Become a teacher
In the current economic climate, a career as a school teacher is especially attractive because of the job security it offers. The career of Dame Anna Hassan demonstrates how teachers can make a huge difference not only to the lives of the children they teach but also to entire communities.
I met Anna (as she insists that all staff, pupils and parents call her) a few weeks ago at Millfields Community School in Hackney. She was head teacher there for just about 16 years and retired only last week. As we walked around the school trying to find a vacant room, it became clear what an efficiently used building the school is. Every little space is utilised by big and small groups of children, well behaved and eagerly listening. As we walked around, Anna took the time to stop and talk to many of them, enquiring kindly about what they were doing and answering questions too. We finally found a music room which would be free for an hour.
The shortage of space in the school is all the more remarkable because when Anna arrived, 16 years ago, the school was only three quarters full. It was failing and staff attendance was only 50%. Anna’s initial task was to merge the infant and junior schools into one school. “It was in a state. There was no leadership and the two schools weren’t even talking to each other and a lot of the teaching was terrible,” she told me in her soft Northern Irish accent. “I said to the teachers that this is a vocation, so they need to be happy if they want to stay. They had to have a sense of humour.”
Anna didn’t realise that teaching was her vocation when she embarked on her career. Her parents were both Italian, “peasant stock from just outside Rome”, who moved to Northern Ireland and began to run an ice cream business and a café. “We were a typically hard working immigrant family”, Anna explained. As a teenager Anna watched her older sister, (“the good looking one” she told me with a smile), being set up for an arranged marriage. As Anna reached 16 or 17 she wanted an escape plan so that she wouldn’t be subject to a similar arrangement and so she decided that “the easiest thing to do would be to go and teach.” She laughed at this statement, although not with any sense of regret.
She was allowed to move to London in the early 1970s and after her first teaching practise, Anna said, “I was hooked.” On her early teaching practises, Anna found education standards in London to be shockingly low. “Children were running riot, there was a lack of rigor and they hadn’t understood that learning was important. Of course, this was down to poor teaching and leadership.”
Anna set about doing her bit to improve things. In a number of positions at London primary schools she aimed to show how providing a loving environment in which children are respected and also follow strict rules, can massively improve educational outcomes. Arriving at one school she was asked “Will you be the disruptive teacher?”. She explained how this meant teaching a class of 6 to 8 year old, unruly, children who had yet to learn to read or write. “The adults had lost respect for them and I had to build it back. It took me 2 years to get them all reintegrated.” This is typical of Anna’s “children centred” approach to education and one of the reasons why she has achieved so much.
Millfields school is now a beacon of educational excellence. Its most recent Ofsted report stated that the school was outstanding in all areas. The school is now oversubscribed and parents, pupils and children all seem extremely proud and committed to the school. The impact on a formerly very transient community is substantial. Many parents who might otherwise have left the area are staying, providing the kind of stability that helps communities to improve. The top quality secondary school, Mossbourne Academy, down the road helps to enhance this effect. Anna likes to say, “Changing schools, change communities and changing communities, change schools. We have changed this school, philosophy, thinking and ways of working. And in turn, lots of the parents are being inspired and taught by their children.” Anna is a strong proponent of the liberating effect of this education on people who might have missed out before. “Education needs to come first to give people choice. If you can’t read and write you can’t do anything.”
Good leadership has been critical in turning Millfields from a sink school into an outstanding one, but Anna definitely isn’t taking all the credit. “I have always found that the right people come along at the right time.” She explained of the teachers around her. “It’s all about respect, listening to people and rarely putting my foot down. Backed up with rigorous systems and structures.” She also emphasises the importance of leadership succession and for the last three years Anna has been executive head while Millfields’ new head teacher has been running the show day-to-day. This kind of succession management is critical if standards are to be maintained.
After retiring from full-time work, Anna is taking up various roles to share her vast knowledge and experience further. She is helping to turn around another local school which is in trouble and also plans to take up a position with Unicef.
Would she recommend that others follow in her footsteps? Without a doubt. “Teaching is the best job in the world.” She told me “It’s never the same any day. I’d do more study if I had my time again. I never dreamt what I would do. “
We quickly had to finish as a class of 4 and 5 year olds quietly came into the room accompanied by their teachers. “Let’s sing a song for Anna!” one teacher suggested and the children happily complied. We were treated to a lively and enthusiastic rendition of “Jambo”. What a fantastic reward.
