Why I Write
I write for justice. To be heard. Although my voice may be a whisper now, one day it will be a cacophony. I asked many people for help. All roads to justice, once opened, closed firmly when they knew what the beast looked like.
I am writing as if I know you. I don’t. The reason I set up a blog initially was for me to remember and to help me understand the world in which I live. As an ambitious human, one thing I know for sure is that I have to write. Cue https://www.ted.com/talks/yuval_noah_harari_what_explains_the_rise_of_humans?language=en
Recently I met a woman while with my youngest grandson. “Would you like to hold him?” I asked. “Oh yes, just take him back after a few minutes because I can’t get up to give him back to you as I have hurt my back.” She gestured her outstretched arms to me as I offered her a little bit of me. “He looks just like my Ben when he was little. Ben was my grandson. He has passed away now.” Ben, Bath, black. Was it Ben Mason? I thought.
“I think I knew Ben, he was the same age as my son. My sons knew him,” I said. As she tenderly holds my precious, she relays several stories about Ben as a baby. Stories that flowed into the ears of my grandson and soon a confession. “The night before he died,” she continued, “I dreamt about him.” How the dream unfolded, thrilled me. The story had been all but abandoned; hidden in the depths of her mind. “I have never told anyone that before,” she said. “Not even my daughter.” “You need to.” “I can’t,” she claims as her eyes fall to the ground. “I can’t. I am afraid.” “At least write it down,” I repeatedly pleaded with her. “That is a story that needs to be told.”
“Many times in life I've regretted the things I've said without thinking. But I've never regretted the things I said nearly as much as the words I left unspoken.”
― Lisa Kleypas, Sugar Daddy
Cognitive Dissonance is a powerful theory in a society where the stakes are high, beliefs between leaders can change rapidly and align with a concept that is difficult for some to fathom. When two people who both hold the same role do not agree, you have to make your allegiances and qualify your reasons.
I worked in education. I was working in mainly failing schools that needed rapid school improvement; all were exposed to the academy programme. The academy programme, set up in 2010, was designed to ‘improve educational attainment in deprived areas by replacing poorly performing schools or building new schools where more school places were required. The Department’s original objectives for academies were to: ¬ raise the educational achievement of their pupils; ¬ provide inclusive, mixed-ability schools; and ¬ contribute to raising aspirations and standards in the local community.
Academies are all-ability state schools. Unlike maintained schools, they are independent of local authorities and directly accountable to the Department for Education (the Department). Academies are managed by charitable companies and governing bodies established by sponsors – individuals or organisations from backgrounds including the voluntary sector, faith communities, education and business.’ https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/1011288es.pdf
Both trusts I worked in from 2012-2017 were sponsored by the same group. https://www.merchantventurers.com/who-we-are/members/ They are a group of Bristol business owners who subscribe to a set of values and commitments to support the community in which they live and work. Behaviour by some trust executive members and their husbands or wives over the last decade has meant that the progress in the schools they sponsored was stalled, people were put at risk and the many staff that were employed by them had their honourable values shattered. After 5 years, 5 of the 8 maintained non special schools they sponsor, are now in a failing Ofsted category. These business people understood business, they don’t allegedly have to understand education. The academy programme was ultimately based on a theory that schools are a business model, a successful model should be replicated a bit like ‘Carpetright’ and schools should be run thus. Forgetting that schools are full of people that change and adapt to the needs of their environment. Leaders in schools are supposed to lead the organisation – the everyday running of the school and supporting the community and lead on teaching and learning. The best schools are led by those that understand and can deliver on both. The sponsors understood business models. I understood business models and teaching and learning, but it didn’t mean that my plans for my Devon school would be easily adapted for my Bristol schools.
Cognitive dissonance prevailed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVR4n8NbSBs from 3m 30 seconds – 4minutes, the presenter describes how I felt during my tenure as a leader with the trust.
19.28, said my satellite clock. I hadn’t been able to play tennis owing to the inclement weather and despite going to the gym and doing my weights in the morning, the June light was calling me outside. “Come on Soph? Let’s run and talk, put the world to rights?” a plea from a friendship where I was convinced telepathy had been honed over the last 40 odd years. I was convinced that those bastards should never have been able to get away with it and was determined to hatch a plan in the last of Tuesday light.
