For most people, receiving a lifetime achievement award would provide a moment to look back with satisfaction on a career filled with work well done. But Caroline Whalley is not “most people”.
It was July 2011, and she was the chair of British Council for School Environments. At an evening school design awards reception, she started to hear “things being said, and I thought, ‘I sort of know that life’ – and then it was my life”. She realised that was being given a prestigious award.
“I just thought, ‘I have got this lifetime achievement award for what? I’m going to do something now.’
“I woke up the next morning and knocked on my best friend’s door and she opened the door, and I said, ‘I’m just telling you, so that it’s real, I am going to set up an academy chain.’ Because I hadn’t done anything to get this lifetime achievement award, so I thought I’d better do something.”
From this seed grew the Elliot Foundation – the second-largest primary-only academy trust in England – which Whalley founded and now chairs.
It is the kind of position she could not have imagined holding when she was a child. The daughter of a coal miner, she was brought up in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, living in the attic of her grandmother’s house – “outside toilets; two-up, two-down; mining back-to-backs,” she recalls.
“I remember how deeply cold it was because there was no insulation. We used to have Jack Frost on the inside.”
Then her family moved to Chesterfield, where her father got a Coal Board house.
Her early life was marked by tragedy. Whalley’s mother died of a brain haemorrhage when she was 9, leaving her father as a single parent and a miner.
She got into grammar school, despite wanting to go to the secondary modern, which taught nursing – “My Dad said, ‘You are clever enough to be a bloody doctor, you are.’”
But it was an unhappy experience.
“I was a complete fish out of water. I was so unhappy, because I think there were three people from the estate that had got to the grammar school. There wasn’t a fit at all.”
Her dad bought her boys’ shoes because they were cheaper, and she did not have the proper games kit. “You look like a kid off the estate, really, so I just used to fantasise to get through. I absolutely hated school, and bunked off as often as I could.”
'Survival and resilience'
Without a structure around her, she would sometimes go to Sheffield shoplifting, but she learned “survival, resilience, fearlessness really”. Then, when she was 16, her dad died. “I found my father. It was just a question of running into the street and shouting, ‘I think my dad’s dead.’”
Because the house came with her father’s job, she and her two sisters had to move out within a couple of weeks and were sent to live with different aunts.
In those same two weeks, she managed to get a job at chemical company Coalite and Chemical. She spent 18 months in foster care and failed her A levels.
In the next few years, Whalley started teaching because it was one of the few careers her clutch of O levels allowed her. She then worked as a researcher at the BBC, and in 1976 she became pregnant with her first child.
“Elliot was born in October and he died in November,” she says simply. “He was four weeks old. It was cot death, and it was horrific.”
The Elliot Foundation is named after him.
Whalley “really started to get a feel for where I could fit in and make a difference” when, after a move to America with her husband, she did voluntary work at the University of California, Los Angeles with troubled children.
And after moving back to England to have two children, and returning to teaching chemistry one day a week, she finally found her vocation. “Through going back and actually being so much more able now to know what I was about, I started to more than enjoy it. It was more like, ‘I can make a difference to children’s lives,’” she says.
She juggled parenting, work and study, gaining a qualification in guidance and counselling, and studied with the Open University for eight years, finally emerging with a master’s degree in management and business administration. Her later doctorate in performance management, for which she researched performance-related pay, still influences her approach at the Elliot Foundation.
“My findings were pretty much that what you have to do is to motivate through energising and finding out what a person really wants to do, and moving as much of their work life into that zone as you can.”
She then moved into the local authority sector, spending time as the chief inspector of schools in Hillingdon in West London and then director of schools in nearby Ealing. After a spell leading the Building Schools for the Future division of engineering support company Babcock, she worked at the Department for Education’s innovation unit.
It was in July 2011 that she received her lifetime achievement award, and resolved to start an academy trust. Today, Whalley still has the ring-bound writing books she bought to formulate her plans.
Starting on 4 July 2011, the pages trace the evolution of her thoughts as she tested out names – Comitas, Amicus – the philosophy, individuals, structures and governance.
Today, when she talks about the ethos and operation of the organisation, which currently has 27 schools in the West Midlands, London and East Anglia, it almost feels like an anti-academies academy trust.
“I totally disagree with academies,” Whalley says with a mischievous laugh, explaining that she wanted to “create an academy group that will keep those schools safe despite a wider environment where they were being taken over by people who didn’t understand what teachers feel”.
She is dismissive of much of the DfE’s rhetoric about the movement that has transformed England’s schools’ landscape.
“At the end of the day, the notion of academy freedoms is the biggest emperor’s new clothes you could ever wish to meet, and they still talk about it. Actually, there are no freedoms. All there is now is accountability and risk,” Whalley says.
“Primary academies have got more responsibility, more bureaucracy, more regulators. There is not enough money in the system to run it, and unless you are building capacity in the schools you are simply adding risk.”
Elliot is a proudly and resolutely a primary-only academy trust, and Whalley wants it help to create a voice for primary schools in the system. It would be a voice that “is big enough and loud enough to say, ‘They are all our children. They might be 3 now, but in another seven or eight years they will be in your secondary school, so what are you doing now to support their primary years?’
“Instead of which, Ofsted and all the rest say ‘make them secondary-ready’, and we call them ‘feeder schools’. How dare they call them ‘feeder schools’, like ‘feeding them into the beast’? Even the language is pejorative.”
Whalley, who was awarded a CBE for services to education in 2014, laments the lack of a big picture for schools in England, asking why – after GCSE pupils leave secondary school in May – Year 6 pupils don’t move to secondary as soon as they have done their Sats, rather than waiting until September.
The Elliot Foundation gives a lot of autonomy to its schools. Its website outlines how “we encourage diversity of approach and allow local governing bodies the freedom to manage in the best interests of their community unless schools are failing their children”.
Whalley is passionate, even angry, when comparing her model with the centralising ‘cookie cutter’ approach of some academy chains.
“Our way of doing things is working. Enabling schools to work contextually – so if you are in East Anglia, you have different issues to being in Hillingdon. Who on earth thinks you can just go with one thing across the board? It’s ridiculous. Common sense would tell you.”
So, what does the future hold for the Elliot Foundation?
“Our vision was to grow the trust to the point where heads themselves managed their own trust. That’s the vision,” Whalley says.
She compares the ethos of the trust with the John Lewis retail chain’s employee-ownership arrangement. The trouble, she says, is that government policies and diktats on curriculum and assessment, or a bad set of results at a school, take that control away from heads.
They leave even someone with Whalley’s determination and drive feeling exasperated. “It’s very hard to mitigate against nonsense,” she says.