Not bad for a looked - after head
One of the most memorable moments of my life was on a training course for would-be headteachers. We trainees had to plan a joint strategy. I found myself the only voice of caution and dissent. I remember pleading with colleagues to think again. I felt the pressure to conform, which I resisted. I remember thinking "Why can't I see it the way everybody else does?"
At the end of the task, in which some consensus was reached, the course tutor pulled me to one side. She told me she was impressed by the lateral and creative thinking behind my ideas. They showed real intelligence, she said. My response was out of my mouth before I could stop myself. "Not bad for a looked-after kid eh?"
I can't convey the sense of pride and achievement I felt at that moment. In a split second, I saw the distance I had travelled, from childhood to that place; against the odds, against expectations. Nine years later, I am head of Brentside primary school in Ealing, west London, and I can feel the tide of change being encouraged from on high turning towards a vision that has driven me personally for years.
For me, education has always been about making children feel valued and inspired. I suppose this is the opposite to my own experiences. I went to eight different schools, moving between residential homes, foster parents and potential adoptive parents because of my mother's violent behaviour. As a child, I felt I was written off so many times. Somehow I knew that education was my ladder out of chaos: I wanted a life in which I could find order, insight and understanding. Over time I have found it, and this is what I want for both my pupils and staff.
What is really interesting is that I find it hard to admit, even to myself, that my background as a looked-after child has influenced my educational philosophy and practice. I rationalise to myself that I am striving towards models of good practice in leading children and a school community.
Clearly, there is an emotional block. I think this comes from years of separating the emotional legacy of being a looked-after child with the rigours of being a respected professional school leader in my own right.
Perhaps a direct consequence of my childhood is that I am ruthless about putting children first. Not only do I think this is the best way to run a school, but I still have vivid memories of my welfare being compromised by attention being paid to adults, rather than being directed at helping me.
As I got older, the sense of shame about being looked after was almost unbearable: I was seen as the problem. Today, I can see this was a burden too heavy for me or any child to carry. My response is to focus on the child; adults are big enough to find help elsewhere.
I feel passionately that children should get the very best that can be provided. By this, I mean the best teaching and play resources, child-centred staff who can support the development of self-esteem, and a learning environment that makes children feel they are part of something exciting and bigger than themselves.
Why? Because if you give the best, you can expect the best, with no compromises. Strangely enough, providing a quality children's environment can often be more cost effective. When I first came to Brentside, pound;50,000 was released from the budget to spend on pupils and resources by reorganising our priorities. I threw away dog-eared materials and bought shiny, new resources. A very concrete demonstration to children and teachers that they are valued.
Enter our school and you are greeted by the sound of a water fountain running beside a wooden Buddha. There is a pupil honours board and framed certificates of the standards we have reached. It tells you, in no uncertain terms, that achievement is part of life here. And the odds are stacked against our pupils: in their homes, 24 different first languages are spoken; 47 per cent are poor enough to qualify for free school meals.
Brentside education is three-dimensional: self-esteem, empathy, learning for life and physical fitness are as high on the learning agenda as a broad spectrum of academic opportunities and challenges. The building is a physical manifestation of the school's philosophy. All the walls are painted bright colours - including the toilets. Children's work is presented with care, and every classroom has a consistent approach to display, so that there is a clear progression right from the infants to Year 6. Consistency, as I well know, is a very important quality for children.
Consistency yes, uniformity I hope not! I think we deliver a very personalised curriculum. But this is achieved in quite formal ways. There is an uncompromising discipline required of teachers to work towards common aims and practices. Maintaining a consistency in delivery and standards in the curriculum requires that staff put children first, and lead children to knowledge without their own egos getting in the way.
Feeling on the outside or not included is something I have struggled with all my life. I want Brentside to be an inclusive community, where everybody is expected to participate and contribute equally. Active participation is a central expectation. I want pupils and staff to have a sense of belonging and significance..
Our curriculum and behaviour management practices are flexible because we want to create a community in which everybody has a sense of ownership.
Trauma, loss, anger and resentment have their own agenda; emotional needs must be addressed as well as learning needs.
Brentside has a broad curriculum, in which all knowledge is valued, including knowledge that can help children understand their own feelings and those of others, Investments in emotional awareness help make pupils'
I never cease to wonder at our pupils who so confidently engage in many pursuits of excellence. Certainly, the Every Child Matters agenda does and will improve the quality of their learning and school life. But I don't believe this should result in unnecessary institutional turmoil and change.
We are beginning to achieve this at Brentside through small, caring steps.
A simple vision, translated into strong, well-guided policies, leads to a learning community of small and bigger people walking together down the road of "learning for life".