Vivienne Porritt wants to ban the word “normal”.
The former headteacher, who co-founded #WomenEd, believes it should never be used to describe people.
Her career as an educationalist has been defined by a drive to value people as individuals – whether they are children needing more support or teachers facing discrimination.
It has also been a key part of her mission as one of the national leaders of #WomenEd, a grassroots organisation that supports women teachers wanting to move into leadership.
But speaking at an education conference in Norwich earlier this year, Porritt explained why her hostility to the word “normal” is far more personal. Four years ago, she was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer.
“I wasn’t angry that I had cancer. I was angry that a fit and healthy person, and an excellent employee, had disappeared,” she told the audience at the TEDx (a series of talks following the well-known TED talk format).
“Officially, my NHS exemption card told me I would be disabled for five years, so through all of that treatment I looked forward to regaining my blessed normal life.”
But as Porritt went through surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and drug treatment, a colleague mentioned: “You don’t look ill, Vivienne, you look so normal.”
“I worried about that word – normal,” she explained on the TEDx stage. “Who deems who or what is classed normal? I hate that word now. It means that some people are abnormal, no matter what other words we use to disguise that.”
She called for others to support her dream of a society in which people are viewed positively – no matter where they’re from or what they’re experiencing
Porritt, 61, is from Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham. Her father, Charlie, drove coaches and was a chauffeur. She remembers happy times as a child, such as forcing her younger sister Julie to play schools. “I was always going to go into teaching,” she says. “It never crossed my mind to do anything else.”
But there are other, less happy memories. Her mother, Kathleen, a shop assistant, had paranoid schizophrenia – something that was not talked about. Porritt was told that she was ill, but not in which way.
She remembers, when she was 8 or 9, seeing her mother in an asylum. “They were horrible places to visit,” she recalls. “I have memories of thousands of raffia baskets. At the time it was their therapy to make raffia baskets, so our house was filled with them over the years.”
When her mother was in hospital and her father was working, the children would be left to their own devices. Not overnight, says Porritt, but a lot. They didn’t mind being on their own; in fact, they quite enjoyed it. But she thinks it would not happen now.
“Looking back, my sister and I sometimes say, ‘We probably would have been taken into care if it was now,’ because we were on our own so much,” says Porritt.
After primary school in Stockton, Porritt went on to St Joseph’s Convent School in Hartlepool, and then The English Martyrs School and Sixth Form College in the same town. Afterwards, she read English and religious studies at Leeds University, followed by a PGCE and an MA in English. “I think I wanted to teach because I knew there would be a lot of kids like me who came from difficult homes for all kinds of reasons,” says Porritt.
“I had a good deal because I was quite determined. But if a child hasn’t got that themselves, I wanted to try to support that … I was really driven around fairness.”
She began speaking up early. As a new English teacher, in her first job at Tunbridge Wells Girls’ Grammar School, she complained to a local authority adviser about the old-fashioned religious studies textbooks she had been asked to use with some classes. They were exclusively Christian, something she thought was hardly fair to the Jewish children.
“I got a note from the headteacher,” she explains, “asking, ‘Can you tell me what you talked to the adviser about? Because our head of RS has been contacted and told they can’t use the textbooks we currently have.’”
New textbooks soon arrived.
Her classes were getting excellent grades, but when she started looking for a new job, Porritt found it hard “because as soon as people saw I worked at a girls’ grammar school, they assumed I couldn’t teach”.
Just one place would give her a chance: Glenthorne High School, then a girls’ secondary modern in Sutton, south-west London. It was a culture shock.
“All the kids thought they were like rubbish because they had failed the 11-plus,” she says. “The first six months were hell on Earth.
“They wouldn’t do anything you asked. You would ask someone to read a book and they wouldn’t or they would read gibberish.”
One day, with a Year 9 class, she adopted a high-risk strategy. Taking the chief troublemaker to one side, Porritt told her that she wanted to have a row with her, a manufactured row, in class.
The next day, Porritt accused the girl of something she didn’t do. The girl argued back, shouted that it wasn’t fair and got sent out. The remaining pupils didn’t want to say to Porritt that she had been unfair, even though she clearly had been. But when the girl came back in and Porritt apologised to her, it led to a discussion about who can tackle unfairness and how. And although the row and discussion were ostensibly to prepare pupils for lessons about slavery in literature, their behaviour also improved as a result.
The movement ‘exploded’
Tackling unfairness remains Porritt’s focus today at #WomenEd. The movement began in 2014 as a way to mobilise the women in education, who were talking on Twitter and blogging about their experiences. There were seven original founders – five, including Porritt, remain as national leaders – but it was in March 2015 when things, as Porritt puts it, “exploded” after Keziah Featherstone, then headteacher of Bridge Learning Campus in Bristol, suggested that they should have “a little conference”.
The event, in October of that year, was held at Microsoft’s headquarters in London and attracted more than 200 people. Since then there have been two more conferences and a regional network has been set up. In 2017, #WomenEd was named as one of Tes’ top 10 education influencers of the year. The reach of the whole network is now such that Porritt, as well as being a national leader, is the contact for the regional groups in London, the North East, the US, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. She has also been co-editing the #WomenEd book 10% Braver: inspiring women to lead education, which is due out later this year.
“Vivienne is driven, determined, intelligent, tenacious and has incredible integrity,” Featherstone says. “I think if she won a couple of million on the lottery, she would still be doing the work she wants to do. She’s one of those people who is very principled. You don’t see her wavering between ideas. She knows what she stands for and will fight for it.”
Porritt stayed for seven years at Glenthorne High and ended up loving the secondary modern. But she was ambitious and, without a senior leadership post available, decided to take a leap to become arts adviser for Buckinghamshire local authority. It was her first strategic role and it involved bringing people together – a skill that became the focus of her career and work with #WomenEd.
After two years as an adviser, she went back into schools, applying for a senior leadership team post at Imberhorne School in East Grinstead, West Sussex. At the interview, she told the headteacher that if she got the job, the first thing she would do would be to take the “headmaster” sign off the door. She got the job – and by the time she started, the sign had been replaced.
A headship at Thamesmead School in Shepperton, Surrey, was next, followed by senior roles in CPD. Then in February 2014, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. By now she was working at the UCL Institute of Education in London, which gave her the support she needed, as she went through surgery and chemotherapy. But Porritt is aware that not all people with disabilities receive the same help at work.
So this year she became a member of the development group that is setting up #DisabilityEd, which wants to end discrimination against teachers with disabilities at work.
Porritt herself now has less than a year to go until the NHS is due to pronounce her no longer disabled. But she definitely does not want to be called “normal”.
“Someone said to me, ‘Why do words get to you so much?,’” she says. “I think it’s because I was an English teacher. I believe passionately that words mean more than their dictionary definition. As a teacher and a leader, words conveyed the ethos and the culture of a classroom or school or university. I think the kind of words you use about people and with people are really important – and we need to think a bit more carefully about them.”