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 Historical documents that reveal his character and thinking habits are like finding a needle in a haystack.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
“At Tallis, everyone dances.”
When Jon Nicholls reached out to me on Facebook to ask if I'd like to contribute to the Tallis Tales, he wrote that he often says this to visitors. This not only brought a smile to my face, but took me very much back to 1993 and the first time I danced at Tallis...
Reading many of these Tales, what truly comes out is the spirit and heart centre of the school, often naming individual teachers who, quite literally, changed lives.
There were many during my time in which I can say truly impacted my life - our year head Tim Joyce, who led with compassion, laughter, music and the best kind of tough love. Our Head Teacher Colin Yardley, who 'quietly' offered a safe space for the LGBTQ+ kids at the school to meet one another under the guidance and supervision of the school counselor (in the 90's, there were still a few dusty and very dangerous Thatcher laws in place, Section 28 being one of them, which 'forbid' the 'promotion of homosexuality' by local authorities). That 'safe space', which we named 'The Library Club', was our saviour. Around 10 of us would meet up once per week, and a bond and support network was created that I'm sure must have saved lives. We remained friends for years (reunion time??).
The teacher which planted the seed for what would end up becoming my career, was Deborah Khan.
‘Boys Dance’, read the flyer for an after-school activity. Ms Khan wanted to remove the stigma surrounding boys who dance. There I found my love of movement and creativity, and I also choreographed my first work here, at the grand old age of 12. In addition to the Boys group, we often had dance for PE (I hope this still continues... it was quite rare back in the day!) and professional companies that were performing locally at Greenwich Dance Agency would be invited to come to Tallis and give workshops. I was so inspired.
Ms Khan was a bit of a rebel pioneer (that's how I remember her!) with her plans for the performing arts at Tallis, and in 1995 she staged a school production of Cabaret. I remember it being so brilliant, with a touch of scandalous excitement! I played a bisexual dancer in the Kit Kat Club. At 13. In the 90's. Brilliant 🙂
I was not the only one that Deb Khan encouraged and saw potential in. That same tiny school production of Cabaret included Dominic Cooper and Sam Spruell, who are both Hollywood stars today.
That same year, she took a few of us to Sadler's Wells Theatre to see the inaugural premiere season of Matthew Bourne's all male Swan Lake. Deb had trained at Laban Centre with Bourne, so she pulled a few strings. This performance changed my life. I never knew you could fly like that. The feelings I had when I left the theatre I shall never forget. I thought to myself, 'That's what I want to do'.
Five years later, in 2000, Matthew Bourne invited me to join the cast of Swan Lake. I was an original cast member his production of The Car Man.
In 2010, I was awarded the Sadler's Wells Global Dance Prize, given to one choreographer per year.
These two moments, and the career I continue to enjoy today, were only possible because of Tallis.
-- Ihsan Rustem
In the December of 1999 I came to Thomas Tallis school for the first time. I was visiting for the day to have an induction, ahead of my PGCE placement due to start in January.
I arrived dressed in a suit and was asked to sit in reception and wait for my mentor, Mr Steve Fyfe. Over the next 5 minutes or so people came in and out at the start of a busy day of school life. One man was wearing jeans and a Ferrari polo shirt and carrying a clipboard. I remember thinking he must be delivering something as he was clearly looking around for someone. It turns out he was looking for me - this was Mr Fyfe! Those informal dress days are distant memory now.
He introduced himself and led me up to the maths department. We got on straight away, discussing my first teaching placement in Hackney, maths, teaching and within no time at all, football.
He gave me my timetable, which I still have. I was very lucky to spend those first few weeks learning from the best. Ward-Ure, Senkus, Dooley, Clare and the late Tony Antonio. Oh, and Steve. As you can see from the photo, my timetable was written on a student report. They have not changed much! You can also see that we had week A and B, an early close on a Wednesday week B and the structure of the day wasn’t too different either.
I learnt so much from them all (including SF). Not least Tony. He was a lovely man and I recall 2 distinct things about him. Firstly, how he would come in EVERY Friday with the TES jobs section. He would slam it down on his desk and announce how many maths teacher jobs there were that week. The second thing was he would announce, on an almost daily basis, how many teaching days there were left until the next holiday or the end of the year. He did this more than ever as he approached his well-deserved retirement. He very sadly passed away within months of his retirement. So many teachers count away their lives, myself included. We must remember to live life and enjoy every day.
As well as the staff mentioned above, I also met others on that first day, including Ms Taylor who is still here and shares an A-level group with me. There were also other staff around the school who I probably passed on that first day and would go on to work with for the next 2 decades.
Over the last 22.5 years, there have been many constants and many variables. Very fitting for a maths teacher.
-- Chris Hordern
It was in an assembly at Kidbrooke Girls’ School in the early eighties, when my close friend and teacher colleague, Di Bruce, leant over and whispered, “You know there’s a vacancy in the English department at Thomas Tallis!” I was supply teaching at Kidbrooke at the time, having had three children in quick succession. “Very progressive and exciting - Tallis,” she added, grinning.
So that was how I found myself in 1983 covering an English vacancy in a department, led at the time by Margaret Sandra, an ardent feminist, with the impressive Beryl Husein, as headteacher. Within weeks the Head of the English, Music and Drama faculty post became vacant, and I somehow found myself, taking it on temporarily, and then, quite surprisingly, permanently…not exactly the supply job I’d envisaged. I was Head of Faculty from 1983 to 1990. Colin Yardley became headteacher soon after I joined; an inspirational and incredibly diligent leader. It was hard work, exciting and challenging but also great fun and very rewarding.
The original school building was in awful condition by 1983. The flat roof was full of holes and when it rained buckets were places strategically in the corridors, which the kids dodged round or kicked over. The windows in the classroom and corridors didn’t close or fasten properly, so we cobbled them together with wire coat hangers. We often froze in the winter and boiled in the summer.
However, the ethos of the school was brilliant, with the clear aim of ensuring every single child achieved at their optimum level; the curriculum was broad and progressive and the collegiate spirit amongst staff was uplifting. It was an interesting time curriculum wise too. A debate was raging about the pros and cons of 100% coursework in English, which led to some lively discussions within and beyond the faculty. It was a challenge in the mixed ability classroom but we embraced it and dealt heroically with the endless marking. At the end of the day there was always a constant stream of kids lined up outside the Faculty Office seeking help with their coursework and English teachers gave them their time tirelessly.
After an exhilarating seven years working with such brilliant colleagues as Cath Green, Maggie Holland, Geraldine O’ Mahoney and Elliot Furneaux, the kindly District Inspector, Tom Barrowman, persuaded me that it would be a good idea to apply for the English Inspector post for Greenwich. The break up of the Inner London Education Authority had led to education being taken over by individual Boroughs and each one set up its own inspectorate.
And so it was that my relationship with the school changed. I visited several times in this role, happy to see the school I had sadly left – evolving and thriving. I was also in charge of the Advanced Skills Teachers in the borough and was delighted to be involved in the work of two brilliant ASTs at Tallis: Tony Hier and Doug Greig, both inspirational and dynamic members of the Humanities Faculty. They radiated creativity and were key members of the AST community. It was a joy to watch them teach.
With characteristic openness and a truly progressive spirit Tallis also became a part of the Royal Greenwich Teaching School Alliance, which, as the Local Authority lead on workforce and curriculum development at the time, I helped to form. This led to many opportunities for the school to share its good practice with others: for example, a project focused on Modern Foreign Languages in collaboration with Goldsmiths and University of Greenwich, for which I managed to secure funding from the Mayor’s Fund. Thomas Tallis was one of the ten secondary schools involved in this project and made a significant contribution: agreeing to host a group of colleagues from the other nine schools to observe two of their teachers. This was brave and generous of Juliette Robinson and her colleagues and much appreciated by the teachers from other local secondary schools from Greenwich and Lewisham. Tallis was also a key member of the Music Trust, another cross borough project I was involved with during my time with the local authority. Carolyn Roberts kindly accepted the role of Chair and gave generously of her time and the school premises for concerts.
And now I have two of my grandchildren at the school, one in Year 11 and one in Year 9, with a third due to start next September. They go willingly to school and come home happy. They find it friendly, tolerant with a comfy school uniform - which one of them has even slept in over night! The youngest one can’t wait to join them!
-- Maggie Croxford, former Head of English
Hello! My name is Mía and I joined Thomas Tallis Post 16 in September 2019. I remember being very excited and looking forward to joining a school that seemed to share my values and would hopefully encourage me in my decisions for the future - I was not disappointed.
I am currently studying for a degree in Astrophysics at Queen Mary University of London and am very proud to be a Tallis alumni. I have two younger siblings both of whom are Tallis students and I often find myself recommending Tallis to other potential students.
Although I can be quite naturally shy, I always felt confident approaching teachers for help. They made me feel comfortable from the beginning by being friendly and relaxed even while upholding behaviour and expectations in lessons, which seemed to command a very genuine form of respect from students and added to the sense of community at Tallis. Having the perspective of attending a different secondary school beforehand, really helped me to appreciate Tallis in its style of education and I always noticed the great sense of community that was there, even before I had made many friends or got to know my teachers very well, which I think is the best environment to be comfortable and focus on learning.
Tallis allowed me to pursue my interests and actively encouraged me to do so. I am a person who is passionate about a variety of subjects and I appreciate being given the opportunity to study a range of them rather than being prescribed a specific pathway, while still under the advisement of the Sixth Form team about possibilities for potential careers. I was also encouraged in the projects I was part of outside school, such as the National Youth Folk Ensemble, where I was met with enthusiasm by the music department, and even asked to share some English traditional music with my peers.
Although both of my years at Tallis were affected by the pandemic, I always noticed that there were still many enriching extracurricular activities and trips proposed to help engage students in their subjects, especially to motivate younger students but also in Post 16. In Physics a trip to CERN was proposed and in History another to Berlin. I also remember how despite lockdown, the Tallis orchestra was still able to produce a video with us all playing together.
When applying for a music degree at Cambridge, I remember being very supported by the UCAS team as well as my music teachers specifically. And although I ended up not passing the extensive process, it was a highly valuable experience from which I emerged having gained skills in interviews and having prepared my CV in advance for further UCAS applications.
I finished studying at Thomas Tallis in May 2021, and left with four A Levels in History, Music, Physics and Maths. Although I did not go on to study it, I am very proud of my A Level in History as it was a subject I had not studied at GCSE and was able to really enjoy and do well in thanks to my teachers.
I have gladly returned various times to offer my help, which I would be more than happy to continue doing in future, and that is the greatest testament I can make to my time there.
-- Mia Iles Pérez
I was reminded why Tallis is a precious place this winter, by a group of students I met when I came in to give a guest lesson on the Benin bronzes.
It was 30 years since I'd been a Tallis student myself. I confess I wasn't the best behaved student in the school. But I did have a hell of a lot of fun.
I was invited back in to talk to year 8s about a film I made recently for Channel 4 News about whether the world famous looted artefacts should be returned to Nigeria.
Many of the Tallis students I met were inquisitive, bold, and irreverent. They certainly didn't just accept what they were told at face value. They asked questions. Challenging ones. And they had energy.
It made me reflect on my own time at Tallis, and in particular as a 6th former, in 1991. Tallis at that time had formed an ultimately short lived triumvirate with two other local schools, which was meant to allow them to offer a wider range of subjects, and make the most of scant resources.
One of the challenges was the educational culture between the schools and their teachers was vastly different, and the coalition was dissolved after a few years.
Tallis has always tried to do things differently - and it's very special and deeply rooted educational culture of dialogue, challenge and exploration showed up for me and my friends in our A level Geography lessons.
Spoiler alert - this story does have a very happy ending - but it started very badly.
One of our two Geography A level teachers was from Tallis - our much loved and respected Mr Shurwin. Mr Shurwin was pretty quiet, but he was funny and kind. He commanded our respect and attention largely because he was a really lovely bloke, and he treated his students as grown ups, who had every right to ask questions and challenge ideas. I remember him treating us like this even when we were in the lower school. He got the best out of us by letting us explore our imaginations, while gently guiding us to the knowledge he knew we needed to absorb for the boring stuff - like exams!
But things got off to a very bad start with our other A level teacher, Ms Holland, who was from one of the other schools. She evidently found us to be querulous and obstructive. The lessons were conducted at Tallis, and I suspect we were somewhat territorial and snooty. We thought she was impatient and disinterested. We argued incessantly - the class was not going well.
After a few weeks things blew up and we had a massive row. I think it may have even involved us locking her out of the classroom (sorry - but I promise this story does end well!)
When she eventually made it into the classroom she was understandably furious.
"What's wrong with you people?" she yelled at us. "Why do you keep on going off on tangents all the time and asking random questions?" she wanted to know.
"Well that's how we've always learned" we replied. "We just want to talk a bit more!"
Ms Holland was understandably exasperated - but nuff respek to her - she said "OK. we're gonna try it your way. Because my way clearly isn't working".
It was transformative. Ms Holland was brilliant - she was funny, engaging, and exciting. One of the best teachers I've ever had. She met our energy with her own - and her lessons were great.
Somehow - despite my head at 17 being thoroughly turned as a young man discovering the delights of London town - Mr Shurwin and Ms Holland helped me get an A in my Geography A level.
A very belated thanks to you both!
I ended up reading a Geography degree, at Sussex, where I had the immense privilege of being able to continue asking questions and challenging received wisdoms - sometimes for the hell of it, but always in pursuit of knowledge, however obscure.
And in the faces and questions of the year 8s I met during my guest lesson about the Benin bronzes, I saw, heard and felt some of that same energy that I experienced when I was a student at Tallis many many many years ago.
It was a pleasure to be back!
-- Keme Nzerem
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
My closest friend at Thomas Tallis arrived after I finished GCSE, and after we had left the old Tallis building to enter a new one.
It was a chap named Jake Bacon, and we met on the first day of Sixth-Form. He came from a famous private school in Catford called St. Dunstan's. Back then, I thought private school kids were a bit odd, and the idea of forming a close friendship with one of them seemed inconceivable - like befriending a member of the Royal Family.
But Jake kept cropping up in all my lessons. In Sixth-Form, I only chose three subjects - English, History and Philosophy - and Jake was in all of them; he was the only person for which this was true.
At first, he was a shy kid. And of course, when we get to know each other, he was not shy at all, but that appearance of shyness is a running joke between us even to this day. We were inseparable because we were in the same lessons, but this connection reflected a growing genuine attachment: he became my best friend.
Our friendship may have seemed odd from the outside. I was a nerd and an introvert. Jake was many things, but he was not like that. One thing that did bond us was football. Jake loved and still loves Charlton, and I'm an Arsenal fan. We spoke devotedly about all aspects of the game, and my friendship with him enriched my love of football. Also, and this is the true sign of a close friendship, I felt comfortable being weird when I was with him.
I had many funny moments with Jake. He also hugely helped me in moments of personal crisis. I will be forever grateful to him. But more than that, I will always, in my own way, love him. The friendship that we developed is a blessing.
-- Tomiwa Owolade