“No. I have to be ready for tomorrow and I have a lot to do.”
“But we will be back within 45 minutes.” I pleaded again. We started to talk and our two-minute chat turned into five and an agreement that we would meet at our usual haunt clad in running gear. In many ways it was perfect running weather, cool breeze ran through the stubborn mist, no sun in your eyes, making any challenging run doable.
We had made some progress recently with our running and when we reached our destination we turned to each other and celebrated with the ease in which we had achieved the apex. We turned to run down the mile hill. We continued with ease downwards and homeward bound and ready to eat the delicious butternut squash I had prepared a day earlier. My mouth was truly watering just thinking about it.
“Have you seen a little dog?” said a sprightly elderly lady ascending the hill in the opposite direction to us. “No. What does it look like?”
“A scotty.” Some banter ensued as Soph has a scotty dog and is familiar with its mischievous temperament. We agreed to go back up the hill through the kissing gate and into the meadow and meet the lady who would continue to look for her dog, but with her accessing the meadow through an unknown neighbour’s house. The light rain began to draw in and those once sun-drenched hills disappeared under a layer of thick mist. Soph went one way and I went the other. We looked for a long time up and down the meadow and as I travelled off the muddy trodden trail and onto the grassy pathway my right leg reluctantly slipped sending a shooting pain upwards simultaneously producing the sound, I can only liken to pulling carrots up from the ground. I tumbled in excruciating pain. I lay screaming, screaming as if my life depended on it. The echoes filled those ancient Roman hills.
“Paula, Paula are you ok? What happened?”
I clenched my fist and thumped the ground several times and continued to scream, which soon trailed into a whimper.
“I fell over. I just fell over. Please call an ambulance.” My language may have been a little more colourful than that.
The usual collection of data started and since the populist screening of the 999 call the collection of data sounded all too familiar. Thank God Soph had her phone and I wasn’t on my own. Rain, that had stored in the clouds was beginning to fall faster. I didn’t care. I was in so much pain. In recent years I had broken my ankle on the other leg, fractured my patella and had dislocated it. Never before, I had experienced such instant pain. There didn’t seem to be a word in the English dictionary that could describe the intensity. It blinded me. I was unable to think. I didn’t cry, but felt like I wanted to. I felt hopeless and helpless. It was the eve of the general election. The NHS philosophy, legacy and capacity were allegedly in crisis. What would happen next? Despite the pain, occasionally lucidity did fill me – thank God I didn’t live in France, I thought. The British people were about to vote to hopefully ensure that their NHS was improved and no longer a huge burden on the mind or the public purse.
Near the apex of the 1200m hill the crew decided to park the ambulance at the bottom and come up, preferring to carry me down the hill than carry me up the other 400m. I didn’t care. I couldn’t think. I remained mostly blinded by the pain. The rain continued to drizzle and now surrounded by kindness, blankets, umbrella, aspirin, love and mostly soothing words, I began to think. I have always been irritated by the rhetorical question like, are you alright? Thoughts were slowly entering my mind and I was even slowly processing the potential next steps, but remained in enormous pain. I believed strongly I had broken my leg. I couldn’t move my leg without screaming. I grew cross, upset, confused, delighted.
The crew arrived to free me from pain. A man and a young woman; a dynamic comedic duo that instantly put me at ease and despite my anxious face and me begging them to not touch my leg, got on with the job. Sensitively. Needing other equipment, the man had to trudge back down the hill to collect an inflatable ankle support. I didn’t care; I had my gas and air. The drizzling rain continued, making the grass potentially treacherous to walk on let alone carry an anxious patient.
Gathered chatter became white noise as I inhaled the beautiful. The foot was moved. The laces loosened. A long and panicked yell rang out. The stupid dog turned up - panting, dirty and without any idea that my sky was falling. I tugged at the grass trying to take some control, while everyone got on with their lives; paramedics offering care and humour, mostly directed at the upcoming election, friends holding an umbrella, neighbours offering small talk and a blanket, dog walker looking horrified and passers-by giving advice.
Worried about getting up, I needed to be. No stretcher on offer, but a chair like an evacu chair. As we were heading down into Smallcombe into my chariot and haven. With my lungs filled with my beautiful, I grew wildly happy.
