Carole is a fictional character based on the author's experience of the education profession.
Carole was 53. There’s no doubt she’d slowed down, but she was still integral to the community at Bansfield High School: she was part of the fabric.
She’d been in the school for 30 years. In the early days, when teachers didn’t just teach their subject, students would come to Carole to ask her all sorts of questions, and she’d try to give them answers.
She’d sew school uniforms together that had been torn in the playground (she also did that for staff). She always arranged the card for the departing colleague. She always covered the lesson that no one wanted to cover.
She wasn’t the perfect teacher, but she was a hellishly committed one. In the 1980s and 1990s, she was at the summit of her powers. She was strict, on the ball, respected.
She moved up the ranks. Soon enough, she was assistant headteacher, deputy headteacher and then she became the headteacher.
Tears of joy at becoming a headteacher
She always remembered the day, 15 years ago, that the chair of governors, Colin, offered her the post.
She was sitting in the old staffroom (they’ve moved to a new, modern site now), he walked in and sat down opposite her and said: “Carole, the governors have made a unanimous decision – you are the one we want.” Carole couldn’t say a word.
She was dumbfounded. She never thought much of herself, so it was rather a shock to her that others did. She started crying, just a few tears. Colin laughed in his usual hearty way and said, gently, “I’ll take it these are tears of joy.”
They were. This was Carole’s community. She never wanted to be anywhere else.
This was in 2005. Behaviour in the school was bad. Students wandered in and out of lessons and around corridors seemingly when they pleased. There were fights in the playground and sometimes even in the classrooms.
When Carole walked into her office on her first day, she realised the magnitude of the challenge. The building was falling apart and the school had a terrible reputation in the community, so she knew it would be hard to attract staff who wanted to invest like she did.
She sat at the desk and looked at the pictures on the wall. They were school photographs from down the years and within each one, she found a million memories, reminding her why she was sitting in that chair.
The Ofsted inspection
It was that first afternoon, after she had unpacked some boxes and had to deal with an angry parent on her first day, that Angela, the receptionist, burst into the room and said: “I’ve just had Ofsted on the phone. They’ll be here next week.”
Two weeks later, Carole and her new team were sitting in a room and in front of them was a seemingly endless panel of men, looking very serious.
“Carole, I’m John, the lead inspector, and these are our conclusions from our week with you."
She knew what was coming. “Unfortunately, the quality of education that you are providing here still isn’t good enough. Students aren’t making enough progress and we feel that this school is failing its community.”
A few of her senior team were upset. One of them put his head in his hands, the same one who would quit the school and the profession only a few months later. But Carole had seen it all before. Nothing surprised her.
She watched the inspection team leave from her office. She watched them get into their nice cars, with their briefcases, and drive away, leaving her to pick up the pieces.
But Carole had a plan. She was going to put it into effect.
Carole introduced a new behaviour policy and, because of her warm, strict and consistent approach to all the students, all of whom she knew like they were family, they bought into her vision.
Behaviour did improve, perhaps not to the level she aspired towards, but to a level way beyond her early years in the school.
Commitment, loyalty and investment
Over the next few years, she brought in new teachers. At interview, she asked them simple questions like “Why do you want to work at Bansfield High School?” and “Where do you see yourself in five years?”.
She didn’t care much for the interview lesson. In fact, she employed a few teachers who had disastrous interview lessons, but had heart. Every teacher she employed had heart.
She wanted commitment and, more often than not, she got it. She got loyalty and investment from those who arrived through the gates.
And she rewarded those staff with trust, freedom and, most importantly, strong backing when things didn’t go well with students or parents, or in their personal lives. She was still the person whose shoulder they would cry on when things went wrong.
Ofsted came and went more times than she could remember. She managed to lift the school out of special measures, but it remained at “requires improvement” level, seemingly “coasting”.
But she wasn’t coasting, and the parents and students in the school knew how much it had improved. It was the data that held it back: the student results. No matter what Carole seemed to do in that regard, nothing seemed to make a difference.
Like a dagger to the soul
Then in 2019, Ofsted came back again. It had a new inspection framework. It told her that the curriculum wasn’t diverse enough for the student body, and questioned whether some of the practice in the school was evidence-informed enough. Outcomes still weren’t where it wanted them to be.
Carole was called into the same room she had sat in in 2005 and heard almost the same words again. Her hair was a little grey now, her cheeks had creases in them and she’d put on a little more weight. She was tired.
The words “requires improvement” sank into her soul like a dagger. In 2005, she’d taken it all in her stride. But, this time, the idea of spending another few years trying to justify herself, having another batch of young go-getting leaders just out of Teach First talk to her like she didn’t know what she was doing at education conferences, was too much.
“I’m going to stop you there,” she said to the lead inspector. “I’m done with it – I don’t want to hear the rest. I know what you’re going to say. Thanks for coming.”
With that, she stood up slowly from her chair, and walked out. She walked down the corridors, looking inside each classroom with a smile. The students smiled back.
She walked past the classroom of one of her NQTs, Alice. She could see students standing up, laughing. She walked in.
“Hello, Miss,” said Alice, followed by “Hi, Miss,” from several students.
“We’re just re-enacting the death of Charles I if you want to join us,” said Alice.
“I’d love to,” said Carole. She walked to the back of the classroom and watched the whole lesson. It was amazing. The students knew so much. They loved it, even Jack, who’d been spending a lot of time out of lessons recently. Even the students who couldn’t speak any English seemed to love it.
“That was such a good lesson, Miss. Thanks so much for letting me join you today,” said Carole.
“Are you OK?” asked Alice.
“I hope I will be,” Carole replied.
Alice looked slightly confused, maybe surprised, but she had another class waiting to come in, so there was no time to dwell. But, as she watched Carole walk out, she noticed, if only for a second, something immensely sad in her eyes.
The following morning, Colin, the chair of governors who’d appointed her all those years ago, received her resignation letter. He sobbed when he read it.