An 11-year-old Loic Menzies made a choice many parents completing secondary school applications this month would struggle to support.
As his time at Newham Croft primary in Cambridge ended, he chose to forego the nearby and well-reputed Parkside and Comberton schools to attend the more distant and (at the time) more challenging Chesterton Community College.
“They’re more similar now than they were,” he says, emphasising the weight of his younger self’s decision.
It’s an interesting trait in the man who this month celebrated the tenth birthday of LKMCo – his well- respected “think and action tank” – by renaming it the Centre for Education and Youth (CfEY).
“It was too comfortable, too safe,” he says of his 11-year-old self’s decision to forego the nearby secondaries. “I wanted to get out and experience something different.” His parents had no choice but to support him, one suspects. They were adventurous souls too.
His father, Bob Menzies was 65 and retired by the time Loic was born. He’d been a submariner, a glaciologist, a district officer and race relations worker in Zambia and Uganda and much more besides. His mother, a linguist who’d spent time in Russia and in Beijing at the height of the Cultural Revolution, went on to work for and then run a geological research group at the University of Cambridge.
They were both keen mountaineers, and as Menzies was growing up, they’d take it in turns to go off on expeditions to the Arctic, the Russian far east, China. At 10, Menzies wanted to climb a mountain in the Alps, so they took him to the 3,000m summit of Dent de Morcles. The trek to Chesterton must have seemed a dawdle by comparison.
A key role of schooling is socialisation, and at Chesterton Menzies found himself studying that process as much as experiencing it. “I was a budding sociologist. I was in this new environment and I would analyse the interactions between groups of people. It fascinated me.”
At 14, he came out as gay, and no amount of sociological understanding of the environment was going to change some of the more predictable responses. “Suffice to say, I did feel pretty lonely and isolated!” Were there more threatening reactions? He smiles. “I always knew how to stand up for myself.”
“But being the short, posh, academic, gay kid with bad fashion sense was a hell of a combination in that school at the time.”
The interactions between groups of people fascinate me
Menzies is disarmingly humorous. It’s a skill that probably helped a lot when he started out in youth work at 13. Having seen the hardships of some of his new schoolmates’ childhoods and conscious of his privilege, he felt a compulsion to help. By 17, he was a young advocate for the Changemakers Foundation.
Beyond the humour, there is something telling in his anecdote about the bullies – an ability to achieve a studious remove from situations and issues he cares deeply about. It’s a characteristic he has ingrained into CfEY.
“We get asked to do a lot of evaluations [of projects and interventions]. Binary evaluations. ‘Did it work?’ For us it’s more about getting under the skin of things and unpicking their complexities and being able to point out what we need to think about in terms of shaping how effective something can be.”
Menzies cares deeply about education. But it’s only one facet of a bigger puzzle that he is grappling with. He’s genuinely animated when I ask what drives him, but, characteristically, he cares too deeply about it to give a simple answer. It’s something he apologises for at the end of our interview – that he equivocates too much.
It’s a trait that isn’t usually associated with other graduates of his alma mater. After his A-levels in history, English, politics and biology at Hills Road sixth form college – a period he describes as socially and academically liberating – he followed the pattern he’d set at 11.
Cambridge might have seemed the obvious choice, but he chose Oxford, where he studied philosophy, politics and economics (PPE). “In part,” he tells me, “it was the thought of all the freshers being excited about all the pubs and clubs I’d already been to as a local.”
He left Magdalen College in 2006 for Teach First, although he had no intention of teaching long term. It was another adventure, another opportunity to learn and to make the pieces of the puzzle fit – or at least to get a better grasp of the big picture.
He taught citizenship at St George’s in Maida Vale, northwest London, a school in the highest quintile nationally for pupil deprivation, and infamous for the fatal stabbing of its headteacher, Philip Lawrence in 1995. He tried to bring some of his knowledge of youth work into play, but he found it difficult to reconcile the fundamentally different nature of the jobs.
I already knew I didn’t want to stay that long
He also used his analytical tendencies, applying opportunity-cost to the policies of the leadership team. “I worked out how many hours in a week marking would take and to what extent the time I spent would have a pay-off, and I decided that wasn’t good enough so I didn’t.” He got hauled into the office of the new headteacher, Martin Tissot. He says he realised that the worst-case scenario was to be kicked out, and “I already knew I didn’t want to stay that long”.
Instead, he was promoted to head of history and social sciences. The school went on to gain specialist status in the humanities and to an “outstanding” Ofsted rating in 2010, but, by then, Menzies had moved on. He’d set out to give it two years and stayed three. “If I’d been a teacher with a family, or reliant on the job and career, or not been so confident, I certainly would have complied and spent those x number of hours a week doing all that pointless marking.”
The decade since has been a busy one for LKMCo, now CfEY. In an outcomes-centred political climate, its mission has remained unashamedly child-centred. “We believe society should ensure all children and young people receive the support they need to make a fulfilling transition to adulthood.”
It might be the simplest answer to what drives him: solving this unsolvable puzzle. “What is parents’ responsibility? What is schools? Youth services and youth work? You have to somehow get that to come together around young people in a jigsaw.”
That drive has led CfEY to become a team of 12, working with a sector-spanning range of organisations, publishing well-regarded reports and shaping policy development.
The biggest success of the decade? He first gives the simple answer: The DfE’s new Early Careers Framework draws on elements of his organisation’s research.
His preferred answer? “We’ve nudged the debate. We went to a fairly hollowed-out vision of what education was. The DCSF became the DfE. Every Child Matters was ditched. Everything went in the opposite direction to our values, but I think we managed to nudge it back a bit.”
And if he could change anything over the next ten years? He won’t think that far ahead.
He will commit to a year, though. His answer is, for once, unequivocal: “Three-year averages [for school performance data], because it stops this constant need for quick solutions.
“Oh. And get rid of ‘outstanding’.”
On that basis, adventure awaits CfEY in the next 12 months, and very probably the next ten years.
In the meantime, apology accepted. Menzies can equivocate as much as he likes.