The Conversation: Leaving at the top

6th June 2008 at 01:00
Anne Clarke hit the headlines when she advertised in Private Eye for sponsors to help her school become a technology college. Today it is thriving and she is set to retire. She tells Victoria Neumark why she is going
Anne Clarke hit the headlines when she advertised in Private Eye for sponsors to help her school become a technology college. Today it is thriving and she is set to retire. She tells Victoria Neumark why she is going

Q: You once put an advertisement in Private Eye. What happened next?

A: The early summer of 2001 was miserable. Comprehensives were struggling for resources. I was clear that the way forward was to get specialist technology status. We bid twice, but failed. We were told our plan did not involve the wider community sufficiently. Our original sponsor, who had stood by us for 18 months, withdrew. I hoped an ad in Private Eye could attract an entrepreneur willing to donate pound;50,000: "a firm believer in state education" to sponsor "an entrepreneurial state head to develop her school as a centre of excellence", as I said in the ad.

The initial response was pretty feeble: about 12 replies. None were any good. But then it snowballed. The TES ran an article headlined "Head advertises for a sugar daddy". We got coverage in national and local press, as well as an appearance on the BBC's Look North. And we did get our pound;50,000, from a host of local businesses (listed on Since then, we've gone from strength to strength.

Q: Why leave now, when things are going so well?

A: I want to stop before anyone says I'm just hanging on. I'm going while I'm still full of energy and can have another part-time career, tutoring on the new headship qualification.

I came to the school with a list and we've got all the badges. We are in the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, we are a technology college, we've got Artsmark Gold, Sportsmark, Charter Mark, Inclusion Charter Mark, Investors in People, and are a Healthy School. Our GCSE results last year were 70 per cent five A*-C grades, 61 per cent including maths and English - the best ever. I'm thrilled with our international links: we've won the International Schools Award.

I've been in schools for 31 years. It'll be nice not to have long days.

Q: How did it all begin?

A: I was working in Bristol for ICI. I had to do what I was told, while three friends who were teachers had autonomy and responsibility. I thought: "That's what I want to do."

I loved it from day one. I would not have changed it for anything. It was quite unusual in the 1970s to change career. My family were surprised, but they supported me.

My first teaching practice was in a tough school and I think I tried to teach the entire Industrial Revolution in an hour, but I sat there afterwards thinking, "This is it." And, honestly, it's been a ball.

Q: How has it changed?

A: The children have changed. Society has changed, of course: there's more family break-up, and that does come into school. But the pupils have changed. It's a negotiating generation now. They won't accept anything just because you tell them. I think it's a good thing. They are so mature: we emphasise student voice and we give them responsibility, and they take it really seriously. They are on staff interviewing panels and ask good questions.

But there are a lot of distractions. Nowadays homework has to compete with a lot of living. We learned to cope with being bored, but these days teachers have to make education lively to keep pupils engaged.

Q: What have been the highlights?

A: The pupils are your highlights, of course. There's nothing nicer than their achievements. I've also worked with many talented and loyal colleagues. Beyond that, I've been on television several times; I've met Tony and Cherie Blair; the school hosted Question Time, with John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, and David Blunkett; and I've seen David Miliband, an old boy of the school, come back to give prizes.

More importantly, though, I have seen this school grow and develop. It's a better teaching and learning environment. There used to be awful portable classrooms. Now we have a sports hall, new classrooms, ICT suites, a performing arts block and, soon, an interactive whiteboard in every classroom. And when the pupils get their exam results, you know you've made a contribution to their future.

Q: What would you say to someone just starting out in teaching?

A: It's hard work, but the more you put in, the more you get out. You plan a good lesson and if it works, pupils progress. When you work with young people, you get instant feedback. They thank you and walk away and you feel good.

We have to reflect changes and the negotiating culture. But don't lose that bottom line of good classroom management. Establish boundaries. Shouting and screaming never works: the respect is gone. It's not about being liked; it's about respect; about making them feel safe, and that you are in charge and value them. Don't go for accolades; earn respect. Make a contribution.


Name: Anne Clarke

Age: 56

Job: Headteacher, Benton Park School, Leeds (since 1997)

Years in teaching: 31

Education: BA (Hons) history and modern languages from Queen Mary College and Institute of Linguists, London, 1974; RSA business with languages from Chiswick Polytechnic, 1975; PGCE modern languages and history from Crewe and Alsager College, Cheshire, 1976; MA in educational management from University of Surrey, 1992.

Career: Paints distribution, ICI, 1975; French teacher, Canons High, Harrow, 1977; languages teacher, head of year, careers, Orleans Park School, Richmond, 1978-88; senior teacher (pastoral), Stanley Park High, Carshalton, Surrey, 1988-89; deputy head, Beacon School, Banstead, Surrey, 1989-1991; headteacher, Coombe Girls' School, Kingston, 1991-1997

Interests: walking the Yorkshire Dales, opera, architecture, cinema.

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