10 questions with… Robin Bevan

How did the NEU president fare when faced with Tes' 10 questions?
12th February 2021, 12:00am
10 Questions With… Robin Bevan


10 questions with… Robin Bevan


Headteacher Robin Bevan became president of the NEU teaching union at a tumultuous time for the profession, during the Covid-19 pandemic. While leading the "outstanding" rated Southend High School for Boys, a grammar school in Essex, he has also been a national NEU campaigner on issues including funding, workload and pay. 

Bevan has a strong commitment to evidence-based practice and has developed approaches on organisational leadership. As well as being a regular presenter in workshops and conferences, he is a patron of the Institute of School Business Leadership and is a founding fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching. 

But how did he respond to Tes' 10 questions, designed to draw back the professional curtain and reveal the person behind?

1. Who was your most memorable teacher and why? 

The tribute goes to Norman Evans [at The Judd School, a state grammar in Tonbridge], who actually passed away a few weeks ago. Norman was an extraordinary teacher of A-level maths, but he was more than that in that he had the ability to make every lesson feel like an effortless masterclass. 

He was a teacher and a coach, but I'm also mentioning him because he was the man who taught me how to do an Eskimo roll in a canoe.

I wasn't always well behaved and he had this brilliant way of telling people off. He would never do it in front of everybody else - he would just say something like "Robin, can you come to my office? I need you to help me," and so you'd go and he would then just say, "Look, you know what you did really wasn't [acceptable]", and you had no choice about it because he was just asking you to be at your best.

2. What were the best and worst things about your time at school? 

My last two years in primary school were dreadful. I had the same teacher for those two years. Like most primary classrooms, we were expected to do a certain amount of maths and English in the morning, but the deal with her was that you could only move on to other activities if you completed your maths and English. 

But the other activities that she had lined up for us were things I hated doing. It would be either creative arts - which is fine butjust not my thing - or project work. And it was 1977 and the projects we had to do were based on the Queen's Silver Jubilee. 

Now, with all due respect to Queen Elizabeth II, as a 10-year-old, I had absolutely no interest whatsoever in compiling a project on the Royal Family. So, I made sure that the maths and English tasks from the morning just dragged right throughout the whole day, which, of course, made it dull for me and meant that I did get into trouble. 

I learned hugely from that as a teacher: you should never have your extension activities as reward activities [and] you need to engage the students in things that they are genuinely motivated by.

The best [was] probably from Year 10 upwards, at secondary school - I just had this extraordinary sense, through school, of freedom. We were, of course, learning in our lessons and studying, but school was enjoyable; it was a place where you learned and related to the adults who were there. You got involved in whatever your thing was - music, sport, drama - and it was just a really fabulous [time].

3. Why do you work in education? 

I get my energy from seeing other people succeed. It's absolutely what drives me. To start with, that was obviously linked with teaching maths and seeing students learn maths. But it wasn't long - a few years - before that became very closely associated with helping other maths teachers to become good at being maths teachers. And from there, it moved on. 

I got involved with the Mathematical Association, I helped edit a book about leading maths departments, and then you find yourself in a position where you're helping other people lead their teams and, at every stage, that motivation comes. 

So, just a little example: of the teachers who were in my maths department when I was a head of department, four are now headteachers and they've done that [themselves], but to have been part of that trajectory, that's [my] motivation. 

4. What are you proudest of in your career and what do you regret? 

On the whole, I don't tend to have many regrets because life is where you are. But when you ask that question, the biggest regret I have is that I can't take everything that I now know about high-quality
teaching back to the start of my career. 

So, I want to say sorry to the students who I taught in the 1980s, not because I was a bad teacher, but because - my goodness - I could have done it an awful lot better. 

In terms of what I'm most proud of, I'm going to throw in two things. I'm exceptionally proud of the staff team I lead at the moment; it's the strongest team I have ever worked with. 

The second one is my biggest passion, which, outside of teaching, is cycling - and five former students of mine have competed [in cycling] for Great Britain. Once again, they've done it [themselves] but there is something about that part of my enthusiasm for cycling that may have just encouraged them or helped them on their way.

5. Who would be your colleagues in your perfect school staffroom?

That's a hard question. I wouldn't massively alter the team I've got now. But if you give me the opportunity to draw in the best of the poets and dramatists…Can you imagine George Orwell teaching? That would be extraordinary. As a mathematician, I had a chance to go and hear Sir Andrew Wiles - the gentleman who proved Fermat's Last Theorem - talk. I'm not sure you'd want him teaching Year 7 fractions, but I think there is a place for those exceptional mathematicians, artists, writers [and] thinkers to contribute more to, particularly, the secondary school environment.

6. What would you say are the best and worst aspects of our school system today? 

The best is the fact that, after decades and decades, we have got to a point where there is an open acceptance across the entire education system that we need to address systematic disadvantage. And I don't think we've finished that piece of work by a long chalk, but it's no longer debated that it needs to happen. 

The worst aspects at the moment [are] there's a really quite brutalising, oppressive, constricting, overly dense qualification content. We've got too much content, too much dependency on "rigorous" examinations of that content and too much judgement of the relative value of schools on the basis of those outcomes. 

The goal of education is to provide the environment in which young people flourish in preparation for being the adults of the future. 

Of course, they need to know how to do stuff, but we don't want human machines filled with knowledge content with no sense of value, purpose, delight [or] creativity. 

7. Your own teachers aside, who in education has influenced you most? 

There's no doubt at all. This is a tribute to the education faculty at the University of Cambridge [where Bevan studied for a master's in curriculum and assessment, and later a PhD]: Mary James, Sue Brindley and Colin Conner. 

These were extraordinary former teachers who had become academics in the education world. Dave Pedder taught me how to write. And Patrick Carmichael taught me how to do a really good, rigorous analysis of statistics and explain it to people. 

8. If you became education secretary tomorrow, what would be the first thing you would do? 

Apologise for my predecessor. That's a cheeky response but, more seriously, I think there are two things that are really needed. One is to lift the time horizon. At the moment, it feels as though the education secretary [Gavin Williamson] and the Department for Education are looking, at most, two to three weeks ahead. And it's created this desperate, lurching experience of advice being issued [and] change coming in. And if you're not already, as secretary of state, thinking about the [GCSEs in the] summer of 2022, you're in trouble. 

Second, we desperately need consultation and engagement in the profession. It's almost been a badge of honour for [schools minister Nick] Gibb and Williamson and the DfE to overtly disregard what the profession is saying through the trade unions and through representatives. 

9. What will schools be like in 30 years? 

I think an awful lot will be the same. We will still have communities where young people come together to be guided in their learning. And I suspect that many of the old Victorian buildings will still be in use. 

There's no doubt that the role of technology will influence things. But
I think one of the things that the pandemic has shown us is that the teacher-as-mediator-of-learning is an indispensable part of that. I think teachers will be involved much more in mediating content because they won't necessarily always be presenting their own stuff. It will become easier to draw a really good video explanation of a topic or a really good illustration of it. 

10. What one person do you think has made the most difference to our schools in the past 12 months?

Gavin Williamson. But I'm afraid that I'm saying it because it [his term in office] has been calamitous. And he has unleashed a tsunami of incompetence that has had an extraordinary effect within the profession: I've never known the profession so united. 

And because we live in an age where immediate connectivity allows for groups of people to come together very, very easily, within minutes of a DfE announcement, there will be hundreds of teachers sharing responses to that. Some of them will be emotional responses, of course, some of them will be more informed - and out of that emerges a consensus view. 

Interview by Tes reporter Dave Speck

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