A school in chaos – the isms


The school had an undercurrent of the isms on arrival. A predominantly white working class intake, with a small but significant national front party on the door step. Although the school was situated next to a major ethnically diverse city, students and parents exhibited no desire and even fear which prevented them from exploring the city and discovering difference. As a Sports School it had established dominant male leads in traditional roles. A key male within the staffroom, dominated any discussion with deep undertones of misogyny. This school was rife with unchallenged issues. While I am not an advocate of zero tolerance in all behaviour issues, in these areas and all isms, it was essential that we did not accept any part of them. The sooner my community knew I would not tolerate them the better. What did I learn with every ism? – address it, and never let one opportunity go to let everyone know it is unacceptable. I have written some examples of the isms in action at the school I inherited, and my response.

Sexism – where was it lurking in my new school?

On my appointment and arrival at the school, my mere presence as the new Head, began to tackle a little of the sexism that existed in the school. In my early darkest moments, the key male member of staff continued to dominate the staff voice. Not one women spoke out during the first months of our staff meetings, except me. Later, when he squared up to hit me, (In this moment I was praying he would. I’d have taken the knock to remove him from the school, and bought myself veneers on the outcome.) I knew my mere presence irked the living daylights out of him. In writing this I can’t believe my naivety in not taking this incident further. However, it would have been his word against mine. No one else was in the stairwell.

As a new Head your staff and students need to get to know you, in a truly chaotic school that has had very weak leaders you begin as the lead role model. If you want to change the ethos and values, then you should be leading assemblies. Over time my Deputy and I have realised that the method of the Chinese mantra, say it again and again in formal settings and then again, almost to the point of indoctrination creates significant impact. Yes, I did write indoctrination for the isms as these are absolutely and fundamentally wrong, and the only area of life we were never prepared to debate with our students. We spent considerable time in generating this message with examples of why.

As I set out on my assemblies in key stages, (we never could put the whole school together due our limited hall space) and in year groups each half term. I was met with wolf whistles. Initially I ignored it, but within a week this technique was only dampening the situation, not stopping it. So what do you do? With any ism my belief is you tackle it head on…. You never pussy foot around it, you talk about it. So that’s what I did in my assemblies. Guilt and questions are such a powerful tool. We discussed, (well they listened) why I was subjected to wolf whistles, why they might have been intending it as a compliment, but that I didn’t feel it was. How would they behave if I was a male? Why was it women in 2009 were still subjected to this treatment in the UK and why it needed to stop? Somehow the conviction of the assembly, and I think one of the first times an ism had been tackled head on, had impact. I didn’t face the wolf whistle again.

Women on women, perpetuating our own kind of sexism.

In any school change, the older year groups (not sixth form) find it hardest. They have gone through the school and have been ingrained intentionally (if you have quality leadership) and unintentionally if not, in the beliefs (overt or subliminal) that the school represents. My first year 11 were no exception. As I began to make change, a group of around ten to twelve white girls, all very sporty and indoctrinated in the heavy male sports presence, decided they didn’t like what I was trying to do. To show this dislike they took to booing me predominantly at any public event where I was having to be present. This booing was loud, persistent and yes internally upsetting. I think that if this had been 2012 onwards this would have been followed up with social media clips etc. Fortunately for me the phenomenon was only just beginning!

It surprised me, I thought it would have been the male population that took to revolt, but in hindsight women are excellent at subtle subterfuge and often so hard on each other. Even in the primary playground girls are constantly falling out with each other, and judging. Give me a male argument as a head teacher any day.  Cave man aggression (yes dangerous at the time) initially, but quickly the heat and argument are gone.

The booing was backed up by a whisper campaign, and drop dead looks and directed laughter whenever I was on the scene. God bless them, like others in the staff, the sight of a thirty-six-year-old female, attempting to lead a school full of significant testosterone……. (please note we had more boys in almost all year groups) confused them at best.

