John Murphy, weight 16½ stone, chief of a multi-academy trust founded by a Baptist minister, can karate kick a plank of wood in half.
You wouldn’t disbelieve it either. Despite turning the big 5-0 last week, Murphy looks one of the well-est teachers I’ve met. An enormous slab of chocolate pudding covered in glutinous yellow school custard is untouched on my arrival at the staffroom at Oasis Academy Foundry in Birmingham. Perhaps that’s why he looks so healthy. He doesn’t seem to notice it as he tells me that the school, whose pupils speak 40 languages, has just gone from special measures to good with outstanding features in its most recent Ofsted. He does, however, notice a pupil who asks where all his hair has gone. An almost hipster-ish beard makes up the follicles around a broad grin and a gold tooth.
After being the first academy chain to receive a focused Ofsted inspection across 10 of its schools, Oasis was blasted, with Murphy at the helm, for a confusing leadership structure, safeguarding issues and poor pupil progress. Its governance, data and community-feel were “good”.
It’s not that big a challenge to break a plank
When the report was sent in March 2015, 48 per cent of Oasis’ schools were good or better. Now, 75 per cent of its 47 schools are, with a goal of 94 per cent by December this year.
“It’s not that big a challenge to break a plank. They use quite brittle wood. If you hit something hard enough it breaks into two,” Murphy is saying.
He actually had to decide at one point whether to be a professional martial arts fighter or a teacher. Though he followed his father into teaching – almost matching the latter’s record as the youngest head in England at 28, becoming a head at 29 – the mental zen of judo (to mix martial metaphors) appears to have remained.
First hurdle: failing all his GCSEs. For such misdemeanours – including “asking other people for the answers” – Murphy was regularly caned at his Catholic school in Kent. Despite a “bit mad, but very loving family”, including a wood-sculpting mother and five siblings, Murphy had been hit by the loss of his older sister in a car accident at age 11.
A second GCSE sitting saw him pass, take A-levels and go on to study politics at York, where he was captain of the karate club and fought the varsity match at Cambridge.
He was also bullied, once, in the school toilets. What did he do to make sure it didn’t happen again? “I can’t say.”
After his PGCE came a stint at a school in a deprived part of Suffolk, a move to Bath and then a string of on-the-spot appointments after apparently making a towering impression on everyone in sight. He was a deputy head at St Stephen’s primary in Bristol and got a headship “too early” having, like a judo pupil, not yet mastered teaching. Following another headship, he was asked to lead the Nightingale school for boys with emotional and behavioural difficulties in south London.
“I was dropped in, I think, because of my size,” he says, adding “there aren’t very many men in education.”
He introduced a boxing ring and the boys were “exercised, sorry, you know what I mean, they did exercise first thing in the morning” while Murphy qualified as a physical intervention trainer and taught his staff. Teachers shook every child’s hand in the morning – Ofsted said they had never seen “that level of touch” in a school. Did I know it takes 45 minutes for adrenalin to leave the body?
“So what happens in normal schools is children have a fight and the teacher says, ‘why don’t you shake hands?’ They don’t want to shake hands because actually biologically they’re still ready to fight. So what you do is take them for a walk and an hour later you come back.”
Children have a fight and the teacher says, ‘why don’t you shake hands?’ They don’t want to because biologically they’re still ready to fight
After Nightingale, Murphy left the classroom for a year to run a training company called the London Behaviour Management Service, training teachers in physical intervention across the country.
After one inset day at John Paul II secondary in south London, he was asked to be head “with immediate effect”. He even wrote a book on behaviour management called Why are you Shouting at Us? with consultant Phil Beadle, before the call from Oasis and its Christian Baptist minister founder, the Rev Steve Chalke.
“I heard Steve speak in Waterloo, and there was one line that sort of angers you or grips you. He said, ‘I want to be able to transform children’s lives in their darkest hour’. That was an expression of what I wanted to be able to commit to.”
He took on Oasis Academy Coulsdon and Oasis Academy Shirley Park in south London before his appointment as trust chief executive in 2014. Oasis, which takes on schools in disadvantaged areas, has 77 per cent sponsored academies and 54 per cent of pupils on free school meals. The fact only 9 per cent of pupils were on free school meals at the Ridings Winterbourne international academy in Bristol partly stopped the trust taking them over in December last year.
More of a Calvinist perhaps, than a Catholic like his father, Murphy, who is not a Christian, does a battle for good centered on an unswerving belief in self-improvement. His sports, including long-distance endurance running, are characterised not by team strategy, but self-drive. “Every time you do martial arts you’re competing against yourself, not somebody else”.
