“Economic conditions should not be used as an excuse for poor results”: Tom Canning, OBE in Education

“Economic conditions should not be used as an excuse for poor results” Tom Canning OBE in Education Publicado : 30/04/2018

The recognised teacher, an example in the world of inclusive education on a global level who transformed a school at risk into an exemplary one in England, discusses what he learnt from that experience, the similarities he sees in Chile, and the new way to teach in multicultural classrooms.

By Lucy Willson

Dressed impeccably, with briefcase in hand, Thomas Canning (53) recalls on camera the first time he crossed the threshold of Tollgate School in East London. “It was a gloomy, unattractive place. My first impression was that it wasn’t a stimulating environment at all,” he says of that day in 2004. The educator entered an environment not dissimilar to the one depicted four decades earlier in the classic film To Sir, with love. And just like Sidney Poitier’s character, the challenges that faced him were significant: to not only raise the academic standard of an underperforming primary school, but also to raise the self-esteem of the young students, create a community, and make the school attractive to better teachers. In a couple of years, under his leadership Tollgate became a national example of improvement and good results. In 2007, Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited the school accompanied by the press, and in 2010 Headmaster Canning was awarded an OBE for his services to education. How did he manage it? He started with the basics: changing the first impression. He added colourful logos, children’s art, spaces for play and then asked for money so that he could attract better teachers to a multicultural and often problematic area with better wages. Something that might seem like a far-off dream might actually be much closer than you imagine. “Three years ago I was lucky enough to visit a few schools in Santiago with students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, and the teachers at those educational centres were facing the same challenges as we were in London. The message I shared with the Chilean teachers was that economic conditions should not be used as an excuse for poor results.”

How do you achieve what you did?

By identifying the barriers to learning. One of those is, obviously, resources. Our schools need to be equipped in order to nurture, motivate and inspire our children. That’s how you equip them with the knowledge, skills and experience to have a truly promising future.

And what can you do to extend the experience outside school?

We try to encourage our disadvantaged families to value education and school, and to see it as an option for the future of their children. We work closely with parents to assure ourselves that students have a rigorous enough study plan to allow them to succeed.

After your trip to Chile, what would you say makes our education better or worse than the British system?

The teachers I met in schools in Pudahuel were very similar to the ones we have in England. The will was there. The difference was salaries. It was difficult to make an attractive enough offer to draw the most brilliant teachers in Chile to those areas. That’s a big difference between the UK and Chile.

Tollgate School has a lot of pupils of different nationalities. In Chile, we’re in the middle of a period of intense immigration. What’s your advice for integrating these new cultures and races?

I discussed this at length with my Chilean colleagues. 46 different languages are spoken at Tollgate, in a diverse learning community in which 35 different countries are represented. We are a school that’s rich in diversity. What I emphasised in Santiago was that this is positive, not negative. In fact, it’s our greatest strength.

How do you use diversity in your favour?

Foreign children who speak English – Spanish in Chile – as a foreign language start school and already know a lot about how language works. They are very capable, and integrate very quickly into the school. Within a year, they go from the first stages of learning English to full fluency. You will notice that this will also start to happen in Chile. These students have an advantage over their monolingual classmates and they are very successful within our school system. They contribute the experiences they have had abroad, they’re hardworking and good students.

What is the key to being a good teacher?

Recognising that the world has changed with the arrival of the Internet, and the fact that you can be anywhere in the world in a little over 13 hours. Teachers should take advantage of modern Chile. The ethnic make-up of classrooms is changing and will continue to change, and so teachers should look at the world through new eyes.

What do teachers in a diverse classroom need?

To look at the curriculum. What we used to teach forty years ago is no longer applicable. In Chile’s case, it’s probably the first time that reading and numeracy classes are being taught to children whose first language isn’t Spanish, so you have to dedicate yourself to making teaching more interactive and concrete, so that children can do, feel, see and understand before starting more abstract classes. Some of these children are brilliant, and as soon as they master the language they’ll achieve great results.

What is a headmaster’s mission?

They have to be strong. They should encourage their teachers with confidence, so that they come to view multiculturalism and changes in classrooms as something positive. They have to recognise that the only thing that unites us all, independent of culture of language, is that we’re British – Chilean in your case. It’s important that all pupils understand the values of the country they live in. They will grow to be strong Chilean citizens and they should feel included, like a bright part of the country’s future, and therefore they deserve teachers who will give them a first-class education.


Liceo CEP in Pudahuel:

An example of inclusive education in Chile

There is no room for self-fulfilling prophecies. One of the missions the Liceo Técnico Profesional CEP in Pudahuel (which offers courses in business management, automotive mechanics, infant care and extractive metallurgy) has is to emphasise to its students that they are not only capable of changing socially-imposed rules, but also to build a future based on their dreams. Open for 31 years in the middle of a vulnerable area, this school opens its doors to anyone who wants to join. “Even before the educational reforms were brought in, there was no selection process here, which allows for great diversity,” observes Pablo Salvador, history teacher and participant in a headteachers’ training scheme. “We have students from different religious backgrounds, different origins, countries, and sexual orientations, and they all treat each other with respect.” Now the challenge is to raise the academic bar. They already have a programme that allows students to go straight to university. Ex-pupils of the school study at the Universidad Católica and the Universidad de Santiago de Chile. Pablo feels proud: “The student who leaves school at eighteen is completely different to the one who came in at fourteen. You can see a transformation in their behaviour, manners and discipline, and the students themselves recognise this.”

This interview was published in the ninth edition of our magazine, Inside Britcham. For more information about the magazine, or to contribute to the next edition, please contact Isabel Juppet, Publications Coordinator:

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