My story, and why I founded EdCentral ...
Education matters. It underpins our society. At its best, it opens up opportunities for all children – whatever their circumstances of birth, wherever they happen to live. At its worst, it gives up on them.
Whatever education system we have, teachers are at the heart of it: they are at the chalk-face, they are the ones who make the call on the best way to help their pupils thrive. It's an incredible responsibility.
Often undervalued and underpaid, always under stress, time-pressures, and at the brunt end of bureaucracy and policy change, it's amazing that the majority of teachers still find the enthusiasm to nurture young minds and help inspire young people to be the best they can be. That can't be an easy job when they are dealing with classes full of individuals – each of whom has a different back-story.
I was having lunch recently with Laura McInerney, the editor of Schools Week.She said she always asks people if they had a teacher who influenced them in some way – and almost without exception, everyone can. She asked if she could do a profile interview on me to share my own back-story (that profile appeared in the November 18 issue of Schools Week). I have built on that profile here for those who might be interested to find out more. Hopefully it will illustrate my point that those who teach us can – and often do – have a real and lasting impact on our lives.
That indisputable fact is the driving force behind my vision for EdCentral. Teachers can and do make a positive difference. I want to create something that makes it easier for them to them do just that.
My story …
My parents were determined to give their children the education they never had. My Father left school at 14 to work on the Suffolk farm my Grandfather managed. It wasn't a choice, it was a necessity. Similarly, my Mother was working by the time she was 15, supplementing whatever my Grandpa earned as a shipwright at Fleetwood Docks.
They worked hard all their lives and by the time I came along – more than a decade after my two siblings – my Father (who, despite a lack of formal education was one of the cleverest people I have ever known) had risen through the ranks in the police force and was earning enough for my Mother to give up her job and stay at home with me.
My Mum was my first teacher. She would read to me all the time – pointing at each word, breaking it down into sounds and linking the sounds to the letters – until, by the time I was ready to start school, I was reading to her.
I was lucky enough to be able to attend a small Catholic prep school, run by nuns from the FCJ Order. It fed into a respected grammar school, also run by the FCJ. My birthday falls at the beginning of September and, because I was already reading and writing, I was allowed to start a year early. It was a wonderful place (with the exception of one of the older nuns, who kept a plastic badminton racquet by her desk and would connect it with the bare buttocks of any child who asked for a toilet break during one of her lessons!). But all the other nuns were caring, gentle and kind. The class sizes were small and the environment friendly and encouraging. I loved learning new things and soaked everything up – typically scoring in the top five in class in my termly school reports. I don't remember ever being bored or disengaged. I didn't understand the concept of failure. I was an enthusiastic learner and believed I could succeed at anything. The only negative comment I ever received on my school reports was "Louise can be a bit of a chatterbox."
All was well in my cossetted little world, until I passed my 11-plus. I trotted off excitedly to Big School the day after my 11th birthday. It was a selective all-girls convent grammar by the side of the River Irwell in Salford. There were around 750 of us in classes of 30 or so. The atmosphere and the teaching style was very different to what I had been used to. I didn't know what had hit me, and I struggled to keep up in some subjects, particularly Latin and French.
For the first year, my maths teacher was Mr Hernon. He taught the 'top stream' and was friendly, encouraging and jolly. His love of the subject shone through and rubbed off on me. I grew to enjoy numbers and playing around with them. He actively encouraged us to consider various ways to come up with an answer to a question. I rose to the challenge every time.
When I came back to school the following September Mr Hernon had gone. His replacement had a completely different approach. Maths soon became a lesson I dreaded. With the new teacher, there was only one correct way to calculate an answer – anything else earned me a big red cross through my workings and a zero score, even if the answer itself was correct. I was the worst offender by far. Nobody else had as much red pen across their exercise book as I did. Everything I had once found easy suddenly became difficult and I couldn't find my way through.
