The Tes person of the year 2020

It has been one of the hardest years in teaching that most in the profession can remember, yet stories of hope, change and creativity have still abounded. It has made our task of selecting the 10 most influential people of the year incredibly tough, so who has made the list?
18th December 2020, 12:00am
The Tes Person Of The Year 2020 & Shortlist


The Tes person of the year 2020

When times get tough, we often shrink our world to consist only of those who are closest to us. There is comfort in familiarity and a security in knowing that those around you can be trusted completely. As such, when trying to pick the person of the past 12 months who has had the biggest impact on education, most people will not automatically pluck out the name of a prominent politician, renowned accountability tsar or campaigning union chief. Instead, they will look to their family, their colleagues, their own experience of what has been the toughest of years in education. When you're on the front line of something like a global pandemic, your biggest influence is often the person right next to you.

It meant that we had a tough task to single out 10 people who have really made a mark on the education sector as a whole this year.

A further difficulty was that this year really seemed to be defined by collective action. Rather than just individuals stepping forward to force change, we saw people come together into groups like never before; there was a push towards consensus in a world where so much emphasis is on individual voices.

So our list below is a little different from previous years': more groups are listed than ever before and our "winner" is less about the people with power and more about the most powerful people in education.

So, let's turn straight to our number one…

Person of the year: you

You are the Tes person of the year. No, don't turn around, looking for someone else you think we must be referring to - this is no time for imposter syndrome. We mean you, the person reading this right now, and the people you work with every single day.

How could anyone look back over the past 12 months and not recognise the supreme efforts of teachers and school staff everywhere? Despite the chaos, the confusion, the worry and the fear caused by Covid-19, school staff did what they had to do, day in, day out, for month after month.

They adapted their teaching to work online and learned new technology skills to facilitate it; they continued demanding the best out of their pupils; they provided a daily routine of learning, fun and community during a time of great hardship.

They made schools safe by buying in new equipment, installing hand-sanitiser dispensers, sticking endless tape down to provide safe corridors and classrooms, and reformulating school drop-off and pick-up systems.

They protected the vulnerable: delivering food, ensuring fair access to IT, orchestrating external services in order to keep children safe, phoning homes endless times and answering emails in the darkest hours of the night.

They fought for students when ill-thought-out algorithms looked set to rob them of a fair future. They dealt with every late-night Friday missive from the government and every Monday morning email from worried parents.

And they never closed their doors.

The personal risks that school staff have taken this year cannot be underestimated, nor can they be taken for granted or forgotten. The deaths of staff as a result of the coronavirus cannot be hidden from public view. The sacrifices made cannot be dismissed as "just doing the job".

We choose you, the school staff of the UK, as our person of the year because what you have all done in 2020 needs to be recognised fully, publicly and loudly.

In the face of unfair critiques, inaccurate media reports and false perceptions from the public, we want to set the record straight. You have been part of something extraordinary. You deserve this.

2. Marcus Rashford

It's entirely possible that health secretary Matt Hancock now rues calling on Premier League footballers to "play their part" to help the country in the early stages of lockdown. He wasn't to know at the time that Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford would not only take him at his word but become one of the most prominent thorns in the side of the government over the following months.

After teaming up with charity FareShare to deliver meals to 3 million children across the country, Rashford penned an open letter to the government, describing food poverty as "a pandemic that could span generations", speaking from his own experience as a recipient of free school meals when growing up in Wythenshawe, Manchester.

The letter led to a U-turn by the prime minister, Boris Johnson, who committed to extending the free school meals programme through the summer, having previously rejected calls to do so.

Rashford followed this up with a petition to end child food poverty. The petition gained more than 1 million signatures and led to a debate in Parliament. Although the resulting vote saw MPs vote against extending the free school meals programme any further, the negative headlines generated - spurred on by Rashford's retweeting of councils' and companies' generous offers to bridge the gap in the October half term - led to yet another U-turn by the government, which later committed to supplying free school meals for the rest of the school year.

Writing on Twitter, Vic Goddard, principal of Passmores School in Harlow, said that Rashford had been able to get the ear of the government in a way that headteachers had been unable to, saying he was "not sure [the government would] have changed their minds without him".