So what do you do? Tackle it head on. They were fifteen and sixteen years old, so I felt it was not necessary to involve the parents immediately. Instead I kept the group, post one assembly. This wasn’t a discussion. This wasn’t time for understanding to show in my eyes. This was time to talk women in the 21st century in power, and how we work with each other. They left knowing that I hate booing, I find it one of the most cowardly things to do. A group mentality trick, which creates a noise but gives the causes freedom to hide behind and remain anonymous in a crowd. They were told “If they had an issue, disliked what I was doing and wanted me to rethink, then they fronted up to me and we talked properly and appropriately. But before they did, could they consider their response to me… would a male head have the same treatment from them?” I continued. “They were going to face real challenge in their life and for too long some women had made the mistake of seeing other women as competition. I wanted to effect change and I wanted to reduce this for them and for my daughter”. On hearing this, their eyes rolled at first, but later became more constant. The outcome of our meeting? The booing disappeared from my hearing, (not the best) and although the comments were tempered, the looks remained, but as I say to lots of students you can’t change the eyes but you can close the mouth.

Sexism on the internet

The dawn of social media and the internet is rich with promise for education and learning, students have so much knowledge at their finger- tips and commentary. However, we all know that we are at the beginning of this new era and limited in our approach and use of these facilities. One of the most frightening and worrying elements in the access to information has been the abundant and unrestrained access to porn, but not just any porn, hard core. Often with the mistreatment of women and or other subordinates being played out in fantasy situations where this seems the norm. What frightens me most is that, what the majority of adults would consider outside of the norm is now becoming the perceived norm for teenagers. Students have regular and frequent access to violent and aggressive porn. This, is not a good teaching method. Frighteningly, this has also led to two cases in my school where a teenage relationship has moved into domination and a sexually abusive scenario. Each case has had regular access from a young age to porn. What do we need to do? Talk about sex as parents and carers. Address the issues with active campaigns to re balance what are “healthy and enriching” sexual relationships. Talking about what was once so taboo, is essential for our teenagers and whilst I began the process in school I think a national agenda is essential. My one saving grace in both of these situations was that the teenagers told us, and trusted us enough to deal with it. Sadly, the outcomes involved the police.

A small note on sexism in leadership for females. In a headship world that remains with roughly 75% of secondary heads originating from private schools and only 25% of the current headship population in secondary schools are female, grey suited men predominate. In watching and admiring my older female colleagues, I had concluded that a number of them had faced the battles of sexism and leadership by becoming equal and alpha in their approach. Emotion was out and into the battle fray we go, seemed their mantra. Rightly or wrongly this is not me and I was not prepared to shape my headship as a second rate male. I believe I am lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to take this stance by the women that have gone before me.

For my SLT from the outset this has meant they have seen tears from me of frustration at times of great stress, and probably a little more indecision and lack of self- belief. Yet, at least I feel integral to my type of women hood rightly or wrongly. And in a chaotic school if you don’t stay integral to your beliefs, you lose the grip on you and the mountain you are climbing. Talking about this dilemma with them (my leadership team) and my female students was crucial to supporting young women in the future to make decisions about their choices in the work places and how men respond to these changes.


When you break down the intake of my ex school there were small pockets of Black British, Turkish and a small, but rapidly growing group of students from the ex- Eastern bloc.  Though in a sea of white, they were in the minority. With the national front on our door step, the undercurrent of racism was rife. It seeped below the culture but surfaced regularly.  On entry a log of racism at the school showed very little had ever been reported. That log and reality were very different.

Racism in the beginning existed in three forms that I could identify. The first was in the staff. Like many schools Science was in disarray with only four permanent members and the rest temporary staff. In fact, the entire Year seven had only temporary teachers in the school on arrival. Who stayed a few weeks and then were replaced, once the chaos in the classroom became too much for the leadership to ignore. Supply teachers were almost exclusively foreign, and predominantly black and African. Their experience of supply teaching in the UK often came as a huge shock to them; arriving from countries where education was the path out of poverty. To face marauding crowds of students disillusioned with the constant turn- over of Science staff and the drudgery and often pointless nature of cover work. The situation was a disaster. No one had intended or was saying that foreign teachers resulted in failure, but this was the students experience and was leading to a culture where difference other than white in the teaching body, led to immediate poor behaviour and lack of respect on approaching a new teacher. This was an appalling situation to inherit.

