I put on the velvet jacket because it smartens up the shirt and trousers and not because I can fill the pockets with pencils, keys, phone, notes to self until I look like a walking barrel. Adding only crippling shoes and a new Director of Key Stage Three, I took to the stage at 1700 for this week’s biggest hit: Come to Tallis! It's Open Night! Embellished by 5 shiny year 7s, a cool year 10 pianist, subtle lighting and a flower arrangement half as big as me we talked to about 1200 people in five sittings. Then we gave them a map (KS3 is a geographer) set them free to wander and admire the lovely spaces and the friendly people and collect stickers, bits of clay, photos, pencils and what not. It all went very well.
I’d thought about what I was going to say and even went so far as to prepare a few slides. I talked about our 4 values (creativity, community, engagement and excellence), our Habits ( inquisitiveness, collaboration, persistence, discipline, imagination), our character (fairness, kindness, honesty, optimism and respect), our beliefs (education to understand the world and change it for the better) and the great mantra of Coe of Durham (whom I didn’t acknowledge) that children learn when they have to think really hard. I described us as a ‘blue-plaque comprehensive school’, faithful to those visionary values.
I trumpeted our sixth form results. Top 10% of all sixth forms for progress, 160 into top universities, 40 to art college, 3 into Cambridge, our 7 year education and our three year plan. And I agonised over our GCSE results, below national average last year and this, particularly in maths (a well-staffed and stable department who do well at A level). Should I talk about GCSE or flannel? Should I go into the whole thing about tiers of entry and the inflationary legacy of the past? Should I talk about what happens when you recalibrate behaviour and set a school on a long-term journey to reconsider the whole curriculum? Or should we go smartly into KS3’s pictures of children on mountain tops and teachers in fields?
We chose our character traits together last year, and honesty is one of them. I talked about GCSE as a changing picture and was clear that we need to improve. I didn’t compare us with other schools, but with our own aspirations and hoped that parents would respect our determination and optimism. I tried to be fair. A few parents wanted to talk more, afterwards, and I was frank and open. (I could hardly be anything else, handcuffed to the flower stand.)
Afterwards, I reflected on 3 comments. One was ‘you glossed over GCSE’. I didn’t, and I’ll talk to anyone about it at any length, but it’s not really what year 6 come to Open Night for. Parent Forum is the grilling arena. One was ‘do you ban mobile phones?’ No, but we confiscate them if they get annoying. A third was: ‘you’re very liberal here, aren’t you’, caused mainly by our relaxed uniform and chatty manner. In that regard, we are. Do liberal values preclude quality education? When five sittings were done and I was freed into the foyer to talk to departing folks (logistics determining that there was nothing left for me to damage) only one person wanted to talk about GCSE.
So what is the truth? Should our GCSE results (50% 5+A*-CEM) have been better? Yes. Do we know what went wrong? Yes. Can we fix it? Yes. And there is another truth, which I found myself saying, unplanned, in sittings 3, 4 and 5. It was that I’ve seen too many young people over the years with exam results driven by the perverse and shallow incentives of the performance tables, and that I want our Tallis future to be of deep learning and lifelong understanding. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said that, but it happens to be true.
Education to understand the world and change it for the better: there are no easy options.