“The first thing they said was that the person still lived and worked in the area they grew up in, and I thought, ‘Oh, that sounds like me!’
“The second thing they said was that was this person failed her O levels at 16, and I thought, ‘Oh, that sounds like me as well', and when they said the third thing – that when this person was at teacher training college she was told she’d never be a teacher – I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is me!’”
Headteacher Denise Fox recalls the moment she won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2018 Tes Schools Awards after a career in education spanning more than 40 years, mostly at Fulham Cross Girls’ School in south-west London.
In that time she’s faced personal challenges including cancer, losing a baby, divorce, and having to bring up two sons, both now in their 20s, as a single parent.
“We all have problems but those problems don’t define who you are,” she says. “It’s how you overcome them that matters.”
'It was like a lunatic asylum'
She joined Fulham Cross as “a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed teacher” in the mid-1980s, when she admits she used to cry because the behaviour was appalling and “it was like a lunatic asylum”.
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Since then she’s seen many a pupil problem too, including those coping with cancer and the death of a parent.
The single-sex secondary academy has more than twice the national average of pupils eligible for free school meals, and many are brought up in environments across Hammersmith and Fulham that experience high levels of crime.
A pupil was murdered a few years ago and a former pupil died in the Grenfell Tower fire.
“There are tragedies of life and you have to support pupils through it. Teachers do this on a day-to-day basis,” says Fox.
“For a lot of kids, school is the only constant in their life.
"You read about teachers, especially in primary schools, giving breakfast to kids and in some cases even washing their clothes. I don’t think we should be doing things like that, but we unfortunately live in a society where sometimes, if we don’t offer kids that kind of support and care, nobody else will.”
Watch Denise Fox explain the five things that motivated her here
'I was told I wasn’t cut out for teaching'
The school is now very different to the one Fox joined. There are, for example, “high standards of behaviour and attitudes,” according to Ofsted.
Its Progress 8 score of 0.96 makes it 66th best in the country, according to DfE stats, and almost three times as many pupils apply to the school in Year 7 as there are places.
And that’s not a bad reflection on someone who was once told she “wasn’t cut out for teaching” and advised to “give it all up” after an essay she wrote at teacher training college.
Fox admits she isn’t academic, but says you can have the best degree in the world and still not be a good teacher. Success, she says, lies in communication and relationships.
In her case, that’s helped by the fact that she was brought up in the area of Fulham near the school, and still lives close by. She has a special bond with some pupils because she’s taught their mums or aunties.
At school, she likes to be around and about, and does dinner duty, for example. She’s “honest” and “transparent” to the point that pupils know that she’s had a colostomy and that “Miss poos in a bag”.
“That always raises a laugh,” she says.
Empathy – but no soft touch
Over the years, the school has developed an understanding of “how girls learn and how to support girls to achieve,” says Fox.
She refers to her 600 pupils as her “daughters” while, she says, “my boys are at home”.
“Girls and boys learn differently,” she says. “Girls can be bitchy and have this negativity sometimes where they hang onto things, whereas boys don’t have that.
“I have an empathy with the girls but am no soft touch. I’m tough with them about going home if they’re not feeling well. If someone says, ‘Oh, I’ve got a period’, I say, ‘Well, you’re gonna have those for another 40 years, dear, so get on with it.”
The school’s motto is “Empowering tomorrow’s women”, which was thought up by the girls themselves.
“It’s something that everyone took ownership of and that’s probably why it’s been extremely successful. It has really moved the school forward.
“Women are still under-represented in lots of things and haven’t got equality, so that’s something we would like to develop.”
One of the school’s strengths is its racial diversity, says Fox, not to mention the staff “who go the extra mile every day in every lesson”.
“We’re a happy school,” she says. “We have heart and soul – we’re not an exam factory. We believe in emotional and social support and do fun things with staff and students. Coming to work and enjoying work is what keeps people motivated.”
'The head’s door was never open'
Back at last June's glitzy ceremony at London’s Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane, the next thing Fox knew was that her PA was pointing her phone at her and taking pictures.
“My deputy head was sat next to me crying and my staff stood up and were hooting, and then my picture went up on the screen.”
It’s almost a lifetime away from the teenager who had to repeat her O Levels.
She studied home economics and religious studies at A level before going to Digby Stuart College, part of University of Roehampton, to train as a teacher.
Her first teaching job was at Hurlingham and Chelsea School, in Putney, which she joined in around 1975 as a home economics teacher.
“I wanted to be a teacher because I wanted to change people’s lives – that is what I really believed and that is still part of my philosophy now – because if you get a good education, you can go out and do what you want to do.”
She came to Fulham Cross as head of sixth form and personal development and has taught a range of subjects including careers advice, health and social care and the former vocational subject known as CPVE (Certificate of Pre- Vocational Education).
“It was a very traditional girls’ school back then and a lot of the old female staff each had their own seat in the staff room.
"The head’s door was never open, and there was a little green light that came on when you were allowed to go into her room. You would never have dared call her by her first name.”
Fox says she was “on automatic pilot” for two years after giving birth, aged 39, to a stillborn baby boy of whom she has a photo on her office wall.
“The kids were buying me loads of stuff and telling me what to call the baby. Coming back was very difficult because people didn’t know what to say.”
Cancer treatment prompted perseverance assembly
Not long after that, she went off on a trainee headship programme before becoming assistant head and then deputy head.
Around six years ago she became head of school, and in September last year became headteacher.
It was around three years ago that she got news of the cancer for which she underwent an eight-hour operation.
And on her return to school, in typical fashion, she gave an assembly on the theme of “perseverance through challenges” to Year 11.
“I said, 'You’re probably wondering where I’ve been…Well, I’ve had cancer and I’ve had it removed and now I have to poo in a bag, but I’m here and I’m getting better and I’ll be back.'”
She adds: “I’m a determined person. I’ve faced challenges and I’ve overcome those challenges, and that’s part of who I am.
“I just hope that in the time I’ve been a teacher, I have touched people’s lives for positivity."
CV: Denise Fox
Digby Stuart College, University of Roehampton
Hurlingham and Chelsea School, Fulham Cross Girls' School