A key player in the Maths department was the exception to this. In reflecting on my period of time at the school, I recognise I owe so much to this Maths teacher. He helped not only to deliver great maths teaching and an awesome belief to all students that “Yes they can do maths!” But also he helped me, with great patience by accepting my initial overt strategy, and later subtler one to tackle this problem. He put up with my efforts to constantly remind the students that without immigrants, and second and third generations of ethnically diverse groups, we couldn’t have filled our Maths department and later other departments with such passion and quality.

The beloved mathematician was a huge ex Ugandan, with a broad thick accent and wicked sense of humour and a passion for Maths. Ignored by the previous regime, he couldn’t believe that I would come initially to talk to him, and later to regularly ask his advice on a variety of leadership matters including support for ethnic minority staff and students. In his first two years at school, (prior to my appointment) he had experienced all the overt and subliminal racism and questions over his thick accent and blunt manner. However, his resilience and personality saw him through, and by the time I reached the school he was already a legend. Well respected and with children and parents in awe. He was truly a great. Please note all failing schools have pockets of excellence, often buried and hidden behind closed doors but there for the discovery.

I am not black and having been out of London teaching in the world of white working class for more than 15 years, I am conscious that this story may not be pc and or what anti- racism activists would suggest is the way forward. However, for me this man and others like him, were key to quietly challenging very ingrained perceptions and fears of difference within our community, and in supporting other colleagues to adjust to teaching in the school. My wonderful Chair of Governors, and Parent Governor were also great advocates for diversity.

From my experience the ridiculously complicated entry system erected by the coalition government is compounding the already pressing issues of recruitment, and recruitment in challenging schools is harder than anywhere else. This is also compounded by the fact that Requiring Improvement and Failing schools are not allowed to breed their own source of teachers by training them. This has left schools like my ex establishment becoming more and more reliant on overseas teachers. And while almost all overseas teachers can convert and become successful in the UK, the time to adjust is long and difficult and requires specific and intensive training. My mathematician would talk frequently about African maths and how it was different and staff needed time to convert.

The second form of racism was experienced by the students and was probably summed up by one Year eleven girl’s experience. I met her very early on in my Headship. Her reputation proceeded her, and sadly when staff described this young adult, it was with little empathy and what felt like a significant amount of animosity. This student was attractive, dynamic, intelligent and angry as hell. She could pick a fight with any teacher and or student within seconds and there was no possibility of negotiation once this student had turned to conflict.  She and two of her friends who joined later, were phenomenal in their ability to argue their point of view and I seriously hope at least one of them has taken my advice and is now a lawyer.

Somewhere in this student’s history she had been very popular and great friends with a lead family in the local area, but this friendship had turned sour and underneath this sourness was a whiff of racism. Too far back in her history and too difficult for me to unpick as I got to know this student in our long discussions in my office. I began to see a picture of a fog of racism incidents surrounding the major school conflicts that had occurred in this student’s life. Yet no one had tackled them or even attempted to name and label it. The subliminal messages we were sending her and students like her, was that it was better to not say anything and to ignore this. Over time this approach had resulted in a young adult who was steaming with rage and this was often directed at the teachers.  Any- one who went to challenge this student ended up with a full frontal of abuse. On one memorable occasion she barricaded herself into a classroom with a group of friends in defence of a decision. Hours later and a lot of low level talking and calmness she came out!

I was not sure by the time I got to her how much I helped. I hope that she was able to witness any racism that was reported to me was tackled without delay. Certainly we talked about my conclusions about had happened to her and how sorry I was. She needed to hear that this was wrong. She did calm a little in the last days that I worked with her, but I am not sure how much success I made of the situation. What I learnt was, how easy it is to turn away from facing an ism, but how damaging it is for the individual involved and the community experiencing this abuse. Racism always has to be faced, and as school leaders we need to be proactive in regularly addressing this with staff and students, to make sure they know to report any issues in. Quiet tolerance generates a storm, and giving students the confidence to report issues and know they will be addressed is key.