As he told the boys at Nightingale, “you can only be in control of yourself in your life, only in control of you”.
So it is not surprising Murphy draws on self-determination to absorb what may have been only his second feeling of failure since those GCSEs – he says he can’t recall feeling very bored or frustrated since leaving school – the cutting report of Oasis by Ofsted.
After the former education secretary Nicky Morgan said Ofsted should batch-inspect multiple schools across a trust, Oasis was the first. The report found that “too many academies had not improved quickly enough”. It acknowledged that Murphy recognised the need for improvement and “had taken action to increase rigour”. But external consultants who were hired had “little impact on standards”. Roles such as the “national director of academy improvement” and “regional academy directors” were confusing.
But Murphy says that Ofsted never told him, ahead of publication, that “disadvantaged pupils, particularly boys, made significantly less progress than their peers nationally”. And one line was particularly noted by the national papers: “limited leadership capacity”.
Now, two years later, disadvantaged pupils outperform their advantaged peers in terms of progress in some of the trust’s 47 academies. While the national gap between children on free school meals and their peers in primary schools is 16 per cent, in Oasis it is 3 per cent. Leadership structures have been changed. One former senior leader, Rebecca Clark, is now the regional schools commissioner for the south-west.
Just as his father – his hero, he says – never revealed that he contributed to charity his whole life, so Murphy looked within himself following the report. Despite a letter from then chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw about his “transformational leadership”, he says he didn’t tell the press.
“What’s much more important is your own integrity. I just see [Ofsted] as being a necessary regulatory body – but it is much more important what we think of ourselves.”
Ofsted’s functional purpose may be a little dry, but individuals with the moral force of a jedi warrior bring out a different response in Murphy – eyes bright, he answers candidly.
Who was the best education secretary? “What I respected about Gove was his sense of ideology and drive. ” Although, like Margaret Thatcher, Gove was “fairly myopic” in terms of the best way to do things, they both, and Thatcher especially, had “that sheer sense of willpower and determination. That sort of draws me – people who are really clear about their own sense of identity and who they are.”
Would he be a politician, perhaps? “Yes, I would.”
According to this CEO, the Japanese martial arts masters make their black belts in a particular way. They are silk on the outside and cotton on the inside, so that when the silk wears out, it reveals that, at his heart, the fighter is still a white belt and learning – that he “can always be quicker, faster, moving with greater agility.”
As Murphy waits for inspectors to “catch up” with Oasis’ performance, I wonder whether his next fight has yet to begin.
It’s a personal thing
What’s on your signet ring and who gave it you?
It’s a combination of a ring of my grandfather’s and my wedding ring,
and has the Murphy family crest on it. I understand that the Murphy motto is “Hospitality and Loyalty”.
What’s your earliest memory?
Being in a pushchair on the way to nursery. But when I think back to
my childhood, I most vividly remember big family meals with my parents and siblings.
Where’s the best place you’ve travelled to?
A number of years ago I visited Uganda with a fantastic charity called Send a Cow, which provides livestock and training in natural farming practices to communities in rural Sub-Sahara Africa. Beyond the country being fantastically beautiful, I was genuinely struck by people’s willingness to share everything they had; they were a community in the truest sense.
What’s the least fulfilling thing you’ve ever had to do?
I’m struggling with that! I have to have a sense of purpose. But I had a number of holiday jobs when I was younger – I was a cleaner in an accident and emergency, which I found pretty irritating because every time I cleaned something up someone else would come in and there would be a mess on the floor, so I found it fairly futile.
Finally, who was your first crush?
My crush?! I haven’t got time to think about crushes! I can remember a girl I had a crush on but I can’t remember her name. That’s going to bug me.
1990 Year 5 and 6 teacher, Harris middle school, Lowestoft
1991 Teacher then deputy head, St Stephen’s primary, Bristol
1996 Head, St Mary’s RC primary, Bristol
1997 Head, Sacred Heart primary, Battersea, south London
2001 Head, Nightingale EBD secondary boys school
2006 Head, John Paul II RC secondary, Wimbledon, south London
2008 Head, Oasis Academy Coulsdon, Surrey
2009 Oasis Academy Shirley Park, Surrey
2011 Director of education, Oasis Community Learning
2013 National director of academies, Oasis Community Learning
2014 Chief executive, Oasis Community Learning