Rebel with a cause: The radical head who gets results
Sue Seifert left the Communist Party 17 years ago, but remains every bit the radical, challenging the Government's education policies and declaring her opposition to tests and targets.
Thursday 10 April 2008
Short of putting on crushed velvet trousers and saying "Peace, man" it's hard to see how Sue Seifert could be less fashionable. All the time I was with the head teacher of Montem Primary School, she didn't once say "drive standards up" or "restructure my management team" or even "deliver quality education."
Her clothes could not have been less like power dressing if she had avoided it deliberately, but I am sure she did not. If she thought anything, it was "I'm sure I've got a clean pair of trousers somewhere". The trousers were complemented by a stray shirt tail that escaped the tucking in operation. Her staff follow her lead.
She's 62, quite short, with errant grey hair, and due to retire next year from Montem School off the Holloway Road in a gritty, urban corner of north London. She left the Communist Party when it split in 1991, but her radical politics haven't changed – if anything, 40 years as a teacher have reinforced them, she says.
"Andrew Adonis knows nothing about the real world and is poison to education. When I started teaching we knew of children who couldn't come to school because they had no shoes. That stopped – and now it's started again. How dare politicians talk of benefit cheats when you see them cheating on their expenses!"
She's an unreconstructed believer in letting children play, and thinks the Government's rigorous testing regime and obsession with league tables steals their childhood.
If she didn't get halfway decent results – results that until last year were going in the right direction – she would be damned as a Sixties relic, and replaced by a suit with an MBA. As it is, the suits come to her for advice. After several successful years running another Islington school, the council made her a troubleshooting head and sent her to sort out schools in trouble.
That was her mission when she arrived at Montem in 1998. The school serves a deprived area of north London. Three quarters of its 450 children have English as a second language, and two thirds are poor enough to be eligible for free school meals. The junior and infant schools had just merged, and the merger had gone wrong. Teachers were leaving in droves, SATs results were dreadful, and the council was talking of closing it.
"The children didn't feel safe because the adults weren't in control. And when children feel unsafe they get out of control. We had some good teachers, but they went into their classrooms and shut the doors so they could get on with it." The building was "a dump" with peeling walls, no playground equipment, and no toys for the younger children.
But a school can always be saved, Seifert says. If it's failing it's always because of poor management and leadership. She made children feel safe again, gave teachers their own budgets to spend on materials, and stopped parents from barging into classrooms and shouting at teachers. They had to come and shout at her instead. The first mother who did so stood in her office and screamed. Seifert said: "I'm sorry, I can't hear you." The mother shrieked louder, and Seifert continued to claim she could not hear. The mother burst into tears, and later went to the playground and told other parents: "If you shout she can't hear you."
Oftsted came back two years later and pronounced it a good school. Seifert cares not a jot for SATs results – "Everything has to be measured, and have targets, and layers and layers of management" – but says she is very happy with her school's results, even thought last year only 58 per cent of pupils achieved Level 4 in English Key Stage Two, 50 per cent in maths and 69 per cent in science, way below the borough average.
"Last year was a sudden and temporary downturn, a blip," she says. "But over the years, the school's results have come midway in terms of Islington's results, sometimes in the seventies, sometimes in the eighties." And midway, she says, is rather good for a school which is serving some of the borough's most deprived estates. Children are taught French from the age of eight.
She doesn't structure her day. She deals with things as they walk through her ever open door, and as her office is right by the school entrance, most things do walk through it. Teachers, parents, children, cleaners, secretaries wander in more or less at will and start a conversation with the head, and she gives them all her full attention and as much time as it takes.
She starts the day with an amble round the playground, collecting children's mobile phones, which they will give back before they go home. Back in her office, a supply teacher arrives and wanders naturally through the head's door. Seifert says: "We want you to do Year 2 today. They're a tough class and you're really good at behaviour management."
Next comes a mother, distressed that her 10-year-old has not got the secondary school place she wanted. Seifert sympathises, advises, makes a phone call to find out how far down the child is on the waiting list, explains appeals procedures, and offers to help draft an appeal. Then there's a boy who's been sent to her for fighting. He's not a bit frightened, and he doesn't get shouted at, but he's upset because he's displeased her. Teachers wander in and out, collecting things from Seifert's cupboard or placing in her locked drawer mobile telephones that have somehow missed the morning's trawl.
Then there's a man from the council. She managed to get her hands on a building near the school, and she is doing it up with £50,000 she got from some nearby developers, which was the council's price for letting them build on a neighbouring site. The man is here to check on the work.
She tells him – a community house, a family learning centre, a breakfast club. Has she written terms and conditions for those who use it? No: "Business people do that." But she ought to have them, he says. "I'll talk to my chair of governors, she's a businesswoman."
But Seifert isn't as scatty as she likes to appear. He knows he'll get his paperwork. He says: "Family learning and community education is your legacy here – it ought to be called the Sue Seifert House." She says, no, it's going to be called The Community House.
The Seiferts are a well known radical north London Jewish family. They were not religious, but strongly culturally Jewish – "we did Passover." Her father Sigmund Seifert, born as his family fled from Polish pogroms, founded the left-wing law firm Seifert Sedley, joined the Communist Party, and was the libel lawyer for the Communist paper the Daily Worker.
She and her sister and two brothers – one is the well-known left-wing lawyer Michael Seifert – had "a wonderful childhood" in Highgate, where their large house accommodated Communist meetings and played host to some of the famous radical figures of the time – she remembers particularly Vanessa Redgrave and Alfie Bass.
Her father told the two girls: "It's a man's world, so whatever you do, you have to do it three times as well as a man." Both went to Camden School for Girls, whose head, Doris Burchill, she credits for turning her into a teacher, as well as for letting her think for herself. "We had school elections, I stood as a Communist, and she gave me a platform!" But they did fire her as house monitor for wearing a CND badge.
She trained as a teacher at the Froebel Institute. The principal, Miss Brearley, thought this radical product of the Sixties was trouble. They argued about dress, about locks on the doors of their rooms and about pretty well everything else. Miss Brealey's reference said Seifert was unfit to be a teacher. Fortunately, it arrived late, and the Inner London Education Authority had already given her a job.
In 1982 she became head of an Islington primary, Thornhill, which she left after 15 years in better shape than she had found it. Some of Islington's trendiest residents passed through her hands, though a few of the middle-class parents, she says, "panicked" and sent their children to private schools. Then Islington made her a troubleshooting head.
She has been happily married for 30 years to a now-retired teacher and artist, and they have two daughters in their twenties.
She runs a happy school. Her overwhelmingly young staff seem devoted to her, and the children greet her cheerfully everywhere she goes. There's hardly an inch of wall or ceiling that isn't covered with something colourful and arresting. Attractive spaces have been carved out for younger children to play in.
It revels in its diversity. Madeeha and Kwame, told to show me round, took me to the map of the world in the hall, which is surrounded by a list of every child in the school under his or her country of origin. Madeeha finds her country, Bangladesh, for me, and then Kwame directs me to Ghana.
Then they take me back to the head's office where children's work is everywhere, folk wander in and out, and a sign aboe her desk says: "It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need,d and the air force has to hold a cake sale to buy a bomber."
It is so far away from the spirit of the times that I can't understand how Seifert gets away with it. Neither can she. "I shouldn't have survived." But she has, and I thought Madeeha and Kwame would grow up to be glad of it.
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