Parents were our last source of racism, of course however much teenagers might deny it, there home seeds the majority of their base values and opinions. One memorable moment with a Parent stands out. It is an example of where our ability to tackle racism head on and talk about it openly, led to a Parent of a child reverse her strategy of denial and recognise her own behaviours were part of her son’s problem. By the end of the conversation with my Deputy and I, she stated, “Oh my god… it’s me… I am feeling so angry about the growth of Polish shops that have sprung up in the area in the last 4 months. I feel like the high street is being taken over and I know this is influencing him. I have got things wrong.” Her honesty and recognition of her anger were to us astonishing, and a reflection hopefully of the work we could do in the community to make people think and question. This Mum had a child who found school very difficult but her honesty, humility and determined approach supported him throughout his career with us.

Ism 3 Homophobia (sorry doesn’t quite fit my theme of ism)

In my school the word Gay was banded around frequently as a slight, by the majority of boys in the school and many of the girls. Although statistically I am likely to have had a variety of bi and homosexuals in the school staff, non- ever identified themselves to the community as is their right. One very brave boy (brave because of the climate) stood out, and I met him when he was in year 10. We were already heavily into tackling the use of Gay as a derogatory term, and had carried out some initial work with Stonewall. Any opportunity to pull up this type of slight was taken my SLT and members of staff, yet it remained prevalent in the community.

Unbeknown to us this student had taken it upon himself to openly express his homosexuality and to defend his right to choose his sexuality. He was having a hard time, particularly in PE when this stand came to my notice. Wolf whistles and continuous gibes were his norm within the school day.

At the same time, a phone call came in from Stonewall to say that as we had been so proactive in tackling this issue, they wanted to offer us the opportunity to meet Sir Ian McKellen and have him come to the school and talk to a small number of students.  This was a fantastic opportunity and one rarely given to school like mine in such challenging circumstances. “How could we guarantee good behaviour?” was often the unspoken doubt in people’s mind. However, stonewall took risks and they were prepared to take one in a school that really needed to get over homosexuality and bi sexuality and welcome them into 21st century living!

I decided to ask Sam if he would be willing to help me organise the day, and to advise us on how we could get the maximum benefit from the occasion. He was openly out and therefore I wanted his advice, if he was willing. As always his parents were included in the decision. We also invited the embryonic group that was to form our equalities and diversities student voice committee to help. Together we worked to organise the day with a focus around maximising the impact to change the students use of the term gay and their perceptions of Gay individuals.

In our discussions, the student group were clear that actually we needed to capitalise on the number of students who would have an opportunity to see and hear Sir Ian McKellen speak, and to hear his message. The small groups of students actually turned into over four hundred students having access, during two sessions which lasted the majority of the morning. We felt that the age ranges fourteen – nineteen would benefit most from the experience. Once again Stonewall were willing to take the risk and Sir Ian McKellen after consultation agreed!

The day itself began with Sir Ian visiting a beautiful and successful school in the leafy countryside in the morning. He arrived with us after break, where he was met by the student counsel who had helped me organise the event and our student newspaper group. From the outset he was astonishingly candid and graceful, keen to engage with all students and staff. He spent well over his planned allocation time, in two sittings in the hall, jammed to the rafters with students. Speaking to them at length about his experience as a homosexual. He also after requests performed soliloquies for our students, which kept them spell bound. His impression, bravery, and inclusivity kept them enchanted and he single handily routed the your gay as a criticism from the school. All we had to do was keep this going. Our students behaved impeccably, and our student voice groups confidence that they would was not let us down, paid off.

Sir Ian also provided me with a fabulous opportunity to display pictorially our support for Stonewall and homosexuality. As I had huge white board pictures made of Sir Ian and our students which we placed as the first pictorial image in reception. They were massive and left no one in doubt of our message. Sam had a fabulous day and although not easy, his route way through school was improved substantially, his voice has been heard and respected.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s