Comfortable in their environment

27th June 2008 at 01:00
Educational fashion has caught up with Mike Taylor
Educational fashion has caught up with Mike Taylor. Schools are becoming familiar with devolving leadership, raising environmental awareness, and finding the connections between traditional subjects - but the Dyce Academy headteacher was championing such ideas long before they were embraced by the mainstream.

Mr Taylor has been head since the school opened in 1980. Once a village, Dyce was transformed by the discovery of North Sea oil: the tiny airport became an arrival point for the international petrochemical industry, the village turned into a sprawling Aberdeen suburb, and there was optimism in the air.

Into this time of rapid change came a young headteacher with a healthy scepticism about educational convention and some ideas that would rub the establishment up the wrong way. Some 28 years later, as he prepares to retire at the age of 61, his methods have been vindicated by his winning the Lifetime Achievement prize at this month's Scottish Education Awards.

Mr Taylor relished the opportunity to shape a school without the baggage of tradition. Most noticeably to the outside world, that meant no uniforms. "We don't have a uniform and we're proud of that," he says. "I don't think children should be told what to wear. What follows from that is they can make lots of other sensible decisions for themselves. In secondary school, they're going to change from children at 12 to adults at 16. Part of the job is to give them the chance to make decisions and mistakes."

Mr Taylor feels no shame in aspiring to make school a comfortable place: "A secondary school is for teenagers; the atmosphere should reflect what teenagers feel happy in.

"If they're not in an environment where they feel comfortable, it's not going to work. They're expected to behave and to work, but they're allowed to be teenagers."

Mr Taylor also sought to create a more fulfilling environment for colleagues by seeking staff approval for what goes on in school. A few years ago he was keen to introduce a more flexible approach to exam presentation, but there was widespread opposition so he dropped the idea. "If I can't win them over, I've got to have a rethink."

Mr Taylor is in the staffroom "all the time", and colleagues are "very comfortable" talking about big issues; consequently, there is "very strong commitment from the staff".

He does, however, have an "interesting time" with HM Inspectorate of Education: "They always talk about strong staff morale, but are not happy that I refuse to spend time berating staff about statistics."

Exam results are "always good but not brilliant", and he rebuts suggestions that a comfortable environment equals a comfort zone. "I'm sorry, I don't think you can be too comfortable," he says. "When people are comfortable with each other, you're able to challenge each other in a better way. It's not a threatening challenge."

Former Aberdeen City Council education director John Stodter recalls: "In his younger days, he was seen as quite a modern-thinking young enthusiast, slightly radical.

"Mike had a style of management of his staff and pupils that some saw as laissez-faire, but it wasn't - it was trying to get people involved. He kept up a consistent style, which was to support and encourage people to do their best, and if they were doing their best he would let them get on with it. It was always a very democratic style of school."

Mr Stodter adds that, after Aberdeen bid successfully for a music school hosting some of the UK's most talented young musicians, Dyce Academy was chosen as the base because it was suited to striking a balance between a comprehensive school and a centre of excellence.

Mr Taylor stresses that the young musicians are "Dyce Academy pupils first", adding: "I didn't want to create an elite, a cuckoo in the nest that wasn't part of the school."

Allison Thomson, a member of the school's parent association and a pupil from 1980 to 1986, took the "big decision" to send her daughter Charlotte, in S3, to Dyce Academy. Charlotte had previously been privately schooled, but Mrs Thomson was persuaded that the values Mr Taylor had instilled two decades previously still applied.

"He makes sure that all people coming from all backgrounds get the same chance," says Mrs Thomson, now the UK business-improvement manager for an oil and gas company. She is also impressed by Mr Taylor's encouragement of pupils to "enjoy life as well as working as hard as they can", by pursuing interests outwith exam subjects. "Going to school isn't a chore at Dyce Academy," she says.

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