With public services diminishing, schools are being described as the fourth emergency service. But for headteacher Christopher Tribble, that’s true in a literal sense.
It is not only his school, Honiton primary on the edge of Dartmoor, that’s going above and beyond to provide services for the community, but he and his “mini-monster truck”.
Aside from running the maintained 420-pupil primary, ‘Mr T’ as his pupils know him, comes to the rescue in his Toyota truck as a volunteer for the charity Devon and Cornwall 4×4 Response when the police “can’t handle the roads in North Devon” due to flash flooding and snow.
But last year, Tribble also needed to reach out for help himself – both physically and mentally – after a traumatic injury left him unable to work for six months. He now receives regular one-on-one counselling from Devon Schools Leadership Services, a support service for heads provided by the local authority.
‘Outstanding, but crumbling inside’
Tribble’s favourite mantra is “if not me, then who?” He uses it when discussing not only his rescue missions, but also his decision to take on the headship of Honiton in 2018. Tribble, who was previously assistant head of Hazeldown Primary in Teignmouth, claims Honiton had “‘outstanding’ on the door, but was absolutely crumbling inside”. It had not been inspected since 2013.
There had been safeguarding concerns and attendance was low (“in the high 80s/low 90s”). A 14-foot-high fence around the school, keeping out the wolves and wild boars that live in a nearby country estate, as well as human strangers, didn’t make parents feel welcomed. On his first day, one told him the school “feels like a prison and we’re locked out”.
Tribble believes there are fewer “brave young heads” prepared to take on struggling ‘outstanding’ schools uninspected for many years and knows “loads who’ve baulked it” as “career suicide”.
It took Ofsted another three years after Tribble joined to inspect Honiton – and even then only after he requested it for his staff’s “mental health” so they “wouldn’t have the spectre of Ofsted hanging over them”. Tribble says the watchdog told him they “don’t really do requests”, but came anyway. The head told his team to be “really proud” of the ‘requires improvement’ judgment, which said, under Tribble’s leadership, Honiton was “recovering well after a significant dip in its performance” and that his “trajectory of improvement is impressive”.
“That’s all we needed,” he said. But that’s not to say the visit went well. He claimed inspectors were “negative” from the outset, with one incident causing him to advocate recording conversations with inspectors now – something he claims to know of other heads doing.
Left to our own devices
Tribble sees it as a further “failing of Ofsted” that Honiton has now been waiting over two years for a monitoring visit, even though RI schools are meant to be re-inspected within two years and provided with monitoring/guidance visits in the meantime. Honiton has had no such input.
“They come and condemn but offer no support or avenues to success,” he says. “This adds to the high stakes, high accountability culture, which is seeing leaders leaving in droves and retiring far earlier with no-one keen to step into the grinder. Why would they?”
He wonders if Honiton has been “left to its own devices” because it is “above national in all benchmarks” for “the first time in a decade”.
“But that doesn’t make it OK,” he adds. “They’d come in like Stormtroopers if it was all going the wrong way. Where’s the checking-in that the leader is alright? The impression is they’re just there to kick people.”
Tribble also has a “moral problem” with Ofsted sending in serving assistant heads as lead inspectors, which he claims has happened to other schools in Devon.
“If you’ve never sat in that main seat, you’ve never had the legal or safeguarding accountability,” he says. “You wouldn’t send a major to review a general’s performance management.”
Given Tribble’s habit of using military terminology, it’s no surprise that his childhood dream was to “see the world” as a navy warfare officer. Growing up in Devon with a dad who was a police officer, Tribble appreciated the “strict disciplined” approach of the civil forces.
But the officer interviewing him for the navy told him he could earn “an awful lot more” if he first went off and got a degree. Because his father was recovering from a hip replacement, Tribble opted to study education at the nearby University of Plymouth to help his mother care for him.
Being a “keen amateur boxer”, he chose to specialise in teaching PE, later teaching fifth grade (year six) pupils for 16 weeks in the US under a State University of New York (SUNY) programme.
Meeting a girl “put the kibosh” on ambitions of “fighting wars” and although that relationship ended, his new career path did lead him to love. At the end of his NQT year, his assistant head sent a text: “Now you’re leaving, how about a date?” He and the message sender, Catherine, now live together and have two sons.
‘Beacon of hope’
Tribble turned to volunteer rescuing after Catherine, then eight months pregnant, found her car stuck in heavy snow on a hill. She made it safely out, but Tribble “never wanted someone else’s wife to be stuck, terrified and thinking no one’s coming”. He’s since driven a sergeant doing missing-person checks, a kidney specialist doing dialysis, and nurses to and from hospital.
His Toyota truck became “a beacon of hope” during lockdowns when driving was restricted. “I’d bring it into the car park and the children would cheer, ‘the beast is here!’ It was like this signal of safety,” Tribble says.
It’s hard to see how Tribble can find time for volunteering, as he “quite regularly” puts in 60–70 hours a week with the day job. That includes taking a call from a multi-agency safeguarding team while halfway up a French mountain on holiday last summer.
Meanwhile, Catherine teaches at Drake’s CofE Primary in their village of East Budleigh, which only has 70 children. Tribble “often arrive[s] home to find half the village in our garden” playing with their sons.
He recalls her whole school dancing around the maypole and kids playing hook a duck in the brook during village fetes as “quintessential British life”, which sometimes seems a “world apart from my school”.
Withering on the vine
Tribble “couldn’t function” without his pastoral manager and designated safeguarding lead, Mrs Fyffe, who as a trained councillor sees some of his staff for their mental health and has helped parents “who attempted to take their lives”. Because “if the parents aren’t right, the children have no chance of being right.” Mrs Fyffe also helps parents with tasks such as paying utility bills and debt management, which Tribble believes helps boost attendance – currently at “nearly 96 per cent”.
During a recent budgeting meeting with the council, an officer “pointed at a spreadsheet” and asked Tribble whether her post was a “luxury” because she “doesn’t work with children directly”.
“I’m thinking, ‘if only you knew’. Without her, I’d just be doing safeguarding concerns all day. If people realised the size of the cracks we’re papering over, they’d be shocked.”
Tribble believes maintained schools like his are “withering on the vine”. School services that councils used to provide are now opened to the marketplace, which “undermines” the local authorities’ position.
“The MAT agenda is not a tiger hiding in the long grass, it’s quite blatant,” he says. “[They’re] stalking councils. As they weaken and wither, one day they’ll come and pounce.”
From crisis to author
While most of us don’t exercise enough, Tribble suffered the consequences of working out too hard.
Lifting heavy weights on the bench press early last year led his chest to “rip off” and rendered his left arm “useless”, strapped to him for 92 days straight. The damage was “akin to being shot”, doctors told him.
During the six months he was off work, the outpouring of community support was “incredibly humbling” after all those moments in which he had been there to rescue others in crisis. But he “hit some really low points”, which he says led him to write a book: Mr T’s alphabet of interesting insights: top tips through A-Z towards health, wealth and happiness. He initially kept it “quiet” from staff. But occasionally he wraps a copy in brown paper with a colleague’s name on it and leaves it on their chair after a meeting.
“Writing it saved my life,” Tribble says. “If it helps someone else, then brilliant.”