Not Your Bog-standard Headteacher: Ex-Blair Aide On The Joys Of The Job
Peter Hyman takes me on a tour of School 21, located in one of London’s most impoverished areas near the Olympic Park and Stratford International railway station. The school opened its doors in 2012 and is unlike any bog-standard comprehensive school. Hyman, who was once an aide to Tony Blair, is the school’s headteacher. He shows me the remarkable projects created by the school’s pupils, including lifelike clay models of famous cold war figures such as Gorbachev, Thatcher, Stalin, and Reagan, a graphic novel of World War II, a Black Death diary, and 3D representations of chemical reactions. He challenges me to guess the age group of the pupils who created these projects, and I overestimate their age by at least two years.
My expectations of a silent, lecture-style assembly are quickly quashed as we enter the year 10 assembly. The pupils are in control here, and they enthusiastically discuss plans for the school’s sixth form, which will open the following year. They then elect representatives to present their conclusions in one-minute speeches.
Hyman is passionate about education and is the founder of School 21, which is the only English language specialist school in the UK and teaches children aged four to 18. Though the school is a comprehensive, Hyman gave control over admissions to Newham council and its teaching methods are unconventional. Pupils are never labelled as "naughty," instead they are called "unprofessional," and for lateness, lack of homework, and classroom disruption, they lose some of their weekly "professionalism points." Talking, both inside and outside the classroom, is encouraged, and oracy skills are prioritized. Hyman believes that oral communication is as important as reading, writing, and math, and he strives to make the monosyllabic teenager extinct.
Hyman’s other big idea is authenticity. Children’s work should have a purpose. A drama can be performed, a design can be used for a new classroom, and so on. This approach to project work and emphasis on joy, wellbeing, and character and skills development make schools more fulfilling places to be. Hyman believes that most schools prioritize knowledge over character development and skills development, but these aspects are equally important. When the robots arrive, creative and empathetic jobs that require problem-solving and idea generation will be left for humans, and schools should value and prioritize them accordingly.
When speaking to or reading about Hyman, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to Blair due to his knack for soundbites like “re-professionalising the teaching profession” and “the 21st century being about circles, not rows”. However, despite his way with words, his school, School 21 was deemed “outstanding” in every category by Ofsted in 2014, with the report stating that it was “an exciting place to learn” where students acquired “extraordinary skills in listening, speaking and questioning”. Parents seem to agree, with almost nine applications for each place. His strong left-liberal heritage can be explained by his upbringing in North London, where his paternal Jewish grandparents relocated their family from Vienna after the Nazis took over, while his father was a publisher. Hyman attended University College School in Hampstead, where he struggled to connect with the 19th-century fee-charging institution that had done away with corporal punishment. Despite his underwhelming A-level results, Hyman went on to study at Bristol University, after which he began his career in media, eventually shifting towards politics when he joined the Labour Party’s team. Hyman’s concerns with Blair’s drifting too far from traditional Labour values were made known, though his departure from Downing Street in 2003 wasn’t a result of disillusionment, he simply wanted to “be in the frontline”. His route to School 21 involved a teaching assistant position, a fast-track course at another London comprehensive school, and a deputy headship before being given the opportunity to implement his ideas at School 21. Notably, Hyman has realized that politicians have a tendency to focus on generating “momentum” with flashy ideas, with the reality of the day-to-day work necessary to ensure progress being overlooked. As he states, “The greater the distance I’ve travelled from government, the more sceptical I’ve become about how it operates.”