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The patio can wait

He'd retired, she'd just recovered from a serious illness. But instead of taking it easy, John and Linda Waldren decided they needed a bit more excitement in their lives. So they accepted headships at struggling schools. Wendy Wallace finds out why

At an age when many teachers are looking forward to retirement, John and Linda Waldren stepped up the pace: they accepted headships at struggling schools. Rather than spending more time with their family, they are now consumed by school. But it wasn't meant to be like this.

With 17 years behind him as head of a successful Bristol primary - Bishop Road, one of the city's top-performing schools, consistently over-subscribed and awash with supportive middle-class parents - John Waldren had decided to retire last summer, aged 55. In fact, he had retired. "I had a gap month," he says, "when I laid a patio."

"That was going to be just the beginning," says Linda Waldren, 53, from an armchair across the living room. But with the cement under the patio barely dry, a contact from neighbouring south Gloucestershire rang asking John to provide emergency assistance at Shield Road primary, where the headteacher had left, the inspectors had arrived and the school had been placed in special measures, with nine key issues to address. "You can soon get bored with laying patio slabs," says John.

John and Linda - married for 33 years and with more than half a century's teaching experience between them - exemplify a shared life in teaching.

They met more than 40 years ago, when both were pupils at the same secondary school, in Houghton-le-Spring, County Durham; both trained at Durham University; and for almost two decades they worked in schools in the city. Linda became head of Sea Mills infant school in 1997, where she worked until she took charge of Petherton Road infants, a school deemed to have serious weaknesses, 18 months ago.

Their two daughters have grown up and married, although neither has followed in the parental footsteps. "Teaching? They wouldn't dream of it," says Linda. "They spent too many hours waiting in classrooms, while we were going in early, coming home late."

In 1999, Linda was diagnosed with endometrial cancer and spent 11 months undergoing surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. John struggles to find words for that year. "You just survive. You live a surreal existence, unable to contemplate anything," he says. "My response was to work non-stop."

"It was more difficult for you than for me," says Linda. "I was determined I was going to get better."

Linda returned to Sea Mills after her extended absence and put in a further year as head, but became restless. "I'd done the illness, done the challenge of going back," she says. An adviser at Bristol suggested she take temporary custody of Petherton Road. "So I did." She joined in September 2001, intending to stay for a year, but took up a permanent post there in April 2002.

The key issues at Petherton Road were leadership and management. Relations between some staff were "appalling", says Linda, and she arrived to find a desk drawer full of written complaints and solicitors' letters. "The largest part of my work has been making everyone feel good and able to work together. I have to go in with a happy face and keep it positive all the time. That's been the hardest bit, getting them motivated after they've had people constantly watching them and setting the agenda for them." After a visit from HMI before the February half-term, the school was rated as no longer having serious weaknesses.

"Having watched her recover from the cancer, to see her then be considered worthy of another school was a great boost," says John. He had gone through another traumatic event during the same period, when a close colleague died suddenly, and retains the look of someone whose world has tilted under his feet. But his brief taste of retirement wasn't easy either. "I was scared," he says. "Scared of being unwanted after being central to a school for so many years. I'd never been alone in the house for more than two hours." He took on Shield Road last September, initially for two terms, subsequently extended until the end of this school year.

On the school's newly painted (by parents) yellow and green corridors, children have noticed a difference. "We learn more," says Georgia, a Year 6 pupil. "But in a funner way." Outside, the bleak tarmac of the playground - "like a prison exercise yard", says John - has been enlivened by wooden planters, benches and board games for outdoor use. Boys cluster round him - "We're going to play chess or draughts or whatever it's called," shouts one excitedly - and the lunchtime computer club in the new suite is packed with children designing posters for the forthcoming spring disco. "Does it look like a school in special measures?" he asks.

John Waldren has brought his love of music and the arts to Shield Road, instigating a production of The Wizard of Oz (in which he played the piano) and theatre visits intended to inspire children, "some of whom haven't seen the suspension bridge". For John, the son of a miner, Shield Road represents a return to his roots. "Education gives you the option to broaden your horizons. This is like the school I attended as a child. I should have moved earlier. But I was in a school that was growing, thriving."

The Waldrens remain committed to the work they love. "I still can't think of anything I'd rather do," says Linda. But running two struggling schools from one household is a heavy load. The pressure on heads of schools in official difficulties is unremitting. John and Linda speak with irritation of the "experts who come in and tell you what you already know, but who can't deliver what your teachers are delivering". Support, says Linda, too often means "someone coming in and asking, 'What have you done since the last time I was here?'"

At home, there is a shortage of time, for themselves, for domestic practicalities, for family life. They're both in school by 8am, and often still there in the evenings, or returning at weekends for painting parties, school events or trips. Evening meals are microwaved by whoever gets in first. "We don't get time to do anything at home," says Linda. "We've been trying to get a shower since Christmas; the garage roof needs fixing, and we love the garden, but we don't get out there." They book theatre visits by the term, buying tickets in advance to force themselves to go out on Friday nights. Linda's mother, May, has lived with them for the past seven years, and does the washing and ironing as well as providing a grandmotherly presence at school events and trips. "We've both got a wife, really," says Linda.

The demands are heavy but the shared professional lives are enriching and sometimes amusing. The inspector who put John's school into special measures was the same one who last month took Linda's out of serious weaknesses. They know all the same people in the education authority, and can compare notes between Bristol (much better funded) and south Gloucestershire (very supportive), and let off steam. "It is helpful to be able to sound off at each other," says Linda, "without it going any further." They have assisted each other with policies and strategies, and at home school is a constant topic of conversation. "Unless it becomes very deep and one goes silent on it," says John. "There are times when you can't bear to talk about it," Linda concurs.

Both have had to deal with disciplinary procedures in their new schools - what John calls "the hard messages". But while Linda's school has now officially turned the corner, John's has some way to go, and the inspectors are due back soon. "I've had to use a wider range of skills in the past six months," he says. "Managing challenging behaviour by children, dealing with upfront parents, in-your-face parents. It feels as though the ethos is changing, as though I'm making a difference."

The boundaries between school and home life are permeable, to say the least. John and Linda speak several times in the course of the day on their mobile phones and share a home office. They have been apart only when one is on school camp, and during John's training to become an Ofsted inspector (since qualifying, he has performed one inspection, but has no plans to do more). Most of their friends are teachers, and on Valentine's Day John invited his 18 staff (all but one of them female) into his home for (take-away) supper.

The couple argue about school, about what it robs them of in the evenings and, at weekends, John's lost sleep. They recover in their Devon caravan during the half-terms and holidays. "It's a little oasis," says John. "I sleep well there."

"That's what keeps you going," says Linda. "If we didn't have the holidays together we wouldn't be together."

Linda makes light of what Petherton Road demands of her. "My day is relaxed now," she says. "It's about being around, being seen. I keep smiling and talking to people until they smile back. Loads of children come to see me in the day." When she retires she would like to be a governor and volunteer at an infant school. "I'd be a helpful governor and go in and do singing and stories and reading, and all the nice bits."

John will not be applying for the permanent post at Shield Road. "I don't think the adrenalin will last," he says. "It needs someone who can give it five years' sustained energy." His longest uninterrupted period in one recent school day, he says, was eight minutes, and he wants to avoid "running myself into the ground". Plus, Linda didn't want him to do it. In January, he hopes to begin training as a music therapist at Bristol University. "I'll miss it desperately but I think I need more short bursts, I'll do bits and pieces until Linda's ready to stop, then I'll stop."

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