Two years ago, mesmerised outside the National History Museum, I watched as fairy-tale like families skated around the ice; smiles and show offs whirled. A man, about my age, fell over and blood oozed from the back of his head. I am unsure how he had hit his head, but first aiders ran to his rescue as the rink was evacuated. Stretchered off over the ice he cupped his bandaged head like an embarrassed premiership footballer. Looking to the sky, you could tell he fully trusted the paramedics as they skated him off the ice. Just as the gurney was nearly safely off, it slipped and he fell just about a 1m onto solid ice bumping his head again and the right side of his body. I roared with laughter behind my hand. He did not. Dazed, he tried to get up. The paramedics, while blaming each other, came to his rescue - again.
As we trundle down the hill, high on gas, I relay this story, as it repeatedly ran through my head. It was bound to be my turn to fall off, while in pain. I felt anxious. I had to climb off the chair to become upright and then negotiate a kissing gate, as my leg felt like it was falling off. I remained in agony. That I thought was to be the worst pain. It was not.
I had to get into the ambulance -I couldn't hop; the vibration through the leg caused more trauma. After several attempts to get in via different entrances, I finally landed. I felt I had to take some control and give something back. I had to say yes, not no. That, I thought was to be the worst pain. It was not.
At the hospital my husband met me. Checked in as a patient. I haven’t been a patient in a bed since I had my wisdom teeth extracted 21 years ago. Being in the control of someone else is odd. Wheeled into a cubicle, there was no hustle or bustle as expected, but clear efficiency. X-ray, doctors, ambulance – a whole team. Mostly very helpful and sensitive. All is well with the NHS I thought.
“What pain are you in on a 0-10 threshold?” I was asked. On the hill I declared I was a 9 and the only reason I wasn’t 10 was only because I could talk. Now with hope of being pain free within touching distance but now without gas and air and broken promises of soon getting the good stuff, I declared the pain was a 7.
After my x-ray, performed by a radiologist, who was in desperate need of a patient care refresher course, I heard the doctor, while looking at the latest x-ray, say to the possible junior doctor on duty, “the bone isn’t broken, but the patient has rated the pain as a 7. So what sort of pain relief would you recommend?” Questioned the coaching voice.
‘The bone isn’t broken, but the patient has said they rated the pain as a 7’, echoed in my head relentlessly. What sort of pain do you have to experience to break a bone, I questioned?! I was in agony. I wanted the good stuff. At the very least I wanted my beautiful, I thought, when... ‘the bone isn’t broken, but the patient has rated the pain as a 7. So what sort of pain relief would you recommend?’ echoed in my mind again.
Within 15 minutes a doctor appeared, Mr Benn’s shopkeeper style, to say the leg was fractured. The other doc. must have been discussing another patient – always interested in my surroundings, I scold myself at jumping to conclusions. The rest of what she said became white noise. It’s broken, I thought - relief ran through me that I wasn’t crying wolf, but fear as well, as my sky fell. That, I thought, was to be the worst pain. It was not.
John and Soph returned. The tale continued. John, always aiming to be pragmatic, was convinced that there were forces behind the break and it wasn’t the fault of some dosey Scottie. The Trust that I worked for and was an executive in, was also the employer of my lifelong friend, Soph. Dark forces were at work and he thought he knew it. Soph was about to lose 20% of her pay owing to a Trust swift decision that would affect hundreds of employees, people, friends, parents and neighbours, and was about to kill the ambition and trust in them too. Many employees were already in the JAM club (Just About Managing), what would happen now? A risk management plan had not seemingly been considered, and I was now in a position that I could not influence one. Over the next few hours I became more anxious about the situation that would impact on the wider community. That, I thought, was to be the worst pain. It was not.
The 45 minutes had turned into 6 hours before I returned home. Climbing steps with a leg I daren’t put to the ground wasn’t easy as I crushed snails with my backside into the death-trap of a Victorian house. That, I thought, was to be the worst pain. It was not.
I slept surprisingly well, but when I awoke, I still had a fucking broken leg. My cat snuggled into me. How the hell was I to pee, shower, ride my bike or play tennis? The list of questions about basic living habits grew. Each had an answer. I would be fine and actually play tennis and ride my bike still in plaster. Firstly, I had to vote. Red Cross would loan a wheelchair to us for a small fee. That vote was worth all the scratches that would become permanent indentations on our new car as the wheelchair exited the boot! My second chariot became part of my fight to freedom.
