Interview - 'Be a rebel and do what you know works'

9th October 2009 at 01:00
Margy Knutson has taught in schools in Sierra Leone, worked at the Africa Centre in London's Covent Garden, run an education improvement programme in Islington and is now helping schools turn themselves around

What got you into teaching?

My parents taught - so teaching was in the blood. I really wanted adventure so I joined Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) and in 1968 went to teach in Taiama, a small town in Sierra Leone. I met my American husband there and followed him to the US where I taught for two years. When my visa ran out I returned to London and taught in Hillingdon and trained on the job to become a qualified teacher.

Where did you go from there?

I wanted to put the West African experience into context so studied for an MA in Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. After that I wanted to combine Africa and education.

The perfect opportunity arose when I joined the Africa Centre in Covent Garden in London. I was there for three years and then joined the BBC Africa service as part of the World Service, producing programmes on a wide range of events, including women's issues and an arts programme. It was the first time in my life I had been headhunted. Only 12 per cent of producers were women.

In 1978, I had my first baby and had to decide whether to stay on at the BBC or become a mum (they wouldn't let people work part-time). I wanted to be a hands-on mum - but would have liked to have done both. Times were different. I had four children in just over five years so that kept me pretty busy. I took a course in counselling and one in painting. I also kept my hand in as a governor at my children's school.

After your career break?

I undertook a number of roles, including research work, supporting people's housing needs, regeneration work and women's development. I realised that all of this was trying to empower people, giving them skills to live a fuller life. The biggest influence you can have on people's life is through their education, so I applied to be education action zone director in Islington, which I did for eight years.

What did you bring to the job that was special?

A belief in the possible. I always believe that things can get better. I feel that if teachers and schools are willing to innovate, their work and the outcomes will improve. I also brought creative ways of thinking, and working in teams. I had seen elements of education in all of those areas I worked in previously - but school is the one place where you can improve young people's life chances. A lot of these youngsters live in tough inner-city areas. Those sort of children are on the edge of succeeding. It takes a lot of energy and compassion to help them succeed.

I did the same kind of work in Edmonton creating literature with children, organising exciting events and creating good relationships between children and teachers makes the difference to those young peoples' success. I like to include all children in my projects - whatever their background - and have high expectations for the excellence that all children can achieve. It can be a struggle for them but, in a safe environment, they can take a risk and fly.

And now?

I am really on my second retirement, but can't stop. I am working with (the school improvement consultancy) Lilac Sky Schools - it gives me the space to coach - which I trained for earlier in my career. It's another way of working with schools to empower young people, which is enlivening. At the same time, I have started running a jewellery import-export business, which is one of my passions. I don't ever want to become complacent.

What advice would you give to others in your position?

Believe in what you do. Do it with passion and creativity and take risks. Don't worry about the boss or government. Be a rebel and do what you know works. Don't be constrained by the norms of school life, as long as you do it with integrity. More than anything, spread a little love and magic in all you do. There is only one chance to get it right.

If you were Schools Secretary, what would you do?

I would make sure that as much money as possible is spent on individual children. If it costs #163;20,000 to send a child to private school, then spend that much on every one of them. Let's raise state schools to the level of private school incomes. End the division that blights society.

What's the worst excuse you've ever heard?

The most frustrating thing has been people not wanting to take on new ideas because they feared exploring it. They usually say something like, "we can't try that, we don't do things like that round here". Or "we tried it before and it didn't work". It's just an excuse for inertia.


2009-: Associate consultant, Lilac Sky Schools

2008-2009: Assistant senior leader, Partnership for Excellence Creativity, Enfield

2000-2008: Director, New River Partnership education action zone, Islington, London

1997-2000: Programme manager, Women's Development, University of North London

1991-1997: Research and project management, housing regeneration

1977-1978: Producer, BBC Africa Service

1974-1977: Education programme organiser, Africa Centre

1970-1973: Teacher, Hillingdon LEA and Boston, USA; Sierra Leone, West Africa.

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