The best and worst of times

2nd January 1998 at 00:00
A village invaded by children, defeat for chief inspector Chris Woodhead, and toilets leaking into a school office were just three of last year's high (and low) points. Neil Sears talks to people who will never forget 1997.

Jean Millham is the headteacher of Morningside primary in Hackney. Her school teaches about 450 children, aged three to 11. In May it was one of the 18 schools on David Blunkett's "name and shame" list.

"Very much the worst thing to have happened to us was the naming and shaming. The very best thing was the day we found out we were no longer on special measures . . . no, actually, that's not true. It was the day when they told us they no longer felt we should be on special measures. That was the day I burst into tears, although it was a month before we could tell the children and parents. I told the staff, but we didn't say anything else until we had it in writing, not being the most trusting of people.

"But when it happened it was like a massive Christmas present.

"The weirdest thing was that I've never seen so much media in all my life, and to become an overnight media star is not something most headteachers have to deal with. It was quite difficult to cope, but I found the media very supportive, and that opened my eyes. They even joined in our celebrations. "

Ted Wragg is professor of education at Exeter University.

"The very best thing that happened for me was when I took on chief inspector Chris Woodhead in a debate about the current approach to inspection, league tables and testing. Nine hundred people voted for my side of the motion, and 20 voted for Woodhead. I enjoyed every second, and I wish I could do it again next week - although the next report from the chief inspector will probably say the debate was a draw.

"I suppose the worst thing has been the rise in the number of teachers taking early retirements for health reasons, because they can no longer retire early under the scheme. There are now more than 6,000 ill-health retirements a year, and that can't be right.

"Perhaps the oddest thing this year was that Melanie Phillips, in the Observer, and former junior minister George Walden, in the Sunday Times, both thought that education was going to the dogs and that the only answer was Woodhead. If Woodhead is the answer, what on earth is the question?" Sheila Hargreaves is head of one of Britain's smallest grant-maintained primary schools, Kettleshulme in the Peak District. The school's 60 pupils, aged four to 11, are taught by three and a half staff.

"We actually got 100 per cent above level 4 in the national tests in all three subjects, which was very pleasing and the best thing that happened to us.

"The worst was last winter when we had a snowstorm during the day, and had a job getting everyone home. We're very high in the Peak Park and it was a blizzard, which was quite frightening. At a school not far away, the children ended up staying the night, but luckily for us the Land Rovers and four-wheel- drives helped out and eventually everyone got out.

"We have a lot of funny things happen here with the children. The other day one child said to another that he couldn't draw camels. The other boy said: 'It's just a horse with lumps.'" Pat Rodgers is the clerk of Godstone parish council in Surrey. The village was inundated with schoolchildren after it was featured in a popular junior resource pack.

"The worst thing was 700 children turning up in one day. We had 14 coaches arrive at once. The village has just three public toilets and it was absolutely appalling. We had traffic jams, children jams - everybody came on the same day, and nobody enjoyed it.

"The nicest thing to happen was that after the village's invasion was featured in The TES, we had donations from two schools who felt a little guilty that they had come without giving us advance warning. They both asked for the money to be spent on the residents. We've now got a vast array of crocuses planted on the green, and I think that will be very nice for all the people who visit us in the spring. We're going to take photographs and send them to the schools so the children can see the results.

"The strangest thing was the school which came all the way from Devon. We couldn't believe it - it must have taken them hours to get to us, and they only came for the day."

Joginder Kundi is headteacher of Crosslee county primary school in Blackley, Manchester.

"In 1994 most of the school was burnt down. Ever since, the 250 pupils, aged three to 11, have been taught in temporary classrooms and spare cubby holes.

"The best thing that happened in 1997 was the day they started building the new school. We've had the money, Pounds 1.75 million, since 1995, but there have been changes in plans and negotiations, so it's like we're living in limbo. The building won't be finished for a long while yet, but the fact that construction has started takes some of the pressure off.

"The worst thing was our OFSTED inspection in March. They found 'serious weaknesses'. The man said it had nothing to do with the fire - but I wasn't very happy about it. The difficulty is that blaming the fire would sound like asking for special favours, and I don't think they should necessarily take account of all these temporary classrooms and fire issues. But they are a reality. The circumstances we have been living in are really very demanding and to have kept the staff and children together, and parental support together was, I think, a feat in itself.

