The Interview - 'At first I made the girls cry'

17th April 2009 at 01:00

Tracey Luke is executive principal of Marsh Academy and Folkestone School for Girls. It's a rare partnership, but she has made it work

How did you get into teaching?

I was one of these unaware young people who didn't know what I wanted to do. I knew that I loved history and politics, so carried on studying, and I just drifted into teaching. But within a week of my first teaching practice, I knew I loved it and didn't want to do anything else.

Did you always want to be a head?

I don't think many women come into teaching thinking they want to be a head. I wanted to be good at what I did, then once I decided I was quite good at whatever level I was at, I looked to the next one.

How did the situation arise for you to be head of two schools?

I left Folkestone to take up the headship of the Marsh Academy and they appointed an acting head. While they were doing that, the DCSF (Department for Children, Schools and Families) approached them and asked the school to take part in a funded federation pilot scheme that would link the two schools and they said yes. It is an unusual partnership because it's an academy in challenging circumstances linked with a high-performing, girls-only selective school.

Is there any one thing that you credit for raising the school's grade from 98th to the top 20 and raising GCSE grades from 36 per cent A*-C in 2007 to 62 per cent in 2008?

I think it was the dedication, hard work and teamwork of everyone at Marsh Academy. The previous few years had been so unsuccessful that everyone wanted it to work. The staff, children and buildings didn't change, so we had a hard job making people believe that it was a fresh start when all we had was a new uniform, new logo and a couple of new members of staff. The senior leadership team and staff believed that there was an opportunity to start again, and we did. The link with Folkestone only came about in January 2008, so we will see the impact of that in future years.

We also brought in setting, used data more effectively, worked to build confidence and changed the curriculum to make sure children were on appropriate courses and to make them believe they could succeed.

What do you think are the benefits of the link between the schools?

It's going brilliantly. We've taken it slowly, and there are links on all sorts of levels. Pupils are not linked in Years 7 to 11 apart from occasional workshops. Marsh had a performance of Romeo Juliet, for example, and we invited Years 7 and 8 from Folkestone. There are no co-taught lessons until post-16 when we timetable across the two schools: pupils from Marsh come to Folkestone and do their A-levels in subjects that we wouldn't have enough numbers to run as groups on their own at Marsh. Alternatively, Folkestone provides a teacher who goes to Marsh.

What was the attitude from the pupils?

Inevitably there was some reluctance and initial prejudice. Pupils thought the grammar school wouldn't be friendly, that they would get lost and be out of their comfort zone. But after they'd been there a couple of weeks and made friends there were no problems. One of my boys is top of his maths class at Folkestone, and to come from a non-selective high school and come top of his class at a selective school gave him confidence. He saw the work ethic, which is different, and also the high expectations about going to university. There's been lots of transfer of ethos, of expectation and of aspiration, which I think is helping.

Do you see your role as different in the two schools?

Very different, and that's a lot to do with structure. Both schools have a head of school, and as an executive principal, you not only respond to the experience and expertise of your heads of school, but also, crucially, to the needs of the two schools.

I'm able to be much more strategic at Folkestone, whereas in Marsh, I have to be strategic but also more involved with the day-to-day running. I wear a different badge depending on what school I'm in and have to check to see wherewho I am.

What was it like coming to a girls' school after working with boys for so long?

At first I kept making them cry. Even though I am one, I didn't realise how sensitive they would be. I did stupid things like read their results out loud - for boys that was normal - but they sorted me out.

What changes have you made that you're most proud of?

At Marsh I'm most proud that we have raised aspirations but at the same time cut the exclusion rate. We cut our permanent exclusion rate by 95 per cent and fixed-term exclusions by 60 per cent.

If you were Schools Secretary for the day, what would you do?

Put additional resources in to school budgets specifically for alternative curriculum provisions so that we can be more creative in the way that we meet the needs of disaffected pupils.

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

A pupil once said: "We were burgled, the burglar must have taken my coursework."


2008: Executive principal, Marsh Academy and Folkestone School for Girls when the schools linked.

2007: Principal, Marsh Academy, which opened in September 2007.

2000-2007: Deputy head, then head at Folkestone School for Girls.

1989-2000: Senior teacher, King's School in Gutersloh, Germany, then Welbeck Defence Sixth Form College in Leicestershire.

1983-1989: History and politics teacher, then head of sixth form at Burnage High School in Manchester.

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