Zahida Hammond, executive school improvement lead

Bridget Phillipson’s favourite teacher on the ‘shy’ teenager in her Spanish class who is now set to become education secretary

She gives me hope for the future of the profession

It’s a dream come true for any teacher to have a pupil go on to make a powerful impact on the world.

For Zahida Hammond, that pupil – who sat in the front row of her Spanish classes “absorbing everything offered to her” – is likely to become education secretary after Labour’s election win today.

Hammond reads from a handwritten school report (shared with her by Phillipson), she wrote 25-odd years ago about that “shy” teenager with long plaits, Bridget Phillipson.

It described her as mature, hard-working and well organised. But “she should take more opportunities to speak in class”.

Hammond (who Phillipson refers to by her maiden name, Haq) was then a “very enthusiastic” young teacher fresh out of training. She has since carved out a career turning around challenging schools.

The pair share similarities. Both were raised in council houses in Washington, Sunderland, by single mums on stretched budgets.

Hammond sees Phillipson’s success now as her “greatest accomplishment”. It gives her “hope for the future of the profession”.

Zahida Hammond

Policy shaping

Phillipson recently praised Hammond for showing her there was “no ceiling” on what she could achieve.

A tearjerker video, in which Phillipson discusses her “brilliant” teacher who then makes a surprise appearance on the settee next to her, has featured in Labour campaigning and in their manifesto, too.

The pair met before that in 2021, shortly after Phillipson had taken on the shadow education secretary role.

Phillipson sat for several hours with Hammond, drinking coffee in a drab motorway services pub and picking her brains over what needed to change in schools.

Hammond advised her to focus on early years to narrow the disadvantage gap. Boost “good quality” careers guidance, and “broaden the curriculum”. Provide “support for developing high-quality school leaders”. And reform an assessment system no longer fit for purpose.

Whether by coincidence or design, those ideas appear to form the foundations of Labour’s education policies.

Zahida Hammond and Bridget Phillipson in Labours video

Headship ‘not compatible with family life’

Hammond “hopes” she played a part. She understands all too well the pressures on headteachers’ shoulders right now.

Hammond moved from headship in January into an executive school improvement lead role. She feels being a head is “not compatible with family life”.

As a single mum with 18-year-old twins and a severely autistic son, 20, she regrets that for much of her career they’ve “not had a present mum as much, for me to be the headteacher”.

Working part-time gives her “more balance” so she can “step back after many years being that maternal figure for schools, and be a mum at home”.

She believes that headship is “one of the most pressured jobs out there”. But there “isn’t enough onus being placed on trust leaders to provide that mental wellbeing support for heads, and to ensure there’s work-life balance”.

Hammond’s mum, a nurse, was also compelled to work long hours when she was growing up – sometimes putting in “100-hour weeks”.

Hammond was born in London where her Pakistani father was studying, but when her parents split up, her mum (who had converted to Islam) moved them back to Washington.

Their council estate was “challenging”. Hammond was forbidden from playing on the streets.

As they had no car, her mum struck a deal with neighbour to teach Hammond the piano, in exchange for them using their garage.

Hammond took A-levels at the same catholic school, St Robert of Newminster, where she later taught Phillipson.

She went on to study languages at the University of Wolverhampton after a school exchange visit to Germany opened up a “thirst for adventure”.

She then worried her mum by spending her first year’s student loan on a flight to Pakistan to see her dad, who she’d met “a handful of times”.

Zahida Hammond in 1983 in her primary school netball team

Boundless enthusiasm

Hammond started playing rugby at university, much to her family’s disapproval. Her ex-coal miner grandfather believed sport was “for people who hadn’t worked hard enough during the week”.

But upon graduating and starting as a language teacher at St Robert of Newminster, she enthused her female pupils, including Phillipson, with her love of rugby. Phillipson joined the new team she formed.

The politician recently recalled how playing rugby enabled her to “travel around the region” and boosted her confidence. She continued playing while studying at Oxford.

Hammond was a “very enthusiastic” young teacher, seeking “to change the world by getting everybody to travel and play sports and music. I believed if you had those things, you’d have had a well-rounded education and be able to manage your well-being””.

