Prepared to go the extra mile

Martin Taylor is a teacher who leads by example, writes Victoria Neumark.

How many maths teachers find time to star in a school production of the Rocky Horror Show, run a weekly puzzle page in the local paper and raise Pounds 2,500 for the Multiple Sclerosis Society on a sponsored bike ride from Land's End to John O'Groats? But then 31-year-old Martin Taylor, head of maths at Dagenham Priory school, east London, is no ordinary success story.

By his own admission, Mr Taylor, whose school is involved in the Axiom Project described above, "failed school completely". He dropped out at 16 to take up a variety of callings, including a spell in the Army, and work as an HGV driver, a bouncer and grass-cutter. But in his early twenties he realised "I could fail in life completely" and wrote home to Mold Borough Council to see about going back to school. Soon he was enrolled for GCSE chemistry, and doing A-level sociology and maths at night school. There he met Mike Smith, a maths teacher who changed his life.

"Mr Smith spent hours getting things through," says Mr Taylor, "and then, when you grasped a concept, the enlightenment was startling." He went on to gain a B at maths A-level, and a place at Bangor University, where he spent "weeks going through ideas with wonderful teachers", gaining a 2.2 and going on to a PGCE in maths.

Like many idealistic teachers, Mr Taylor was enthusiastic about working in the inner city. Dagenham parents have some of the lowest levels of educational attainment in the United Kingdom, according to the 1991 Census. With a traditionally high level of employment, families have seen no need for "extra" schooling. For Martin Taylor, it was a perfect fit, "I had this dream about raising standards, because at school no one was really interested in me. "

By 1997, Mr Taylor had his current job. Up went the number of GCSE passes at A* to C to 36 per cent, where other subjects averaged 25 per cent. In came "inspiration and fun", according to John Torrie, Dagenham Priory's energetic head. Putting on school plays, challenging pupils to regular Friday-morning brainteasers, organising an inter-school maths competition and entering teams - all were kick-started by Mr Taylor's enthusiasm.

Above all, though, the example of Martin Taylor's own life is a constant stimulus. "When I get a difficult class, I tell them what it's like to be penniless in a bedsit with nothing but flour and margarine to eat."

Part of the Taylor magic is reaching out to the whole school community - sending letters of praise to parents and raffling a signed West Ham football for charity. Issuing certificates of mathematical excellence and working extra time to get A-level students up to scratch.

And then there was that mara-thon charity cycle ride. It lends a whole new meaning to the phrase "on yer bike".

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