Last month, 500 teachers rose as one to give Dame Alison Peacock a standing ovation. The enthusiastic applause, at the end of the hugely successful #LearningFirst event on assessment – a conference that she had instigated – lasted for several minutes.
The reception was indicative of the goodwill felt towards a head who has not only become one of the best-known names in primary education, but also one of its best-liked figures.
Having climbed the career ladder from classroom teacher to head, Dame Alison found herself faced with turning around a struggling school. But she didn’t stop there: she went on to use Wroxham school – a small primary in a small town – as the launchpad for a national revolution on assessment. It was Dame Alison who led the way on showing how primaries could dispense with national curriculum levels.
She has written books on primary assessment, was former director of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust, and a government adviser on teacher training and assessment. Dame Alison was even recently interviewed for the job of Ofsted chief inspector. But decades earlier, during her NQT year at Passmores secondary school in Harlow, Essex, she very nearly gave up on teaching.
“You either survive or you don’t in that kind of school,” she says of that first year. “I came home one day and my dad said ‘Okay love, well, if it’s too tough...’ But my mum said, ‘No, she’s not giving up, she’s going back tomorrow.’ It’s just as well I did.”
‘I never really felt listened to’
Dame Alison was born in London and went to Oakthorpe primary in Enfield and Hunsdon primary in Hunsdon, Hertfordshire, before moving to Hadham Hall, a state secondary near Bishop’s Stortford, in the same county.
“I didn’t like being at school myself,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons why I became a teacher. I never really felt listened to. I did well at school, so it wasn’t that. But I remember being frightened of my teacher.
“If you lost your pencil, you got hauled out and told off, so I was terrified of losing a pencil – which is ridiculous. I remember thinking that if I could be a teacher, perhaps it would be a nice place to be, at school; that’s what’s driven me and continues to drive me.”
Her career began in secondary schools teaching English, humanities and music at key stage 3. But after taking time off to look after her two daughters, she switched to primary teaching. Her husband, Jon, is an accountant, who she has known since she was 16.
In 2003, Dame Alison took on her first headship at Wroxham, a one-form entry primary on the outskirts of Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, which was in special measures at the time. Within 10 months, it was no longer officially failing and, in 2006, it was rated outstanding by Ofsted – and has remained so.
But it was not the school’s turnaround that attracted attention – it was the way it was done. Wroxham is committed to involving children in what they learn. There is no ability grouping and the curriculum is planned to ensure that every child finds something to interest them. The approach is summed up by Dame Alison as “making learning irresistible”.
And her school is stuffed with irresistible things: a large field surrounded by trees, where children carry out Forest School activities; an antique motorcycle that doubles as a seat in the library; a bus filled with books parked on the playground; and a Celtic roundhouse.
Dame Alison’s success has seen her called upon to share her expertise – she is a trustee of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors and Teach First, and she has also advised the government. But she is still very much seen as a teachers’ headteacher.
“You can’t start again, let us value the workforce that we’ve got,” she says. They are views that might seem at odds with those of the current Ofsted chief inspector, who once infamously said that “if anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’, you will know you are doing something right”. But Sir Michael Wilshaw is now approaching retirement and Dame Alison was among those interviewed as a possible replacement.
She says she put herself forward for the chief inspector’s job in the spirit that “perhaps she could help”. But Dame Alison isn’t particularly disappointed that she is no longer in the running, because she believes that the people who are still in the frame for the job are good candidates.
Her leadership style is to inspire and empower others – whether heads, teachers or children – and she also likes a laugh. It is a powerful combination.
Cutting out labels
Dame Alison has long been convinced that you cannot meaningfully label children with numbers or letters. It was once a radical, almost unimaginable idea, but – slowly – the system has come around to what she has been calling for for years.
When the national curriculum was reviewed, a government-appointed expert panel reported that pupils were describing themselves as being a “level 3” student, and it was thought that this limited what they could do and understand. In 2013, it was announced that levels would be scrapped and Dame Alison went on to become a member of the Commission on Assessment without Levels, which reported in September 2015.
But being left without a national system between statutory assessments has been stressful for teachers, which is why Dame Alison chose to organise the #LearningFirst conference, as a way for the profession to share good practice. She says that she has an “inbuilt restlessness”.
“I work really hard. It’s a blessing and a curse, because you can never stop and you’re never going to get there either,” she says. “But I think we can always make things better.”
Dame Alison Peacock CV
Born 17 October 1959, London
Education BA degree in English and Drama, University of London; PGCE in primary education, University of Warwick
1983-1989 Works in secondary and advisory teaching posts
1989-1996 Brings up children, gains an M.Ed from Queens’ College, Cambridge
1996 Teaches in primary schools in Hertfordshire
2003 Becomes head of Wroxham School, Hertfordshire – a primary in special measures
2006 Wroxham rated outstanding by Ofsted
2010-2012 Leads the Cambridge Primary Review network to disseminate the work of the review’s ideas and recommendations
2014 Made a Dame in New Year’s Honours list
2015 Made a visiting professor by the University of Hertfordshire