Working Lives

The headmaster: improving young people through education (1950-2000)

Location: London, Essex & Norfolk

Mike was brought up and educated in Norfolk before training as a teacher in London. He worked as a deputy head and head teacher in a number of schools in Essex before returning to Sheringham County Primary School as Head. He was an education adviser for Norfolk before setting up an educational consultancy and travelling all over the country working for OFSTED.

An early childhood in Sheringham

My father was manager of Rusts of Sheringham during the 1940s, that was groceries and provisions and wine merchants. Their main branch was at Cromer. When I was born in 1929 he was out of work and then he worked for various stores on a temporary basis. Then shortly after I was born he managed to get a job at Rusts in Cromer. That was a four-mile journey each way to get there. At that time Rusts had a drapers at Sheringham but not a grocery, and then a grocery store, next door but one, became available and Rusts bought that. My father became senior assistant and afterwards became manager.

During holidays I was given 6d a week pocket money, which at that time was a bit more than it sounds. I was paid that out of petty cash. The sort of thing I had to do was to weigh things out into 1lb bags and my father would come along now and then to check the weight was right.

Watching microbes on cheese, and a ride in the delivery van

The other thing I did, of course, was cheeses. They came in crates with two big cheeses, one above the other, and the crates had to be broken open. Then I had to get the skins on the cheeses off. My brother sent me a small microscope from London, which I still have. And if you looked at these cheese skins you could see all sorts of microbes crawling around, which was great fun to watch. My brother hadn’t thought there was much for him in Sheringham so he went to London to do his Dick Whittington thing. He worked as an apprentice hairdresser until he was called up during the war.

Billy Stewart drove the rather ancient van they had round Ludham, Holt and all round there and I went out helping him deliver. It was more really for having a ride in the van!

Success at school in Norfolk; an apparent deferment of National Service, but no opportunity to study electrical engineering

I was actually at grammar school at that time. I went to the lower Sheringham school first. Then on up, and at 11 I took the eleven plus and went off to Paston School, North Walsham; where Nelson is supposed to have gone.

I did well at school and got the various bits of paper, and in 1947 I was in the Sixth Form doing very well. I wanted to take a deferment because National Service was upon us, so my head teacher arranged this. I went home full of joy that I could defer for a year to finish school, as he’d also got me a place at Nottingham University to study electrical engineering.

Anyway when I got home my father looked at me in his usual way and said, ‘I think you’ve been at school long enough. Boom! Boom!’

So I had to give up my idea to be an electrical engineer, and I did do my National Service.

Training as a teacher in London – and as a bus conductor in Norwich!

Whilst in the air force I decided teaching would be the thing for me. The officer of our group had decided I was good with people so I decided to apply to go to college at St Mark and St John in Kings Road, Chelsea in September 1949. I was trained to teach junior and secondary in PE, geography and French.

During that period, in the summers, I had another spate of working, for peanuts, in a warehouse. Then I saw people were needed to work on the buses so I was trained in Norwich as a bus conductor. I worked on the buses from Cromer to Hunstanton in the summers til I finished with college in 1951.

First teaching job: fun and games in East Ham

Then I applied for work. I wanted to come back to Norfolk but at that time they were much keener to have women teachers in Norfolk. There was no equal pay at that time so it was cheaper to employ women teachers!

So I applied to all the London boroughs and I got an interview for East Ham. I expected to get a secondary school as my training had suggested but the bulge of post-war births had just hit the junior schools.  So, three of us, all in the same boat thinking we were going to secondary schools, started at the same place teaching 800 junior boys in East Ham!

The East End had all sorts, you’d find all the coats missing! They had changed them for goldfish that someone was giving away in exchange for clothes, so we had to go all round East Ham getting all those back.  The other one was at Christmas, they were passing boxes of crackers through the crash doors at Woolworths and running them to the market to sell them for a few bob!

So I ran the school and the big school had four cricket teams, four football teams, athletics and I was very involved with that. Also myself and another guy ran the English Schools Shield. I then got a post for PE and Games which was extra money, plus we got London Allowance of £40 a year which was great!

Looking back, those children in East Ham were tough kids but I got their respect because they saw my name in the paper for my sporting achievements.

Senior leadership and headship in Essex: ‘We did all sorts of mad things!’

I married in 1952 and then started applying for deputy head jobs. I didn’t get anywhere with that to start with so I went out to the borough of Romford, which was part of Essex and I got a similar post teaching games and craftwork.