Put yourself at the centre of an issue
About ten years ago Julie Sumner decided to embark upon a personal experiment. “I wanted to see what it was like to put myself at the centre of an issue rather than to sit on the periphery.” Inspired by the birth of her own daughter and several years as a prenatal teacher, she took up the position of chair of the local Maternity Services Liaison Committee and started work to improve care during childbirth at her local hospital in East London. Julie, who brands herself as “working-class and from the North”, says she finds middle-class constructs like committees irritating and exclusive. The MSLC was no exception but nevertheless Julie stuck with it until last year. Progress was slow: “Without a major outside impetus, like a change in legislation, not much happens.” she tells me.
Little did she expect that ten years of dealing with committee politics and bureaucracy would prove so helpful for her next campaign. Having got used to being deeply involved in a debate she threw herself into another, when a community extremely close to her heart became threatened. This time there was a major external event that lead to an unwelcome change. The success of the London Olympic bid.
As Julie tells me her story, we’re sitting in her lush back garden, overlooked by her private yoga studio, sipping tea and eating chocolate biscuits. Looking around it’s obvious that Julie is a keen gardener. It was that hobby which lead her to become a plot holder at the Manor Garden Allotments. A community of largely working class, east-end gardeners, which she has fought to save for the past three years.
I didn’t visit the nearly 100-year-old allotment site but from the descriptions and pictures I’ve seen, it was a treasured oasis, hidden away in the midst of an intensely urban part of East London. The lovingly tendered plots have now been bulldozed to make way for the 2012 Olympic Park: specifically for a concourse that will only be used for the four week Olympic event. But the Manor Garden Allotments Society didn’t go down without a fight.
Julie is the driving force behind their three year old campaign and will continue to work to ensure that the allotment holders get to return to the Legacy Park in 2014. Why is it worth fighting for a few tomato plants and cabbages? “Some of the plot holders had been coming since they were children and some are well into their 80s and 90s. Lots of us have moved house but stayed at the allotments. For many, Manor Gardens was their community.”
As soon as London won the Olympic bid, the plot holders realised their future was in jeopardy. For many of the tenants their instinct was to give way to the authorities and accept whatever compensation they were offered. “People just went into self-preservation mode and were happy to get whatever they could. We’re talking about people who have had lots of upheaval in their lives. One couple had been evicted from their home five times already and for them, this was just another eviction.”
Julie is clearly passionate about the cause. “I just cannot tolerate people who are powerless being abused. It’s the same with mothers in childbirth. I feel very strongly about this. So I decided I had to do something.” Julie got together with a few friends: media savvy professionals, an architect and someone who knew about web design. They got some legal advice, and set up the Life Island Group. At first the group were hopeful they might convince the designers to incorporate the allotments into the Olympic Park. “Manor Gardens ticked all the right boxes: positive long-tem impact for the local community, food security, health and well-being and sustainability. But the LDA had a blanket policy that everything had to be removed from the site. They were given powers that were almost impossible to challenge.”
The campaigners were soon invited to the LDA offices in St Catherine’s Docks to discuss a compromise deal. “There was a ridiculous imbalance of power. Some of the members were even practising the journey to St Catherine’s Docks the week before. When we got there, we met in a smart board-room. Everyone from the LDA was wearing suits. It was very intimidating.” There was little doubt from the start that the Manor Garden plot holders would have to give in, but Julie was fighting to get them relocated as painlessly as possible.
The next time they met, the LDA came to Hackney Wick and hired a room there. While the Life Island Group worked hard and retained media interest, the LDA continued with regular meetings. “At first they were going to scatter us around Hackney. We wanted to stay together and that’s what we fought for.” It wasn’t easy. “Many of the plot holders didn’t know how to behave in meetings. I had to work hard to keep them on message.” With Julie’s support and encouragement the Manor Garden Allotments Society managed to organise relocation to a site in Leyton. The move hasn’t been smooth. There have been major problems with the type of soil that was put on the site and the promise to move plot holders sheds was reneged upon. But Julie is looking forward; “My focus now is on what is built in 2014 when we return to the Legacy Park.”
The plot holders recently had a meeting with the designers of the Legacy Park. They put into practise what they had learnt in this process to date. They invited the designers to have their meeting at the allotment. “We have no electricity, so we knew there could be no powerpoint!” Their guests were greeted with a spread of local and own grown food, an agenda and a presentation pack. This wasn’t what the designers were expecting and they asked if they could present first. “We refused because we wanted them to respond to our ideas rather than vice-versa.”
