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
5.15 pm, after a long day and a staff meeting that stretched out like an adolescent’s well chewed piece of gum, I was last on the agenda. I stood and faced a sea of tired faces, took a breath and made my proposal.
We are working hard to give everyone an active voice in shaping what the new school will look and feel like. I think we can do more to develop and expand the language we all have to describe that place. Every student should get a taste of the architectures of London, everyone should have the opportunity to explore as wide a range of buildings, of places across the city as is possible. As a staff are you willing to make London ours? Take a day as a community to go out and look at places, move amongst those places, talk about them. A way to help the school find its voice as the children, as we all, connect our experiences on the day out to what we want our new school to be like inside and out. A day to ask what are the feelings, what is the ethos, what is it we want to take with us? Are you in?
Putting down my scrappy notes I look around that grey, concrete breeze block hall to see hands going up everywhere – every hand. And thus, the Big Day Out was created. And that was the Tallis ethos right there – a willingness to do something a bit off plan, a desire to give every opportunity possible to the school community, willing volunteers to the mere outline of a plan, risk takers, hard-workers.
Over the next few months staff decided on which place of significance, of connection they and their group of children would explore. Some planned to go as far as the Wetlands in West London some as close by as the Laban Centre in Deptford. Every member of staff, every student – out for the whole day.
In my office I and a small team worked at the end of a teaching day, collating, tabulating and budgeting as each member of staff planned their day, booked their travel, collected in permission slips and all the rest of the tedious but necessary elements of a school trip. This trip – en masse, 700 students, leaving the building for the whole day.
A buzz, a sea of blue sweatshirts, rucksacks, bags and hats, walking shoes or not. And so we all set off – walking to train stations, clambering onto coaches, driving away in the school mini-buses.
This film 'Tallis Space' is about the conversations we had when we were planning the new school building.
The Big Day Out section begins at 17:50
Then a whisper, a stir, phones ringing, texts pinging. I was with a group nearly at our destination of Kenwood House, when we started to hear about some event, some disruption in town and our driver got the word via his handheld radio that he couldn’t go through central London. This was 2005 social media was not yet a thing, no iPhones, mobiles were not that smart. As we all shared experiences later – it took a while for the news to get through. The Big Day Out was July 7th 2005. The day of the London bombings. And so it became our Big Day In – groups gradually made their way back to school, those who had set out on public transport had to weave their way around cancelled and diverted trains and buses. Parents set out with cars and vans meeting staff and children, piling them in and driving them back to base. Tables laid out in the concourse with lists of names, slowly being ticked off; staff waiting until everyone child and adult was marked present and safe.
Most of us never got to our destinations that day. We didn’t explore and connect with the landscapes of London, but we did do something else – we reassured, we smiled, we made bad jokes to keep our fears at bay; children shared phones, found ways to connect to parents and pass the messages on, “We’re OK”. Children, parents, and staff working together to get everyone back in. We might not have expanded our vocabulary of architecture but we learned about teamwork, problem-solving, being creative, sharing and yes caring. We came back to our “manky”, grey, breeze-block - held together with chewing gum - buildings undeterred. Later in the year smaller groups would set out to local places and the conversations continued.
What goes on inside a school will ultimately define its personality, leave a mark for every generation. The Big Day Out for many was certainly a “memorable educational experience” as Tallis’ current headteacher writes. Ms Roberts goes on to speak of our responsibility to teach “young people how to live a good life … through the virtuous route of sustained endeavour, curiosity, substance, breadth, depth, kindness and selflessness.”
On July 7th 2005 the Tallis community had all those qualities in bucket loads!
-- Siobhan McCauley, teacher at Thomas Tallis from April 1989 to August 2012.
This is a story about loyalty, from my first year of teaching at Tallis. '96 or '97, I forget now. In the dreadful old building, but with the same fantastic South London children. I think about the cast concerned, M and N, and W, from time to time. They are of an age for their children to come here now, and I think that some do.
Inspections from OFSTED back then were multi-day affairs for which a number of weeks’ notice was supplied, generating large amounts of paperwork in response. A school lived or died by the aggregate score of lesson observations as the main measure of teaching quality, together with the proportion of GCSE students awarded 5 A-C grades including English and Maths. Both measures since utterly discredited, although they ruined many a teaching career.
Schools stank of new paint and desperation when the Inspectors came calling, as they did to Tallis that summer. The English department was under the cosh over the exam results from the year before. I can still recall the (feigned, we felt) surprise of the Lead Inspector, his face pursed like a man sucking a Werther's Original on the top deck of the 286 whilst taking himself to Queen Mary’s for treatment for his prostate difficulties.
The Year 9 class I had that year were sufficient to generate a measure of anxiety about the likely findings of the Inspectorate. I was a newcomer in these matters and Year 9 students, delightfully, are on the cusp of late adolescence and early young adulthood - 13 going on 14, or rather older (it might appear) in some cases. There had been a number of trials to face over my successful delivery of the curriculum and relationships with some of the students had been rocky. One girl, N, had just taken violent exception to my contacting her parent to express distress at her forthright manner in class. Mum had not been entirely supportive on the phone and it was clear that full and frank discussions of the neophyte taking English lessons had occurred at home. Even shaving my head and bulking up by going to the gym six days a week so that I resembled, vaguely, N's scary older brother - the lad had been removed from Tallis by mutual agreement just after the start of the year - was no longer cutting it and resentments were reaching a rolling boil amongst N's crew, all of whom sat, pallid but with striking maquillage, along the back row. “Why,” N had yelled the week before, fixing me with a gimlet eye, “d’you got to bring my FAMILY into it?”. Subsequent pique kept her at home for a period and I was hoping that there’d be a continuing series of no-shows for the inspection.
