The sad story of a Leeds school and how one teacher came to leave the UK altogether

south leeds

South Leeds High School

Victoria Jaquiss FRSA, teacher

This is a true story about a friend of mine,and a school in inner-city Leeds that deserved better.

The story is intended to debunk the idea, once and for all that inner-city schools are not already staffed with the best teachers or that they are letting down their students. It is also a sad reflection of the damage that privatisation and academisation can do to children and families and school staff especially in deprived areas.

My friend joined the Science team at Merlyn Rees Community High School in 1998, and quite soon became deputy and then Head of Science. Her rapid rise to promotion was accompanied by increasingly high standards in the teaching of Science from herself and all her staff at Merlyn Rees, and later South Leeds High School.

In 2004 Leeds decided to merge Merlyn Rees and Matthew Murray High Schools. The way that Education Leeds, a private education firm foisted upon Leeds in 2002, set about this was breath-taking. It was only achieved successfully thanks to the commitment of my friend and her colleagues who were solely and entirely motivated by what was best for their students. The challenges of teaching kids going through this merger of schools and cultures (one mostly white, one mostly Asian) meant that my friend had to induct eight new science teachers before any of them stuck.

Their patient and tireless handling by staff of this potential disaster was never formally acknowledged. As they didn’t actually build the new school before merging the two other, there was a year of bussing between the sites and siblings were separated. On a regular basis staff would finish a lesson at one site and then drive to another building two and a half miles away. There another teacher might start their lesson, and then quite possibly they would drive straight back. Tensions between pupils from the two schools were unresolved leading to a serious racist incident, reported in the national press.

Eventually South Leeds High School was born, tensions overcome and it moved into its new premises. After a difficult start, it was a new multi-cultural school on the up, according to Ofsted. This school survived the trauma of merger thanks to the hard work, dedication and loyalty from mostly long-serving staff. After an entirely understandable dip in performance, South Leeds was improving.

Now it was 2009 and nobody wanted South Leeds to be an academy, not the parents, not the staff, not the pupils, not even Education Leeds, especially not Ofsted who had just concluded the school was making satisfactory progress since the merger, and who advised them that the last thing they needed now was academisation.

At the “consultation” meeting the community came out in their hundreds to say no. An NUT officer called for a show of hands and counted the people present. The vote went: 400 against the academy, 3 for it. But one of the 3 was Sir Paul Edwards, the headteacher of Garforth Academy, lead school of the sponser, School Partnership Trust. I guess some people are just more equal than others.

My friend recalls:

“I think he was knighted the New Year after the consultation started – I remember texting a colleague in the Christmas holidays saying – that’s the final nail in our coffin”.

In September 2009, just five traumatic years after the merger of Merlyn and Matthew, just as South Leeds High School was improving, the school became an Academy.

“The worst feeling was having that sense of achievement taken away as they swooped in and took credit for the foundation work we’d started and for clearing the deficit budget. I said to the head that it was like running a marathon only to have someone pull up in their car and insist on giving you a lift for the last mile.”

At this point forty plus members of staff left; my friend going one year later. By now she has done everything that she personally can to look after the children of Belle Isle, including for several years being a staff governor.

She sums up why she left:

“What clinched it for me in the academy was the obsession with numbers, instead of the education of the whole student, and making the best decisions for ‘the business’ rather than the individual, students forced to follow a pathway to maximise results instead of being offered meaningful options to match their interests and future needs. I remember fighting for triple science to be included in the ‘vocational’ option the previous year so that G&T students wouldn’t have to do hairdressing – SLT staff actually complained that would mean only 2 extra GCSEs for those students rather than the four equivalents in a BTEC.”

The promised prosperity that academisation would bring did not emerge. Redundancy after redundancy followed; those who had put personal happiness and security second to their commitment to the families of the area now found their loyalty unrewarded.

South Leeds now makes headline news for all the wrong reasons, coming bottom of league tables, advertising for an unqualified Maths teacher, and now its last and most disgusting act to date: to dispatch its latest group of teachers and support staff in what amounted to a very public sacking.

All of the staff were called into the hall; the deputy had an announcement – projected on the big screen was a list of current jobs, for example ‘Sociology teachers currently: 3’, next to this was the ‘Requirements Moving Forward: Sociology teachers needed: 1’.

This was how the members of staff found out that they were being made redundant. The staff on the front row were able to walk out in tears, the others just had to sit there.

What was the reason for this callous dispatching of staff? Well, an academy can’t carry a budget deficit. But why ever has it got to this point? They get the extra ten percent from the government that should by rights go to local services. They should have more money, not be poorer. Why in this manner? Well, perhaps it’s the nature of the academy beast, incompetent and uncaring.

What’s my friend Debs doing now? Well, she is at present a Science Education Advisor for Abu Dhabi Education Council. They use the UK and other countries to benchmark its curricula and take advice on SEN policies etc. She supports the science teaching in seven schools directly, and is involved in developing the curriculum and assessment in secondary science for the entire emirate.

And so I rest my case. To teach in the inner-city you need a special type of teacher; s/he needs to be a cut above the average, because, beside all the relevant qualifications, you need to have a massive desire and commitment to want to work in these most challenging of circumstances. That my friend did this over twelve years, mostly at middle management proves that she had what it takes. With her reputation, Debs could, at any point, have walked into an “easier” school in the UK. Now she is part of inevitable brain drain as UK teachers realise the UK Education secretary does not value the great staff we have here, already working in the most challenging areas.
Leaving is always a difficult decision. Go and feel guilty, or stay and suffer as your ability to teach as your students and their families need you to is removed from you. Your health suffers, along with your ability to continue to make a difference.

At present academies are being propped up by teachers and support staff loyal to their pupils and their families. And what will they do when this talent, expertise and experience all runs out?


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