The academy that changed term times to help its head run school despite debilitating illness

Schools succeed or fail by the quality of leader – one went to extreme lengths when theirs fell ill

The reply from the chairman was unequivocal: “We want you for your brain. Your brain’s not affected.”

Julie McDonald, 49, had just volunteered to resign from her job as head of Hillcrest Early Years Academy in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire – the school she had turned round since her appointment 16 years ago – after being diagnosed with a debilitating illness.

She was suffering from fibromyalgia, which causes chronic widespread pain, and is still undergoing tests to see if she has Parkinson’s disease. It makes it difficult for her to get round the school – she does so with the aid of a trolley and can be prone to seizing up at any time.

Yet the words of Royce Marshall, her chairman of governors, two years ago were enough to convince her she could carry on in the job she loved.

Now the school is riding on the crest of a wave – praised by the Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, after all of its seven-year-olds reached the required standard in maths. Reading (98 per cent) and writing (96 per cent) were not far behind.

The governors’ desire to hang on to a successful head is understandable. Hillcrest was failing when Mrs McDonald took over (the previous head was convicted of theft) and its recovery serves as an example of the importance schools place on their headteachers. Ofsted sources say the main cause of a school sliding in results is often a change of head, after they lose an inspirational figure. A handful have even plummeted from outstanding to failing.

Mrs McDonald said the school’s results were achieved against the background of “a very mixed catchment area – we have a lot of children entitled to the pupil premium,” referring to pupils living below the poverty line and entitled to free school meals.

Not surprisingly, she has had to make adaptations to help her cope with her condition.

Though she still drives to school every day, her vice-principal has been insured to drive her car and travels with her constantly so that he can take over at the wheel if Mrs McDonald seizes up and is no longer able to drive.

“I find it very difficult to get up in the morning – especially when I don’t have to go to work,” she said. “For instance, last summer was a bit too long for me – six weeks was too much,” she said. She had got out of the rhythm of working.

Fortunately, the governors, with the blessing of parents, came to her rescue again. They have cut the summer break to five weeks and given the pupils longer half-term breaks instead. The move has had an added benefit, as the parents are now able to take cheaper holidays because the half-term breaks start outside of the peak time for holidays.

“They can get away on the Thursday evenings and pay less,” said Mrs McDonald. “For some parents, it has made the difference between being able to afford a holiday and not having one.”