And then there was M, out of school more than in. He was a slight lad with an extraordinarily loud voice for someone with his frame. I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered the like in the 25 years since. His family all had very significant hearing impairments but I don’t believe they signed, so M communicated with them simply by raising his voice. Schooled in this from early childhood, he knew no other way of speaking than by doing so at the most remarkable volume. He had a diaphragm like a blacksmith’s bellows and great autonomy at home because his parents deferred to him in all worldly matters, such were their communication difficulties. He was self-made, it appeared, in most ways. Writing was challenging for him and so it was a thing he refused to do, although on occasion I wrote at his dictation whilst the rest of the class grudgingly got on with something. The endpapers of his book were full of scurrilous neon felt-tip illustrations and although they were torn out with rigour on my part wherever I came across them I was in a double-bind about it as the only way of preventing them recrudescing was if he did not take his book home - making him therefore unable to complete any homework.
The wry humour of my predicament both over this and over his conduct in lessons was not lost on him as M was a keen observer of my many failings as a classroom practitioner, even liking to end lessons with exit-interview comments: “I DIDN’T GET ANY OF THAT.” or “S**T LESSON SIR. JOKE.” - even though it clearly wasn’t. (A joke, I mean. The lesson I can’t speak for now, actually.) Death in Terry Pratchett speaks only in majuscules, and so did M, and both were equally fatal to a calm state of mind. His views on any matter tended to the extreme and this and the volume with which they were presented usually instantly derailed orderly learning. Remonstrating with him was utterly without point, as was setting a detention, as he just stayed at home until the dust had settled. Calling his parents was useless for obvious reasons. During lessons M drew smut in his book, whilst occasionally putting his hand up to chip in, a hand I was usually too craven to pick for fear of what might be said. Not that it made much difference: even M’s sub-rosa mutterings of discontent were quite audible as his whisper was at normal conversational volume for a mortal.
Now terror was abroad. Some lessons across the school earlier that week had failed to make the grade and that and the statistics showing us up meant it was coming down to the wire. The final lessons that Friday needed to be decent or the school was for it. I was hoping the Key Players would be out but honesty has always been our leitmotif at Tallis and we resolutely refused (as other schools did, and do, one hears) to send the naughty kids home on gardening leave any time we were inspected. And the week of the inspection both N and M were in every day. I didn’t quite understand why.
My heart was in my boots - I hadn’t yet been seen but knew I would be. N bore grudges I was certain and was sure to play up; M was quite simply indifferent to what anyone else thought. He liked to call a spade a shovel and had previously shown that he was almost entirely indifferent to authority, for to him no power was legitimate but his own. Luckily, though, the inspectors knew enough not to appear in the classroom of a Newly Qualified Teacher it seemed, and I’d been spared a visit, perhaps also for reasons to do with the way that class’s timetable worked. During Monday morning’s lesson the inspection team had been setting up their workroom, and the midweek lessons were last thing in the day, when Findings were being Written Up.
The school only had to make it through to Friday lunchtime without terminal mishap, as the final debriefing session with the inspection team occupied Friday's graveyard slot. I had the Year 9 class period four, the last possible time for a visit, and of course the door opened after the first ten minutes of the lesson and the Lead Inspector came in with the Clipboard Of Doom and took a seat at the back, began flipping through the lesson plan. Revenge is a dish best eaten cold, and the lesson was potentially a cup of lumpy cold sick with a spoon shoved into it. If N or M wished to show me up and take the school down too, this was their time. I can’t now remember what the topic was - something from Blair's National Literacy Strategy probably - Writing to Focus Group, a thing of that sort.
Well now. I didn’t fancy my chances but of course I didn’t know then that the students here might hate the teachers, or say they do, in normal circumstances, yet the agio pneuma descends when interlopers come calling. The comitatus was everything: the tribe fought off Tacitus's men at the gates to the hilI-fort in the Downs, piled up the breach with their English dead at Agincourt, and played up and played the game at Wadi Rum in the Age of Empire until the sand of the desert was sodden red. Honour is more than a word, I now know, and loyalty was the thing. As far as N and M were concerned, the honour of the school was at stake and they wished to play their part.
I had taken the advice of the wily Head of Faculty when preparing for the ordeal - we all had - and the steer was to get something set up and then get the kids to knock on with it, on the basis that OFSTED's judgement allegedly hung solely on the charisma of the performer plus a bit of vox pop with the kids. (OFSTED were obsessed with lesson ‘pace’ as well - ‘Mush! Mush, children! We have life-changing exams to prepare for!’). To this the counter was: twenty minutes setup, give out the resources, twenty-five minutes of writing, wrap things up, done. It might throw the inspectors off the scent: if the Sage On The Stage wasn’t performing, it tilted them into a Book Look - and I had diligently been marking the kids’ work, when not tearing it out - or they had to talk to the students. Ranks might close up - that was the hope, anyway. A high-risk strategy with my lot, I felt.
