`I couldn't run a school where all the kids are perfect'

14th August 2015 at 01:00
Head who owes career to Mills Boon stars in Educating Cardiff

Joy Ballard's career as a headteacher is largely attributable to the fact that she read a lot of Mills amp; Boon novels in her early twenties. She understands, therefore, that her pupils' routes to success might not be obvious or straightforward.

Ms Ballard is headteacher of Willows High School in Cardiff, which is about to become the fourth school to feature in Channel 4's fly-on-the-wall Educating. series. Educating Cardiff begins on 25 August, following in the corridor-pounding footsteps of last year's Educating the East End.

The first episode focuses on disciplinarian maths teacher Mr Hennessey (see panel, below left), as he attempts to cajole, harangue and annoy Year 11 pupil Leah into turning up to lessons.

Meanwhile, English teacher Ms Bubbins appoints Jessica, another Year 11 student, as editor of the school newspaper. Jessica (see panel, below) is the kind of teenager who tells her geography teacher that he has misspelled "affect". She is an academic high-achiever; socially, her achievement is a little lower.

"It's so important to show the range of children that's in a school like mine," Ms Ballard tells TES. "It doesn't matter what your starting point is, or what your potential is. Someone's going to be looking out for you.

"There will be someone to notice the fact that your nan was rushed to hospital the night before, or just that you've had your hair cut and look good for a change. They just become like your own kids, your family."

When Ms Ballard took over Willows, in 2011, only 14 per cent of pupils left the school with five A*-C GCSEs. Last year, 50 per cent achieved the same level. "But if 50 per cent are getting it, that's half that's not," she says. "And I'm not normally very good at maths."

Ms Ballard's own background is similar to that of many of her students. She grew up in poverty and left school with no qualifications. She subsequently worked as a cleaner in a tobacco factory and a general hospital. "I guess I got used to the fact that you put a tabard on when you're cleaning, and then people talk to you in a particular way," she says.

To pass the time, she read a lot of Mills amp; Boon novels. At the back of one of these books, she found an advert for a college course that would teach people to write their own Mills amp; Boon stories. So she signed up.

The course teacher saw potential in her and persuaded her to take an English GCSE. It was her first formal qualification; she was 26 years old. After that, she went on to take an access course, followed by an English degree.

"I thought: I should probably do something with this," she says. And so began a rapid rise through an education career.

"I'd actually worked for a lot of people where I used to think some of the bosses' decisions were seriously flawed," Ms Ballard says of her pre-teaching career. "I think my ambition was to be in charge."

Tough gig

Ms Ballard looked for the toughest school she could find: the school where she would be able to make the biggest difference. And to understand where Willows pupils come from, she rented a room on the estate where many of her students live. "The room was so hideous, I just used to stay in school 24 hours a day, and use their bathroom," she says.

"But I definitely wanted to go into a school that looked like it was really broken. I'm probably not the right person to be in charge of a school where all the children are perfect. But I don't think that school exists, anyway."

Since filming the series Ms Ballard has left Willows, and will be taking up the headship of Ryde Academy on the Isle of Wight from September. The first time that Ryde staff and students will see their new headteacher in the role is on television.

"I guess it's quite a unique situation to be in, isn't it?" she says. "I cringe when I see those bloody kids in the first episode with those bloody energy drinks in their hands.

"I do wear my heart on my sleeve, but I'm tough as well. I wouldn't want anyone to think that I was a walkover."

Candid camera

Joy Ballard (pictured below), headteacher of Willows High School, had not seen any of the previous Educating. series when she was first approached by the Channel 4 film crew.

"Some people are funny about kids being on TV," she says. "But kids are so used to broadcasting themselves - YouTube and all that. And every kid involved in it meets an educational psychologist - worth 50 of the ones we get normally."

The response among staff was mixed. Some were keen to launch TV careers - inevitably, these are the teachers who ended up on the cutting-room floor. Paul Hennessey, Year 11 head of house, simply wanted to get on with his work.

"My first response was: OMG," he says. "I just said from Day 1, `Try and leave me alone, let me do my job'. I guess they've just picked up on me doing my job."

Series producer Alex Kohler insists that this was exactly the point. "It's about shining a light on the school," he says. "Every school that we go to will present its own character and its own stories. It's not about a big, shouty school. It's about engaging the children."

Mr Hennessey: `Why have an easy life?'

Paul Hennessey is the quiet hero of episode one. Though he has three children of his own - and, he points out, a long-suffering wife - he regularly rings up Year 11 pupil Leah first thing in the morning, to check that she is on her way to school.

"I can't let Leah fail because she can't get her arse out of bed," he says. "Someone who needs a push - that's all they need to be successful - I can't stand by and say, `I can't be bothered, it's not in my contract'."

One of the most poignant moments in the episode is when Leah quietly acknowledges that, despite all the arguments and the ignored phone calls, she would like Mr Hennessey to keep on ringing her.

"Yes, you have to put 60 to 70 per cent more into the kids here," he says. "But what you get back, you just can't measure. Why have an easy life? Have a difficult life."

Year 11's Jessica: `A lot of self-doubt'

The first time we see Jessica, she is telling off her classmates. "Why can't you just shut up?" she says. "Just let us learn, for God's sake."

Jessica is the kind of person who was probably born 30, her English teacher Ms Bubbins says. But, Ms Bubbins adds: "There are just parts of her personality that need to be adjusted to the real world."

To help Jessica learn to interact with her peers, Ms Bubbins appoints her as editor of the school newspaper. "A lot of people in this school actually admire you," she tells Jessica.

Jessica looks at her. "I really wonder what kind of people you've been talking to," she says.

Jessica's articulacy, however, allows her to capture the essence of what it is to be a teenager. "It's hard, when you've got a lot of self-doubt," she says. "I'm scared, but feigning confidence is the best way of gaining confidence."

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