"And what people don't take account of is that fires don't only destroy buildings - ours destroyed a lot of ideas on paper. They have had to be resurrected with hard work and effort, but we're succeeding against the odds."

Paul Mackney is the new general secretary of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education.

"My daughter's reaction to getting a mini stereo system for her ninth birthday was the best thing that happened to me. She was overjoyed because she could sing along with the Spice Girls.

"The worst thing was when I went in to pay at a petrol station on the motorway and someone took my briefcase from the front of the car. In it were all my working papers on a new national model contract for part-time lecturers. It set me back about two months. My daughter was in the car when someone opened the door and took the bag, so it was her worst moment too.

"The strangest moment was when the principal of Bilston College claimed that I'd been having secret meetings in pubs with FE funding council personnel. I haven't had any shady meetings in pubs - I should be so lucky."

Dianne Smith is headteacher of Admiral Lord Nelson school in Portsmouth. The comprehensive began admitting pupils in 1995, and its brand new Pounds 10-million building opened in September.

"The best thing has got to be the opening of the school. It wasn't really the first day, but the second day, when we saw the faces of the Year 9 children who had watched the building grow from nothing. For the past two years they'd been taught in a small Victorian primary school, which was like being in a doll's house.

"The worst thing was about a week after we'd moved into our brand new building, when the contents of the staff loos descended through the ceiling into the administrative offices. It was obviously sewage and very unpleasant: the leak was coming ever nearer my office and I was still there at 8pm guarding my door.

"The strangest thing that happened was when we first opened, and had 24-hour security people because the buildings weren't fully secure. The two overnight security guards kept insisting that at 2am every night they heard a carriage and horses going down the back of the school. Then we took a walk in the field and found an ancient horseshoe, which really spooked us.

"It didn't help when one of my pupils came in and told me that he'd seen an old lady go into one of the technology workshops, but that sir didn't see her . . ."

Yvonne Bates is headteacher of the Lilian Baylis school in Lambeth, south London. "Named and shamed" in May, it was announced in November that it would be coming off special measures.

"The best thing that happened to me was being taken on as the head of Lilian Baylis on September 1. I was sent in to turn it round after we became one of David Blunkett's 18 named schools: now we're expecting to come off special measures early this year.

"The worst thing I've had to do is permanently to exclude somebody for aggressive behaviour to a member of staff. It's not something we like to do at Lilian Baylis, because we take on children who've been excluded elsewhere and do a really superb job with them. When you do have to exclude somebody it's always very sad. We have a real sense of failure.

"The strangest thing has been working in a school which is in special measures. You work with the LEA and the governors much more closely than normally: they're very committed, but it's also very different and has certainly taken a bit of getting used to.

"And as I've come from a school that was perceived as the best in Stevenage to a school that basically people did not want to send their children to because its reputation was so poor, that's pretty strange too. " Professor David Melville is the chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council.

"The best thing last year was the launch of Helena Kennedy's Learning Works in July, and the response of colleges to that publication. That was good because it's so important to widen participation in further education.

"The worst thing was learning in January 1997 that the 'demand-led funding element' might be lost for the provision of education to students before the end of the educational year. That was avoided, but for coming years a substantial amount of money is now not available.

"The strangest thing was finding myself up a ladder at Sheffield College, wearing a hard hat and with a paint roller in my hand - and all for a photo opportunity. I have a photograph available if you want it . . ."

Since the general election in May, Alan Campbell, 40, has been the Labour MP for Tynemouth, near Newcastle - a seat which had been held by the Conservatives since 1950. Until the election, Mr Campbell was head of history and the sixth-form at Hirst High School in Ashington, Northumberland.

"For me, the best thing is being part of a victory which elected a government committed to a better deal for schools . . . and getting away from marking. I have constituency correspondence now, but I have a secretary.

"The worst thing is leaving my family behind in the constituency for four days a week to come to London. I make lots of phone calls to my wife Jayne and two young children Emily, four, and James, two, and give them as much quality time as I can. To be honest I probably see them a bit more at weekends than I did when I was still a teacher and a candidate, because that was like having two jobs.

"The strangest is not being able to escape from bells: bells ring and we have to go and vote. My life is governed by bells . . . and the behaviour in the Commons is much the same as at school too."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today