Sir David Carter

Doctor of Laws Sir David Carter

Thursday 30 January 2014 at 2.30 pm: Orator - Professor Ros Sutherland

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor,

Imagine a young boy, growing up in a very musical family in South Wales.  You could be imagining the young David Carter, now Sir David Carter. Picture him at 18 months sitting in front of a grand piano, tentatively touching the keys, beginning to play with sounds, beginning to make noises. With a father as a concert pianist and a mother who loved music, the young David was surrounded by music from the day he was born.  By the age of four he was learning to play the piano, and, with his father as teacher, he was also beginning to experience the pleasures of learning and achieving.

Think now of the man, Sir David Carter, the Chief Executive Officer of the Cabot Learning  Federation, the man who was knighted in 2013 for his outstanding contribution to school improvement, both nationally and locally.  The man who passionately believes that education is the cornerstone of a strong and just society.  The man, who through education is changing the lives of thousands of young people in Bristol and the South West.

But lets go back to David’s childhood.  Whereas his love of music began at home, it was at primary school that he began to enjoy sport:  cricket, rugby, and (surprisingly for a Welsh man) football.  Music and sport continued to play an important role in his life when he became a pupil at Llanederyn High School in Cardiff, the first purpose built comprehensive school in Wales. His secondary school teachers recognised his musical and sporting talents and at the age of 14 he was playing cricket for the Welsh schoolboy’s team and at 16 he was playing the viola in the National Youth Orchestra of Wales.  And behind him all the time was his loving and constant father, driving him all over Wales to play cricket, being in the audience when the Youth Orchestra performed, and continuing to be his piano teacher. In our conversations David wistfully mentioned that his father died in 2013, just before the announcement of his knighthood. He knows that his father was tremendously proud of him, and he knows how honoured he would have been to greet his only son as Sir David, the Welsh knight who is fighting to improve education for all young people.  

The first of his family to go to University, David left Wales in 1979 to study music at Royal Holloway College in London. He gained a very good honours degree in music and then began to train as a music and physical education teacher at the Institute of Education in London. Through this training he learned to teach in tough schools, and he says that he always taught music in a track suit to gain the respect of potentially disruptive students. As a teacher he rapidly progressed to leadership roles in schools in Berkshire, Dorset and Gloucestershire, before becoming Principal of John Cabot City Technology College in 2003.  On the way he gained an MA in Music Education and an MBA in International Educational Leadership.

When David Carter arrived at John Cabot City Technology College, already a very successful school, he was shocked by how isolated the school was from schools nearby. Whereas some schools in Bristol were performing well, many schools with the majority of their students from working class backgrounds, were performing badly. The governors from the City Technology College believed that the way to improve education was to increase their own intake of students. However David believed that the way forward was for schools in a local area to work together so that all of the schools improved.  This became a possibility when David Carter was approached by an education officer from Bristol Local Authority, with the idea that John Cabot City Technology College might develop a partnership with the local secondary school in Speedwell. David Carter immediately grasped the opportunity and in 2007 Bristol Brunel Academy was opened. It was a huge challenge to win over the hearts and minds of the teachers and governors from both schools, and in particular from the school that had been told to join the partnership because it had been judged to be a struggling school. David Carter said that "A big part of my role is to celebrate the strengths in weaker schools. You have to very quickly work out where outstanding practice exists and transmit that, otherwise you open a gap between the schools.”.  In its first year of opening there was a huge improvement in the GCSE results for students at Bristol Brunel Academy, and these have continued to improve.  In 2009 Bristol Metropolitan Academy joined the federation and today there are six secondary and five primary academies in the Cabot Learning  Federation,  whose mission is “collaboration for outstanding achievement”.  That this collaboration now includes primary and secondary schools, means that teachers within the federation are able to tackle the known dip in educational performance between primary and secondary phases. And the extraordinary success of the federation is undoubtedly due to Sir David’s powerful and effective leadership.

How has this remarkable success been achieved? From his early experiences of performing and playing in an orchestra and team sports, David Carter learned that collaboration and competition are not mutually exclusive.  From music and sport he learned both to excel personally and to excel as a member of a team. He learned that you win together or you lose together. He learned how to moderate himself through the responses of the people around him. He learned how to work with people to bring out the best in every individual. He learned a sense of ‘fair play’. From music and sport he learned about the importance of structure and following the “rules of the game”. From his early playing of the piano he learned to enjoy the experience of playing music, and the pleasure of performing to a high standard. And this is one of the reasons why he believes in the importance of both educational outcomes and the learning experience.

As a school leader David Carter understands the role of professional development and has instigated a creative approach to teacher development, working across all schools in the federation. This model involves teachers working in groups of three, with one teacher teaching a class, one teacher observing the teaching and learning, and the other teacher writing notes. After the lesson the three teachers reflect on the teaching and learning processes from their different perspectives. This model recognises that teachers have within themselves the resources and powers to improve their own teaching, and that they can learn from others providing them feedback on their practice. David Carter believes in the importance of closing the gap between the attainment of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from more middle class homes.  In focusing on their own teaching practices, through observation, feedback and discussion, teachers in the federation are developing a learning culture in which all students are challenged to achieve.

David Carter’s model for professional development also supports teachers to become school leaders, supporting them to take up opportunities for senior leadership roles within schools across the federation. Within this model David Carter knows that each school has to find its own approach to school improvement, and that there are no ‘quick fixes’, no ‘holy grails’.  And through this approach the Cabot Learning Federation is building school leadership capacity which is having an impact on schools across Bristol.

Competition is often the default mode of operation between schools, and when David Carter first arrived in Bristol he experienced competition more strongly than he had in other local authorities.  He recently tweeted that “A sensible vision for Bristol’s schools is that the collaborative gene that is so badly needed takes root across the city”.  Through his leadership David Carter has shown that collaboration between schools and across phases of education is possible.  I would encourage Sir David to “throw down the gauntlet” to other schools in Bristol to join together in their own partnerships which centre around their own form of   “collaboration for outstanding achievement”.

It may seem that David Carter does not have much time for life outside work, but I know that he is a firm supporter of Cardiff City Football team and I suspect that he takes a keen interest in their new Norwegian football manager. I also know that he is a strong family man and that he is as proud of his children as his father was of him. 

In his youth David Carter was an orchestral viola player, and viola players normally play the harmony within an orchestral piece.  But the viola's tone, which is thicker and darker than the violin makes it “perfect for providing resonant solo passages in the middle of the orchestral range”. I like to think of this as a metaphor for David Carter’s leadership qualities.  He is not a conductor, not a first violin, but a solid team player who is not afraid of solo bouts of performance, but who is happiest when the whole team are playing and winning together.

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, I present to you David Anthony Carter as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.


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