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The Interview - 'Every Child Matters isn't a slogan'

Tess Walker has been the headteacher of Belhus Chase Humanities College for four years and will see the school move to academy status, even though she may not become its principal.

What led you to go into teaching?

I spent 10 years in France and the United States - at one point I did marketing for Levi's - and never considered going into teaching. So I was a late joiner. I had taken a career break and was living in Kent and decided to apply for a job in the local comprehensive. I discovered instantly that I loved working in a school.

When did you realise that you wanted to become a headteacher?

It was step by step. I knew in the first year that I wanted to have more influence over people and events, but I took it one promotion at a time until the headship was staring me in the face.

Tell us a bit about the school's history.

The school had a rocky history and had been regarded by the local authority as being in special measures. It's A to C score including English and maths was optimistically 9 per cent maximum. The previous head had been unwell for some time and the school was lacking organisation. Systems weren't functioning and there was no curriculum design.

So you had to crack those organisational issues first?

Yes - but they were relatively easy to deal with. Changing the culture and the capacity to improve were the harder nuts to crack. But we did, and in 2006 Ofsted described the school as satisfactory with good features. I was pleased, but think we would now be good with outstanding features.

Why the name change?

We felt that the school needed a fresh start - to throw off the characterisation of failure and to lose the reputation attached to the name. That seems to have worked to a large degree and with most stakeholders' support.

Then why would you feel the need to suggest academy status?

The long-term future of the school remains fragile. The school has not broken through the magic 30 per cent mark yet, but we think it will this year. But I feel this community deserves so much better. Aveley stands in the shadow of the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge. To the north is Havering, perceived by parents to be more affluent and successful, while to the south-east are Thurrock's other academies. Some of the areas around the Thames Gateway are culturally desolate. An academy would bring community facilities, state-of-the-art education and sporting resources, and give the families and children in the area a real sense of worth.

How would you feel if you're not made head?

I would love to be and I think as a school we would like to go into this as a team. I have fantastic support from my leadership team, and the staff in general is so committed to making a difference for these young people. But I fully recognise that sponsors would go through a process and I may not be chosen. I actually think it's more important for the school to build for the future than to worry about my ego or position. I am well established in my life, I want the youngsters who live here to have opportunities too.

Speaking with one of your deputies, you are clearly a successful, and well-liked head. He described your leadership as powerful. Would it be a big sacrifice?

I want to see my vision for the school achieved with or without me. That would be enough for me and no real sacrifice. I want to see a school with inclusive facilities, support from all the social services and health. Something special with theatres, sports halls and real social cohesion at its heart. When locals drive past they will see this creative, iconic building and say "that belongs to us". If we can achieve that, my work will be complete.

What do you feel you have learnt over your years in teaching? What would you say to other leaders about this role?

That Every Child Matters isn't a slogan, that having a strong moral purpose is essential to our success - that when you get bogged down in the minutiae of educational management, remember you are here for each child's life - distribute leadership and fight the cause. Sometimes no one else will do unless you are there behind them.

If you were Schools Secretary for the day, what would you do?

I would sort out admissions policy. At the moment, it polarises schools - one end for pupils from aspirational parents, largely from middle-class backgrounds and, at the other, schools facing challenging circumstances that are watching as their pupil population changes to accommodate those who are in most need of specialist help to achieve.

What's the best excuse you've ever heard?

It was from a parent and relates to my exclusion of her son. He had fired a pellet gun on his way home from school. During a meeting, as I was explaining the reason for the exclusion, the mother said: "It happened out of school and anyway he only fired it at an old lady's legs. I promise that is the truth."


2004-present: Headteacher, Belhus Chase

2002-2004: Deputy headteacher, The Aveley (Now BCSHC)

2000-2002: Assistant headteacher, Pendragon School in Lewisham

1993-2000: Head of business, Woolwich Polytechnic School in Greenwich

1987-1993: Lecturer at NWK College

1984-1987: Sales and marketing role, Vencil Resil

1982-1984: Sales and marketing role, Harting Elektronik

1981-1982: Sales and marketing role, Levi's.

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