Dame Sally Coates, director of academies south, United Learning
Dame Sally Coates, director of academies south, United Learning

Before meeting Sally Coates, former superhead and author of Headstrong, I check my shoes. The fable is that she doesn’t like brown ones. Mine are grey; hers black. All is well.

The shoe thing turns out to be a misnomer. A light-hearted quip made in a breakfast meeting about her dislike of brown shoes with navy and grey suits has become a way of people explaining things she doesn’t like.

“A couple of my SLT used to sometimes wear brown shoes just to annoy me, I’m really not that hung up about it,” she laughs, “But they’ve made a big joke of it ever since. When people ask others why they didn’t get a job with me, they’ll say ‘Were you wearing brown shoes?’ Like, honestly! As if it’s that!”

I think I’ve got one more job in me

It’s a silly point, but underscores how myths about leaders – particularly the “superhead” cadre Coates belongs to – become prolific.

That said, as a teacher for 27 years before she became a head, Coates is not a super-riser. She spent seven years at Peckham Girls, a south London school with 1,800 pupils, difficult discipline and “a huge amount of racism that nobody really tackled”. Safety was so poor teachers were expected to walk around in pairs.

She next spent 20 years at Sacred Heart in nearby Camberwell, eventually rising to become head, until she was persuaded to take over Burlington Danes Academy – a school in London’s White City, near to Wormwood Scrubs prison and with (at the time) terrible results.

“I was very worried whether I could manage the discipline, which was a silly thing – well, not silly, because obviously discipline was a major problem. In the first assembly I was thinking ‘Oh my God, are they going to listen to me? Are they going to be quiet?’ The staff were disaffected, demoralised. They had had four heads in four years and they were fed up, and here was I, another middle-aged woman walking in. I was really worried about whether I could do it or not.”

The assemblies went fine. She called each year group in, and at the end read a list of names. Every pupil knew these were the difficult children: there were 70. She gave them a letter that said they couldn’t come back to school until she met their parents.

“I can’t tell others to do it, but it was definitely the right thing to do . . . Why can’t I tell people? Because it’s illegal. Children are not supposed to stay at home unless they’re excluded. I just wrote a letter saying I want to see your parents. Some parents couldn’t just drop everything and come in the following day and they were angry that their child kept getting sent home, but I spent three weeks seeing no one but parents, and it worked.”

Her no-nonsense turnaround approach, including publishing ranked lists of pupils’ achievements on the walls each term, made for great headlines, great results, and even led then-education secretary Michael Gove to name it as one of his “favourite schools” in 2014. Though he lost his job a month later, Gove never forgot Coates. Last year, when he took over as justice secretary, he asked her to review prison education.

The resulting report – The Coates Review – is packed with recommendations for prisoners to receive better learning, and she will monitor its implementation while continuing in her role at United Learning, where she is now director of academies south.

But the experience has made her rethink exclusions. “I saw the results of educational failure in prisons. All those children who get permanently excluded, who drop out, whose special educational needs aren’t met, who have mental health issues . . . many end up in prison.

“You talk to them and it’s the same old story: ‘I stopped coming to school when I was 14. I got permanently excluded’.

“I met a man who has been in prison 40 years, still can’t read and write. He went to a special school, he told me. It was really sad.

“What it’s taught me is we need to put far more resources into school. Do we have the money to meet special needs? Do we really meet mental health problems? Do we really give good alternative provision to children who just can’t cope in the mainstream or who are so difficult that we have to permanently exclude them? No we don’t. We need to put resources into that because otherwise they end up in prison, costing the taxpayer £30,000 a year, and their needs are still not met.

“The child that is on the autistic spectrum, who may be quite difficult, quite violent, ends up in prison and, as far as the guards are concerned, is just very badly behaved. So they’re going to be in solitary confinement and isolation; they’re going to be shut in a cell because they have these issues that have never been dealt with.”

In full flow, she reels off the statistics. Ninety per cent of the 98,000 prisoners in this country have the attainment of an 11-year-old or below. Many have special needs.

“Most of those 98,000 go out as they came in, possibly angrier, more frustrated. This work has given me an insight into the endgame. Now I feel very strongly that we should be more systematic about education. When children come to school with low attainment, there should be tried and tested approaches.”

What can teachers do to help?

“Would I have permanently excluded the children I did if I’d known the outcomes? Would I have tried harder? Most headteachers try really hard not to permanently exclude. Heads have to ask my permission if they permanently exclude in our schools. They always try. And I really try, and investigate that they’ve done everything possible before I agree, but would I have looked more at where they were going or what they alternatives were?”

She trails off. She is hopeful about the government’s plans to improve alternative provision but also thinks that mainstream schools could do more: “We need to put our money where our mouth is and give the best teachers to the children in the bottom sets. That’s where we should put all our resources – into the children who are falling behind and have underachieved. But we don’t.”

A particular problem for prisons is teacher recruitment. With few prospects of promotion, no ICT, and high turnover of learners, she says: “If you can’t get teachers in schools, imagine how difficult it is to get teachers in prisons.”

It can be done, though. She describes a “little blonde teacher… about 20” teaching in a room with “three terrorists; everybody else was a murderer” and yet they had textbooks open, learning geography. When Coates asked if anyone was from London one man raised his hand. He had attended Burlington Danes. He asked if his old head of year was still at the school. When Coates said she was, he said, “Don’t tell her you’ve seen me here.”

Coates smiles: “This is a man who’s committed a murder and he still doesn’t want his head of year to know he’s in prison. That’s how much teachers matter.”

Her enthusiasm for education still burning bright, I ask about her future plans. She enjoys the job at United Learning, she says, but is remaining open for where else she can help.

“I didn’t think I’d ever get involved in prisons. So I don’t really know. I think I’ve got one more job in me. But whether I’d get more involved in education policy, I don’t know.

“I have quite strong feelings about things,” she says emphatically. My grey shoes can certainly attest to that.


It’s a personal thing

What book have you given to people most?

To children it has been the Complete Works of Shakespeare. I know that sounds really stupid, but when I was a teenager I was given it by I don’t know who and read through all the plays. And so, at some point, I think other people might.

If you could take out an advert on a bus, what would it say? 

I’m tempted to say “Never give up” and . . . “Stick your neck out”. Sometimes in my life I’ve thought “I can’t do it” then when I’ve done it I think “I could do it” and feel good. But then I don’t want people to do things that are foolhardy!

What do you wish you knew at 21?

That life is full of compromises and nothing is perfect. You have to accept you can’t change people. I wish I’d known that. It’s not settling for second best; it’s just that you understand that your world isn’t the same as other people’s.

What was your favourite toy?

I had a doll. It wasn’t like a Barbie. It was the original kind and I absolutely loved it; I spent the entire time combing her hair.

If you could be any animal, what would
you be?

I’d probably be an eagle so I’d be able to have perspective on everything and see the world as it really is; understand that the littleness of your life is really part of a bigger picture.