Double strength

25th April 2003 at 01:00
Identical twin sisters doing the same job is unusual enough. When they've travelled across the world to work in neighbouring education authorities - that's what you call a family bond. Joe Clancy reports.

A playground stabbing that left a 15-year-old pupil fighting for his life presented a crisis for Judy Larsen, manager of the London borough of Hackney's behaviour improvement programme (Bip).

In the aftermath she reacted as she often does in a crisis, by calling her twin, Denise Skidmore. Not for sisterly support but for professional guidance, because Denise is manager of the behaviour improvement programme in the neighbouring borough of Waltham Forest.

How the identical twins came to hold identical jobs in adjacent education authorities is another example of the way their career paths have mirrored each other since they graduated together from the same teacher training college in Western Australia more than 25 years ago.

The twin sister act offers perhaps the perfect example of joined-up thinking in matters of education. When they were appointed last year they decided to take a collaborative approach to their jobs; hardly a day has gone by without one of them contacting the other for advice on how to tackle behavioural problems in schools. And from this summer term they will be working even more closely when Judy relinquishes control of the Hackney Bip to take over training on behavioural issues for both boroughs.

"We never have to face complex problems on our own," Judy says. "We just pick up the phone," Denise adds.

Judy continues: "We operate independently and we respect each other's independence, but there is no question that we are incredibly close because we have shared experiences."

Each has overall responsibility for more than 600 pupils deemed "at risk" from truancy, exclusion or criminal activity under Bips, which were launched last year in 34 inner-city education authorities as part of a pound;66 million national strategy to reduce street crime.

Each leads a behaviour and educational support team, providing professional guidance for vulnerable youngsters, and has set up units providing full-time education to excluded pupils.

The two women ended up working in neighbouring boroughs after leaving their jobs as school principals in Perth to come to Britain - each aiming to stay for just one year.

Judy arrived in 1997 to complete a doctorate in school change and innovation; Denise followed in 2000, intending to take a year's break from education. But fate has meant that once more they are working side by side - albeit 13,000 miles from where they set out.

Denise, the older by five minutes, explains how their careers have come to run in parallel. "When I came over, I wanted to take a breather from education and handed in my CV to a management consultancy, intending to take a job in some other field. But they found me a post as a consultant with EduAction (the private group that runs many education services in Waltham Forest). I was working with them for two years when the behaviour improvement post came up last June.

"When Hackney started its behaviour project soon after, the council asked me to provide support. I did so but there was a limit to what I could do. I explained I had an almost exact replica who could help them out and Judy sent in her CV."

Judy, appointed in October, says: "I was between consultancies at the time.

I saw it as a fantastic opportunity and it was wonderful to be working side by side with Denise again."

Their experience of running behaviour and educational support programmes for Aboriginal, immigrant and refugee children in Australia gave them a head start in their new jobs. And while some people have criticised the "colonial takeover" of behaviour support services in east London, the sisters dismiss such sniping.

They turn up for this interview both wearing tailored black trouser suits over buttoned shirts with collars outside their jackets. And they often seem to speak with one voice. But they are clearly a force to be reckoned with, individually or collectively, in spite of being 5ft-nothing in high heels.

"There is a tremendous opportunity for learning through collaboration," says Judy. "Our teams have contact with each other and plan and share information and resources. They share ideas across schools and across boroughs."

Denise says: "This is a complex project and it has been a huge advantage to pool our expertise and develop systems and test them out together."

They say their twin approach to behaviour problems has the full backing of their respective education authorities, which are delighted with the co-operation between the boroughs.

They share a belief in the need for flexibility in the curriculum to accommodate pupils who struggle with the current school set-up. Judy says:

"The uniformity of schools in the UK can be a problem. Some children would benefit from a different setting. It takes a huge leap of imagination to provide that."

The twins, now 49, were brought up in Perth, two of nine children in a family steeped in education. Their father was a school principal, as was their grandmother, and several aunts and uncles were teachers.

They have performed similar roles in primary schools and both have held advisory posts in education authorities. The only difference between them is that Judy specialises in literacy and Denise in mathematics.

They both decided to spend a year in the UK by taking advantage of the "four for five" salary deferment scheme that operates in Australia, which enables teachers to be paid four years' salary over five years, and take a year off. And they liked it here so much they decided to stay. Judy, whose husband is Danish and whose two children are with her, plans to make London her permanent home, while Denise, whose adult children are in Australia, says "permanent for the moment".

Even their private lives have run in parallel. They gave birth to their first children within three weeks of each other, and they now live within five minutes' walk of each other in north London. Phone lines between them were hot during the first week of February this year, when the 15-year-old boy was stabbed at a school in Hackney. The assault was reported on television and made national newspaper headlines. Even though the school was not involved in the behaviour programme, the incident inevitably affected their work.

In another example of the kind of joined-up thinking they use to solve difficulties, Judy tells of excluded pupils in her borough who were not attending learning centres - and the legal, social welfare and educational implications. "I called Denise to discuss it. Do you send a team to meet a child at home to walk them to the unit? Do you send a cab, or do you put the onus on the parents? In the end we decided a range of staggered responses was the best way to tackle the problem."

The Aussie twins agree it is "strange" they should be working in such close co-operation so many miles from home. "We have had fantastic careers in education. We have enjoyed huge diversity and the chance to tackle new challenges. We have always worked in situations where social justice has been key.

"Coming here has given us a whole new set of experiences and a whole new set of opportunities. There has always been consultation between us. Two heads are better than one," Denise says - or is that Judy?

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