So as long as M’s book was free of pornographic depictions, it might be fine. And that particular kindergarten had been weeded of things rank and gross that possess’d it merely the week before. More, I'd called in a favour with his Head of Year, the only person M rated in the whole school, who'd instructed him not to say a single word if the Inspectors visited. The fix was in, probably one involving fags. N was fond of incorrect verb agreements - we was always doing this that and the other in her biographic writing from earlier in the term - but she was caught up in the drama of her own life with rare intensity and her book was voluminously if inaccurately scripted. As long as no-one wound her up, she might do. The other kids were smashers and the weakest in the class, W, loved WWF. His piece about Wrestlemania 13 was a terse masterpiece of action description, which even though it sometimes lacked even spaces between words (sample: 'TheUndertakerwasdonein') could not but impress even the hardest heart via its innovative use of scriptio continua to convey the feverish excitement of the mash-up being described, one circulating at the time in school on dodgy VHS tapes bought from Lewisham Market.
I finished the set-up, and set them to it. Chop chop. Andiamo. M seemed to be keeping to his word, and N and her henchwomen were getting on with the task: they had strong opinions to defend. I toured the room widdershins speaking to children as, clockwise, did the Inspector.
How would things turn out? At first, N stared him down, but then showed her book. Nods of engagement. All the students had a ‘Writing Frame’, a Wizard Wheeze that I had picked up during teacher training the year before. It was writing-as-colour-by-numbers, but also at the bleeding edge of pedagogical refinement. If a child was stuck, they could dip in to help themselves craft a sentence, that was the theory. Or copy out verbatim, that was the reality. Pens were moving, matters were going along. I was beginning to feel a rising confidence, until I saw that the endpapers of M's English book were being scrawled in with his felt-tips, the lad doing this with an oddly stilted body language, leaning in over the desk whilst his pen moved frantically, the leaves of the book not opened fully, hiding what was being produced, yet working at blistering pace. Shading in, not writing, was happening. What was going on?
The Inspector worked his way round to him whilst a sense of creeping dread began to grow in me. Christ, what was the boy doing? But the pages were flipped back before the Inspector could get to them, and M wasn’t for sharing. A headshake. Would he say something, kill the mood of fragile scholarship? I tried to make eye contact with M to warn him off. Nothing doing. Nada. Zip. Nowt. Studied avoidance of interaction. So: on. Select a few students: oral feedback to individuals, then read the best bits aloud to the class. Take volunteers. Dole out grudging praise. Sing for your supper you buggers. Studiously ignore M and N, praise the behaviour you want to see more of, just like in the teaching manuals. The clock was ticking down and we were nearly there. Then we were.
The Inspector came to the front to thank the class for being so helpful to him in his deliberations. This brief farewell from the Man From The Ministry and then the students were dismissed and began to filter out. N and her shipmates departed. A loud shriek from one as they left, a scuffle. M remained. He had found a Thing To Do. He began to beckon from his seat in the gloom at the back. His gestures, at first shy, intensified. He began to smile. A rictus developed. His wiry hand scooped the air. Yes, you, you there - come and see. Enter freely and leave something of the happiness you bring behind. Like Jonathan Harker at the threshold, the Inspector knew something was up, but could not prevent himself from approaching M for the Big Reveal.
And there it was. With a flourish the book was flipped open on M’s desk, and the Inspector flipped off: M had spent the entire lesson crafting in garish capitals the instruction F**K OFF, neatly laid out across an entire double A4 spread. An illustrative finger indicated the imperative and M made eye contact, nodding excitedly as he did so. Yeah? Yeah? He seemed mute with delight; the inspector was mute for other reasons I think. No-one spoke, a relief.
The tableau unfroze and the parties departed. I packed up my things and left for the English Office, inwardly composing my letter of application to the Audit Commission, a public body my mother, a former headteacher herself, had always favoured over education work. Office stuff, away from the general public. Yes, that was it. Secluded back rooms. Yes. She knew best.
Later the Head sought me out. The Inspection team had turned out to be one of the good ones - they weren’t, always - and the Lead Inspector was a HMI appointed in the days when that actually meant something. My lesson hadn’t saved the day - the other, vastly more experienced English teachers had done that - but I had been mentioned in dispatches for a brave job in trying circumstances. M hadn’t even needed to speak, at the end, because his single contribution said all. No exit interview required.
Loyal to a fault, our lot. Loyal to (a) T.
-- Jon Bradshaw
Writing this in March 2022, Lord Hattersley's visit to Tallis in 2006 seems like a lifetime ago. These were the days of Blair’s New Labour, and whilst the initial euphoria and optimism of the 1997 election victory had been diluted, for me at least they seem like halcyon days compared to those who have held this office since 2010.
Roy Hattersley had not come to talk about the present though. He had come on a Teaching Challenge. Literally. Arriving with a film crew in tow he had come to take on the task of teaching my Year 12 History class. The class had been engaged with thinking hard on the theme of struggles for equality through the lens of the British women's suffrage movement and the American Civil Rights movement. My students had accepted the invitation to engage in his teaching pedagogy to think further. My role was to comment upon it live via a video link set up in the office adjacent to the teaching room.
I arrived at school early that day, a habit that has not changed. I prepared the classroom, facilitated the requirements of the camera crew, and reassured my students that it was nothing to worry about and that they should enjoy the occasion.
It is hard not to be overwhelmed when you are in the presence of a politician and a political leader for whom you have some admiration. But, then again, he was not in his comfort zone, I was. The classroom was my world. The House of Commons and Lords was his. I was the expert. Or so I thought. And then he started. Just wow. What a lesson!
