I have worked for 34 years in 10 schools in 4 countries, across 3 continents and in umpteen roles from supply teacher to Headteacher. I have worked in non-selectivestate schools and in international schools teaching kindergarten children through to 19 year olds.
At various points of my career, this PE and English teacher has taught Drama, Maths, Science, Religious Education and Islamic Studies. The children I have taught were of every faith, no faith and from a range of cultures and nationalities so I think I have earned the right to express my views about the state of education, without being accused of being political or of abusing my position.
It doesn’t mean I am right or you have to agree with me. However I think I can claim to be credible in what I say about schools and the children in them; about the teachers, support staff, admin staff, site staff, parents and governors who support those children every day in the hope that they will have a better future than we had; that we will make sure that no matter what advantages or disadvantages they have, we will do whatever it takes to support them so that they succeed in school.
I also believe I know what it takes to run an effective school. By effective, I don’t necessarily mean the definition granted by an Ofsted grade or by Progress 8 or our position in a League Table. At this stage of my career in my 13th year of headship, I have had 9 Ofsted inspections, including 4 as a Headteacher. During that time we have been satisfactory when we should have been special measures, we have been good when we should have been outstanding and now we are good when the current framework makesmost schools in my context “requires improvement“. We have had fantastic exam results and we have had devastating exam results. None of this has made us more or less effective. They have simply been weighing and measuring exercises.
It is the quality of people and relationships that make schools effective. Obviously what we do in the classroom makes a huge difference to our children’s futures. They need a good set of reputable qualifications. A disadvantaged child needs these qualifications even more if they are ever to get out of that generational spiral of poverty and/or low aspirations. However, it is about so much more than that and truly effective schools provide a wide range of sports, music and drama opportunities. They offer a programme of cultural enrichment such as theatre visits, museums and art galleries. They organise residential experiences preferably out of the area so that the children can develop their independence and see the countryside or the seaside or a foreign country for the first time.
I was a white working class child growing up on an interesting council estate in the Midlands. My first theatre trip was with school-my first art gallery visit. My first holiday and residential was with school. I learnt to swim at school. I grew to be sports mad as result of my school experiences. I went to Germany-my first ever time abroad with school.
Three things got me where I am today-the love of sport and the network of friends and mentors I met as a result; my passion for reading everything and always asking “why?” and my super brainy mum and very witty dad who were determined we would have the opportunities and lifestyle that they never had. My Catholic comp in the 70s was woeful but you only need one inspirational teacher to change your life and I had 3-in PE, History and English. I don’t know what they saw in me or how they even noticed me but they did and I am a Headteacher today because of them and my parents.
So what am I doing in London on a Friday, during the day, like a real grown up? Why am I in the company of over 1500 headteachers walking from Parliament Square to Downing Street? Why despite being absolutely terrified of making a complete idiot of myself am I eagerly answering the questions a lovely Guardian reporter is asking me with a big camera and microphone thrust in my face? Why have parents, staff and students wished me luck and told me they support me 100%?
It is because we are all tired of being ignored; ignored by the government and I would argue, ignored by the DfE and ignored by Ofsted. They really are #StillNotListening. School funding is now so desperate that many schools across the country are already in deficit and more will follow. We cannot increase class sizes any further, we cannot lose any more teachers to redundancy, we cannot keep increasing timetable workload, and our most vulnerable children cannot do without support staff. Today, over 1500 Headteachers attended the #WorthLess? march in London to get that message across loud and clear with one powerful, united voice.
I am 55, and I am angry. At this pension significant age I feel empowered to stand up and speak out especially when others cannot. I think every child in this country deserves to attend a school that is adequately funded as a minimum expectation. I’m fed up of fictitious economics and excuses from ministers. I want the next generation of headteachers to have a chance of making a difference by being able to staff their school safely and be able to run a diverse and well-resourced curriculum.
I am angry because I want every child and especially a disadvantaged child to have the opportunities that I had at school: to experience music, sport, drama and the arts. I want them to have their eyes opened to the world out there in every sense. This is becoming impossible with the current levels of funding and parents should not be asked to make up the shortfall.
Today was incredible. I was proud to be there and to be a part of it. We now need it to create change. We need them to start listening because our children are worth more, so much more.
Helen Keenan is a member of the HTRT Core Group and she is Headteacher of Brownhills School, a secondary school in Walsall.