Every school has its own unique flavour. Officially it is called ethos. Unofficially we call it ‘the feel.’
Regular and dear readers will be aware that I am currently in my fourth posting as a Head Teacher. I tend to remain at each school about 4 years before moving on to the next test. As I have become more experienced in my role, I have sought more robust challenges. Thus, each school in succession has been flawed incrementally.
I visited the staff from my third posting the other night. They were meeting to say farewell to a colleague who I respect immensely and was therefore honoured to be invited. The journey to the pub where the party was planned was on the complete opposite end of London from my glass box and negotiating the rush hour traffic turned out to be a 2 hour 30 minute affair.
My third headship (let’s call the school Westlands) was a successful posting. The job at hand intrigued me in that the school had been without a head teacher for several years. This strange situation stemmed from an incident involving parents fighting on the playground. The fight put a chain of events into motion which ended up being a test case for head teacher’s rights in the national media. The right-wing, xenophobic British Press latched onto the story and maximised its appeal to Little England.
After that, the school became a pariah. No Head Teacher would take on the school on a long term basis. The pupil population dwindled and the school fell into a rudderless malaise.
I sensed something at Westlands when I first visited. It was potential. My experience has afforded me the skill of being able to walk into a school and within 5 minutes to have an innate understanding of its ethos. Westlands was a sleeping giant, I felt. It just needed to be loved and nurtured.
Geographically, the school straddled two juxtaposing neighbourhoods. To the north was an area of economic deprivation which was home to a large Somali population displaced by the ongoing war in the Horn of Africa. I have huge respect for the Somali refugee families I have met down the years. They have witnessed horrendous scenes but remain upbeat, positive, friendly and polite.
The neighbourhood to the south was the school’s traditional catchment; an affluent and pristine neighbourhood of multi-million pound houses. It was and remains home to numerous television personalities. It is a land of wine bars and organic grocers, of pretentious boutiques that are reassuringly expensive. A bit like this:
Needless to say, families in the neighbourhood to the south did not attend the school. It was considered a blemish on their neighbourhood. Westlands was gossip fodder for the chattering classes at dinner parties. Therefore the school remained under-subscribed and utilised only by the Somali community to the north.
I took the school on, sensing its potential. It was quickly apparent that I had chosen wisely. The staff was entirely committed to turning the school around. Change can be difficult to manage at any institution but at Westlands I was pushing on an open door.
Staff colleagues were friendly, hard-working and most had a wicked sense of humour that fit in well with my own. I cultivated their good will and within two years we had moulded the school into something special. Perhaps too special.
At the end of my second year at Westlands I noticed the change. Suddenly we were receiving applications from families from the neighbourhood to the south. This was unheard of and signalled that the school’s recent turn-around was being noted by the affluent population.
As the southern neighbourhood was the school’s legal catchment, it meant those families received priority in securing places. Westlands soon filled up with a very different clientage: families who were more concerned with ‘keeping up with the Jones’ than keeping on the edge of social reform.
The families from the northern border were squeezed out. I could see what was coming. I approached the school governors and told them the school was changing and we had to make a stand if we were to carry on creating a school we could all be proud of. I had no idea how profound my prediction would turn out to be.
A year later and the school was the darling of the dinner-party circuit. It was being talked about in glowing terms and the moneyed residents of the south were scrambling to be admitted. Day to day management began to become pre-occupied with trivial tittle-tattle and parents jockeying for special advantages for their child.
I can best illustrate this with the story of a local, vociferous mother who very much reminds me of the woman in the video clip I posted earlier. She willingly confessed that she and other parents compared the reading levels of their children at dinner parties. She demanded to know why her child had not been promoted to the next reading level like that of her friends’ children. I explained that her son was not yet ready to move onto the next level. It was (and still is) important that children consolidate one level before moving on. To do otherwise creates problems in the longer term.
She refused to take no for an answer and started a campaign to allow parents to dictate the school’s reading policy. This was fought off (by now the governors sensed that my warning was real). However, I was horrified to find the same mother had sneaked into the school building when I was working late one night and had taken the next level reading books from her child’s classroom to put in her son’s book bag. Something to brag about over a cappuccino and organic muffin I imagine.
Soon after, Westlands received a visit from Her Majesty’s inspectors. They awarded the school the second highest judgement possible and I am very proud that my own leadership received the government’s very highest acclaim. The school had been in very real danger of failing three years before. However, when I told the school community of the news, it was not met with congratulations. No, dear readers. It was met with queries from parents as to why we hadn’t achieved the very highest honours across the board. Second highest honours do not allow one bragging rights at dinner parties, it seems.
At that very moment, I decided the school I loved was lost. I handed in my resignation a week later. Westlands had been conquered from the south.
I still have many good friends on the staff there. That is unusual as my style is now not to mix at all with the staff. Familiarity breeds an atmosphere where tough decisions become muddled by friendship. I can’t afford that luxury these days.
Still, it was good for my soul; to go into the pub and visit with my former colleagues. My friends. We swapped stories and laughed at times gone by. I hadn’t realised how much I missed them.
My current school, far away in East London has made me stronger but also eaten away part of my soul. Visiting Westlands made me remember what I was, what I can be. Building an ethos is wholly dependent on the people who make it. Westlands was special; never to be repeated.
Driving home from the pub I thought about the opening lines of a poem Rudyard Kipling wrote (when he wasn’t writing The Jungle Book):
Oh! East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!
Keep the Faith,