She took on and helped improve a failing school, but Dame Jean Else was sacked nonetheless. Stephen Manning talks to her about her work, and why she stands by her decisions
It's hard to think of anyone else within education who has gone through such highs and lows as Dame Jean Else, the flamboyant Manchester "superhead" who turned around one of the most troubled schools in the country before being spectacularly sacked.
Now with no school of her own, the 55-year-old is on a mission to put her particular qualities to use, advising ailing schools, mainly in the North-west of England, on something she believes she knows a thing or two about how to improve their public image.
When she took the helm of Whalley Range High School for girls in Manchester in 1994 it was a failing school with a truancy figure of 73 per cent, among the UK's worst. But under her decade-long leadership the school's fortunes were reversed. Pupil numbers more than doubled to about 1,700 by 2003 and GCSE pass rates and attendance improved. She was made a Dame in 2001 and Estelle Morris, then education secretary and a former pupil at the school, sent a video message of congratulations.
Consequently, many were shocked when, in November 2004, she was suspended amid allegations of nepotism, mismanagement and financial irregularities. This followed a two-year investigation by the Audit Commission, which published a report criticising her for large payouts to members of staff who were leaving and for employing her twin sister as an assistant head. She lost an appeal against the report's findings and was eventually dismissed in August 2006.
But this most prominent and publicity-minded of education figures was never likely to slink into the shadows, nor indeed to flinch from turning a negative into a positive. After a considerable time in limbo, she started working again in January this year, advising schools on outward appearance, such as designing brochures, adopting a new school uniform, even the school signage.
"A school might be in trouble and bracing itself for a poor Ofsted inspection report," she says. "A new headteacher may have been appointed, but has not had time to turn things around. In these circumstances, the head will usually concentrate on tackling internal matters, such as the curriculum or staffing issues. They will often neglect to tell the outside world that things are going to change. That is what I did early on at Whalley Range, to announce to the world that, yes, we do have problems and we are going to overcome them. It's part and parcel of my natural inclination to turn things around with a positive outlook.
"If a school has a bad reputation, people don't want to send their children there. But in my time at Whalley Range, the roll increased in spite of all the 'worst school in the country' stories. There is no school that isn't doing something good. But you don't hear about it. I advise heads that they should speak to the press a lot of heads don't realise what a huge difference that can make."
Among her strategies at Whalley Range was overhauling the toilets, painting the walls lime green or purple. "When I arrived, the toilets were in a terrible state and pupils were afraid to use them because of the smoking and how dirty it was. So in my time there were three refurbishments of the toilets. I'm proud to have made them usable."
There were numerous tales of her eccentric behaviour in school, which she refutes. Did she, for example, ride around in a purple golf buggy barking orders at pupils? "We did have two buggies on site it is a huge school but the rest of that is not true."
There were more serious charges, such as nepotism. She says that of 450 appointments during her tenure, only 21 were people she knew. The most high profile was the promotion of her twin sister Maureen Rochford from clerical assistant to assistant headteacher, a move she staunchly defends. "My sister had worked for me for 10 years, and had worked with the chief education officer for Manchester, so there was never any question she was inappropriate." Her sister has now left education.
After her suspension in November 2004, Dame Jean found herself in a frustrating limbo. "Nobody spoke to me for several months. It was quite upsetting not to know what, if anything, was happening."
She was interviewed in June 2005 by the investigating officer for the local authority and had her first hearing the following November. No evidence of illegal activity was found but, following the failure of her appeal in May 2006, she was dismissed.
She remains scathing about Manchester City Council which, she says, vilified her even though it could not prove that she had done anything illegal or fraudulent. Part of the problem stemmed from her conspicuous forthrightness. "I opposed the changes in formula to national budgets and I went national with it," she says, referring to an appearance on GMTV in 2003 when she threatened to quit rather than accept budget cuts. "I fought it on behalf of Manchester heads, but Manchester [City Council] did not like that."
Much of this is likely to surface in a book she is writing, to be called Head Above the Parapet, which she hopes to finish before the end of the year. She also has other outlets, writing a column for the Manchester Evening News on "Lessons in Life" which covers education exclusion, bullying, special needs and beyond. "One concern people have is about exclusions, that some children are too young to be excluded. But I put the view that exclusion decisions are not taken lightly. No one wants to exclude pupils and there would have been a great deal of agonising over such a decision." It's no surprise she casts herself in the role of a defender of educators facing difficult decisions