You see the thing was Roy's life was intimately entwined with struggles for equality. His life’s work was defined by it. He was able to share the stories of gender and racial equality with consummate ease. Once more, he did this entirely through anecdotes and stories .... no work sheets or textbooks to be seen. In addition, such stories could be embellished with accounts of personal involvement and experience such as meeting Bayard Rustin with Robert Kennedy in 1964. I was not born till 1965! I had been reminded of the power of stories to engage and captivate young minds. Oh, my word what a lesson. And it was a privilege for me to watch and comment.
Finally, Lord Hattersley and I shared lunch with the students in Greenwich Park, an opportunity for some less formal conversation. Blair and Brown were the hot topics of the day. At the end my assessment of Roy's teaching, I asked him for a self-assessment and he offered that he was satisfactory and would avoid special measures. I suggested he was very modest.
Bless you Lord Roy Hattersley. You made our day and gave me a tale to tell.
-- Tony Hier
Titter ye not, but I’m a behaviour nerd. Such is the debasement of the language that you’d expect that to mean some super-strict schtick, and may be goggling at my effrontery. How can someone simultaneously be interested in school behaviour while allowing trainers? Woman’s a nutter.
Allow me. Teenagers need structure. They need it not just as training for adult life, though that’s a useful side-effect. They need structure because their brains are constantly reassessing and confronting potentialities. They’re risk takers, boundary-pushers, programmed to start breaking away from home and focus on independence and friends. Some do this more than others. Socio-economics notwithstanding, some are happy to fit in, some rebellious. Some arrive ready for pleasant community life, some are prickles and pickles from head to foot. The needs or desires of the one seem hardwired to clash with the deserts of the many.
This is the context for secondary behaviour management. How you respond thereafter is a matter of educational principles, of belief. Do these children need to be metaphorically battered into obedience to save them from themselves or coaxed into their best selves?
I’m thinking about the last 50 years in these pieces. I was about to go to a girls’ grammar school in 1971 which turned co-ed and comprehensive in 1973. I suspect there was little thought given to behaviour management in the former system, which may have been regretted after the merger. Some grammar school staff didn’t last long – or perhaps they were all very old, they seemed so to me, but that probably just meant they were over 30. As a schoolchild I was disorganised, lazy, opinionated and loquacious: the kind of combo that finishes off the weaker kind of chalk-botherer but is easily squashed by the stronger, or the more interesting. I spent a lot of time outside classroom doors but if anyone had even thought about phoning my mother I’d have been silent for a month. Parents’ evenings, as I must have told you before, held significant terrors for me and were often followed by Ominous Silence on the Home Front.
I don’t remember a behaviour management focus when I started teaching in the eighties, though you soon got a feel for the ones who could hack it and help you. Sanctions, as in punishments, weren’t routinely discussed. There was no expectation of restorative conversations, just a vague idea that children should know how to behave and be shouted at until they did - though probably the best colleagues had more strings to their bows. My second school was out of control and I left teaching for a bit. Later, in a middle management role in the nineties I got hooked into a US training programme called Assertive Discipline. Looking back, this was probably the start of the kind of detailed, consistent whole-school behaviour policies which are now everywhere. I love tangling with human nature and the systems seemed blindingly obvious to me. I became a trainer with the chance to help struggling teachers – but did it make a difference to my practice? I’m still a bit disorganised and personally disinclined to use rigid systems when I could generally generate a decent climate in the room by other means, notably a really interesting and quite challenging curriculum.
When I first clawed my way up the greasy pole to leadership I worked in an eccentric school with an arcane and largely unknown behaviour policy. We could codify simple expectations: do your homework, listen carefully, don’t swear and so on. A Deputy Head more experienced than I decided to set about the ‘unwritten rules’ which appeared to catch out lots of children – don’t go west to east along the upper science corridor, don’t use reception as a short cut into the lower science corridor and so on. She collected them into one document with brief explanations, twelve pages long and utterly unusable.
When I started as Head at the turn of the century we were up against it so introduced some quick and specific rules. In an exceptionally challenging school I still stopped short of monolithic classroom expectations because I knew I was temperamentally unsuited to enforcing them. Quality standards, yes. Identical structures, relationships and lessons – no. Did I let them down? Lazy, disorganised and opinionated again? Returning to the eccentric school we tightened it up a bit, got fiercer at the sharp end and one Head of Year introduced the only fully teacher-proof rewards system I’ve ever seen.
When I was interviewed at Tallis (finally, you gasp) no one talked about behaviour. I did, quite a lot, when I got the job and we’ve been on it ever since. Why? We’re a mixed community with liberal values. Children expect to have things explained to them. They don’t share similar backgrounds. We encourage debate. Parents are of all sorts. We have to be subtle and nuanced. We have to try to work for everyone. We are about as far from zero-tolerance as you can get and yet our behaviour is reliably good – a working definition of excellence, actually.
I’m not a nutter. I was recommended Professor Michael Marland’s matchless magisterial Craft of the Classroom in 1983 and I’ve clung to it ever since. A product of its time, it sets out the basics of behaviour management at classroom level and upon its methods rest all learning and good order in my view. I sometimes buy colleagues a copy for about a quid off the internet and at a penny a page it’s the very best value. Some bits need excising or explaining: this from a section on ‘physical action’ is very much of its time, for a book first published in 1975.
