There ain’t nothing like a dame for Charter Academy

Dame Sharon's philosophy for good schools is to keep evolving
Dame Sharon's philosophy for good schools is to keep evolving

LETTER OF THE DAY: Hats off to two top firms

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There aren’t many headteachers who would drive through the school gates astride a Ducati 620.

But for Dame Sharon Hollows, this was a regular occurrence when she worked as a freelance schools consultant in London.

‘That is a big meaty bike,’ says Dame Sharon. ‘I haven’t driven one down here but when I was in London it was quicker than driving. I am sure the children must have been quite puzzled when they saw me.’

The head of Charter Academy since its creation in 2009, Dame Sharon’s reputation in the world of teaching proceeds her.

During her career, she has been at the helm of the most improved primary and secondary schools in the country – Calverton Primary School, Newham, in 1999, and Charter Academy itself this year.

In the case of the latter, a visit by prime minister David Cameron and education secretary Nicky Morgan followed.

‘I couldn’t tell my senior staff before because of the security issues involved,’ says Dame Sharon.

‘It was lovely for the children – he was happy to walk about the playground which meant all the children could see him.’

This isn’t the first time Dame Sharon has brushed shoulders with political heavyweights. She traded school corridors for the corridors of power when she visited 10 Downing Street to deliver a speech to the then-PM Tony Blair.

‘I had to talk about how we had been successful at Calverton. I scratched a little speech on the back of an envelope in a cafe while I was waiting to go in.

‘I’m lucky that I haven’t been nervous in these situations because when I have met these people in positions of power you realise they are caring people who have the same agenda as you.’

This week, on behalf of Charter Academy, Dame Sharon accepted an award and £250,000 from deputy prime minister Nick Clegg in recognition of their spending of the pupil premium. This is government funding to raise the attainment of disadvantaged children.

‘I have had the privilege of meeting key players in all the political parties and it is clear they share a commitment for improving opportunities for children.

‘I saw that in David Cameron, I saw it in Tony Blair, and I also saw it in Nick Clegg the other day.’

Born in Lancashire in 1958, Dame Sharon’s mother was a housewife and her father was a carpenter who studied in later life to become an environmental health officer.

‘I do come from a working class family – both my parents left school when they were 14 – but my father got an education in later life. He gave me that positive role model as I was growing up to seek an education.’

Dame Sharon stepped on the path to teaching when she was a sixth form student.

‘The first Asian children moved into my community in Lancashire and as a sixth former I was asked to help them with basic literacy,’ says Dame Sharon. ‘Of course it is a real win-win situation because they were learning really quickly. They were bright children who simply didn’t have much English.

‘It was so enjoyable that I decided to teach. In fact, I was all lined up to be a physiotherapist before that.

Dame Sharon went to teacher training college in west London before beginning her career in the late seventies, covering maternity leave in a junior school in Brent.

‘I was in a mobile classroom in the playground, separated from the school.

‘These days a teacher will be right in the middle of things with people to look after them, but back then you were left to it.

‘I just had to tough it out and get on with it. It was really, really hard but I never regretted my career choice.’

She began her first headship in 1994 at Calverton Primary School, Newham, east London, one of the most culturally diverse and deprived areas in England.

‘I remember David Blunkett made a big difference to me,’ says Dame Sharon. ‘I was driving to work one morning and he was on Radio 4 saying poverty was no excuse for failure.

‘Even though we were doing our best by the children I thought what a load of nonsense, but pretty quickly I knew he was absolutely right.

‘I did tell him about that later but I used a stronger word than nonsense. He thought that was hilarious.’

In 1999, Calverton became the most improved primary school in the country. Sharon was made a Dame in recognition of her services to education in London in the 2001 New Year’s Honours List.

‘You are sworn to secrecy, which is quite a challenge,’ she says.

‘I got the letter in November, and I was with my family in Lancashire on New Year’s Eve when the list came out, so it was easy to stay up late. We did pop some champagne that night.

‘I had to confess the day before because the press get the information then. My parents wanted to know what was going on, because I was receiving all these calls. The press eventually turned up at my parent’s house.’

Dame Sharon went to Buckingham Palace in March 2001 to receive her title from the Queen.

‘She asked me about school, and about the children,’ says Dame Sharon.

‘It wasn’t nerve-racking because I was one of the first people to go up. They do the higher awards at the beginning, and the women go before the men.’

After another headship post in Greenwich, Dame Sharon decided to become a freelance consultant for other schools to broaden her experience. She did this for five-and-a-half years.

‘It became clear that the most rewarding part of my work was going into secondary schools, whereas previously I had been a primary school teacher,’ she says.

‘This headship came up, but I was settled in London so my intention was to go for a position there.

‘But when I came to visit St Luke’s the need was so great that I couldn’t resist the challenge so here I am.’

In her first permanent headship, Dame Sharon has turned a school which previously had a three per cent GCSE pass rate and 200 spare spaces into one with a 83 per cent pass rate, well above the national average.

What is the secret to their success?

‘We never, ever doubted it was possible. I continually say to the staff “Look – the minute we say we got everything right is the minute we will start to deteriorate.”

‘We have to continue changing even if we are spot on because we might be spot on one day but we won’t be the next.’

Now based in Lymington, Sharon has traded straddling the meaty Ducati for a relaxing ride on horseback.

‘I really enjoy the riding because I have to cut off from work and concentrate on staying on the horse – not always successfully, she says.

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A PRINCIPAL

Being the head of a secondary school is a busy job. For Dame Sharon, it begins with her morning alarm.

‘You start looking at your e-mails as soon as you wake up,’ she says. ‘You get in quite early – I meet with my leadership team at 8am, and three times a week I meet with the rest of my staff at 8.30am.

‘At 8.50am most days I meet with my Year 11 mentees.’

During the day, Dame Sharon’s responsibilities include hosting visitors.

‘Increasingly we have visitors from all over the world who want to see how we have made so much progress, such as from Japan and Sweden.’

The most important part of Dame Sharon’s day is spent away from her desk.

‘When I am walking around, that is a time for me to celebrate the great things going on in the classrooms and to see the things that can be improved.

‘Teachers will show me examples of pupils’ work. Sometimes I stay because I am so enthused by the topic.’

Lunchtime is a chance to mingle with pupils.

‘I always have lunch with the children, because that is a nice, informal time to talk with them,’ says Dame Sharon. ‘They talk to me about their days, their families, how they are doing in class. It shows they are taking responsibility for their learning.’

‘I would love to teach, but it would be selfish of me to do so because I have other commitments,’ she adds.