Having won the initial battle over free school meals, Rashford isn't resting on his laurels. Last month, he announced the launch of the Marcus Rashford Book Club. The scheme will aim to improve access to books and make reading more engaging for deprived and vulnerable children.

3. The EYFS rebels

Those in early years are in the unenviable position of being constantly told that their stage of education is the ultimate determiner of later academic success, while being simultaneously told that everything they are doing is wrong.

It was bad enough when it was just primary and secondary colleagues presuming they knew best about how to educate the under-5s but, in the past few years, the government and Ofsted have got in on the act, too.

The frustration at the lack of understanding of the phase - and the presumption that approaches used with older children and even teens could be used with our very youngest humans in the education system - had led to sporadic bursts of resistance in previous years, most notably over the controversial Ofsted Bold Beginnings report. However, this year, the sector seems to have found a much more cohesive voice.

Whether it was batting away attempts at imposing teaching approaches that had never been proved useful with the age group, fighting the misconceptions about play-based approaches (for the record: no, play does not mean the teacher has a coffee while the kids do what they want - look up guided discovery for starters), or campaigning against the reworking of the early learning goals because of the lack of research consensus behind the changes, suddenly the EYFS sector was a force to be reckoned with.

It feels like a tipping point after which this group of educators won't be so easily pushed around. Informed dissent is healthy - let's see where it takes EYFS in 2021.

4. Tim Holden

The plight of supply teachers could largely have gone unnoticed over the past eight months if it had not been for the tireless work of Tim Holden. It was he who got the message out about struggles to find work and supply teacher safety, and who helped secure millions of pounds in furlough money for those in the supply teaching profession.

To be clear, Holden was not a campaigner or industry representative before the pandemic - he was a supply teacher living in Bridlington, East Yorkshire. His long-term contract in a secondary school was cancelled at the start of the pandemic and, without an income, he began to look into what funding was available. It was then he realised the complexity of the situation that those like him were in - and that led him to become a champion for those forgotten but essential cogs in the education machine.

And they needed that champion. Holden has revealed to Tes how some supply teachers have faced "a daily fight with their schools, local authorities, agencies or umbrella companies to be furloughed and receive any financial support, with no money coming in to support themselves and their families".

"Every time that progress is made, something else appears that delays the process again with a significant proportion of agencies and almost all umbrella companies," he said.

"Supply teachers are writing/emailing/tweeting/calling anyone and everyone who may be able to help resolve the mess, including MPs, government departments, [personal finance expert] Martin Lewis, the media and unions."

However, it wasn't just for highlighting the issues that Holden made it on to our person of the year shortlist - it was the fact that he has tried to fix those issues, too. Cutting through the jargon of complicated, and at times confusing, government guidance, Holden has clarified the rules and eligibility for his colleagues, providing a guiding light in extremely hard times.

Now, the fight continues, as Holden turns his attention to the plight of supply teachers who were paid during furlough but believe they have not received all the money they were entitled to.

5. Lavinya Stennett

It says something about the Black Lives Matter movement that it will be remembered as much as the Covid pandemic as a defining feature of 2020. Issues that had bubbled under the surface of mainstream focus for so long suddenly burst into the open and, at last, honest and penetrating questions were asked about every facet of society, and about how far racism underpinned its structures, norms and functions.

Schools became an important part of that re-examination process: were students being fully educated in the realities of both our past and our present?

Lavinya Stennett's The Black Curriculum organisation became central to the discussions that ensued, proving an essential resource for the reassessments schools were making. The 23-year-old had set up The Black Curriculum while she had studying at SOAS University of London, with the aim of revamping the history taught in schools so it better reflected the reality of the black experience.

This year, Stennett's work and that of her colleagues has been the starting point for a wider re-examination of the curricula of other subjects, prompting discussions and leading the way in promoting a much more inclusive educational agenda.

"When we look back in history, we see that Britain was a very global island and that black people have always been very present," she told GQ in October this year. "When you don't know that, you treat the current day as abnormal. You're not encouraged to see diversity as a good thing. These are the things we call unconscious bias, but it's very conscious in the curriculum."

