Jon Coles, group chief executive, United Learning Trust

Jon Coles is trying to walk in a straight line across a hill. He needs to get from one place at the hill’s base, to another, in the quickest time possible. Maths tells you that a straight line is the quickest way. But how do you walk in a straight line across a curved object? […]

Jon Coles is trying to walk in a straight line across a hill. He needs to get from one place at the hill’s base, to another, in the quickest time possible. Maths tells you that a straight line is the quickest way. But how do you walk in a straight line across a curved object?

It sounds like a problem Coles might have set pupils in the schools belonging to the academy chain he now leads, the United Learning Trust (ULT). But it’s not. It’s 1989 and has been set by Mr Arthur, Coles’ maths teacher.

“He would photocopy four pages of problems on to one A4 sheet, they were tiny, you were squinting, but it was just…inspiring”.

At the time, the Coles who was plugging away at these calculations did not know he would go on to become one of the most prominent education civil servants of the New Labour era or that he would become director general of schools at 36. At that point his world revolved around maths.

A self-confessed geek, he is often described as “the cleverest man in education”. Sitting in a corner room in a satellite ULT office near London Bridge, he winces when I tell him this.

“I don’t like it very much, to be honest, because I don’t think cleverness is that important in the overall scheme of things. What matters is what you do. It is more important to have a sense of purpose or to treat people well.”

Jon Coles visiting Lambeth Academy in south London – one of the schools in his academies chain
Jon Coles visiting Lambeth Academy in south London one of the schools in his academies chain

Given this, it’s a good job Coles met his Year 5 teacher Mrs Lewis. He’d been a tad wayward the previous year –
his sister once walked into his classroom to find him standing on a chair “showing off” to the class – but Mrs Lewis calmed him down.

“She spoke ever so quietly,” he says, “and she came over to my desk and said, very quietly, ‘Your report last year said you were sometimes badly behaved, you won’t be like that for me will you?’ and I shook my head and said, ‘no’. And I never was.”

Coles attended The Judd School, a grammar school in Tonbridge, Kent. There, he loved Mr Clarke, a “brilliant biology teacher” who grew enormous sunflowers that he would break off and swat at boys to emphasise his points.

Coles is a captivating storyteller; always animated, mimicking voices and flailing imaginary sunflowers.

In a poignant moment, however, he admits that one of his most important life events happened before he was born. His mother – born in Bolton – secured a place to read modern foreign languages at UCL, despite neither of her parents having attended school past their early teens.

“On the day of the results she went to school and got her grades, but found her parents hadn’t applied for a grant. My grandfather was unwell and my grandmother basically said ‘You can’t go – we need you to go out and work’. She was a very dutiful person, and just got on with it. But for that reason, more than anything else, she was determined that we would have those opportunities.”

Coles’ mother died 15 years ago, but was alive to see him gain a place at Oxford to read maths. He even applied to Queen’s College because it had a reputation for being “a bit northern” – just like his mother’s side of the family – though, in the end, he studied at Mansfield.

He found university fun and relatively easy (“it was like a puzzle book for grown-ups”). In his final year he applied to complete an MA in philosophy, followed by a PGCE. However, a quirk in funding switched his plans, and he had to complete the PGCE first.

On teaching practice, Coles found pupils’ low numeracy levels bewildering.

“The thing about impossible things, is that they’re more possible than you think”

“At university I had proved, axiomatically, that one plus one equals two. That was very satisfying for me. But absolutely no use for the children I now taught. I could prove one plus one is two, but how had I learned it? How could they know it to be true? That’s a very different question.”

During one lesson he devised an activity so a struggling boy could understand that all even numbers were divisible by two. “He completed it and there was that moment when he went ‘woah’ and something in his world shifted forever.”

Convinced schools were in deep need of change, Coles spent his MA year deciding he would go into educational administration. After a brief stint at the National Audit Office, he joined the civil service fast-stream in 1997 and requested a post in education. His timing couldn’t have been better: New Labour had just swept to power on a platform of improving state schools.

He volunteered to deliver Labour’s pledge to reduce class sizes to a maximum of 30. “I thought ‘What a great job! It’s No 1 on the pledge card – they are going to take it seriously. They’re going to put some money into it.

“With the benefit of hindsight it was really easy. It’s just that nobody knew how to solve it.”

Using the skills learned in Mr Arthur’s class, Coles analysed why schools struggled with class sizes. In the end he found a finite number of reasons, each with a particular solution.

Giving a speech at a Cambridge Assessment seminar
Giving a speech at a Cambridge Assessment seminar

“The thing about impossible things, is that they’re more possible than you think. When you set out saying ‘I’m going to do this’, people behave as if it’s bonkers. But you look back – once you have seen how to do it – and though it might have been hard work, it wasn’t impossible at all.”

A bit like walking in a straight line across a hill or learning that all even numbers divide by two? “Yes, exactly! Once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it.”

His project was a hit. After a few years, classes rarely ever went over 30, and Coles moved on to the Cabinet Office, delivering his own education bill, leading the London Challenge with Sir Tim Brighouse (“easily the most enjoyable part of my career”), taking the top schools job at the Department for Education and then leaving the civil service to become CEO of the United Learning Trust.

His successes, he says, were down to good teams and hard work. “And good luck. I wouldn’t want to forget the role that plays to.”

Work clearly fulfils him, but he admits there is one more thing he’d like to spend time on. Coles, it seems, likes to sing. “I might be a bit old to be in a band,” he says. That’s not true, I say. “OK,” he says, “if I’d had 20 years of fronting a band up to now I would not be too old, but I’m probably not going to make my breakthrough to The X Factor any time soon.” Would he like to be in a pub band, then, or play covers at a wedding? “As a sort of Mick Jagger impersonator? No! I have neither the persona nor the talent to be Mick Jagger,” he muses, “I just like singing. Probably not in a rock band.”

It is a funny, logical and clever answer. Much like Coles himself.

As I leave, I realise that I still don’t know the answer to the hill question and ponder emailing him to find out. But talking with Coles leaves you with the feeling that not only do answers exist, but that the greatest adventure is in finding them.

It’s a personal thing

Favourite toy as a child?

I had a duck called Dillis. It gradually disintegrated until it was just “Wing”. It then flew out of a window on a German autobahn, leaving an extremely traumatised four-year-old. The rest of my life has been a vain attempt to compensate for the sense of loss.

Favourite food?

Roast beef. Or any cake (as long as it’s not pretending to be healthy).

Three guests you would invite to a dinner party? (dead or alive)

Wittgenstein, plus two.

If you were invisible for the day, what would you do?

Try to calm down enough to work out how to fix myself, I should think.

A party you remember from your childhood

It involved playing the “do not laugh” game while my dad tried to make each of the children laugh. Unedifying but hilarious.

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