I remember one particular lesson as if it was yesterday. It was the last period before lunch. The maths teacher wrote an A-level question on the board, called me up to the front of the class, gave me a piece of chalk and announced that nobody was leaving the classroom until I had solved it with the correct workings out. He wanted to make an example out of me, he said. I didn't have a clue where to start. I couldn't do it, but – in my defence – neither could the brightest girls in the class. They objected on my behalf. Also objecting were the girls from the other maths stream, who by now were waiting outside the room so they could put their books back in their desks before going for lunch. Although unaware of what was happening, they were noisy and restless.
Back inside the classroom, the deadlock continued. I had been standing by the board for more than 20 minutes. The maths teacher told me I was responsible for everybody missing their lunch – including him. He said I was wasting everyone's time and that I was worthless and stupid.
My parents always taught me to be respectful of my elders and of authority and the school was highly disciplined. But something snapped. I handed the teacher the piece of chalk, told him I didn't deserve to be humiliated in that way and calmly walked out of the classroom, leaving the door open behind me. He followed me down the corridor shouting at me to get back inside – much to the bemusement of onlookers. He was red in the face and I remember being shocked by how angry he was. I ignored his request and headed towards the headmistress's office to give myself up. The maths teacher made sure he got there first, it seemed the rule about never running in corridors didn't apply to him.
I was suitably punished, the maths teacher refused to teach me again and I was transferred from the O-level stream to the CSE maths group. The only upside was I became very popular and the 'in-crowd' of the year invited me to join their hallowed ranks.
From that point on, I stopped trying to be liked by my teachers and started focusing on retaining my newfound popularity. Looking back now, I suspect it was down to emotional immaturity – a year is a big age difference when you're 12, although at the time I would have argued vehemently that it wasn't. I played the fool in and out of the classroom and took chatterboxing to a whole new level.
By the time I entered third year, most of the teachers had given up on me. I don't blame them, their focus was on the top achievers and I no longer fell into that category. The maths teacher's words had become a self-fulfilling prophesy. I was wasting everyone's time, including my own.
But there was one teacher who persevered. Miss Vlies, my English teacher, never stopped trying to get the best out of me – even when I let her down. She made me want to try again, despite my fear of failure. She challenged me when I produced a piece of work she knew could have been better and she praised me when I rose to the occasion. The last time I saw her, just before I left the school, she told me I had 'strong creativity and a talent for writing' which would always stand me in good stead.
It has. But I may not have had the confidence to ultimately pursue that path if it hadn't been for her.
Back in the late 70s, not many people went to university. At the time I didn't even understand the concept of higher education or appreciate you could choose which subject to study. I thought it meant doing more of the same, but at a harder level. I suspect this was because I was never considered to be a potential university candidate – not particularly surprising with just 5 O-level passes and a Grade 1 CSE (in maths …).
When the 'in-crowd' turned 16, they all left school, but it was compulsory for me to go into 6th form because legally I was too young to leave when they did. It was the first time I realised I had a choice about what I studied. I opted for office practice, accounting and law, all additional O-level options. I applied myself to each and started to rediscover my love of learning – something that has never left me since.
I was progressing well when, a few days after the end of the spring term, my Father told me he had arranged for me to be interviewed at a bank in Manchester (it turned out that learning how to touch-type during those six months in the 6th form was one of the most useful life skills I ever learned). I got the job and started my induction the week before I would have been due to go back to school.
On my first proper day at work I was released early. On the way home I stopped off at school to say goodbye to my friends and teachers. The first person I bumped into was my old maths teacher. He greeted me with: "What the hell do you think you're doing here Bird (my maiden name)? Nobody here wants to see you. Why don't you just **** off home." I was totally flabbergasted. I responded by saying there was no need to talk to me like that and told him that although I no longer had to be polite to him because I had left school, I would continue to be because that was the way I was brought up. He laughed and said: "The way you were brought up? You're a policeman's daughter. Everyone knows that policemen are b**tards, so what does that make you?"
