The Interview - 'My job is not to be needed'

10th April 2009 at 01:00

Greg Wallace became head of Woodberry Down Community Primary School in 2001 when it was in serious trouble. Now part of a successful federation with London Fields, it has been rated 'outstanding' by Ofsted.

As the new head at a failing school in 2001, what did you prioritise?

I faced pressure to focus on operational problems, such as governance and HR. My main concern was the core areas such as the appallingly low literacy levels.

How did you rectify the situation?

After my first year, with HR issues down to a minimum, a new governing body in place and unnecessary building works out of the way, I removed focus away from operational concerns and on to our core problems and started a new literacy programme. I received an increasing amount of criticism for not being strategic, for not delegating and was often told that as a head I should not be teaching. The programme also received a lot of negative responses from outside the school. But I was able to witness it making progress. I became obsessed with the idea that every child could and would learn to read.

How are Woodberry Down and London Fields schools structured?

Both schools have different leadership structures. At Woodberry Down, we use a form of distributed leadership - there are five assistant headteachers and then myself as executive principal. At London Fields, we have a more traditional hierarchical structure often found in federations: a head of school, deputy and assistant heads.

In both, lines of responsibility are clear so people in the leadership teams are doing some tasks that traditionally a head or deputy would do. That means I need a close working relationship with all of them. They are stunning people who have really risen to the challenges posed by federation. My job is almost to make myself not needed.

What is the best thing about your job now?

Seeing people achieve and develop. Be it children or staff and whether they are achieving academically or personally - that is the best thing about my job.

What led you to become a teacher?

I really did want to be a teacher to make the world a better place. I have actively chosen to be the head of schools with high levels of deprivation as they need the best teachers. The teachers and support staff who work at Woodberry Down or London Fields need to be extra special - and they are.

When you retire, what will stay with you?

I will remember those children who have conquered difficult circumstances to achieve the best they can. And I know there will be teachers who I will never forget. I used to read Flour Babies by Anne Fine with my classes and there is a wonderful part in the book when Simon Martin, the disaffected boy who is undergoing something of a transformation, reflects on teachers: "Suddenly it all meant something to Simon. He was struck by the sheer grit of teachers. Their stout hearts. Their unflagging fixity of purpose." The teachers I will remember do the above - with a smile and positive attitude.

Are you worried about the youth of today?

Each generation is different and face different challenges. I think that people have always been worried about the young, and I am often worried too. But I also see hundreds of children every week who are capable of growing up to become adults who will make a positive contribution - and that is what I focus on. The first part of this is about ensuring good core skills in literacy, numeracy and ICT. These are essential.

I think significant parts of the curriculum need a strong focus on ethics. Not by making morality a separate subject, but by choosing books and topics that will help children prepare to live in a diverse, changing world.

Would you encourage others into teaching?

Yes - if they were going into it for the right reasons. But we should not need to persuade or coerce people into being teachers. We need to get to a stage where it is highly competitive to become a teacher.

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

I'd work all 24 hours as there would be a lot to change. I'd focus on three main things. With Ofsted, I'd start by making sure that every report contained a perceptive, informed comment about the teaching of synthetic phonics and the effectiveness of teachers' marking. I'd also want to know what children were reading independently and how much they were reading.

Second, I would establish an ambitious judgment table to be used by inspectors for evaluating the curriculum in terms of the promotion of clear, ethical values.

Finally, I would visit some great schools. So many parents do not have an understanding of what makes a school good and what makes it bad. My message to everyone would be: "Look, it can be done. Expect more and make sure you help your school to become as good as the best."

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

I got a "satisfactory with good elements" in Ofsted. It can't be that bad or they would have said so.

- For more leadership interviews and advice visit


2001: Greg Wallace becomes head of Woodberry Down

2005: The school is recognised as outstanding by Ofsted

2006: Mr Wallace wins ERA School Leadership award at the Education Show, Birmingham

2007: The school is shortlisted for the Evening Standard award for Outstanding Primary School in Challenging Circumstances and is runner-up in the ERA Educational Establishment of the Year award

2008: Woodberry Down federates with another Hackney school and Mr Wallace becomes executive principal of the London FieldsWoodberry Down Federation.

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