 and 35 in 1996. Neither of those years was perfect and I don’t expect perfection now, but it feels as though some hope has been abandoned along the way. Perhaps Headteachers in every generation feel that, though we’d rightly never find it out from their prospectuses. Even if that’s gloomily true, I hope that they, like me, are encouraged by irrepressible teenagers, friendly parents and inventive colleagues. I hope that when they press the button to start every day, they do it with style and focus, like these my own predecessors. They knew in their bones that the comprehensive school is a dream every bit as visionary as the National Health service, but much, much harder to achieve.
I feel better for reading these. I hope you do too. When I grow up, I want to look like Beryl Husain’s picture.
 Gillard, Derek. "Circular 10/65 (DES 1965) - full text online". www.educationengland.org.uk
Tallis kept his head down so that he could keep it on. At a time of monarchical savagery he survived in the courts of four Tudors. It's probably fair to say that he didn’t draw attention to himself in any way other than through his music, startling enough, by any standard. We’ve no idea what kind of a person he was except that his epitaph describes a ‘patient quiet type, O happy man’.
I’ve moved amongst church musicians in my time and know a bit about what gets their metronomes going. I have to say that patient and quiet is not always their modus operandi. They may be quiet in the house and even patient with small children and dogs but I’ve known ‘em take bits out of slackers, clergy and anyone else getting in the way of the muse. I worked alongside one of the great cathedral organists and, while charming personally, he had a great line in asperity. Picture me in a beautiful chapter house, togged up in a ridiculously long cope, waiting as one of eight to escort the Bishop down the aisle (imagine a middle-aged mediaeval security detachment). All manner of processional mechanics having already set off, we wait behind the choir, professional musicians themselves, aged 8 to 60. Himself sets off suddenly at a moderate gallop, literally wrong-footing the smaller choristers in the front rank to whom he menacingly stage whispers over a dissatisfied shoulder. ‘Oh do come on. And don’t start that ridiculous coughing’. Was Tallis like that?
Conductors, like stage directors, have a particular relationship with their people. They are necessarily direct, even brusque and can get away with stuff that might end in flouncing or a punch-up in ordinary conversation – yet the outcome is usually wonderfully united. How does it work? Honesty and collaboration.
Which, fancy that, are the Tallis 50 themes for this half term. ‘Honest’ is one of our characteristics so we expect everyone in our community to tell the truth, reliably and habitually, so we don’t waste time on falsehoods or chasing wild geese (attractive as that sounds on a gloomy London afternoon). We let our no be no and our yes be yes. We shouldn’t need nudging, nagging or reminding, it is an habitual virtue.
Likewise ‘collaborative’, one of our habits. We cooperate appropriately (obviously not under exam conditions), give and receive feedback and share the product that we make, whatever it is. We share, discuss, debate, critique, consult, publish and explain. We work together: get it, got it, give it.
Honest and collaborative are buzzwords of the zeitgeist, but so hard to do, so hard to keep in tandem. The big issues confronting humanity – injustice and climate emergency – are maddening and terrifying in equal parts. It’s no wonder that so many discussions and debates are carries out in isolation and anger. People demanding honesty have had enough of lies. People yearning for collaboration have had enough of exclusion. Debate carried on in the ether seems to prioritise falsity and division as individuals shout their way to notoriety – yet the www is designed for collaboration, designed for sharing.
We’re dealing with some big issues in schools today. We know enough to know that we get and have got so much wrong. Wickedly, dehumanisingly wrong, planet-endangeringly wrong. But the worst of us, who need to sort it out, behave like dictators rather than directors, commandants rather than conductors. Grandstanding leadership disguises dishonesty and political sound-biting prevents shared endeavour. That affects the way young people learn to argue, when exclusivity and purity can close gateways to genuine just progress and where adult expectations discard the desperate adolescent need to explore and experiment before they decide, before they take on the mantle of adult citizenship.
Even if we don’t know anything else, we know that Tallis endured, and because he did, his music did. The new world our young people need is a shared endeavour. We need to be honest – like the conductor – and collaborative - like the conductor. We need high expectations, but we need to trouble ourselves to collaborate to build a better world.
You couldn’t sing the 32 parts of Spem in alium on your own and you couldn’t get it sung right without honesty about what needs to be done. Musicians do it all the time, and we can learn from that.
I’ve written this blog alone on yet another train but honestly, couldn’t it have been better if I’d done it collaboratively?