On an unremarkable road in Hall Green, on the outskirts of Birmingham city centre, sits a small brick hut that is the front to Robin Hood academy.
Beyond its unassuming doors is a labyrinthine school, extending on through tunnel-like corridors, and 38-year-old Steve Taylor is in charge of it all.
As executive head of a small trust he has none of the common trappings of young academy leaders. He didn’t do Teach First. Or Future Leaders. He was never fast-tracked. And he doesn’t have a prolific social media presence.
Appointed in January last year to help the Robin Hood trust to take on challenging schools in the area, he is ambitious about what he wants to achieve.
He is also brutally hard on himself. Talking about his first headship, at a Coventry primary, he admits that while he rarely cries, he often did back then.
Talking about his first headship, at a Coventry primary, he admits that while he rarely cries, he often did back then
“I always hammer myself,” he says, looking pained. “I’ve got this relentless drive, which tires me out sometimes, because I want to make a difference.”
The head he took over from had been in post for 29 years – a position he took when Taylor was four.
“They saw this really young guy going in, thinking he doesn’t know what he’s doing. It really annoys me when people judge on experience rather than effectiveness.
“People said they weren’t sure if my approach was right. They had their doors shut to classrooms. They said they wanted an ever-present head and when I went in and started being ever-present… Well, I think they wanted someone ever-present to sit in his office.”
When some staff decided to leave, the former head returned to give a speech, which Taylor found awkward. He also felt lonely.
“I remember sitting at home and getting a bit upset with my wife. I said ‘I’m just not sure I can do it’.
“If you think about the role of heads, you’re judged by everybody. You’re judged by the staff, rightly so. You’re judged by the parents. You’re judged by the children. You’re judged by the local authority, if it’s a local authority school, or you’re judged by the powers that are above. You’re judged by the DfE.
“Your family look at you and say ‘Ah, we’re sure you’re doing a brilliant job’. But it’s not evidenced-based, it’s love-based, isn’t it?
“If I talked to my wife, I’d make her worry because I was in some fairly dark places. If I talked to my local authority adviser, she was amazing, but there was part of her that was going to judge me. And I couldn’t talk to my parents about it because they think I’m brilliant, but without any evidence.”
He trails off. And then smiles. “So I decided that I was going to pay for a coach … best thing I ever did.”
Taylor had taken the National Professional Qualification for Headship course run by Coventry local authority, during which he was given eight hours coaching with Kirsty Barton-Smith (“a brilliant woman”) whose help he sought later. Paying £80 each half-term for an afternoon of “targeted listening” his confidence began to return.
When Ofsted came, he was ready. The school received a good overall, and an outstanding for leadership.
If I talked to my wife, I’d make her worry because I was in some fairly dark places
“That was very affirming. No matter what anyone said, I’d cut the mustard, stood up to the biggest scrutiny. I found it difficult to talk about it for the next couple of weeks without getting emotional because I’d put everything on it. In this job, you lose sight of who you are when you’re in it.”
Is that sort of pressure sustainable? “No,” he says honestly, “but that’s education. I’m not sure that these days, education’s something you go into for life. I look at people who have become big hitters. Generally, they’ve taken periods in their career when they’ve stepped back from headship and done something else. They’ve taken stock and then they’ve come back and reapplied themselves.”
For someone so committed to education, it is surprising to learn a chance encounter at a zoo was what prompted him into it. After doing well at his GCSEs, Taylor botched his A-levels, gaining only a C and D in geography and law, limiting his university options.
He was planning a gap year in Australia with his then-girlfriend, but they split up three weeks before the trip. He decided to go alone.
“I was only 19. I flew out there and landed; it was the closest I’ve come to feeling like I’ve jumped into the deep end of a swimming pool without being able to swim.”
His family had a contact in Adelaide who took him in until his dad, who had just retired from the police, came to join him. “I felt a real wimp… but it was amazing. I got to know him as a man and as a friend, more than just a dad”.
While waiting for his dad, the family asked him to take their three-year-old to the zoo. “I had such a great time and such a relationship with her that it was like a hammer blow. I thought ‘I know what I want to do’. I travelled for three months, cut short the trip, flew home, went to university and became a teacher.”
His first job was in the outstanding-rated St Chad’s in Saddleworth, Oldham, where inspirational headteacher Peter Burnley seeded the idea that Taylor could one day follow in his footsteps.
His next move, to a school in Coventry, was less helpful. “The teachers arrived pretty late, they went pretty early. Everything was driven towards making their lives easier, rather than the children’s lives better.” At his lowest point he even looked at an Asda manager’s job in Lutterworth.
At his lowest point he even looked at an Asda manager’s job in Lutterworth
Instead, he took a job in another junior school. He received several internal promotions and was starting to feel confident until he applied for one of three internal roles, for which there were only three candidates. “It should have been a forgone conclusion, shouldn’t it? But I’ve got this amazing capacity to really cock-up interviews.”
While the other two jobs were offered, Taylor was told the governors wanted to reinterview him. Feeling spurned he told the head he was withdrawing his application.
He shuffles. “So, at lunchtime, he did what was probably one of the single greatest acts of kindness anyone has done for me. He said ‘follow me’. I thought we’d go into his office where he would bend my ear for half an hour. But we got into his car and drove to a pub. He offered to buy me a beer, which I didn’t accept because I was going back to school to teach afterwards, and then he said ‘you’ve done everything right to deserve this position. This position is yours. You’ve got to step up and become the person you should become and I believe in you. Go for it’. So I did.
“But so many people would have just taken what I’d said and thought ‘oh, that’s a pain in the neck’. The fact he took time to drive me off site, and talk to me like that, is what catapulted me to get on the SLT.”
Now, as executive head of a trust, he enjoys what he does, but is unsure about the role’s name.
“I don’t like the title of executive headship. I like chief executive even less!” he says, pulling an incredulous face. “It sounds like you’re lording it over people.”
What he does love is building an ethos based on innovation. On a tour of the school he is keen to point out the “Confucius classroom” – a bamboo-covered space in which children learn Mandarin – and introduces the school’s robot, who the children are learning to interact with and, later, will learn to code.
His Ofsted fears are also less now as a chalkboard in his office reveals. It states that the aim of the trust is to create “flagship” schools. “Not outstanding ones”, he says. The trust’s own moral compass is more important.
However, his brutal realism means he doesn’t see himself in the role past the age of 45. Will he leave education for something else? “No. What I love is we’re trying to make a difference in education. I like that we’re fighting for something I believe in passionately. If I didn’t have that, I don’t know what I’d do.”
It’s a personal thing
What is your favourite book?
The Humans by Matt Haig. It’s a book about aliens and how humans operate. It talks well about what it is to be human and emotionally intelligent.
If you were invisible for a day, what would you do?
I’d go to Area 51 [the US airbase rumoured to house UFOs] to find out what really happened there.
What was your most memorable party as a child?
A cousin’s wedding when I was about seven. You see your parents and other adults having fun, letting their hair down. There were a few pranks.
If you could have a billboard across England, what slogan would you put on it?
“Limits, like fears, are often just an illusion.” I think it’s from the actor Will Smith, but I’m not sure if it’s out of a film. Or maybe “Do not follow where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Too many people in their lives settle for second best.
Which animal are you most like?
A meerkat! Generally they are inquisitive, alert and rely on a survival strategy based on mutual trust. I think that ties in with the modern way of working with MATs.