All that having been said, I must add that we are all human and tempers can be lost. There are very few teachers who have not struck a pupil at some time or another int heir career. A time will come when either you are in a particularly touchy state or a pupil is extremely irritating, and you strike out. Should this happen, don’t cover it up. Send at once for a senior member of staff. If one is not available, go to see your Head of Department or the Deputy Head as soon as the lesson is over.
We forget how far we’ve come.
I think that my view – the minimum rules needed for a fair and safe school - is reflected in the way that the United Nations characterised the conditions necessary for justice for young people, also in the eighties and expressed in eighties language:
Behaviour is a language of communication. Like all languages it needs to be learned and understood. It needs support and constant attention. Children learn how to behave well when they trust the adults around them to do the best they can. Adults do the best they can when they are appreciated, supported and trained. None of this is easily measurable but all of it is vital, vital to all of our fulfilment and happiness in every generation.
The young people of the twenty-twenties are learning to behave in a time of trial perhaps unprecedented, certainly unknown to the generations before them. We pressure and commodify our young through capitalism and the examination system in a way that raises expectations of equality just to crush them with the class boundaries we still, inexplicably, endure. They struggle with racism, gender-based violence as well as plain old misogyny and all in a context of pandemic, uncertainty and poverty for many and catastrophic, exploitative climate change that threatens us all.
Old Machiavelli lived in difficult times and had some difficult solutions to offer. But he knew that the state was safer if people’s lives weren’t made too difficult, and he underpinned that with a simple insight:
A city based on good laws and good orders has no necessity, as have others, for the virtue of a single man to maintain it.
It takes a community to raise a child and that community needs good laws and procedural regularity. That’s what we try to do at Tallis, fairly, and persistently. As we build up our young folks to lead the future we dare to be different, we stick with difficulty and we tolerate uncertainty. We try very hard to do it fairly, because there’s no peace without justice.
In July 1996 Nelson Mandela was visiting London and was due to speak to crowds outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square. I had been teaching at Tallis since 1984, and my SRE students knew how much Mandela’s visit meant to all of us, how momentous an occasion this was. They begged to go and hear him - and this was literally the day before!
We would need immediate permission from the Headteacher, Colin Yardley.
If this had been any other school, it would have been a ‘no’ from the Head, due to the logistics of such a last minute arrangement. As we reminisce, I so clearly remember the Tallis way, with Colin at the helm - a ‘can do’ and ‘let’s make it happen’ approach to events. The massive enthusiasm of the students, who helped me to ask Colin, and my assurance that I would obtain all the parental permissions overnight, and bring these to him personally, was all we needed.
We went, and wow!! - it was the highlight of my career and a pinnacle of happiness for the whole group.
On their return to school, all the students rushed to find and thank Colin and regale him with the details of Mandela’s speech and of the euphoric atmosphere in Trafalgar Square.
-- Mandy O'Donnell (Hitchcock)
I taught a great many years at Tallis.
A friend in the Maths Department got me my first job on supply working mostly in music and humanities. I was going to earn a few pennies before going travelling again. I stayed about thirty years. Just couldn’t drag myself away.
So many stories. So many fantastically talented and challenging students. So many lovely staff.
And Inverliever. I calculate I shared Inverliever, or Arran, with over 1000 students over the years. I led many a Year group trip but if anyone would have me along ( Music, Humanities, other year groups ) I would volunteer my half-term away. Those who experienced Inverliever know of its magic. It’s a place you don’t easily forget. All the trips held their magic but two in particular are never to be forgotten.
The first involved a small group of lads ( they will remain anonymous but they know who they are) who made the staff's lives miserable all week by not sleeping, raiding the girls’ dorms and more. I can’t name staff either but we were fed up and found ourselves poring over a huge sheet of paper on which we had made a map of the premises and upon which we devised a battle plan to end all battle plans. It involved the staff breaking into groups and placing themselves at strategic places around the dorms with fire hoses and buckets of water in preparation for the revenge on the lads who, without doubt would leave their dorms to raid the girls’ dorm at a given time. We had got a few of the girls to write them a note ‘inviting’ them to their dorm at a certain time. All we needed to do was reel them in.
They fell for it! They were annihilated as they broke out of their dorm. Fire hosed, soaked by buckets they could run nowhere. A couple even found themselves dunked in the washing up sinks! They were then locked out of their dorms to face a few minutes in the Scottish February frost before we let them back into the warmth of a shower and bed.
Such fun! Such revenge!
Twice we took groups to the top of Ben Nevis. Couldn’t do it now …..elf and safety.
One group included the usual few for whom it was going to be the biggest challenge of their life and I was at the rear cajoling them to make it to the top. In the end I promised them a MacDonalds from the cafe that we would find at the top. The fib was enough to get them there and I knew that their disappointment, when they realised my lie, would soon be overcome by the awe they would feel by the view and the certain knowledge that they were the ‘ highest people in the whole of the UK’ at that moment.
Yes. Inverliever had a way of helping us all find our little place in a big Universe.
Kind of sums up Tallis. Challenge, fun, friendship. Achievement.
-- Tim Joyce
I arrived at Tallis in September 1993, having led a rather sheltered life. Well turned out for the first day in my new shiny black trousers and even shinier black shoes, it soon became clear that rather than being a place of conformity and rule following, Tallis was a melting pot of characters where the whiff of rebellion was ever present.
