‘The constant fear almost sent me over the edge’

15th January 2016 at 00:00
Educating the East End’s Jenny Smith on exhaustion, self-doubt and TV cameras – and winning over Ofsted

At the end of a particularly tough year, headteacher Jenny Smith was so desperate to escape her job that she spent her summer in the Sahara desert.

“I went on holiday to the middle of the desert, because I knew I’d have no mobile reception, no wi-fi,” the head of Frederick Bremer School in East London says. “Because there are times when you really, really have to shut down, otherwise you will burn out.”

Frederick Bremer is best known as the school featured in the Channel 4 documentary series Educating the East End. The series showed Ms Smith and her staff as they encouraged, cajoled and chided their pupils into better behaviour and higher aspirations.

And now, more than three years since Ms Smith was appointed, and two years since inspectors deemed that the school required improvement, Ofsted has finally said that Frederick Bremer is “good”.

The long journey to ‘good’

In particular, the inspectors said that: “The headteacher has been relentless in driving improvement over the last three years.”

Or, as Ms Smith phrases it: “Three and a half years of solidly slogging, 15-hour days, six, seven days a week. Sometimes not feeling that you’re making any sort of headway at all. It’s exhausting. The constant fear that you’re going to trip up. That’s what almost sent me over the edge: the level of exhaustion and the self-doubt.”

When Ms Smith started at Frederick Bremer, in September 2012, she was newly promoted to headship. “I doubt there’s a head who’s ever found the transition easy,” she tells TES. “I was very naive. I was very optimistic, and believed in the power of the optimistic spirit. I went in believing that everyone could change.”

She quickly learned her mistake: a number of long-serving staff members were resistant to being told by a neophyte head that the way they did things was not good enough. But, rather than a focus on Ofsted, Ms Smith talked instead about acquiring skills.

“It’s about giving staff the confidence to try things out and make mistakes,” she explains. “To go and observe. You’ll never get to a point where you’ve cracked teaching.”

Ms Smith also worked hard to try and woo recalcitrant staff members. “I explained why we’re taking this direction of travel and why these things are important,” she says. “They may not like it, but they have to see that it’s important.”

It was not only staff who were resistant to change, she adds: “Pupils who used to be able to walk around the school without their jacket on, to turn up to lessons late or without the right equipment – they’re going to resist any efforts to make them change.

“Being absolutely uncompromising was necessary. But I needed to do that without being draconian, boot-camp or cold.”

Instead, Ms Smith was adamant that pupils, too, should understand the reasons for her insistence on change.

“Kids aren’t going to do things just because,” she says. “They need to understand why smart uniform is important, and why punctuality is important and why having correct equipment is important. Otherwise, they won’t take those skills with them when they leave the school.”

In demand

It helped, Ms Smith believes, that her staff and pupils were able to watch themselves on television: very little encourages self-reflection quite like being forced to see yourselves as 2 million viewers see you.

But there has been another side-effect of the series. Since it aired in 2014, every advertised job vacancy at the school – whether teaching or non-teaching – has drawn hundreds of applicants. “Particularly in communities like ours, teenagers tend to be quite demonised,” Ms Smith says. “People said how different they found the kids they saw on TV from what they’d expected.”

Her aim now is to persuade staff ready for promotion to stay on at Frederick Bremer as she pursues an outstanding judgement from the inspectorate.

“Because we know that Ofsted won’t be in next week, we have the capacity to really think about what goes in the classroom – to think about and develop the craft of teaching,” she says. “I want to develop a culture where that’s our bread and butter.”

Meanwhile, though, there are more pressing concerns: “We’re having a big celebration at school at the end of the month.” She pauses briefly. “I don’t have any plans to celebrate myself. Not yet. It hasn’t fully landed yet. But I will.”


How to make the most of media exposure

Oliver Beach, who appeared as a Teach First trainee on the BBC Three series Tough Young Teachers, offers his top tips:

Do it for education, not for fame “If someone says, ‘I want global fame’, they’re doing it for the wrong reasons. The reason you’re doing it has to be for the audience’s greater understanding of the challenges facing someone like you.”

The pupils are the focus, not you “Passion for young people shines through. If you’re trying to give young people the spotlight, and show the reality of the daily lives of teachers, people are receptive to that.”

Be prepared to lose your anonymity “Yesterday, I got stopped in the street. Someone said: ‘Stop. I liked Tough Young Teachers.’ But that’s a millisecond of your time.”

Say ‘yes’ to every invitation at the start “You have to go to it all at the beginning, to see what’s useful. At the start, you’re caught up in the maelstrom of media excitement. Then you come back down to earth and discover what you really want.”

There will be a lot of invitations “I’ve had the chance to talk to politicians, business leaders, international politicians, heads of school networks in the UK and abroad. I’ve spoken at education festivals and conferences, and to publishers.”

Learn when to say ‘no’ “I tend to say ‘no’ to things [such as chat shows] that allow the general public to pontificate on what’s wrong with education, while we’re busy working to fix it.”

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