In recent interviews with Cornwall Life and A+ Education, Truro School Head, Andy Johnson, talks about his time in education and thoughts for the future (please note, although these magazines were published in September, the interviews took place in July, before this term’s plans had been confirmed. Up-to-date ‘return to school’ guidance is available from the school office):
Cornwall Life Q&A
What are the priorities for the 2020/21 school year?
In the short term there continues to be much detailed planning in response to Covid-19. I thank all the staff, teaching and non-teaching, pupils, parents, and the wider Truro family for their support and patience in this regard. At the time of writing, we fully intend to begin next term with all pupils and staff safely on site, which will be a joy and a relief. We are also confident in our ability to move between on site and remote education should local or national circumstances dictate that we must.
For next year as a whole, the priority is to ensure that the key features of a top quality education are not eroded by the pandemic – the wellbeing of the children and adults, their access to and benefit from the highest quality education and co-education available, and an ongoing and absolute commitment to empowering young people’s futures.
More broadly, the School has priorities and a mission that go beyond coronavirus. In order to be the best we can be of ourselves, we always listen, reflect, learn and evolve. Truro School enters 2020/21 with a renewed commitment to being a beacon of inclusive excellence and progressive education.
On a personal note, I am looking forward to joining the School and the community. My family and I can’t wait to get to know so many of the people who have already been so welcoming and kind to us, in a part of the world that we cherish.
What is the biggest challenge for the school and for the students?
This has been a very challenging time for all, but we are tremendously proud of how the pupils have responded. We are also pleased we have been able to support our educational family, and, just as importantly, the wider community.
Educationally, Truro School set up a programme of remote learning designed to be ambitious and sustainable. We continued to provide pupils with the opportunity to progress, as well as to explore exciting new ways of learning, and, crucially, to balance interactive screen time with independent academic and wider curiosity. We drew on and improved our digital resources, whilst making sure that learning and teaching online remained inclusive, including for those with individual needs or particularly complex circumstances. Personal and pastoral support, the promotion of wellbeing, and an active co-curriculum remained vital too. Creative opportunities were found to encourage peer to peer collaboration, constructive competition, and mutual support.
This was challenging for students and staff alike, and everybody’s experiences have been their own, but it has also created opportunities. Some pupils and classes have progressed much further than expected, and the independent study skills and intellectual curiosity of many has been greatly enhanced. Staff have engaged with energy and open-mindedness. Many have developed new techniques and skills, and there is a real appetite to reflect on how educational provision at the School can be evolved and enhanced for the long term based on our experiences of the pandemic.
Particular challenges have existed for public examination year groups and school leavers, who have been deprived of their normal rites of passage, and I really feel for them. We will be here to support them all in August, and beyond.
As a business, the School and many of our families have faced real challenges too. We have to generate our own income and have temporarily lost much that we would normally have had from the sharing of our facilities with the wider community. At the same time, we have been determined to do all we can to support families in temporary or more long term difficulty. Wherever we can, we have passed savings back to families, and we have been helped by the generosity and support of the Truro School Foundation, Truro School Association, Governors, parents and alumni. We are fortunate to be a family and community in this way, with the backing of the Methodist Independent Schools Trust. The pandemic will not threaten the School’s future and as we are discovering, enforced reflection and creativity will actually pave the way for us to thrive all the more in the future.
As a community oriented charitable body we have also faced challenges. We committed to a number of positive community initiatives, offering use of our catering facilities and cookery staff to help The Hive Cornwall batch produce nutritious food for those suffering from food insecurity, and our DT department also acted to support local need, making up to 90 face shields per day.
Reflecting on the last few months, it seems that in many respects a situation that forced us apart socially and physically, has actually brought us closer together as a family and community. There are challenges for when we all return to the site, and listening to the children reflect on their experiences will be key. There are also real and exciting opportunities too, for the pupils and the school.
What’s most important: achievement or attainment (by which I mean skills and talents over exam results) or are they interconnected?
The distinction is a really important one. Attainment is an academic outcome measured against one’s peers as the point of comparison – exam results, in short. Achievement is the outcome of an individual’s own growth and development measured against their own ambitions and abilities, and it doesn’t need to be academic.
Attainment is what some choose to judge schools on because it is a readily available data set. It is important and it does matter, because the reality is that we live in a society where most pupils’ attainment will be central in defining the range of choices they have as they leave school. Being ambitious academically and caring about attainment is not something to be embarrassed about, therefore, but it is not the be all and end all of a healthy school with a genuine care and understanding of individual needs and talents. That is why achievement is, arguably, more important.
A young person who achieves the best for themself will have strong attainment, but also much more. They will have the choices that attainment brings, but also the confidence, character and values to make those choices well, to the benefit of themselves and others, and in whatever field of interest or talent they choose to pursue – academic, creative, sporting, or otherwise. Valuing and nurturing individual and collective achievements across all school contexts with integrity and passion is what makes for a healthy, ambitious, and balanced education. It is what I understand by Truro School’s determination to be a beacon of inclusive excellence. Excellence is about being the best of yourself (and not simply in comparison to others). Inclusive excellence is about striving for that success by supporting, respecting and valuing diverse achievements across the widest possible range of skills and interests.
What was the single most important (life) lesson you take from your own schooldays and how do you translate that into a running a school?
I think that for me the most valuable life lesson from my own schooldays (which continue, of course!) is that ambition, excellence, and inclusion can and should all exist together in a happy school. I went to a school that encouraged me to explore my passions for sport, art and music, as well as to achieve what I wanted to academically. Coeducational Sixth Form helped prepare me better for life after school, and I had the opportunity to travel, and to mix with children and adults from outside my own social and cultural reference points. I remain immensely grateful to my parents and grandparents for the sacrifices they made so this was possible. I was also acutely aware of talented and creative peers who did not feel that their ambitions or interests were equally valued or realised, and that left a powerful mark on me.
