Joy Ballard: Head of Willows High School in Cardiff and star of new Channel 4 Educating series on her never-say-die attitude

Richard Garner meets the inspirational head whose positive outlook has propelled her towards TV stardom

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Her first job after leaving school was as a cleaner. Now Joy Ballard is helping Willows High School in Cardiff clean up its act in a very different role – as its head teacher.

Ballard is also the latest inspirational head to be given a nationally televised showcase for her methods, after Channel 4’s documentary cameras followed the pupils and teachers at her school for six weeks late last year.

Willows, in the Tremorfa area on the outskirts of Cardiff, is to feature in the award-winning Educating... fly-on-the-wall documentary series, which has already made stars out of heads such as Jonny Mitchell in Educating Yorkshire, Vic Goddard in Educating Essex and Jenny Smith in Educating the East End.

“I actually did a lot of jobs that weren’t professional jobs,” says Ms Ballard. “I left school with no qualifications. I had a really disadvantaged life when I was a kid.

“My chance came from some people in my college who really made us believe in ourselves. I never really wanted to teach before. That’s why I want our kids to know that we believe in them so they can succeed.”

When she arrived at the school three years ago, only 13 per cent of the pupils were gaining five A* to C grades at GCSE including maths and English. “It wasn’t just the worst school in Cardiff – it was the worst in Wales.”

Three years later, 50 per cent of GCSE candidates are now achieving that landmark. But, as Ms Ballard puts it, “50 per cent achieving it means 50 per cent aren’t.”

Attendance figures have shot up, from 83 per cent to just over 90 per cent since she took over. In addition, the number of school leavers who become NEETS (not in education, employment or training) has fallen during the same period from 26 per cent to just 2 per cent.

The philosophy she has introduced at the school makes it clear to pupils that their teachers will never give up on them.

The first episode of the series, to be broadcast later this month, features one pupil, Leah, a GCSE student, who is constantly truanting or arriving late for lessons, but has a love of drama. Her teacher, Peter Hennessey, has taken to ringing her on her mobile every morning to make sure she is coming to school. It doesn’t always work, of course – but in the end she gets her GCSEs.

Mr Hennessey is described by Ms Ballard as a “Victor Meldrew character”, and is seen by the pupils as one of their strictest teachers. However, his dedication to the job eventually pays off with Leah as she appreciates he is trying to help her.

“There are a lot of kids in our school who don’t find things naturally easy,” said Ms Ballard.

“It would be so easy to give up on (pupils like) Leah but I have an extraordinary belief in the kids. I just want us to keep them all there at school – including those who struggle along the way.”

The school does not resort to exclusions. “If you show you are disappointed with them (the pupils), that’s the biggest punishment of all,” said Ms Ballard.

She admits to being a “very emotional person” and that she “cries every day” about the school and its pupils.

Ms Ballard grew up on a council estate in Southampton and believes she missed out on her school education.  She was eventually persuaded to abandon a work career that included working as a kennel assistant, as well as various cleaning jobs, and opt for further education study, which eventually led to a teacher training qualification from a course at Canterbury.

Ms Ballard is, however, the first to claim that her teaching staff deserve at least as much credit as she does for turning around Willows High.

“I’ve got teachers in my school who can teach far better than I ever could when I was teaching,” she says.

'Educating' educators: where are they now?

Educating Essex (2011) 

Vic Goddard remains principal of Passmores Academy. Last year saw the publication of his book The Best Job in the World, which chronicles his career in education.

Educating Yorkshire (2013)

Jonny Mitchell, head teacher of Thornhill Academy, left the school to look for a “fresh challenge” and took over as head teacher of The Co- operative Academy of Leeds.

Educating the East End (2014)

Jenny Smith is still head teacher of Frederick Bremer School. The programme showed the “complexity of teaching”, she said, and did “a lot for staff confidence”.

Stammer School (2014)

Musharaf Asghar overcame his stammer on Educating Yorkshire and featured in a spin-off documentary on Channel 4.