'To my pupils we're the best. Mr Gove sees only failure'

Labour's chalkface heroine says her school should be judged `good'

Last week, a relatively unknown headteacher from Liverpool took to the Labour party conference stage and launched an impassioned attack on the policies Michael Gove has introduced during his time as education secretary.

By the time Yvonne Sharples, head of Parklands High School in Speke, south Liverpool, took her seat she had a received a standing ovation.

Ms Sharples used her platform to fire a list of accusations at Mr Gove, accusing him of "stealing the hopes and dreams of a generation of young people" before adding that he should be "ashamed" of what he was doing to schools like hers.

The focus of her anger was the planned change to Ofsted's inspection regime that will effectively label Parklands - and thousands of schools like it - a failing school for not hitting the Coalition's GCSE floor target.

Ofsted's remit has been brought in line with ministers' wishes and will now place a greater emphasis on raw exam results. Mr Gove has also signalled his intention to remove contextual value-added measures from next year's league tables, which take into account a pupil's social background. "My pupils believe their school is the best in the world," Ms Sharples told conference delegates last week. "But in Mr Gove's eyes we are a failing school. Shame on you, Michael, how dare you?"

Last year, just 29 per cent of Parklands' students achieved five good GCSEs including English and maths - short of the Government's new benchmark of 35 per cent. But it is a marked improvement from when the school was deemed the worst in the country in 2007, before Ms Sharples arrived. Then, just 1 per cent of students managed to achieve five A*-C grades.

Having had time to reflect on her words and the impact they had on the thousands gathered in Liverpool's conference centre, Ms Sharples is exhilarated by the experience. "I was delighted and exhausted after it," she told TES the day after her speech. "I didn't think I would be very good as I never stuck to the script."

Whether scripted or not, it was a stinging indictment of the Coalition's policies since coming to power, particularly its changes to Ofsted's inspection regime.

Ms Sharples' address bore similarities to the speech made by former deputy head and now free-school leader Katharine Birbalsingh at the Conservative party conference a year ago. Both are black female headteachers committed to improving the life chances of some of the country's most deprived children.

But while Ms Birbalsingh plucked on Conservative heartstrings with her account of a broken education system, Ms Sharples gave an impassioned defence of the power of state education. "I do not think the system is broken. I really, really do not," she said. "Liverpool education authority has been very supportive and it has a tremendously impressive school- improvement scheme."

Despite the looming possibility of her school being classed as failing, Ms Sharples is not overly concerned that it might mean closure. Located in the second most deprived ward in the country, Parklands was one of the first to become a National Challenge Trust school, and was paired up with the high-performing Liverpool Blue Coat School in 2009.

It has also only recently moved into new premises, so closure is not her main worry, but rather the effect that being labelled "failing" will have on it.

"With the progress we have made, we could easily be judged `good' by Ofsted, particularly when you look at the context of the children we're dealing with, but the new regime will most likely cap my school at satisfactory," she said.

Ms Sharples pointed to the fact that most of the pupils at Parklands come in to school at level 3, whereas those at Blue Coat are at level 6. It means the school and its staff are starting from a far more disadvantaged position.

Her staff add "tremendous value", with students performing better than Ofsted originally expected, she said. "Before the changes, Ofsted would have come in here and said, `Wow, the progress you have made is amazing!' But, now it's all changing, I just have to ask what more can we do?

"It is just so disheartening. I will now have to go back and pick all my staff up again, get them believing again. Sometimes it is just so hard, and on the really hard days you wonder whether you should just give up."

But Ms Sharples is unlikely to throw in the towel. Before joining Parklands, the 52-year-old enjoyed success as headteacher of St Michael's School, which she turned around and made the eighth most improved school in the country.

Having surpassed the floor targets, Ms Sharples was about to begin pushing for better results when the post at Parklands became vacant.

"I couldn't resist it," she said. "This is my final challenge; this is where I will end my days."


Yvonne Sharples grew up on the since-renamed Cantril Farm in Liverpool, a 1960s housing estate that was dubbed Cannibal Farm by its residents after it rapidly deteriorated due to crime and unemployment.

Young Yvonne was often unable to attend her local primary school as it was "burnt down every two minutes". She describes herself as a "really, really naughty girl", but despite her behaviour she passed the 11-plus and was handed her "passport" to another life.

"I joined a girls' Catholic grammar and became the sisters' project," she said. "I left at 16 and took various jobs, but eventually the penny dropped and I went back to college and eventually into teaching.

"It may sound very cheesy, but this job is where you can really change people's lives."

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