David Thomas headshot


David Thomas (Exeter, 2008) shares his story of how he was awarded O.B.E. in the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours for his contribution to education during COVID-19

Published: 15 February 2021


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What initially drew you to studying at Oxford?

I feel like I’m supposed to have a deeper answer than this, but my school’s career advisor had one of those computer programmes where you put in what you’re interested in and it tells you what degree you should do. I told it what I liked about my A-levels, and it told me to do PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics)! I was interested in lots of things and struggling to make up my mind, and PPE saved me from having to pick a single subject.

David Thomas celebrating after hisexams

Are there any particular memories that spring to mind?

I had some fantastic tutors and can imagine myself back in tutorials with them in an instant. I remember sucking up knowledge like a sponge from my politics tutorials, and feeling at the cutting edge when my economics tutor taught me how to use new techniques he was researching for my dissertation. And of course I won’t forget starring in an exceptional cover of one of B*Witched’s finest songs at a college charity concert.

What inspired you to go into education?

When I was at primary school my head teacher encouraged my parents to take me for scholarship exams at the local independent schools. We couldn’t have afforded a place, but luckily the person who beat me in the entrance exam to one school decided to go somewhere else and left their heavily subsidised place vacant. That small element of chance determined that I got a great education. You never know the counterfactual, but it has always struck me as wrong that such a small thing could be so important in someone’s life. I think all children deserve the highest quality education – regardless of their intelligence or their parents’ wealth.

What are the greatest challenges in your role?

Is just saying 'I work with a thousand teenagers' enough? I jest – they are a joy and not a challenge. Trying to balance learning and life is the hardest thing. Our children want to learn and want to be successful at school, but many elements in life make that hard. The challenge is to not give up on the high standards of learning because life is hard, whilst also acknowledging that life is hard and acting on that. We can’t drop our expectations, but nor can we pretend that the challenges aren’t there.

With the onset of the pandemic you co-created the Oak National Academy, what was the reasoning behind that?

I led a school that was well-placed to react quickly and bring online learning to our children. We have a staff team who are relatively young and tech savvy. Other schools, through no fault of their own, were just less able to respond. They might have had more staff who were vulnerable, or not have the IT infrastructure already in place. It felt wrong that some children should have a full-time online education whilst others shouldn’t, so those of us who were in the more fortunate place came together to try and share what we were doing with others, so we created ONA: which now has more than 10,000 free video lessons and resources - for teachers and students alike.

Where do you see ONA heading in the future?

For as long as the future contains COVID-19 and the risk of school closure then we need to stay focused on that. Children have lost too much of their learning already and we need to do all we can to support their schools.

How do you think the face of education will change with the 'new normal' after the pandemic?

I am not one of these people who believes that the future of education is in robot teachers or schools where every child just sits in front of a computer being taught by AI. I think school closures have taught us just how important the human element of schooling is. The relationship between child and teacher matters. That said, there is big potential in helping children learn when they can’t be with a highly-skilled teacher. School closures and self-isolation has taught us that it is possible to learn from home, and to orchestrate that at scale.

How do you think that Oxford changed you?

I think Oxford helped give me the confidence to be myself. It was daunting heading off to Oxford and I worried that I’d need to change myself to fit in. I didn’t, and I think that’s made me more comfortable being myself ever since.

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