Their school building was “split down the middle and falling over two or three ways”, so Hammond taught Phillipson in a temporary classroom at the back of a muddy field, with a small heater.

But Hammond recalls fondly how in summer they made the most of the field setting, by playing games and singing in Spanish.

After two years, she took a sabbatical to travel around countries including South Africa and Bangladesh. Meeting children who “would never learn to read and write” honed her appreciation for England’s free education system.

She then worked at St Edmund Campion (now Cardinal Hume) school in Gateshead, a “chaotic environment” where “bouncers” were required for parents’ evenings “to stop fights between families”.

She became an advanced skills teacher, supporting others, and was appointed to help develop the primary languages curriculum as part of a government drive to promote languages.

It was a time of “creative thinking” and “diversification” of curriculum and qualifications, which Hammond says “vanished overnight” when the Conservatives came into power.

In came a “one-size-fits-all agenda under a moral high ground of trying to push everyone through EBacc”, she added.

Zahida Hammond n 2001 as a young yeacher

‘All pale and male’

In 2012, Hammond got a place on the Future Leaders programme, a national initiative developing leaders for challenging schools.

Participants were sent to Chicago to observe “high performing” charter schools, and “people from all over the world were brought over to speak to us”.

She concluded that some attitudes within the North East’s education system were “quite insular”. She believed there was a need for people to be more aspirational for children. 

The programme’s cohorts were a “diverse set”, while current multi-academy trust CEOs are, Hammond believes, “quite alarmingly pale and male”.

One of Phillipson’s education pledges is to introduce a new ‘Excellence in Leadership’ programme to improve schools.

Hammond undertook deputy head placements across the North East, then in 2016 became head of a “very disadvantaged” Catholic school entering special measures, St Peter’s in Redcar, near Middlesbrough. Over three years, she invested heavily in music, the arts, sports and “high-quality careers advice” as well as the core subjects.

Hammond appointed a careers advisor whose reach extended to helping get excluded pupils back on track by focusing on their future ambitions.

St Peter’s went from having “maths results in the bottom 10% in the country to almost in line with national averages within one year”. It also became one of only a few schools scoring 100 per cent in all eight Gatsby career advice benchmarks.

Before she left in 2019, St Peter’s moved to ‘requires improvement’ with ‘good’ leadership.

As a head, Hammond prioritised giving children “the best literacy and oracy” training, because “children need to learn to speak the language that’s going to help them pass exams and get in at top tables”.

“That parlance has to be taught in the way I taught Spanish.”

When drawing up school student councils, Hammond made sure those from disadvantaged families were supported and encouraged to apply.

Once appointed, she brought in a public speaking expert to support them as “they’d be absolutely terrified about getting up on the stage”.

Zahida Hammond in 1993 feeding pigeons while studying in Barcelona

‘Stick to your values’

Hammond moved onto a trust director of languages role and an interim headship, but became increasingly disillusioned with the standards agenda.

Having an autistic son made her feel she might have more affinity with the special needs sector.

In 2021 she became principal of Cambian Dilston College, an independent further education college and care home for those with complex autism, just as it was rated ‘inadequate’.

In her current position at the Laidlaw Schools Trust, she gets to harness her headship experience to support schools with complex challenges.

Hammond says it’s “never been harder” to turn around such schools.

But she said: “It’s about schools having the right resources and being allowed to deliver the agenda they know is right for their communities, rather than feeling they’ve got to try and fit a square peg into a round hole.”

Phillipson recently penned an op-ed warning that her former teacher’s equivalents today are leaving the classroom “in droves”.

Would Hammond be tempted to quit the profession now, if she were a languages teacher today?

There’s a long pause. “It’s really difficult… if I were working in certain trusts with certain leaders, I’d be absolutely thriving. But I can understand why some teachers are beaten down quickly.”

She thinks some trusts have “young leaders who skipped too quickly up to headship” before serving their time in the classroom..

She adds: “They don’t then have empathy for teachers, and get burnt out quickly without that foundation of understanding.”

Her message to Phillipson is to “stick with your values”. And, mindful of the short shelf life of most recent education secretaries, to “remain in the job for long enough to have an impact”.

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