The meeting was a success but there’s still a long way to go and more frustrations to come. Julie tells me how she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when she read a recent Guardian article where David Higgins, the chief of the Olympic Delivery Authority, said that the London Olympics Park was going to have “lots of vegetation and food”. But hopefully in six years time the Manor Garden Allotments Society will have a new site which was well worth the waiting. I should put myself on the waiting list!
Become a midwife
Elke Heckel works unpredictable hours, often late into the night. Her job is messy and her actions can be a matter of life and death, but she probably has one of the most rewarding jobs in the world. Elke is an independent midwife and she delivers about 20 babies a year, mainly in people’s homes. She is part of a team of four midwives called the London Birth Practice who operate all over London.
Here I must declare an interest. Elke delivered my second daughter in our living room in Hackney. She was an amazingly calm and competent presence who enabled me to have an incredibly relaxed and smooth birth experience. I would highly recommend it to anyone who is expecting a baby. There is a snag. The price tag of having a midwife who you know and trust deliver your baby, along with the several months of prenatal and postnatal care is £4000. But I strongly believe that Elke’s work has wider implications for childbirth in Britain and so does she.
Elke and I met for a walk on the Middlesex Filter Beds, one of her favourite places to take in the surprising amount of nature that Hackney has to offer. Our meeting looked like it might be prevented by a mother who was having intermittent contractions. “I don’t think anything will happen until this evening” Elke informed me confidently. Elke must get used to having her life interrupted like this.
Once a woman chooses an independent midwife like Elke, she will receive regular visits in her own home up until the birth. Most choose to have their babies at home, but where a hospital birth becomes necessary, Elke will also attend the birth there. The midwives visit the mother and new baby for at least a month after the birth.
“I feel like we [the London Birth Practice] have got the care that we give to women as near to perfect as possible. The way we work with women, our relationships with them, how much we work and our relationships with each other is pretty much perfect now. That has come not through reading books, but through experience” Elke tells me as we stride out into the open of Hackney Marshes.
I wonder if this perfect service isn’t all very well for those who can afford it, but what about everyone else? Elke agrees NHS maternity services need to improve dramatically and she spends a lot of time campaigning to make this happen. “If women don’t know what is possible, how can they ask for it?” she says.
As a student midwife and then for 2 years in the NHS after she’d qualified, Elke became very disillusioned by the practices she saw. “When you’re a student it’s like you’re invisible, so you really get to see what’s going on”. Elke realised that lack of continuity of care meant that women were usually meeting their midwife for the first time in labour and would most likely never see her again. The lack of a trusting relationship between women and midwives at this critical time is probably one reason why medical interventions in childbirth and caesarean rates are soaring. Women often feel totally powerless at the time when they could feel more empowered and proud than ever before.
This situation is far from satisfying for the midwife too. That’s why Elke took the decision to go independent. “I don’t want to provide a poor service. If I could do it for less I would, but I can’t.” she explains. The success of her work hasn’t gone unnoticed at the local NHS Primary Care Trust in Hackney. Recently, they asked her to come and participate in a panel discussion for the hospital midwives, after they watched a film which highlights the work of independent midwives and home births in the US. Elke was there to share her experience and to help improve wider practice in the NHS.
This may become even more important if a proposed change in legislation goes through in 2010. The government want to make it illegal for a woman to choose to give birth with an uninsured independent midwife. Such insurance is currently unavailable in this country. Elke would have to either give up being a midwife, to rejoin the NHS or face legal action. It’s a tough decision. The primary care trust have shown some interest in contracting the independent midwives in, but that would likely remove much of the autonomy which makes the London Birth Practice what it is.
Elke and her colleagues have been campaigning hard to prevent this change which will remove her model of maternity care from existence and thus limit women’s choices further. “In the end the demand for change has to come from women themselves, not from the independent midwives. People just think it’s about us trying to drum up business. Which it’s not.” Elke concludes as we return to our walk’s beginning.
This sets me thinking and I decide to use an exhibition I’m planning, of photographs of women before and after they have their first child, as an opportunity to raise awareness about these issues even further. I feel that as a society we are underestimating the real impact to women of having power removed from them while giving birth. Elke has definitely inspired me to do something about it.
For more information about the campaign to save independent midwifery go to www.saveindependentmidwifery.org