I suppose most people my age who break their leg and are in a permanent job. But I am not most people and despite being in a permanent job, I was being forced out. Even now it is hard not to pour out the pain of being told I wasn’t good enough for a job that I had enjoyed much success in and continued to be successful at. It is no consequence that between September 1st and 5th 2018 I had 8 people from different institutions contact me and ask for advice about their futures in education or about pedagogy. Some I hadn’t spoken to for over 10 years. Most were desperate to be heard, validated and valued. 18 senior leaders I had worked closely with in Bristol over the last 6 years had lost their jobs in ‘suspicious’ circumstances over a 16-month period. The climate of managing schools was changing. Schools were becoming a business. Profits and meeting unattainable targets were seen as keys to success. Leaders and staff were often seen as a commodity or compared to a carpet pattern. Having a 100% success track record of turning schools around and doing it simply by living by my values resulted in me being bullied by several and listened by none. When stakes are high often behaviours by some can become questionable if the landscape is not values based.
I was working in vulnerable primary schools, had galvanised the leaders/teaching and support staff and afforded them the opportunities to reflect
upon and improve their practice using cutting edge and research-based methodologies, all value based and proven to be successful. With deep pedagogy, a can do and supportive leadership style I was popular with staff, but not with the Trustees and CEO.
I gave all staff the opportunity to honour their social obligations, which was one of our ambitions and the reason why we entered leadership in maintained schools in the most deprived areas of England.
My determined attitude to paying a lifestyle forward, contributing positively toward my society, enabling others to achieve freedom, equality and health, was being repeatedly questioned and suppressed. Essentially, my belief that every child can achieve and every child does deserve the best and it is those in leadership that must hold that belief and should be challenged, did not seemingly align with theirs. They (executive board) seemingly believed in the patriarchy and while many were pulling the cloth off it some were putting it on with even more gusto; it seemed cognitive dissonance prevailed.
Newly promoted to executive head along with the head of the secondary school of what I was told was a strong and growing trust, I was invited to the SMV’s Charter Day (this process has been suspended since 2019, purely because of the controversy and embarrassment it caused). A formal affair where Bristol Merchants and their wives paraded and celebrated the achievements that year in a set of prayers and hymns at Bristol Cathedral, selected school children were invited.
Protesters adorned the pavements with placards detailing the shameful history of the heralded historic sponsors with the Colston’s name. Virgin like I approached 2 wives outside the cathedral, both of them clad in illuminating hats. “Hello,” I said. “I am the executive head of the primary schools. Please can you help and tell me which entrance I use as a guest or an ambassador for the schools?” Disgust fell upon their brows as they looked me up and down and waved me away. I think you need to sit with the children. Humiliated, I went and sat with the children. That, I thought, was to be the worst pain. It was not.
January 2017, I was invited to another annual diary event and was to bring a colleague to a post event lunch. We had just appointed a new headteacher and thought she was the perfect guest to introduce to the executive board members.
A charismatic member, started asking me questions about how I did my hair. He later grew a little whimsical and apologised by declaring that he wasn’t terribly pc. Later asking, like a quizzical 3-year-old “Am I allowed to ask you that?” “Yes. “No problem.” Growing in confidence, he turned to my colleague and enquired into her CV. “Wow! You have done terribly well for yourself as a single woman. Oh gosh!” he said, as he covered his mouth. “Am I allowed to say that? No, xxx,” we retort in unison. His wife quickly pops up and says to the table and then resorts to near hysteria laughter. “No, you cannot xxx. As she glances at me and says "No more than you are allowed to say nigger in the woodpile.” That, I thought, was to be the worst pain. It was not.
On April 24th 2017 while presenting my vision for the 5 primary schools I was now leading with the HTs in Bristol I was subjected to several racist comments by my supposed chaperone. XX had had what we deem a privileged child and adulthood. Dad’s money had brought xx an education full of opportunities and several failing businesses. Xx was the same age as me. “I have looked you up.” He said. “I know a lot about you. You are not like most black people.”Here we go again, I thought. This is becoming a pattern. What is this moron going to say next? “I actually don’t like black people,” he continues. ”My wife thinks I am a racist. I am not and let me tell you why. I refuse to employ them. I have tried, but they are the laziest people around.”