Don't misunderstand me. I'm not citing him as the reason I ended up squandering my secondary education. That humiliating maths lesson and the way he seemed to always single me out (for reasons I now realise were less to do with me and more to do with what my Father did for a living) was a contributing factor to my change in attitude, but it probably would have happened anyway. I was too young and too naïve to cope with the transition from primary to secondary. My survival instinct was to put the bulk of my energies into trying to be liked and accepted, rather than concentrate on my studies.
Luckily, I thrived in the workplace. My subsequent career took me from banking to retail, retail to magazine journalism, and journalism to PR – culminating in me starting my own marketing communications business in 2001. From the outset, On Tap specialised in the education and skills sector. For more than seven years, we had a dedicated member of staff producing a Daily Education News Digest for the education sector. We also segmented education news through our On Tap news streams – @schoolsontap being one of the most popular.
I was reminded of my happy early school days a couple of years ago when visiting a primary school in Newham. Newham is a deprived area of London, so much so the staff have to do a sweep of the grounds every morning to make sure no used hypodermic needles have been thrown over the fence during the night. But despite this, the school was an oasis – a calm, safe place children could escape to. The pupils were an absolute credit to themselves and to the school. They were bright eyed and smiley, polite and enthusiastic.
The tragedy is that by the time they leave secondary education, some of them will have got lost along the way. If it can happen to somebody as privileged as I was, how much more are the odds stacked against them?
It was then I decided that I wanted to do something tangible to help support those amazing teachers and others like them. Something that would help to make their lives easier and help them expand their knowledge, share their successes and be the best they can be. The Teach First conference I attended shortly after the visit, moved me closer towards that goal. At the time, On Tap was on a roster of PR and marketing agencies being considered to take on the Teach First account. To gain a real grassroots understanding I asked if I could attend the event. It was wonderful to see how committed the young graduates were to creating equal opportunities for all. Some were brand new, others had already worked in some inner-city schools, a few were a bit battle-weary. But, I didn't talk to anybody who wasn't determined to do their best to spark a desire to learn in their students.
My third inspirational occasion was as a delegate at the Festival of Education at Wellington School. Although a rarified venue, reserved for those from families who can afford to pay, the teachers attending the event were working in schools of all shapes and sizes. Again, I was struck by their commitment and their drive to make a difference.
In early 2015, I was approached by Patrick Watson, a research and policy expert we had worked with previously. He asked whether we might consider partnering with him to curate education research in much the same way we had always curated education news. This was the final catalyst for me. We surveyed around 200 teachers to ask them what elements they would like to have access to in an online platform, and built EdCentral based on their feedback. It turned out that opportunities to collaborate with their peers and learn about best practice, was every bit as important to them as being able to review evidence-based research and keep up to date with education news and policy.
So we scoped EdCentral and partnered with a talented team of developers to help make it a reality. The development and trailing phase took longer than we thought. We went live for beta testing on 4th July this year (specifically chosen because it was Independence day) and officially soft-launched at the beginning of the September 2016 term.
The PR and marcomms side of the On Tap business no longer exists. Our total focus is on EdCentral and I am really fortunate to have a talented team of staff, stakeholders and associates to help take it forward.
EdCentral is a not for profit social enterprise business. We've recently opened up access to all areas free of charge for teachers and school leaders, but to try and cover some of our costs we currently have to make a small charge to other education professionals.
My hope is that the people we built EdCentral for will make full use of it to expand their knowledge, reflect, share and collaborate. And that it will support school leaders and those at the frontline to drive school improvement and tackle educational disadvantage
I feel as if I have come full circle and this is my chance to do something worthwhile.
This is about where I came in …
Education matters. It underpins our society. At its best, it opens up opportunities for all children – whatever their circumstances of birth, wherever they happen to live and whatever hand life might deal them. At its worst, it gives up on them ...