Rising son

10th March 2000 at 00:00
In 1955, Steve Hall arrived for his first day at the school where his father was head. Forty-five years later, he went back - to take up his dad's old job. Martin Whittaker reports.

Headteacher Steve Hall opens a door into the assembly hall at Cooper Perry primary school to reveal the red jerseys and eager faces of its reception class. He recalls the day he first came to view the school when applying for the headship. It was, he says, like coming home. He had been a pupil at this village school in the Fifties when his father, Cal Hall, was headmaster.

"The place had hardly changed," he says. "When I looked through that doorway into the hall, it was like going back in time. It could have been me sitting there."

Steve Hall was determined to follow in his father's footsteps. "I didn't tell anybody about my connection with the school until I'd got the job," he says. "They might have thought it was a card I was playing. I wanted to get it on merit. When I heard I'd got it, I rang my dad - he couldn't speak, he was so choked up." And the connection doesn't end with Steve Hall and his father. Mr Hall junior has sent his own daughters, Grace, now 14, and Hannah, nine, to Cooper Perry.

The Victorian school sits in the centre of Seighford, a pretty village set in gently rolling Staffordshire countryside; it still has a traditional atmosphere. There are even outside toilets still in use - although not for much longer. In the next 12 months Cooper Perry will become virtually unrecognisable from the time Mr Hall senior was at the helm; it is about to be developed in a Private Finance Initiative project, under which new school buildings will be built and managed with private sector backing. In April, the outbuildings will be pulled down to make way for pound;1.8 million-worth of classrooms to be added on to the back of the existing school.

The school's expansion is long overdue, says Steve Hall. The 200 pupils and 22 staff have to use the narrow assembly hall as classroom, dining hall, gym and concert hall.

Mr Hall is quietly spoken and his style in school is informal; he says some days he likes to dive into the school kitchen to make bacon sandwiches for his staff. His own time at school, he insists, was happy, although his father's style and personality were markedly different from his own; photographs show a stern Mr Hall senior taking a class. But Steve insists his father was very much of his time. Cal Hall is 79 now, retired and living in north Wales with his wife, Dorothy. He was head of Cooper Perry between 1949 and 1960, before moving on to another school in the region.

"The school was very similar to how it is now - it had a friendly atmosphere. But it was challenging being the son of a head," says Steve. "If anything went wrong and I was anywhere near, I would have got the blame. There was probably a bit of over-compensation. It wasn't miserable for me, but I wasn't shown any favouritism either.

"One of my saddest moments was not being picked for the football team. I remember telling my dad I had to get some football boots. But he said, 'I have some bad news for you - you won't be playing.' " He recalls being sent to his father for repeatedly bowing up crisp packets and bursting them. "He fetched the cane out and slammed it on the desk in front of me. He said: 'If you do this again, this is what you will get.'" Schooling ran in the family. Steve's mother was secretary at Cooper Perry, and his older sister, Phillippa, also a pupil there, went into teaching. He had uncles and aunts who were teachers. But when he left school, Steve at first decided the profession wasn't for him. Instead he planned to go into industry. He did a degree in industrial ceramics, but the company that sponsored him ran into trouble and after three years' studying he had no job to go to. He was offered a grant to carry out research for the then Atomic Energy Authority, but turned it down to become a science and PE teacher.

"I could either spend three years in the bowels of some laboratory looking down an electron microscope, or I could go out and do sport. It was no contest," he says.

By the late Eighties he had worked his way up to deputy head at Cheslyn Hay primary, Staffordshire. But he felt his career was not progressing - and he even contemplated leaving teaching. Then the head's post at his old school came up. He jumped at it. "It was a headship and I wanted my own school. And if I was going to choose the school, I would have chosen this one."

When he took over in April 1990, the school had around 100 pupils, at a time when other small schools in Staffordshire were under threat of closure. But numbers have increased steadily, and today the school has a waiting list. Ofsted inspectors have praised its involvement with the community, something Steve Hall has worked hard to foster and for which the school recently won a Schools Curriculum Award. Cooper Perry has also developed links with schools abroad, and runs a pupil exchange programme with a primary in Malta.

"I set myself three goals when I came here," Steve Hall says. "To get the numbers up, to get the standards up and to get new buildings. My goal now is for us to be in the top 5 per cent in the country without compromising the traditional ethos of the school."

But what does his father make of his style of headship? "I think there's an element of him that wishes he was in a similar position now. I'm able to do the sorts of things he would have liked to have done.

"But I never compare what I'm doing with what he did, because we come from different times. He was of a time when the head's word was law. People were very deferential to the head, so the relationship he had with staff and pupils was quite different.

"He acknowledges that many things have changed. And I'm a different kind of person to him. I do things quite differently.

"I do let him in on what's going on. If there are any developments I let him know what's happening. He always shows a real interest in what I'm doing. But he's never said I should be doing things differently. He says he's proud of what I have achieved."

Does the family connection help? "Yes. When times are hard, as they are for every head, the emotional ties I have with the place carry me through. This is a labour of love for me. It's putting back into a school and into education what I got out of it."

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