He continued to tell me how he was not a racist for a further 20 minutes. It was futile trying to change the institution from the inside, despite
my challenging questions as to his theories, he remained stoical about why he didn't like black people.
‘...my voice may be a whisper now, one day it will be a cacophony.’
Tell me how you get out of that one? That, I thought, was to be the worst pain. It was not.
I tried to explore solutions with my boss several times, about the man who would not be a racist. Urging him to contact me. He did not. On May 8th I did tell him. He was not interested. Not interested. By this point my relationship and trust in him had waned to nothing. I asked him several times to consider getting some training across the Trust on unconscious bias or to work with SARI https://www.sariweb.org.uk/, firstly for staff and then later for members. He refused. If you can’t go in through the front door then go via the back. I whistle blew to the DfE about the numerous failings of the Trust and indeed him. My main concern was for fully understanding and showing a commitment to school improvement including; risk management on a larger scale; safeguarding; building capacity and accountability. My voice was validated. My values were upheld. My boss now contacted me about the man who would not be a racist. I was not interested. Not interested. I had no faith in him and had reason to believe that he was only following through on what he had been instructed to do by the DfE. The Trust processes were immediately investigated.
Despite it being the end of term, the heads of the primary schools had to manage an intrusive inspection. I was led to believe they were furious. The CEO, who Judas like, informed heads and governors that I had whistle-blown. The DfE was most unhappy that the whistleblowing policy was compromised by her actions. The whole point of having a whistle blowing policy is so that poor practice is challenged and improved.
I lost all my integrity of the role immediately. I lost the trust and respect of those primary school heads, that had taken years and a proven track record to earn. It would return, but it would take many painful hours reflecting and contemplating. I remained stoical in my decision to whistle-blow and knew I had done nothing wrong and had acted in absolute faith that if I didn’t raise the alarm, people, specifically children, would be put at risk.
The CEO’s primary and secondary school went into special measures soon after, so did another two of the Trust’s schools. The executive leaders of the Trust by their actions and decisions seemingly had limited integrity. If an organisation can refuse to fully engage in conversations regarding the removal of the name associated with one of the most atrocious events that has been committed on this earth and try to reinvent itself in the 21st century, which is full of inequality, it demonstrates an arrogance that I can’t engage with. That, I thought, was to be the worst pain. It was not.
When talking to one of the Masters, he tried to explain why the Merchants would not engage in a discussion about changing the name of Colston. “Colston was not a slave owner,” he starts. “Well he only had one!” My conclusion led me to believe that they didn’t let their guard down, they seemingly had no guard! They seemingly had no morals. They had money. They had power. They had influence. They had wealth that engineered a denial to protect a horrific legacy. 13 million slaves were stolen from their dreams and sent into a nightmare they would never break free from, leaving generations of people disaffected. I will never fully understand why you would want to protect that legacy and not embrace the actions that could help shift a mindset and set sail on a sea of forgiveness.
I lost my executive job when I had a broken leg. The only executive out of the team of 11 to be made redundant. The only black executive of primary schools in the country at the time. The only executive member that had been to a secondary comprehensive. The only executive that had lived in communities like the ones we served. The only executive that truly understood inequality and what it looked like from the inside. The only executive that had known the social care system from the inside for 18 years. The only black leader in a Trust that had just 4 black or brown teachers in their 9 schools. That, I thought, was to be the worst pain. It was not.
I developed severe hives, OCD, anxiety and sleeplessness. Despite my boss knowing this, he did nothing to support me, using my confession of conditions as a weapon against me; telling me if I didn't follow his wishes to resign I would regret it, that he would ensure the CEO had powers to effectively lead me out of a job and that no-one would want to employ me again. That, I thought, was to be the worst pain. It was not.
