Reflections from Peter Evans, CEO
I do most of my reflective thinking whilst jogging, even now at 61. I have noticed that although there are many things to think about, whatever is troubling me the most always works its way to the fore, about half way into the run. It is like a light bulb going on, with me thinking, ‘Ah, that’s what has been niggling me!’ Now as I run my last few miles as a lifelong educationalist, a career of 40 years from teaching to CEO, I reflect on those years, and what have been the main changes in a profession I am so pleased to have dedicated my life to.
When I began as a fresh faced, nervous probationary teacher in 1981, corporal punishment was still accepted in English schools. I had actually been on the receiving end of canes and slippers (which were usually trainers!) whilst at The Derby High School, Bury. It is incredible to believe that we ever felt it alright to punish children physically. Today’s NQT’s would be horror struck. How ironic that we put so much emphasis on training our staff in trauma informed practice, when 35 years ago some school staff themselves were openly inflicting trauma on young children without redress. We have improved so much as a society from my early days in teaching, and schools and the incredible people who work in them, have often led that progress and development.
My career turned to Special Educational Needs at an early point staying within the locality of Rochdale, I moved from a mainstream middle school to a huge special school catering for almost every SEND recognised at the time, from PMLD, SLD, LD and EBD. In those days the schools had very little specialist facilities and we were all still learning so much about SEND and how to recognise, assess and cater for a range of special needs that seemed to be multiplying by the year. It is fantastic to see how far our awareness and understanding of the complex diversity of SEND has developed over the past 40 years and how it continues to improve. We now have such inspiring special schools, many purpose-built with creative resources and facilities that allow young people to thrive and have the freedom to grow as independently as possible. What I would have given for some of those resources back in the 80’s! I remember back then I once acquired a battery-operated bumper car to add to the limited PE equipment I had, so I could give more freedom and opportunity of movement and involvement to the physically disabled children. I am so proud to now be part of Learn@ MAT, a Trust that ensures all our young people with SEND receive the best facilities and resources available, we are all equal and all deserve the best schools and the best staff and resources.
As we have started to understand ourselves, our brains and bodies and how we develop as human beings so we have seen so many new and inspirational practices sweep through the education sector. As continual learners ourselves, teaching staff have been able to see through behaviour and no longer judge a child based on an emotional and/or physical outburst, but look through that to find what anxieties and antecedents are causing such reactions. Teachers do much more than teach. That is why it can never become a purely remote process even though the recent pandemic gave us insight into how some blended approaches can be beneficial to some young people’s learning. The teachers coming into our profession over the past ten years have shown a greater understanding of the whole child and aspire to be as inclusive as possible in their approach to learning. It is only by looking back over a long period you can see how far the quality of our profession has risen in personnel, training, professional development and aspirations for the young people we work with. Indeed, I am not just talking about teachers but all the legions of support staff without whom specialist provision would grind to an uncomfortable halt. I am a big advocate of ensuring we have the ‘right’ people working with our most vulnerable children, not necessarily the right qualifications. This is not to say that any good school through an empowering professional development programme cannot achieve both! One of the best ‘leaving presents’ you can be given by your peers and colleagues is from those who thank you for believing in them and supporting the advancement of their careers.
But I have been running a few miles now and the thing that has been niggling me is coming to the fore as those different niggles have always done over the years. This one is in the context of my whole career it is saying, ‘do you know what has frustrated you the most and what needs to change?’
I know of course it is not the schools or the people in them, they are magnificent, they continue to progress and create their own inertia for improvement, as I have found in the last four years leading a specialist Multi-Academy Trust. It is the systems of power and control over our much badly manhandled education system. It rests as it always has in the hands of politicians who use it to secure position and control, and civil servants whose only knowledge of schools is their own childhood. Whilst we remain in this position the loudest and strongest will always come out on top and our education system will continue to be that proverbial political football. There is a movement for a National Education Council, it seems to have floundered recently, but surely it is worth trying, so we do not keep building and knocking down to rebuild systems that are born from political persuasion than what is best for young people and their education?
As I see the end of my run-in sight I can smile that there were no pulled muscles or stumbles along the way, which for someone used to running special schools and specialist MAT’s is unusual. There have been many stumbles and falls. But special education is full of people of such great resilience, dedication and determination that you always get up ready for the next run!
To everyone associated with Learn@ MAT past and present I say a big thank you and may it continue to develop and become the leading light in the specialist and alternative world of education. It’s been a great run so far! I look forward to hearing about your next achievements.
Peter Evans (CEO Learn@ MAT)