Fixing the inequalities in the curriculum is a long-term job, so 2021 will be a pivotal year in trying to keep the conversations going in schools to ensure the essential work is not left half done. With those like Stennett pushing for change, though, we should be confident that this will remain a high priority for all.

6. Alana Pignatiello

When remote learning became the go-to method of education for hundreds of thousands of students, some subjects found the transition easier than others.

Ayrshire College make-up artistry lecturer Alana Pignatiello stands for the thousands of teachers of vocational subjects across the UK who arguably had the hardest job on their hands: they had to come up with incredibly innovative ways to make sure their students did not miss out on practical training and close-up learning experiences.

And Pignatiello is the natural choice to represent these often overlooked teachers and lecturers. She gained national fame in April through her online videos, in which she turned herself into a variety of celebrities including the Queen and Boris Johnson via her make-up skills, gaining the notice of singer-songwriter Lewis Capaldi - and then the nation's media.

Her impressive video that showed her transformation into the multi-awardwinning Scottish vocalist led to an expletive-filled tweet from Capaldi himself, who was clearly impressed by the likeness.

"My daughter actually came running in to tell me - there were no words, just utter shock," Pignatiello told Tes at the time.

"About 50 per cent of people love the transformation of Lewis and think that it's amazing, and the other 50 per cent think that it's terrifying, creepy and looks like Susan Boyle - so I might think about doing her and see the difference," she said.

The idea of this approach to teaching actually came from one of her cohort. Students and lecturers at Ayrshire College had already been taking part in make-up challenges every day to keep them focused and busy during lockdown - and when one student suggested that they did NHS-inspired make-up, Pignatiello created her own look and tweeted it out.

Her photograph attracted a lot of attention and this led to a number of other makeovers, with subjects ranging from the nation's PE teacher Joe Wicks to Scotland's first minister Nicola Sturgeon. Each look took Pignatiello about three hours to create.

Her videos have not just been entertaining but a beacon of what vocational learning can look like online - and a timely reminder of the vital work that teachers like her are doing every day.

7. Edudate

Dating when you are a teacher is hard enough in more normal times: finding the time to meet for drinks or go for dinner is tough when you have exam marking, planning and resource creation filling your evenings. However, during the pandemic, things got a lot more difficult: pubs and restaurants were closed and the workload increased even further.

Thankfully, all was not lost. Lockdown saw the emergence of Edudate, a new online dating agency for teachers with big hearts and lockdown blues.

Founder Tom Rogers, a history teacher dubbed the education world's Cilla Black, was determined to help his peers find their perfect partners - all from the comfort of their own homes (and abiding by strict social distancing measures, of course).

Rogers said that, as dating had been "practically destroyed" by the coronavirus pandemic, he hoped to find a way to "help some teachers out there be less lonely", and perhaps even bring together the next Mark and Zoe Enser (a married couple who met on a Tes forum and who are both now regular writers for this magazine).

Using the power of social media, Rogers organised hundreds of dates as part of an "online speed-dating day for teachers". Participants each had up to 10 anonymous, blind dates over video call, at 10 minutes each. It was a huge success: more than 200 people signed up, resulting in 78 matches. But that was far from the end of Edudate. Fast-forward to now and the platform has reached at least 2,000 members and 550 matches, and has 10 couples to show for its matchmaking potential.

The benefits of having a teacher partner, according to subscribers (who must work in education), range from being able to take time off outside of term time to "having the same mentality".

It is clear that the events have been a welcome window to normality in these strange times. And with one Edudate couple already moving in together, the platform has certainly proved that love knows no bounds (except, perhaps, for the odd dodgy wi-fi connection).

8. Musthag Kahin and her nursing apprentice colleagues

When Musthag Kahin received an email from her clinical lead asking for volunteers to staff a Covid-19 ward, there was no doubt what her answer would be.

This year, alongside thousands of other nursing apprentices, Kahin put herself, without hesitation, on the front line in the battle against Covid-19.

It was in April that the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education announced that nursing apprenticeship courses would be paused so that the learners could be released to the NHS to lessen the strain placed on it during the pandemic. It was a big change for Kahin and her peers, and she told Tes that, initially, she was terrified of the situation.

