'There's an element of threat ... Deep down, behaviour is our biggest fear'

22nd July 2011 at 01:00
Charlie Taylor, new behaviour adviser to Michael Gove, tells Richard Vaughan why schools don't want to admit they have a problem with the 'B' word

Charlie Taylor looks like a headteacher. Some heads look like directors of companies, and others like they have just stepped out of the classroom, but Mr Taylor looks like a headteacher.

With his tousled hair, rolled-up shirt sleeves and piercing glower, he is every inch a head you would not want to mess with. Perhaps this is why education secretary Michael Gove made Mr Taylor his new adviser on behaviour.

But it is more likely down to the work he is doing at The Willows School in Hillingdon, north-west London, a primary special school where he has been headteacher for the last five years. The school takes on what politicians like to call the "most challenging" children, those who have often suffered more before their 10th birthday than most people endure in their entire lives.

When Mr Taylor took over in 2006, most children were unable to be returned to mainstream education and were being taught at The Willows on a permanent basis. After just 18 months he had turned the school around, gaining the first of its two "outstanding" ratings from Ofsted. Children are now placed at the school for only half a term, sometimes slightly more, before being sent back into mainstream education.

Due to his almost Herculean achievements at The Willows, Mr Taylor has been charged with improving the behaviour of not just children in north-west London, but right across the country. It is a job he describes as a "privilege".

"My role, really, is to be the representative of schools and headteachers in the Department (for Education), but particularly someone with the expertise and understanding about behaviour; someone who will bring that to bear over anything that the Department is thinking about," he says.

"I am lucky, as my job description is very broad and I am allowed to stick my nose into anything, really. And people have been incredibly nice about letting me do that. There has been no resistance from anyone at all when it comes to going in and asking about stuff."

Chief among his priorities is encouraging schools to work together - a task that poses its own particular challenges, especially when it comes to behaviour.

"What's very interesting around behaviour is that schools are very reluctant to admit they have an issue with behaviour," he says. "If you said, would you like some support with inclusion of challenging students then they would be delighted, but the 'B' word (is one) people don't like to use.

"It's also interesting because it shows an emotional component to behaviour. There's an element of threat around behaviour that there almost isn't around any other issue in school. Deep down, behaviour is our biggest fear."

Despite tabloid front pages decrying Britain's "broken" school system, Mr Taylor readily agrees that most behaviour, most of the time, is "really good". But he does believe schools are putting up with what he describes as "very extreme, challenging stuff", which can act as a drain.

"I think there's a spectrum to it," he says. "There's the bit of just getting the day-to-day behaviour right: the transition between lessons, whether the children are following uniform, that kind of thing - the basic functioning bit that makes the day-to-day behaviour policy work.

"At the other end of the spectrum you have this really challenging 5 to 10 per cent of children - and sometimes it's more than that in some schools - who need this really creative, sensitive range of different responses to get them back on to the straight and narrow. And that requires time and effort and money."

Mr Taylor speaks with an agitated manner and has a habit of not finishing his sentences before moving on to the next subject, as if his brain is working so quickly his mouth struggles to keep up.

He seems an unlikely contemporary of the prime minister and the mayor of London, but the 46-year-old attended Eton with both David Cameron and Boris Johnson before enrolling in a teacher-training course at Homerton College, Cambridge. His children even attend the same primary school as Mr Cameron's - St Mary Abbots in west London.

After leaving Cambridge, he took a string of supply-teaching jobs before being asked to stay at one school for a year, which turned into five. It was here that he says he became "drawn" to the children most teachers would run a mile to avoid.

"I was interested in children with behaviour difficulties - what makes them tick and what can you do to help them," he says. "The creativity you need to have dealing with those kinds of pupils, I find that really interesting.

"I think you find if you do have success with those pupils, you do make a real difference. You're re-righting the ship and setting them off on a course, and it's enormously satisfying," he adds.

After a couple more stints in schools, and various posts in behaviour support teams at Westminster and Hillingdon councils, Mr Taylor took up the role of headteacher at The Willows.

The school has become of particular interest to the national press. This is largely down to his tea-and-toast sessions, where pupils sit with one another every morning to have a proper breakfast, and his "peer massages", where children massage one another to learn how to give and take affection. But these can be falsely presumed to be liberal approaches to behaviour.

Mr Taylor describes his techniques as "filling in the gaps", but what he really means is giving pupils the very basics, quite literally feeding them, so teachers have greater success in engaging them.

"One of the things that mainstream schools are quite surprised about when they come and see us is how strict we are. On the one hand, we don't take any nonsense, we tell them these are the boundaries," he says. "On the other hand we are also very responsive to their needs. With pupils like mine, you have to fill in the gaps.

"These are children who often haven't had those nurturing experiences early on in life. They haven't had that positive touch, they haven't had those positive relationships with adults ..."

He trails off, then adds: "You know: alcohol, drugs, mental health, abuse - all those kinds of 400 horsemen of the apocalypse. With children like this, you get to a stage that you give them what they need - not what they deserve."

With this experience, Mr Taylor must try to improve behaviour across the school system. But first he must encourage schools and their teachers to admit that they have a problem with behaviour.

"There is a pride about it," he says. "In the same way that schools don't like to admit they have an issue with behaviour, nor do teachers.

"It can be one of the biggest barriers. Being able to take step back ... when it's in your face and you're dealing with it day to day, often you become very reactive. The child does this and you do that, and very often you end up feeding the behaviour. It is hard - it does take time and it does take experience."

CHARLIE TAYLOR CV1965: Born, London


1978-83: Educated at Eton College

1983-86: Teacher training at Homerton College, Cambridge


1991-1995: Emmanuel CofE Primary School, London

1995-1996: Edward Wilson Primary School, London

1997-2000: North Westminster Community School, London

2000-03: Westminster Behaviour Support Service

2004-05: Hillingdon Behaviour Support Service

2006 to present: Headteacher, The Willows School

September 2010 to present: Acting headteacher, Chantry special secondary school, Hillingdon.

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