Whether it was the Thomas the Tank Engine apron proudly warn by Mrs Young, or the Tibetan Flags that were festooned across room 43 (Ms O having spent the summer immersing herself in an Asian adventure of apparently epic proportions), the pupils, staff and subjects that made Tallis were like nothing I’d ever experienced.
The 5 years leading to my GCSEs were the very best, and very worst of times. Throughout the ups and downs, Tallis became a home. It was the unfailing support , perseverance and determination of a great many people that meant I made it to year 11 in reasonable shape. Bar one red ticket (absolutely Shane’s fault, Ms Leeke!), some infrequent detentions and the occasional bollocking, I was usually on the right side of the law as far as school was concerned.
Mrs Maguire had introduced me to politics and I was enjoying representing the school in our local youth council, learning more about democracy and very much finding my voice. It was a passion that gripped me from an early age and although none of our formal education had been political, Ms O, Mr J and others had informally educated us on the intricacies of the geopolitical landscape. Mr Mandela - revered. Mr Major - not so much.
Anyway, the summer was approaching and I was doing my best to keep those year 11 plates spinning in the air, aided ably by the wonderful Mrs R. I was the only student for her half term revision class, the subject of which was the power of aromatherapy oils and the hidden powers you could unleash to get through your exams. It was great fun. Armed with more lavender than a small branch of Holland and Barrett and an array of highlighters, I was motoring towards the end and making good progress.
Except for Italian.
Now, the languages faculty was a big deal at Tallis and filled with some big characters. Exotic menus of global cuisines adorned the walls. As a very fussy eater it all looked pretty disgusting (me being much more a fan on the turkey twizzler than the tortellini) but Ms C had persevered with us for almost 2 years, desperate to make the kids from the Ferrier authentic for any future trips to Florence. Sadly, I was more captivated by her colourful use of the overhead projection than I was trying to pretend to buy a second class rail ticket from Rome to Venice and by the February-March time, with just weeks to go, I had decided (inspired in part by the icons Summer and Streisand) that enough was enough.
My lobbying efforts were well underway by early March to rid me of this evil (to be fair, Mrs C was very evidently feeling the same way at this point) and despite eloquent, extended explanations to all of the senior team, no one was prepared to let me drop the bloody subject. I was furious. Seething. Livid about the amount of time I was wasting on this pointless endeavour!
A brief flashback to a year 10 history listen - I was a big fan of the suffragettes - led me to the firm conclusion that a period of direct action was required. After all, I couldn’t be the only one feeling like this! (Year 11 was a rollercoaster - Emmeline Pankhurst one moment, Adrian Mole the next…) So having evaluated all options, I swiftly eliminated window breaking, hunger striking or chaining myself to anything.
An organised walk out would be my chosen method of attack. Although I wouldn’t be in lessons, I had considered all legal arguments and was pretty sure there was a world of difference between truanting and protesting.
Pandora was recruited as my fellow commander and we got to work on the specifics. It’s bizarre to think that we had no WhatsApp, Facebook or any platform to really communicate at scale. I didn’t even have a mobile phone! So we reverted to the trusted communication method that has served those dessert islanders so well over the centuries - the rolled up piece of paper. Pandora and I both had excellent handwriting, but it was fairly recognisable and whilst we were happy to organise, we hadn’t quite settled on going public as protestors in chief. At that stage of our education, one of the benefits of year 11 was the 2 hours twice a week discovering the joys of word processing. So we set ourselves to work.
Languages walk out. Enough is enough. Meet at the year base period 4 Wednesday.
As Pandora and I were both quite proficient in IT, we decided to upgrade this rather dull message to something more fitting, a revolutionary call to arms. Though I can’t be absolutely sure, I’d imagine that comic sans was the most likely font of choice and as we were doing well with Mrs B and the word processy stuff, we were able to arrange a perfect set of label printing. We needed 210 of those (1 for each of the year group as we were in a 7 x 30 combination at that stage). Rotatrims we’re in ample supply across the school and we were fortunate to have an unending supply of the year 11 must-have accessory: the clear plastic wallet - big thanks to WH Smith at this point, still the nation’s best stationer in my view.
I enlisted a series of lieutenants and gave them 10 each, instructing the message to be disseminated broadly across the year group. A good strategy I thought and one that would mean a charge of joint enterprise in the event that we were uncovered.
So with messages printed, distributed and the date of the revolution set, all there was to do was wait.
And before too long, it was D-Day.
In the run up to the day itself, chat was fairly muted - most people weren’t aware that me and P were commanders in chief. Many were dealing with impending coursework deadlines or the latest emotional crisis. I’d wondered whether this was all going to be a rather damp squib.
But, arriving into school that morning, I knew we were on. There was an electric current in the air as we geared up for action. Huddled whispers, nervous giggles - and not a clue about what was to come from our unsuspecting teachers.
It was suddenly break time and as usual we headed to the year base. It was a fairly warm day and we would normally have been outside, but a spontaneous solidarity now united us.
Suddenly, commotion. An almighty racket from the door leading out. What the hell was going on?
Having headed round the corner, I was momentarily lost for words. The 11RS lads (very much a motley crew) were suddenly amassing any piece of available furniture they could lay their hands on and for some unexplained reason barricading all of us inside the year bus. Chairs, tables, trays - it all went on, piling higher and higher by the second. Having intervened to ask what the bloody hell was going on, one of them replied they were stopping us from going to languages, having apparently completely misinterpreted the note!!! As I ran over to stop the false start, a very angry Mr B was heading towards the door at speed, hollering and shouting - we assumed - for the immediate cessation of activities! As that failed, he launched into a sort of fly kick, desperately trying to break the barricade, at the door! Panic ensued in the year base, with most now exiting through the emergency door, or the window for those feeling more adventurous!