"We didn't know what was going on; we didn't know if it was airborne. We were not routinely testing anyone, not even us as the staff. We weren't wearing masks all the time, only when we were dealing with patients," she said.

"But as time has gone on, the guidance has changed and we have been provided with full PPE [personal protective equipment]. I have become more confident in dealing with the coronavirus and looking after people affected by it."

Like all NHS staff working this year, Kahin has had to make extraordinary personal sacrifices. Her father is 75 and her mother 65 - Kahin told Tes that she would get home after 10pm most days, put her scrubs in two airtight bags and wash them as soon as she got home. She was unable to be physically close to her family - and hadn't been in the same room as her father for months.

Kahin's parents were, understandably, concerned about her safety. But she told them: "We are in unprecedented times and looking after patients and caring for them takes priority."

It's a sentiment that has echoed throughout the NHS this year - and one that the country will never forget.

9. The teachers of Oak National

"We are just a group of teachers who have given up some of our working time and a lot of our spare time to try to help our colleagues because we know how important it is to have a functioning fallback."

That's how David Thomas, curriculum director of Oak National Academy and secondary school head, humbly described the Herculean effort to get a huge online learning resource bank ready for schools to tap into within weeks of the start of the lockdown period in March.

The statistics are extraordinary: teachers uploaded 180 hours of lessons per week, split between primary and secondary content. These included extended video instruction, resources and activities. Between the start of lockdown and the end of the school year, 16.5 million lessons were accessed by 4.7 million people. Since September, a further 9 million lessons have been downloaded.

While debates have swirled about the platform's funding - secured from the Department for Education without tender - and teaching styles, it can't be denied that the effort to make sure there were options for teachers facing an almost unimaginable scenario should be applauded. And it should be remembered that at the heart of the whole effort were ordinary classroom teachers trying to help each other out - a fantastic example of the collegiality that is in the blood for those in the profession.

Perhaps English teacher and author Chris Curtis described the impact of the Oak teachers best when he said: "Oak Academy is like you've just found a teacher's USB stick with all their PowerPoint [presentations] and all their resources. Who isn't going to take that USB drive and take those things on there and see what you can find?"

10. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore

That a lot of people in education don't particularly like GCSEs has been clear since the day they were first introduced in 1986. Every year since, there have been calls for them to be scrapped, with arguments ranging from the accusation that they negatively distort learning to an insistence of their ineffectiveness for the preparation of young people for the world of work.

Because of the predictability of the arguments trotted out each year, the campaign against GCSEs has gradually lost a lot of impetus. Until this year, that is.

The complete disaster of this year's exams and the clear negative impact on those sitting their GCSEs reignited old debates and gave them a fresh impetus: suddenly people were interested again.

But it wasn't just the mishandling of the whole exams process that changed people's perceptions of the argument: it was also the presence, for the first time, of a detailed scientific case for the scrapping of the exams. And a key player in making that case was Sarah-Jayne Blakemore.

The professor of psychology and cognitive neuroscience at the University of Cambridge has long been considered the world's leading expert on the teenage brain and has hinted at having issues with GCSE examinations in interviews in the past. But this year, she came out fully against them by joining the Rethinking Assessment organisation.

"It has become increasingly clear that holding high-stakes national exams (in the form of GCSEs) during a period of life characterised by increased vulnerability to mental health problems no longer makes sense, and that other forms of assessment might be better aligned with adolescent development," she stated as her reasons for supporting the anti-GCSE cause.

In a profession that is increasingly keen to be seen as evidence informed, the importance of Blakemore's statement should not be underestimated. It moves the case against GCSEs from an ideological realm to a scientific one - and that will be a lot harder to counter.

This article originally appeared in the 18/25 December 2020 issue under the headline "The Tes person of the year"

You need a Tes subscription to read this article

Subscribe now to read this article and get other subscriber-only content

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive articles and email newletters

Already registered? Log in

You need a subscription to read this article

Subscribe now to read this article and get other subscriber-only content, including:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive articles and email newsletters

Read more