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Teacher who starred in Educating Yorkshire becomes head at show’s school

Matthew Burton is the new head at Thornhill Community Academy.
Matthew Burton is the new head at Thornhill Community Academy.

“People expect Educating Yorkshire to be the highlight,” says Matthew Burton as he reflects on his teaching career. “But it’s not, it is the lovely things day-to-day that really stick out.”

The 35-year-old, who five years ago starred in the Channel 4 show that followed staff and students through life at Dewsbury’s Thornhill Community Academy, has just taken up a new role as head of the school, a position he combines with teaching English to its pupils.

In TV series Educating Yorkshire, Mr Burton helped student Musharaf Asghar

In TV series Educating Yorkshire, Mr Burton helped student Musharaf Asghar

“When you win a breakthrough with a child and they get it - they’re like ‘oh I get it now, I get a full stop’ - it’s something so simple but it has such a big impact on their lives. You do get those moments where you’re punching the air over a dot.”

The opportunity to influence and make a difference to children’s lives is one he says he is both proud of and dedicated to.

And in 2013, the hearts of the nation were captured when he was caught on camera helping one of his students, who struggled with a stammer.

Inspired by The King’s Speech, he encouraged then Year 11 pupil Musharaf Asghar to try listening to music to help his delivery. The tactic worked and ‘Mushy’ read aloud a poem, before later standing in front of his entire year to deliver a speech, with the help of his iPod. The emotional scenes were one of the stand out moments of the television show.

“I think what that did was become a symbol of a bond between a teacher and a student and how important that is,” says Mr Burton, who believes relationships are “at the centre” of positive engagement with staff, parents and pupils. “But also a symbol of a young man showing this incredible mental strength and resilience.”

The pair, both motivational speakers, are still in contact and can sometimes be seen delivering talks together.

“A lot of the stuff he [Mushy] talks about that he battles through, I think people see it sort of as a symbol for their own.

“Everybody has had trouble at school. I went through bullying and all sorts, everybody struggles through something.

“And whether it is a stammer, or not a stammer, a mental health issue, whatever it may be, I think what his journey represents is overcoming that and just being resilient enough to say ‘no, I’m not going to let that define me for the rest of my life. I’m going to blast through it and become the best I can be’.

“In terms of ambassadors for this school, there’s few better than him. He’s just an incredible young man.”

Resilience is one of the values Mr Burton, from Wakefield, hopes to instil in the students at his school, where he has also brought in two simple new rules - be nice and work hard.

“The vision is to give every child the skills, opportunities, the means and the values to go ahead and make a positive impact in society and have the best life they possibly can have,” he says.

He wants to see the school, currently rated as ‘requires improvement’ by education watchdog Ofsted, become outstanding, whilst engaging and working with the community and developing extra-curricular activities are among his other priorities.

“I really want this school to be outward facing, truly a community academy and I want it to be the first choice for parents in this area to send their children to. I can’t wait to talk to people about that,” he says, referencing the school’s forthcoming open evening on October 4.

The start of the new term - Mr Burton’s first as head - last month, marked the beginning of his 13th year at Thornhill.

He joined the school as a newly-qualified teacher in September 2006, after completing his Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) at the University of Leeds, progressing to become head of the English department, assistant headteacher under Jonny Mitchell - the head at the time of Educating Yorkshire, and then deputy, with a pastoral role, before becoming headmaster.

“I know this community. I absolutely adore this community,” he says. “Every single one of the significant incidents in my life in the past 12 years has been punctuated by a backdrop of Thornhill, Thornhill Lees and Savile Town and the outlying areas. I love the place and I want to do the very best I can for every child at this school.”

His own children, Olivia, four, and Theo, two, are never far from his thoughts either. “If it’s not good enough for my kids, it’s not good enough for anybody else’s kids,” he says.

“My little girl has just started primary school and, as a parent, you don’t realise until they step through the door, quite how much trust parents put in to a school to educate your child.

“She’s coming home and saying k-k-kangaroo, doing phonics and it’s lovely. We were going through her phonics and letters and now she is recognising that they link together.

“That’s because of a group of incredible and inspirational teachers...The fact that that is her experience is amazing and what we want to do as a school, and what I want to do as a headteacher, is for people’s children to come here and be going home buzzing like that because that’s what it’s all about.”

Educating young people in today’s society is not without its challenges though, with schools up and down the country dealing with shrinking budgets and a “crisis” in children’s mental health.

“We want a truly world class school here and we won’t stop at anything to get that and we have to make decisions around that,” Mr Burton says. “But it is a challenge of course when budgets are shrinking and you want to maintain the same level of education. We absolutely will do that. You’ve just got to make sure you make really high quality decisions based on all the evidence available.”

At Thornhill, a life coach works with young people, supporting them through pressures including over body image, social media and academic outcomes. “Children’s mental health is something that genuinely worries me and as somebody who works in education is something that makes me really, really sad.

“As a dad myself with two kids, it’s something that really bothers me the numbers of children that are really struggling,” Mr Burton says. “It’s really sad because children arrive at school with these mental health issues, and that’s schools across the country. Schools do everything they possibly, possibly can.”

Education is “not just English, maths and science”, he adds, deeming teachers as “superheroes” who cater for the “whole human being”, supporting a “hidden curriculum” of life skills and values.

“Teaching is an all consuming role that yes, it is tiring, yes it is exhausting but it’s absolutely rewarding. Yes, it’s hard but it should be a challenge because at the end of the day these are young people’s futures and young people’s lives.”