Period 3 was over in a flash, and the familiar tone of the pips signalled the beginning of the revolution: operation walk out was on! I sprinted to the year base, to find not one, not two but many revolutionaries who had answered our call. I also found Pandora, who was now mildly hysterical. Lots of noise and swirling about before someone came up to me (my cover blown) and said: so what now? At that very moment, I was panic stricken, it suddenly dawning on me that I’d done all the work to get us here but hadn’t actually planned what next. We had no placards, or purple and green sashes, no organised meeting point…just most of the year group who were now looking to me for direction.
“To the back fields”, I bellowed possibly accompanied by a revolutionary fist in the air. Off we went, huddled together (Pandora and I) now in the middle of the throng, marching purposefully under a Tallis blue sky, all buzzing that things seemed to be going well (so far!).
We were suddenly at the very furthest point of the field, adjacent to the railway line, which seemed as good a place as any to set up shop. We arranged ourselves in groups and mostly sat down. After moments of what seemed like a party atmosphere the air was penetrated by the amplified tones of Mr B.
“Stop, stop right there. We know who you all are” he boomed, megaphone in hand and flanked by at least 20 teachers who had arranged themselves in a line formation and were advancing towards the revolutionaries. As they moved closer, everyone stood up, unsure what would come next. Suddenly, and without warning, one of my number shouted, “RUN”…
And with that, we all did. Quickly, bags in hand, arranging ourselves neatly into a sweeping formation that meant we could escape their advances. “Danny Thorpe, stop right now” one of them screeched, but they had absolutely no chance. Whilst any sporting talents had eluded me so far, my feet were very much to the metal and we were ascending at speed into the building…
Almost hyperventilating, I fell through the door into the Italian classroom. A sweaty, ginger, hysterical mess. And Mrs C was furious. Practically steaming. She ordered us straight back outside and made clear we were not welcome in her room anymore. Trying desperately to get ourselves together, we were soon discovered my Ms L, senior, serious and furious. She was actually much friendlier than her general demeanour suggested, but she was not to be messed with. Her inquisitions were always of a serious nature when her glasses were moving and today was absolutely one of those days. Her demands for answers to explain just what on earth had been going on only made me and P more hysterical, but luckily for us she was soon distracted! A number of the RS lads were now in full flow at the other end of the corridor, reenacting some kind of battle scene as they escaped from the increasingly furious teachers, whose echoey shouts could be heard from all four corners of Planet Tallis as the revolutionaries entered the building.
It was fair to say that the unfolding chaos wasn’t quite what we had planned. And I’d had far more fun than I would have had if my time had been consumed with the seemingly never ending exploration of Italian tenses!
Lunch time was a weird affair. Word had got round and upon encountering any year 11 pupils, the teachers would simply look in disgust. Carol, who ran the dinner operation at Tallis, broke ranks, screaming enthusiastically at any year 11 she could find how disgusted she was with the mornings events.
But there must be more? They must be planning something, we pondered, fairly sure that there would be consequences for our actions. And sure enough, we were right.
Halfway through period 6, we were instructed to down tools and gather our things. Immediately. Directed to the door, it was clear that Operation Strike Back was underway. Marched in silence to the goldfish bowl that was the Sports Hall, we were arranged into tutor groups for the bollocking of our lives.
Understandably, they were beyond furious. And as the torrent of anger rained down, it’s fair to say we weren’t laughing any more. Poor Mr J (Head of Year, Top bloke) looked close to tears, declaring “you’re all sheep” and running between us hollering “baaaaaaaaaaaa” at the assembled masses. The dawning reality that we’d probably taken the poor guy closer to the edge than at any time during his 5 years of shepherding our flock was a sure fire way to bring the party to an end.
There wasn’t really any discussion about a second strike, and after Mr J’s worrying display, I developed the view that I should simply shut up and get on with it.
By some miracle, I ended up with a C in Italian at GCSE, a grade I’m sure I could have improved if I’d concentrated on my studies instead of revolution.
-- Danny Thorpe, Leader of Royal Borough of Greenwich Council
The following interview with Richard Cox and George Taylor was recorded in 2018. Thanks to both them for sharing their memories of the early days of Thomas Tallis School. You can listen to the recording or read the transcript below.
My name is Richard Cox. I went to Thomas Tallis. My first day was the sixth of September 1971, the day that it opened. So I was one of 120 original boys, no girls then, that went to Thomas Tallis. It was at a time when there was a shortage of secondary source spaces and there was a plan to open up Thomas Tallis, further down the line, in Kidbrooke to cope with the the demand of the new people coming onto the Ferrier Estate. But, in September '71, the school hadn't been built and we had to spend two years at Briset Road. So, that was my introduction to Thomas Tallis.
I've never been a student at Thomas Tallis but my son is a friend of Richard's and he started on the same day in '71. Because my son was coming to the school, I took an interest in what was happening. And I was a parent governor for a number of years. I stayed a parent governor for about three or four years and then my daughter came to the school.