In all my educational roles and in all the different types of schools I have worked in, I have sought to value and nurture enthusiasm and commitment in all its constructive forms, from pupils and staff alike, and not to typecast. Similarly, I have sought to understand, challenge and support those who for whatever reason are struggling to strive for their best. Expecting and nurturing passion and ambition whilst actively avoiding fixed mindsets about ability or outcomes is the way to forge a happy, diverse, successful, and values based educational community. It is certainly what I intend for Truro School, building on all the good work and good will that already exists. I also see it as the essence of Truro School’s motto – esse quam videri – which means ‘to be, rather than to seem to be’.
Tell us about your school…
Perched on a hill overlooking Truro and its iconic Cathedral, and steeped in 140 years of history, Truro School is Cornwall’s leading co-educational independent school. The School also includes a vibrant Prep located next to the Royal Cornwall Hospital, and is therefore a through-school for girls and boys aged 3 to 18.
Truro School was founded with an ethos of compassionate ambition. We have high academic standards that are supported and balanced alongside a well-developed and personalised pastoral support network, excellent facilities and an extensive range of co-curricular opportunities. Each child’s individual talents and interests are valued and developed, therefore. We aim to nurture and challenge all our pupils to be and to become the very best of themselves – confident, respectful, broad minded, and enthusiastic young people with choices in life that they make with a sense of purpose and individuality.
All our dedicated staff strive to inspire curiosity and a life-long interest in learning, equipping pupils with the knowledge, skills, and interests to thrive in the futures they choose. We are also a community that learns and evolves, and we are self-critical in our ambition to be a beacon of inclusive excellence and progressive education.
What is the one thing that makes you most proud of working in education?
Empowering others. As an educator my responsibility is to use my own experience, values, and abilities to empower the development of others. Children grow and develop into adults. Adults grow and develop professionally. Communities are living things, and all healthy living things should grow and develop. I am proud when I see happy pupils or colleagues whose success is a result of having been challenged and supported to become the best they can be, to their own benefit, and that of their family, community and society at large.
In your time in education, what has been a particular highlight for you?
I am immensely excited about taking up the Headship of Truro School. Looking back rather than forwards, however, the following would be a selection of my highlights. Being able to share extracts from letters written to my Grandmother by my Great Grandfather from the Western Front as part of a Remembrance Service in Westminster Abbey was very powerful. I am fortunate to have led or helped on co-curricular opportunities that have been formative for many of the pupils involved – an annual residential Phab course, a Commonwealth Youth Ambassadors’ mission in New Zealand, the Lyke Wake Walk across the North York Moors, and some fully costumed re-enactments of the Norman Conquest on Camber Sands! On a larger scale, the answer has to be establishing the London Academy of Excellence in East London. To have played a key role in setting up one of the most successful Sixth Form Colleges in the country, in one of its most deprived boroughs, will always be an educational highlight for me.
If you hadn’t become a teacher, what would you have done instead?
When I left university I was torn between a career in law or education. I explored the legal avenue via some fascinating work placements but chose teaching in the end. Both careers excited my analytical mind, but I think what swung it was the potential in education to work within communities that were vibrant in terms of the creative arts, sport and outdoor pursuits, as well as the intellectual challenge of fostering academic curiosity.
What were your favourite lessons at school?
Given my degree, I have to say History! I chose an unusual combination of A Levels because they were the subjects I enjoyed most – History, Mathematics, Latin and Art. The teachers were very different, but all characterised by that inspiring combination of clear subject expertise and an unselfconscious passion for sharing it with others. Some of the best lessons were those learnt outside the classroom on trips, visits, or expeditions, of course.
What is the biggest single change in education since your own schooldays?
Where to begin! It would be easy to leap straight to IT and technology in this answer. I am old enough to have been educated at a time before mobile phones and when computer use was an oddity. I think there are actually more profound changes, however. Education has rightly become more focused on the personal journey of each child, rather than on the production of a type, defined by background, gender, or school tradition. The implications of this are incredibly important – an emphasis on personal wellbeing, respect for and the valuing of diversity of identity and talent, and a commitment to what each and every young person is learning, rather than simply to what they are taught or told. These are changes for the good.
Has the pandemic affected any of your plans for the 2020-21 school year?
It is an ever changing picture and the Governing Body, I, and the leadership team are committed to acting within government guidelines and following the advice of Public Health England. At the time of writing, our intention remains to open for all pupils in September.
There are a few changes we have decided to confirm in advance. Some high-footfall events or overnight trips that would normally have happened in the autumn have been postponed, and site safety and hygiene has been forensically reviewed. There has been and will continue to be much planning and re-planning, reviewing of guidelines, and the creation and evolution of risk assessments. We are confident in our ability to move between on site and remote education, to the immense credit of all the staff, teaching and non-teaching, and the pupils and parents too.
All our planning, however, is with a view to ensuring that the issues of greatest importance are not affected by the pandemic – the safety of the children and adults in our community, their access to and benefit from the highest quality education available, and our ongoing and absolute commitment to empowering young people’s futures.
What are you looking forward to most over the next 12 months?
To being in Truro and becoming part of the School and wider community. It has been immensely frustrating for my family and me not to have been able to engage in person with our new life over the last few months. We can’t wait to get to know so many of the people who have already been so generous and kind to us, in a part of the world that we cherish and respect. I am also looking forward to getting started in my job, by getting to know Truro’s pupils, parents, and staff. Finally, and for the sake of the whole Cornish community, and economy, I would very much like to see the roll out of a Covid-19 vaccine.