‘Being a teacher was always my ambition’

Julie Smith, headteacher of Milton Park Federated Primary School in Portsmouth
Julie Smith, headteacher of Milton Park Federated Primary School in Portsmouth
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According to the old adage, two heads are better than one. Julie Smith would beg to differ.

She’s been there, done that, got the battle scars and after a long period of adjustment is beginning to turn around not one but two Portsmouth schools.

Next week she will say farewell to the children in this picture. Hundreds have passed through her hands since she started teaching, but these are special.

Julie refers to them as ‘my babies’ because she has been their headteacher three times, a period covering their entire school life.

They were among her first intake when, in September 2003, she became the head of Milton Park Infant School. Almost by default she then got the job as head of both the infant and Milton Park Juniors on the same site in Eastney Road, Milton. And finally, Julie was appointed boss of both schools combined – the first federated school in the city.

Along the way she has had to deal twice with two sets of Ofsted inspections (one for each school), both within a matter of days.

Why two? Because although she is the head of Milton Park Federated Primary School the Department for Education still legally classifies it as separate schools.

She said: ‘If somebody had said to me seven years ago that I’d be doing this job, I would have laughed at them.

‘I went for an infant headship in a small school of 150 children thinking I’d do that for a few years before applying for another headship.

‘But somehow I’ve ended up doing three jobs in seven years on the same site which is very unusual.’

Julie, 47, was born in the city, went to Westover Infant, Langstone Junior and the old Northern Grammar for Girls before it became Mayfield comprehensive during her time there.

She was deputy head at Leesland Infant School, Gosport, before clinching the top job at Milton Park infants.

‘It was towards the end of second year here that the head of the junior school left.

‘There was an acting head and without somebody at the helm things began to slide.

‘Children were walking out in droves from the infants and juniors.’

She asked the education authority what was going on, was told no replacement had been found and was asked if she fancied the job as head of both schools ‘for six months or so’.

‘I couldn’t believe what they were suggesting.

‘I was a rookie head. I’d only been doing it for 18 months, but they thought I could do it.

‘There was still the possibility that there would be another head for the juniors, but to cut a long story short, that was five years ago and I’m still here.’

It was not easy. ‘I used to spend half my time in one school and half my day in the other and literally run between the two.

‘I had two of everything – two governing bodies, two sets of staff, two lots of parents’ evenings, basically two full-time jobs.’

Julie now has 340 children on her books.

For the first time in many years the school is full.

The most recent two Ofsted reports have rated the infants as ‘good’ and the juniors as ‘satisfactory with good elements’.

She sighed: ‘If we were officially recognised as one school with one inspection we’d have scored ‘good’ overall, but the trajectory of improvement is good.’

She prides herself on knowing every pupil’s name and greeting them and their parents in the playground each morning. ‘The first thing they see is a smile and that’s vital.

‘When I came over to the juniors I did the same thing because the parents did not come into the building unless they had an appointment.

‘It’s crucial that parents feel part of the school. If you’ve got them on board most of the battle is won.’

Her parents were her inspiration.

‘We were working class.

‘My father was a sergeant at Southsea police station, my mother was a civil servant at the Job Centre, but they were aspirational for me and my brother and sister. I was the first person in my family to go to unive rsity.

‘I had three ambitions when I was young – to go on the West End stage, be Judith Chalmers in Wish You Were Here, or become a teacher.

‘My parents gave me the encouragement to be whatever I wanted to be.

‘And that’s exactly what I want the children here to believe in as well as their parents.’

She cites a ‘very clever girl from a disadvantaged family’ in one of her classes.

‘She wants to be a teacher. She’s bright enough to go to university, but when we told her parents this they just laughed. Sad, isn’t it?’

Julie is proud of the diversity at her school with children from a wide range of economic and social backgrounds.

‘This community has changed a lot in the last five years. About 15 per cent of the school is from a different culture.

‘You invariably get a phone call once a week to say we’ve got a Hungarian child starting or Lithuanian, Pole, Asian or African.

‘I find the parents of these children really do engage with the school and are very aspirational for their children.

‘One Polish boy who came to us three years ago with no English was nominated for a pupil Oscar last week. Now he’s achieving exactly the same as his peers. He has very good family support.

‘The main aim of my life is to make sure the children are happy and feel safe. They go home having learned something and they want to come back tomorrow.

‘If you’ve achieved that, you’ve got a school with potential.’