Getting technology into a primary school

After a couple of years there the deputy head went off to London University and I got that post. After about two years I moved to Chelmsford to take a deputy headship proper which was obviously more money. But where I’d been in junior schools, this was a primary school and the headmistress of the school had only ever taught Infants. It was good experience because I’d never taught infants, so we taught each other!

I taught them science which was quite interesting. I was involved in all sorts of stuff though. My French came in handy as they had a new comprehensive school in Chelmsford and they thought I should go on a course in order to teach the primary children using audio-visual techniques with a slide projector and so on.

First headships, then starting up a new school

After a couple of years I started applying for headships and I went out to St Michaels, Manningtree in Essex. That was my first headship in 1964. And we moved to Chelmsford and just as I’d got that headship our son came along following our daughter born in 1961 and we moved to Bergholt.

But after a few years I was applying for other posts and in 1969 I got a new school which was actually a six-acre plot. The idea was with the need for new schools we would build a junior school with an infants to follow. I had to tie up the knots in the April of the one school and in the same blooming month, with no money, set up the other school!

So I started the begging letters and people were very generous. I didn’t have any staff so my wife was the temporary secretary, my children helped to unpack the books and stuff!

I was there for nearly eight years and I tried to look at all the faults from the other schools I’d been at and put them right! I had 60 children to start with and two teachers, so I taught too. By the time I left we had a swimming pool and used what we dug out of that to make an adventure playground. I managed to get an old brown tractor which I drove to the school where we ‘disarmed’ it and put that in the playground with sandpits and so on.

Getting parents fully involved….

We did all sorts of mad things with the parents. ‘It’s a Knockout’- style events with a prize of a suitably inscribed chamber pot! Great fun. One of the PTA worked in the City with the money lot and we got grants for the swimming pool. He invented this idea of buying into ERNIE, the premium bonds thing and we sold them to parents, knowing full well if they won anything they’d donate it to the school! And we won some money which helped pay for the pool too. Of course, I got thrown in with my suit on at the official opening much to everyone’s amusement.

It was a joy to be able to run the school the way we wanted. The area officer said to me that he hoped that the way we got the parents involved was the way it should go. We soon got up to 320 pupils because they all wanted to transfer there. I had a lot of joy there. My own two children went there too.

Moving back to Norfolk: a headship in Sheringham

After eight happy years I saw this advert when I was visiting in Sheringham and applied for a job at Sheringham County Primary with 600 pupils and we moved back there. The first thing I did was set up a Parents’ Association. It was a challenge after my old school. I was there for three years and changed things enormously. We had a library set up, we taught mixed-ability classes and I taught some of the slower children so we could have smaller groups.

Becoming an education adviser at County Hall: looking after 400 schools!

I was there til the beginning of 1979 when two opportunities came up: a post in Lincoln or a chance to do an MA at the UEA. I chose to do my MA because to do what I wanted to do, ie be an inspector, I would have to go to secondary schools and deal with people with PhDs so I needed the MA to compete in this very snobby game!

I got that and worked at County Hall as a primary and secondary advisor with a big salary leap but we had only a small team for 400 schools!  I was covering primary schools from Yarmouth, beyond Thetford to the Cambridge border and up to the North Norfolk coast.

I managed to do 11 years but things would happen like trying to find one head teacher and being told, ‘Oh, he’s at his antique shop’, and others would be out on their boats on the Broads. Some were never at their schools because they’d never been visited to see what they were doing and the schools just ran themselves!

An educational consultant, working across the country

They changed the districts. We were offered golden handshakes and they made our pensions up to full whack at 60. My friend and I set up a consultancy. We made a few bob as by this time the National Curriculum had crept in and I’d managed to get a £250,000 grant to develop small schools. It was a pilot scheme to provide schools with minibuses so they could move the kids or the teachers around as necessary.

We did this thing for a time then OFSTED came up, so I went up to Manchester to train and got my qualification. I did that from 1994 to 2000 when I finally retired. I travelled to over 70 schools up to beyond Carlisle but only a few in Norfolk as I had involvements there. I enjoyed travelling all over the country to these schools until my health problems forced me to retire.

Final thoughts: every child is different

You can only teach children who want to learn and I disagree completely with all these targets today. Each child has a target but it’s different for every child! I was told back then that my job was to find out what each child had, then draw it out of them, not like now. I don’t think I’d last five minutes today!

Mike (b.1929)  talking to WISEArchive on 19th November 2007 in East Dereham.

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