In the early days, there were only four teachers. There was Mr. Turpie who everyone will know and love. We've lost him recently, which is a big shame. But we also had Mr. Richter and Mr. Evans and Mr. Martindale. So they were our four teachers. Mr. Evans specialised in general science, Mr. Richter was English and Mr. Martindale taught maths. Mr. Turpie was geography. And we had a temporary Head for one term, Mr. Davis. And there was a Mr. Edwards who was the deputy head at the time and he taught history. So we didn't have a broad curriculum. In those days, we didn't have any sports facilities like you've got now. Fantastic sports facilities. The students here are very lucky in that respect. But we just had to get on with it. So it was very a big learning curve for everybody. In those early days we had a fantastic basketball team. The first intake got to the last eight of the national competition. And we played against a school from Hampstead down here in the old building. The gallery was packed with teachers and students watching us. It was a really close game. We lost it, but the sporting achievements were fantastic. And of course, in those early days, the school produced Pat Van Den Hauwe, do you remember him? He went on to play for Tottenham and Everton. He was in the year below me. Yeah, that's right. He had a brother called Rudy but I don't think he was that great. But yeah, what Tallis gave me was the friendships, the social interactions, because all of the people that I grew up with are still my friends. I mean, we've been friends for 47 years. So it's a, it's a big deal for me. I left school with virtually no qualifications. But we all make our way in life and some of us went on to great things. I've just retired. I'm not complaining. I've had a good life. Thomas Tallis set me on my way. There was a big reunion about 15 years ago. The teachers were there and it was as if we were really good friends. I mean, we used to call them by their first names. I'm not sure you get that anymore. I went on to form friendships with some of the teachers outside of school with rugby. So a lot of the teachers here came to play for Charlton Park and that's the rugby club that I was taken to by one of the teachers who played there, so that set me up for life. They treated you like adults, and they encouraged you. And they let you get on with things. They let you learn. They let you use blow torches and things like that in the metalwork classes. You didn't have to worry about health and safety. Everything was common sense. And they kept you on the straight and narrow. It was like a family atmosphere.
Well I'm afraid I'm going to pour some cold water on it because I haven't got very many positives. Some of the experiences Richard is telling you about were anathema to a parent of my age. First name terms with teachers and so on and so forth. My son, like Richard, what was it...? O Levels...?
We were so far behind. For the first two years, we did virtually nothing. Because we didn't have the building. We were in Briset Road, a very confined space. We just did the basics so when we came to Kidbrooke Park Road, it was catch up. And they tried to bring people in, they tried to cram but it didn't work. There were only a handful of people that went on to do O Levels. Most people did CSEs. So the academic achievement was non-existent. Of course, you didn't have league tables, you didn't have the pressure of trying to achieve in 1976. You could walk out the front door, and you could get a job. You didn't have to worry about qualifications. You could write to a bank and say, "I'd like to come and work at the bank" and you'd get a response or a nice letter back saying "Come and have an interview". And they'd give you a job and there were jobs aplenty. From a personal perspective, I didn't feel cheated. It's only later in life, that you feel cheated when you realise that you haven't had the education that you deserve, when the promotions are not there at work. So that's interesting.
I can really reiterate a lot of what Richard said in relation to my son who suffered at some stages from word blindness and something else. Turns out, far too late, he was discovered to be dyslexic. But like Richard, this particular group, and the group that he's talking about, all went on to degrees of some kind or other, mainly by their own efforts after they left school. My son struggled for some time. He did get a good job at the local town hall. But he came home one day and said, "Will you sign these papers?" He went to work on a kibbutz for six months, and then it turned out to be a year. And then he walked across the bottom of Africa. "Is he going to settle down?" He did. And would you believe he got a flat with another school friend on the Ferrier Estate. I helped decorate it. But the positives are not very great. I mean, looking at it now, it's marvellous. I do remember when the governors interviewed Mr. Lark. And I was greatly tempted to ask him if he could do a Byrd song at the interview when he had his bag with all his music in it. I wished I'd asked him "What do you intend to do to tie in the school to Thomas Tallis the organist?" Taking up what Richard said about the family atmosphere, having left school with very few qualifications as they did, my son or my daughter, both have had success. My son is now retired, in fact. He was a police inspector when he retired. My daughter had, and we've still got it, a coat that she made here. It was in a glass case in in the foyer of the school. And she now has a beauty business. Very successful. I have nieces, not nephews, actually, who passed through the school and all of whom took degrees at various universities. I have great nieces who came to the school and both of those went on to a degree education. So whatever it was, was planted in those early days. Whilst it might not have benefited the originals, it's benefited a lot of other people since.
Well, I feel I've been cheated in terms of facilities you've got now because we never had those opportunities. In Briset Road we had a very tiny gymnasium. There was also a big sports hall but it had a concrete floor and was very cold. Looking around at the facilities here, the basketball arena, the dojo, the studios, the gymnastics hall. These students are so lucky to have those facilities. And there isn't anything that can stop them from going on to achieve. They can, if they want, be the best. They've got an opportunity to be the best.
Through my own son. I know the affection that he had for the school because he won't have anything set against it. He held the long jump record at the school for a long time. It probably still stands. But that brings up another point. When the Inner London Education Authority went against all competitive sports, and you've got children who are good at competitive sport, but a little bit weak on the academic side, they've got something to wave their banner about. As Richard said about basketball, my son played basketball with Mr. Turpie. But again, we missed out as parents where our children didn't get what we thought they should have got.
I've got no regrets about coming here like Russell (George's son), I wouldn't say anything against it. It was a great, great school.
George kindly donated some photos of the school being built from 1971: