When I first heard of Thomas Tallis School, it was the Spring of 2005, and I was a 24 year old Newly Qualified English Teacher looking for his first job. Knowing that I wanted to leave Kent, where I had trained, I was looking for a comprehensive school, like the one I had attended myself as a child, to work in, rather than the grammar system in which I had trained. Although I knew the kind of school I wanted to work in, I was less sure about where I wanted to move to: Brighton, near where I grew up, and where many of my old friends now lived, or the big smoke of London for a fresh start? Hedging my bets, I applied for two jobs, one in Brighton and one in London, figuring I could make my final decision at a later point.
Why Tallis? Well, when I visited the website, it talked of creativity, of the arts, of being a ‘Leading Edge’ school (whatever that meant). The English department was heavily represented on the website, and described as a strong one. And the website celebrated diversity and inclusion. As a former A-Level Music student, I also knew who Thomas Tallis was (and my friend’s dad was a founder member of the Tallis Scholars). If I’m honest, though, the main thing that really sticks in my mind all these years later was a picture of a teacher I would later come to know as Mr Bradshaw, with a broad grin on his face. The website mentioned that lots of school staff were proud to educate their own children there. It all seemed good enough to me. Applications duly sent, I waited. The school in Brighton never got back to me; Tallis did – they’d like to invite me to interview. So off I went.
Making my preparations, I mentioned to a neighbour at the time where I was off to. ‘Kidbrooke!?’, they exclaimed, ‘Rather you than me!’ was their not very helpful comment. Alighting from the train at Kidbrooke Station on a warm Friday and being confronted by the breeze blocks and broken windows of the by now crumbling Ferrier Estate, I began to see why they might have felt as they did. The old school building itself wasn’t much more inviting: further breeze blocks and broken windows and a sign reading ‘DEAD SLOW’ in red block capitals. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t feel like turning round and heading back home.
But on I went, stepping into the old Reception. Mrs Roberts herself has said that you know within just a few moments of setting foot in a school whether you like it or not, and I immediately felt as if I hadn’t made a mistake. The school felt vibrant, lively, happy and, in spite of its exterior appearance, welcoming. The students didn’t turn and stare at you as soon as you walked in, as I was used to from my experiences in Kent. They were friendly, as were the staff I spoke to, who also had an air of casual happiness in the t-shirts and jeans that most customarily wore in those days. I met the department (‘It’s great here – you can teach what you like!’) and felt like the interview had gone well. Walking back to the station I felt I had found my school. I awaited the phone call impatiently.
But if it was love at first sight for me, evidently my own first impressions weren’t quite as strong as I had thought. I didn’t get the job – it had gone to another candidate. Oh well, I consoled myself, plenty more schools out there to apply to. I drowned my sorrows and moved on, vowing to forget all about Thomas Tallis School. All until the next Monday morning, when a frantic phone call advised that I’d had a reprieve: a second post was available, teaching A-Level philosophy (and a bit of KS3 drama – a one year experiment about which the less said is the better!) in addition to the English. I thought for all of a few seconds before excitedly accepting. I believe I have the still smiling Mr Bradshaw to thank for that one.
As was customary at the time, before starting for proper in September, it was agreed that I would spend two weeks in school at the start of July. I didn’t know at the time quite what a momentous two weeks they would turn out to be for me. If you would have told me then that I would still be here 17 years later, that I would eventually find myself as Head of School, I wouldn’t have been able to believe it.
So, let’s rewind to the 7 July 2005. It had been decided that the whole school was going to go on a trip that day: every tutor group to a different location around London in order to experience and appreciate the architecture and landscape of the city. The Big Day Out was an excellent plan long in the making, and it would prove to be a memorable experience for all concerned – just not for the reasons we might have expected. My group hadn’t made it far beyond Kidbrooke when urgent calls started to be received on our, in those days far from smart, mobile phones. Terrorists had attacked central London, killing 52 people and injuring hundreds more. It remains the worst single terrorist atrocity on British soil.
Thankfully, no members of the Tallis Community were injured that day. Checking orders, we returned to school, with the staff remaining calm and the students, as ever, keeping in good spirits, engaged in fervent debate about the relative merits of Flaming Hot Doritos or Olive wraps. Later that evening, still feeling shocked and confused after the events of the day, I agreed to meet some friends in a pub in East London, where I would find myself introduced to the woman who is now my wife and the mother of my three children. A momentous day indeed.
In addition to teaching English and Philosophy, and (with a colleague) introducing A-level Creative Writing (RIP), I have been fortunate to hold many fantastic roles at Tallis: UCAS Assistant, Head of English, Assistant Headteacher, Deputy Headteacher, and now Head of School. I have loved every single one of them. Why have I stayed so long? Well, aside from a lack of imagination and a dislike of moving, the Tallis values, which predate any of us and will outlive us all are a significant factor. Creativity, Inclusion, Community, intellectuality, celebrating diversity, non-conformity – these are I think the essence of what one of our governors refers to as our Tallisy-ness. Over the last decade, we have done some work on formulating these values more coherently: we want students to be Inquisitive, collaborative, persistent, disciplined and imaginative. We want to send out young people into the world who are honest, respectful, fair, optimistic and, most of all, kind. Looking back on my own experiences, these more recently defined attributes of the Tallis community have always been there, I think, in my beloved colleagues – the staff - as well as in you, the students.
So why am I leaving now? Well, like Thanos, change is inevitable, and unavoidable. Having been at Tallis for a third of its 50 years, now seems like as good a time as any to move on. I have found another community comprehensive school, this time near Brighton, looking for a Headteacher to help make it the leading creative and inclusive school in its region, and I think that I have learned enough from my time at Tallis to help to lead it towards its goal. Although I may be leaving Tallis, I remain fully committed to the comprehensive educational ideal, believing that the community comprehensive school is the best tool society has for enabling its young people to understand the world and change it for the better.
Tallis isn’t a building (the breeze blocks of the old site or this more appealing one), and it isn’t any individual students or staff. It’s an idea, a principle; values, habits and character. And as I prepare to move back to Sussex with my family, it is these that I will be carrying with me, in my heart.
-- Jon Curtis-Brignell