Alistair Perry, who had taken up his appointment at the same time as me, had not been actively performing his duties between 2016 and 2017, consequently putting pressure on me to take on many of his executive school leader duties as well as mine. This went on for several months. He was seemingly given simple jobs to do in and around the schools. I queried why he was so absent. Why he was ‘just wandering around the schools’ without a current DBS? I was never given an answer. I later found that he had been arrested and charged with indecent assault against a 16-year-old in the summer of 2016, but was never suspended from school duties, while he had been arrested and charged with these serious and heinous acts he remained in post with full access to children; vulnerable children. When I discovered this in the press in the late autumn of 2017 when I had become redundant, I became hysterical – physically sick and in tears. A man that I had trusted. I had worked faithfully with. Somebody I had praised. Someone that was still given access to vulnerable pupils by the chair and governors. That, I thought, was to be the worst pain. It was not.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of the witnesses during Alistair’s trial, the chair of the Trust, my former boss, Trevor Smallwood and other governors defended their former and now disgraced Bristol executive headteacher accused of touching a girl.
From The Bristol Post
“During the course of our working relationship, I have no doubt of his honesty, integrity or behaviour,” Mr Wynn-Jones added. Also supporting Perry is Trevor Smallwood, chairman of the Venturers Trust and former chairman of transport firm FirstGroup, which runs most of the buses in the city.
His statement mirrored that of Mr Wynn-Jones, describing Perry as an honest and hardworking colleague, with a “good reputation in Bristol’s education sector”.
Alistair Perry was later sentenced to a long term in prison, but still being protected and his lies believed by those in charge of schools. Cognitive dissonance prevailed. These men were prepared to protect the legacy of the slave trade, which they often did as I witnessed at their dinners, and now a convicted sex offender, but not me. That, I thought, was to be the worst pain. It was not.
Here I reference this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gWabP2acxfk&fmt=6. Whilst my pain is not comparable to Gill Hicks, my story is relative in that I believe pain polarises your embodied values and through questioning and living these it helps you or me to better understand ourselves and set out a different plan to improve and those lives around me.
My school that I had literally invested my life in, had won several national awards for, with an amazing team had moved from special measures to good, had transformed a community with; a community that now believed in the power of education and themselves; a community that saw and used the school as a saviour, suddenly changed. After 3 years of leaving the post as headteacher and 18 months as executive headteacher, it returned to a vulnerable Ofsted category in November 2018 and showed no or little sign of being able to beat with a heart it is capable of again. That, I thought, was to be the worst pain. It was not.
After 5 years of sponsoring their schools the trust where Trevor Smallwood (whose biggest accolade that I can recall was as a bus driver) remains the chair of the trustees, has 5 of its 8 schools in a failing Ofsted category, at the time of writing, no permanent executive team (5 executives in 3 years and no executive or school improvement team in situ between 2018 and 2019) and a track record of system leadership and living by it published values could be questioned. More recently, 2021, 4/5 of its primary schools have had to reduce their PAN/expected PAN by one whole class per year group, while surrounding schools are not.
On the day that Ofsted left the doors closed of my once beloved school in November 2018, a couple of parents, whom I loved and cherished; knew their children, knew their first, middle and last names, knew their hopes and dreams, had helped to secure housing and maintain places for their beautiful children in our school, murdered each other. That, I thought, was to be the worst pain. It was.
Reading David Carter’s tweet Dec 2018 ‘My 10 teacher experiences in first 5 years. 1-be coached 2-be a coach 3-take an assembly 4-lead a CPD experience 5-visit 10 different schools 6-become a governor 7-write a blog 8-lead a research project 9-start a masters 10-persuade someone to become a teacher’.
I was inspired to write mine - it is not a tick box exercise, but a way to consider living your role and values - it would naturally change over time, but in early 2019 this is what I think!
Mine is - My leadership experiences within 5 years
10 - use social media to be evangelical about your passions
9 - spur others into physical activity - a love of watching it or doing it or both
8 - demonstrate that you can effectively perform your role in a different way with a strong focus on serving the community and being true to your values
7 – be coached
6 – coach other aspiring leaders
5 – keep a reflective diary
4 – ensure that your leadership is about how you make people feel and when giving difficult messages to people ensure they do not feel undermined or undervalued or compromised
3 – lead and inspire action research projects which lead to self-improvement or positive organisational change across more than 3 schools
2 - teach or teach and live overseas
1 – lobby leaders in or of education with suggestions for positive change using evidenced based learning, experiences and theories.