Knocked out by a ruthless opponent

12th March 2004 at 00:00
As the former head of a school in special measures, I am still dismayed at the lack of support I received from the local authority. I hope my story will serve as a warning to others who feel they want to make a difference.

Before taking up the post in September 2000, I'd had two experiences of acting headship and had the national professional qualification for headship award, so felt more than ready for my own school. I hesitate to confess, but I actually wanted a challenging job.

I certainly found one. The area my junior school served was in the bottom 3 per cent of the deprivation index for England and Wales. You can imagine what that meant: four times the national average incidences of drug-related crime, armed robbery, domestic violence and rape, low incomes, high benefit claims, high incidences of suicide, high percentages of single-parent families. Working there wasn't easy, but I bet it's harder to live there.

In June 2002, we had an Ofsted inspection, and went into serious weaknesses. One term later, an HMI put us into special measures. Our key issues were low attainment (we kept failing even to approach national averages in Sats results), unsatisfactory teaching, behaviour and attendance.

Many pupils lived in awful circumstances. Typical incidents in my final term included a boy in the Aamp;E department until 3am because mum's partner beat her up and there was no one to leave him with; a girl tired because she was given a sleeping pill to keep her quiet the night before; a boy whose mum went on holiday to Spain for a fortnight and left him with an aunt; a girl who was worried about her mum, who had threatened suicide the night before and might be lying dead at home; another girl who copied mum and took an overdose; and several children who had to get themselves up and to school because mum couldn't get out of bed.

If children were restless, not concentrating, or displaying attention seeking behaviour and being disruptive, should we have been surprised? Apart from these extremes, the likes of which happened every day, the basic fact that children were hungrytiredcoldupset meant they were not inspired to learn, no matter how interesting the subject.

Staff in less challenging schools have no idea of the pressures myself and my teachers faced, mainly from our own local education authority. If you haven't taught in a school like this, you can't imagine how tiring it is.

My fantastic team came in day after day after day. There was low staff absence, mainly because of the excellent support they gave to each other, and the warm and caring atmosphere they created in school. There was a lot of laughter, mixed in with commitment and perseverance.

In July last year, the head of school effectiveness praised me for making progress and was pleased that a recent HMI monitoring visit had been more positive. Then came the Sats results, which were lower than in 2002. As a result, I suddenly became incompetent.

I agree that attainment needs to be raised in this school. The pupils are as bright as any others, and their potential is unlimited. I would have been over the moon if they had achieved the levels they deserved. But they did not come to school ready to learn. Much work needs to be done with parents and the community before any real progress can be made. We could have done it, but it would have taken time.

Local authority officers said I was "too nice", "too caring". I was expected to go in and hit all these lazy, good-for-nothing teachers with a big stick, yet every day I saw them working hard with challenging children, trying to make life better for them. I saw them working long hours after school, planning, target-setting, assessing, moderating, trying to do as the LEA demanded. Each teacher produced six pages of detailed planning a week, because the authority insisted on it. They were under constant scrutiny as the LEA could see no reason for falling attainment other than poor teaching.

During my interview for the headship, I had promised the governors that, whatever was going on inside me, no one would know. I would have a smile on my face and be positive at all times. This undoubtedly helped staff to cope; they had enough to worry about without me adding to their stress. But the authority saw my cheerful attitude as proof that I was not taking my role seriously.

Never before have I had anything other than exemplary references; I have had extremely positive feedback for everything I've done. I had full support from the governors, staff, parents, other heads - even the children - but none of that was good enough. I would not give up my integrity, so I lost my job. I went voluntarily, but under pressure. The authority brought in an acting head and the job's just been advertised.

Anyone reading this who is thinking of headship, go for it. It's hard work, but wonderful. Just don't go anywhere near a challenging school unless you have the potential to be a bully.

The writer, who is now working as a supply teacher, wants to remain anonymous

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