When it comes to education, I’m in two minds, maybe three. I was sent to private schools, including, for my ‘Oxbridge’ term, Eton, where the teaching was life-changing. But when it came to my children, no amount of cheeseparing was going to make private fees possible. From the age of three to 18, they went to our local state schools. They flourished academically, made lots of friends and enjoyed two advantages I never had: they walked to school, and mixed comfortably with children from every background. Why pay fees? I wondered. State schools were best.
Alison Colwell makes me think again. In 2014, she was appointed head teacher at Ebbsfleet Academy in Kent, then one of the most challenging schools in the country. Only 17 per cent of students were getting the minimum requirement of five GCSEs at A* to C grades. Pupils practised ‘classroom terrorism’ – screaming and throwing desks around. Local people were frightened of them. Teachers worked in an atmosphere of ‘fear and mistrust’; advertisements for teaching staff routinely yielded no applications. Honestly, I’d rather have my teeth pulled than send a child to the school she describes.
But No Excuses is Colwell’s account in diary form of how, over five years, she turned things around. She’s written it not to ‘lament the dire state of education in this country’ (though she does a bit of that), but to celebrate teaching – ‘the noblest, most joyous, most rewarding job in the world’.
She is frank about what she’s up against. A staggering 76 per cent of her pupils qualify for ‘Pupil Premium’, meaning not only that they come from households with very low incomes but are further disadvantaged – in care, for example: removed from parents addicted to drink or drugs or serving prison sentences. And if the children are challenging – truanting, swearing, staring at her with ‘pure, undiluted hatred’ when she confiscates their mobiles – the real shockers are the mums and dads. When she hauls up a boy for not wearing uniform, his father’s response is expletive laden. She quails to think what pupils are exposed to outside school: ‘The way we talk to our children becomes their own inner voice. It pains me to think of how much shouting and abuse so many of our children hear at home.’ The police are called ‘frequently’ to remove aggressive parents from the school.
Colwell was herself once in the police – a Met officer who changed career after watching Dead Poets Society. In the privacy of her office, she is often in tears – both of joy and rage – but in public she’s serene. Faced with impossible parents, she confides to her diary what she would like to say but can’t. A mum insists that her daughter has ADHD – ‘And I want to say “Yes, she certainly has needs. She needs another mum, one who hasn’t spent their daughter’s entire life snorting drugs and then expects their bright, hurting, lonely child to respect them.”’ ADHD, Colwell believes, has become ‘the catch-all excuse of modern times’ in dysfunctional families. Usually it’s more a case of P-P-P – ‘Piss-Poor-Parenting’.
She’s determined not to let deprivation dictate destiny. She walks the school, popping in and out of lessons, involving herself. She knows the names of all the children, staff and cleaners. Also their birthdays. She keeps meetings, paperwork and admin to a minimum (she’s inspired to discover that James Dyson sends only six emails a day). Instead of enrolling teachers on expensive courses she organises ‘Teaching, Tea and Toast’ Fridays, when they can support one another. She expects her staff to go the extra mile, visiting the homes of ‘school refusers’, waiting while they get dressed, walking them to school in time for assembly. Locals begin to email to say how beautifully pupils have behaved on buses or in parks. An anonymous donor sends a cheque for £4,000. Exam results creep up.
Three years into Colwell’s headship, Ofsted visits and judges the school ‘Good’ (given the levels of truancy, their highest rating, ‘Outstanding’, would never have been possible), with a special shout-out for ‘exceptional leadership’. One inspector ‘wells up’ as she reflects on what has been achieved.
Colwell hopes that the staff and children she worked with will read this book; also the secretary of state for education, to whom she addresses a stinging afterword (‘Education is in crisis. Deep, deep crisis...’). But I hope it’ll be read by people she’s maybe never met – her counterparts in private schools – and that they might learn from each other. Early on, she quotes words from C.S. Lewis that should strike a chord with all teachers: ‘You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.’ In that belief, Ebbsfleet and Eton could surely unite.