My first encounter with Charlie Taylor, the no-nonsense head of Willows Primary School in north London, which caters to children facing severe behavioural challenges, was back in 1988 when we were at university. Despite our vastly different backgrounds – Taylor was a confident public-school student who acclimated with ease at Cambridge, while I hailed from an inner-city Belfast comprehensive – we hit it off and became good friends. I believed that he would eventually shift towards politics, finance, or any other career that involves a lot of money – the typical path for individuals from his background, which included David Cameron as his contemporary at Eton. However, he surprised me by becoming a teacher.
Considering his work record, Taylor discovered the passion he had for dealing with difficult children by chance and reluctantly ventured into teaching. After assuming his first role in a secondary school located in an underprivileged environment, he moved from one job to another. Eventually, thanks to his burgeoning interest in behavioural issues, he started consulting for local education authorities and doing private freelance coaching with parents and children, with intractable behaviour. In 2005, Taylor became interested in authoring a book when he was informed of an opportunity to become Willows head teacher. "I went for it without any qualifications; I had an honest name in the borough. I’ve been working there for the last five years," he says.
Though he was not entirely qualified for the role, his unorthodox approach yielded results, and the school obtained its first outstanding Ofsted rating in eighteen months. On his arrival, the school had 36 children aged under 11 who had been excluded from mainstream schools, making the school feel a lot like a warzone at times. Taylor reacted by instituting a new culture, such as peer massages, a schoolwide tea and toast ritual, and teaching children basic social skills like hugging and affection. The goal was to provide these children with resources, such as confidence, care, and love, that they may draw upon when dealing with developmental difficulties. "We have to do the cuddling bit, the family bit, and also the playing bit. Some of them have got no idea how to play," he says.
Taylor’s successes in adapting to his students’ needs at Willows and other sites have given him a straightforward perspective on the roots of the problems they confront: poverty. He is also a passionate commentator on every issue ranging from the inadequacy of New Labour’s approach to longstanding problems such as lack of support for underprivileged students, trapping elements of the welfare system, and how parents could benefit from professional training to deal with their children’s developing teenage years. In conclusion, Taylor believes that the key solutions to England’s intertwined societal and educational problems are greater personal responsibility, collective efforts to address poverty, and more support for all students’ diverse learning requirements.
Discovering the X Factor
What measures would Charlie Taylor take to alter the current state of education? Taylor avers that the conflict between methodologies impedes the progress of meaningful discussion on the subject of education. However, he appreciates the concept of a quota system that would require schools to reserve a specific number of slots for children who are eligible for free meals. Taylor suggests that such a measure would serve the purpose of restricting the transfer of middle-class parents and students to the most reputable state-sponsored schools.
Taylor’s beliefs are an amalgamation of thoughts from both sides of the political spectrum — much like the British Prime Minister, David Cameron. Taylor advocates for measures like investing in resources for pregnant teenagers in order to improve their life chances, rather than humiliating them, and also thinks state schools could gain a lot from public schools. Public schools have an incredibly high success rate, and emulating their system and structure ought to be a goal worth aiming for, he says.
What is Taylor’s judgement on the upcoming government changes? The new policy features allowing schools to opt out of local authority control and become academies. Taylor accepts that he does not have the required depth of knowledge on this to comment on how it would affect a school like the Willows. However, he has started to gather information on the subject. In response to Cameron’s statement regarding the prospect of finding a good state secondary school in inner-city London, Taylor, who knows the Prime Minister personally, admitted that he could empathize with the statement. A lot of parents would share the same opinion; one doesn’t necessarily need to belong to the middle-class to be concerned about the availability of good schools in their neighbourhood.
Taylor realizes that pointing out the flaws in state education will attract accusations of overconfidence. Will he invest some of his public-school privileges to pursue something more profitable or political? He states that he is content with who he is and what he does, and he has no idea of where he might end up. There is no reason to revisit or ponder the past; instead, the best way forward is to look towards the future.
Charlie Taylor: Summary of Credentials
At 45 years of age, Taylor is the headteacher at Willows school. Prior to this, he worked as a behaviour support instructor, a freelance behaviour consultant, and a writer. In his leisure time, Taylor is involved in hobbies such as walking, fishing, cooking, and theatre performances. He is married and has three children.