Tell us a little bit about your background…
I grew up in South Wales in a very rural area of the valleys. My dad was a coal miner before he had an accident and couldn’t work anymore, and my mum worked in a factory for a short time in Cardiff before moving back to the village. Before me, no-one in my family was educated beyond GCSEs.
How did you hear about the Sutton Trust?
I started to entertain going to university after my teachers suggested the idea. I had always worked hard in school resulting in a really good set of results for my GCSEs. I had always enjoyed learning new knowledge and growing my thinking but I saw university as something other people did, not me.
After I received my GCSEs, my head of sixth form wrote a letter to my parents suggesting they encourage me to apply for university, so when my form tutor suggested the Sutton Trust UK Summer Schools I went for it not really believing that I would be chosen. I was really surprised and over the moon when my application was accepted.
What was your experience of the Sutton Trust like?
At first the experience was alien to me so initially I withdrew from activities – simply the act of travelling away from home made me anxious. We were given our own little rooms and looking back, these were little bits of life experience that helped prepare me to start carving out my own path. They marked a thought that life could be different than what I had already experienced.
As the week progressed I realised I had other options than just staying in the Valleys. It was after the programme that I decided to apply to study languages at the University of Cambridge. My grandmother on my father’s side encouraged me and was incredibly supportive. She was a proud and feisty woman who had lived through a lot! But on my mother’s side I think they felt I was rejecting where I had grown up and struggled to understand.
It’s funny, when I go back home I revert to my accent as it was then, even phrases and vocabulary. I guess it’s a way of coping with the different identities that naturally develop when you move away from home.
How has your career developed since the programme?
After a few jobs in banking and recruitment, I decided teaching was the route I wanted to take. I knew I had a passion for learning as it was learning that had opened new opportunities for me. I had a strong belief it could enable other children too as it’s a real tool for social mobility.
I started as a secondary school languages teacher before becoming a primary school teacher in a disadvantaged school in inner city Birmingham. When I started, the school had the worst KS1 results in the city, but by the time I left the school was considered by OFSTED as outstanding. It took an incredible team effort to turn it around and the real impact on the children and their self-perceptions was huge.
This formative experience taught me that with outstanding teachers and creative curriculums, all children can have an excellent education. I also saw the importance of leadership; if leaders create the right cultures, amazing work can be achieved.
After reaching the senior leadership team in Birmingham, I relocated and become Assistant Head at Wyndham Primary Academy at the Spencer Academies Trust, which had gone on a strikingly similar school improvement journey from a bottom 200 school to outstanding. As part of a multi-academy trust, I enjoyed the dynamic of each school maintaining its autonomy but being part of a network of school leaders who shared the ethos of quality first teaching. The power of collaboration and coaching is a hallmark of our ways of working.
Now in my role as Director of the Derby Research School, I get to put into practice everything I have learnt: the power of system leadership to effect whole school change; the importance of being open to new suggestions; the need to continuously tweak and refine practice through effective monitoring and evaluation to drive up standards; and the value of sharing across the sector. We embrace our role within the national Research Schools Network continuing to share and mobilise the evidence.
Do you have any advice for Sutton Trust students who are interested in pursuing a career in education?
The thing I have benefited most from is learning from the passionate school leaders and practitioners around me. For women in particular, there are an amazing number of incredibly experienced and strong female leaders.
My career has all developed from formative educational experiences, so I think it’s important to always be reflective, get feedback, and then look ahead…