In the east end of London, the name of Richard Cloudesley rings loud. By all accounts a man of modest achievement, the school to which he gave his name is anything but. His life is a story that bridges 15th and 16th century England; his legacy is of a place that bridges gaps in the here and now - the gap between a childhood and the fulfilment of potential.
For most people, education is that bridge, yet around the world it’s a crossing that’s denied to too many. Disabled children are too often those who get left behind, a gap made bigger by the perception of inability more than the fact of it. It’s a perception that teachers at Richard Cloudesley School have been mocking for over 100 years. Today, we’re celebrating just one of them.
As I arrive at Richard Cloudesley, I am struck by its open and friendly modernity. The school moved sites a few years ago, to its new home, with space, light and high technology. As the front doors open, motorised wheelchairs and walking aids line the large lobby. I spy a child using an eye gaze keyboard to communicate. There’s something futuristic about this place.
Underneath these visible signs of progress, there's a driving force. Every child here is deeply cared about, but there’s more. Sean, the headteacher, describes it as “making sure nobody falls off the cliff.” He talks about making sure that children who come to schools like Richard Cloudesley - children with significant physical disabilities - have somewhere to progress to after their school years, and are not simply resigned to a life at home or in care.
They’re leaving few stones unturned in that pursuit. The complex needs of their students require a complete view of their welfare. So alongside the teaching staff, the school employs a specialist dietician, a medical team, psychologists, social care workers and counsellors. This is an operation to rival many top flight football clubs.
Sean is clearly very proud of the whole team, but none more than Joanna Ross, who is being presented with a national teaching award. “We’re all very excited, but I think she’ll be embarrassed by it all,” says Sean. Joanna has been with the school since 2004, working with their youngest students, and judging by the turnout of parents and carers, present and past, her award is richly deserved.
I’m ushered into a specially arranged assembly. I look around for my colleague, Dominic, who I arrived with but now seem to have lost. I spot him in the front row, chatting to a young pupil. “This is Faith”, Dominic says, as he introduces her. “She’s been looking after me. She wants us to have the best view.” Faith is small for her 11 years, but there’s no lack of stature.
“Tell him about Mango Man,” Dominic asks her. I lean in to hear, as her voice struggles to keep up with everything she has to say. Mango Man is the superhero comic story she’s been busy writing. Half man, half mango… by all accounts it’s quite a tale. Everyone at the school seems to know about Mango Man… and know about Faith. That evening she’s due to fly to the Ukraine for treatment, a journey she makes several times a year. “I’m scared of flying,” says Dominic. She looks silently straight at him with a crystal-clear incredulity, like he’s just admitted to being scared of fresh air. I can’t imagine anything ever fazes Faith.
“We’re here to celebrate someone very special,” announces Sean as he kicks the assembly into life. “Though, all our teachers are incredible here, aren’t they?” Young hands go up and faces light up. One by one, each student gets to have their say. “They’re kind”; “They give us homework”; “They teach me how to do things”. Sean looks around the room. “Has everyone’s voice been heard?” he asks. Samuel’s has not. So everyone waits. There is no sense that anyone is in a rush. Samuel stares at his carer; “Hugs” comes the translation. I was watching her interaction with Samuel, and I couldn’t see how she worked that out; and then I wondered, just who is the one here lacking in communication skills?
In the preceding weeks, pupils, parents and teachers have been asked why they think Joanna deserves the award, and their thoughts are now presented back to them on a big screen. It’s in keeping with the day, but it’s also an exercise that answers the ‘purposeful writing and shared reading’ requirements of the national curriculum. Education is squeezed into every experience here.
We are asked to read the quotations aloud together. They are brimming with the stuff of role models - ‘amazing’, ‘inspirational’, ‘special’, ‘fun’. But I’m struck by one particular quote: “Every teacher training course needs a Joanna.”
And then it’s Joanna’s turn to speak. “This is really about all of you; and everything I’ve learned about you and from you.” And as if to prove it, she walks around and makes sure all the pupils get their chance to touch the award.
Richard Cloudesley is a shining example of why no child should ever accept a limit. But having the humility to acknowledge your limits is important. At Pearson, we do a lot in education. But we never lose sight of our place. That whatever we do, however well we do it, pales into insignificance against the impact of teachers. That the frontline of education - that place where a teacher and student come together, will always be where the most extraordinary things happen, every day.
The Pearson UK Teaching Awards began in 1999 as a way for anyone to say “thank you” to the teacher who has helped them most. This year they attracted over 7,000 nominations. Learn more at http://www.pearsonteachingawards.com/.
And read more about Richard Cloudesley School - http://www.cloudesley.islington.sch.uk/