Jill Wood, headteacher, Little London Primary School

Last month, when the Standards and Testing Agency sent its exam papers for 11-year-olds to Little London primary school in Leeds, they went into a cupboard and stayed there. The pupils did not sit them. Instead they went on learning trips to Whitby and Ingleton Waterfalls. Now, their headteacher Jill Wood is facing investigation for […]

Last month, when the Standards and Testing Agency sent its exam papers for 11-year-olds to Little London primary school in Leeds, they went into a cupboard and stayed there. The pupils did not sit them.

Instead they went on learning trips to Whitby and Ingleton Waterfalls.

Now, their headteacher Jill Wood is facing investigation for maladministration and a possible referral to a disciplinary hearing in which her 26 years in teaching will hang in the balance. But quietly, in the sort of hushed tones of a woman who has clearly spent many years reading stories to tiny children, she politely explains how she is refusing to be cowed.

She has just spoken on the panel at the Northern Rocks conference, the first time she has ever spoken at such an event. She almost didn’t come.

“When it was all in the newspapers last month,” she says, “I was asked to go and join Holly Willoughby on the This Morning sofa, but I said no, I don’t do things like that.”

As a headteacher for 13 years, Wood took a Little London that was so unpopular it only had eight children in reception, to one that takes 90 children per year. She eschews social media (“I am glad I don’t have Facebook”) and she’s not interested in “executive headships, or running 53 schools or something like that”.

I was asked to go and join Holly Willoughby on the This Morning sofa, but I said no, I don’t do things like that

But last year, something in the calm 56-year-old snapped. Surrounded by distraught children, told they would “fail” the new “rigorous” primary tests, she couldn’t see the sense anymore.

“Last year, in the key stage 2 SATs, the whole country’s outcomes dropped by 30 per cent because of this ‘new way’. That’s impossible. Most schools have got the same teachers, roughly the same sorts of children – how can it drop by 30 per cent unless the tests and curriculum are wrong?

“What they should have done was either give us a new curriculum and leave us on the old assessment until we got to grips with the new curriculum; or give us the new assessment but leave the curriculum alone. But what we had to do, in one year, was a new curriculum and a new way of assessing and the outcome was ridiculous.

“Outcomes for the most vulnerable groups were dropping by 50 per cent. That was appalling. Children who under the old system would have been successful actually failed. How do you explain that to a 10-year-old?

“Then, with the wonderful diversity of parents that we have – we have a lot of refugee children, parents who have come through terrible hardship to get to this country – they don’t really understand the change.

“And, what’s more, our secondary colleagues don’t even look at the scores! Why do they want to know how a kid was doing in May? They want to know what the kid was doing at the end of July. So they retest all the children anyway.

“I’ve been pilloried by Daily Mail readers, mainly. They tell me ‘poor diddums, were your children upset because they had to do a test?’ Well, actually, yes they were. And so were thousands of children across the country. We shouldn’t be proud as a country that we have the number of children we have with mental health issues. That’s why we don’t put children up chimneys anymore!”

Speaking at the annual Northern Rocks conference

She falters from her tirade, and leans in. During the Northern Rocks event, panellists were asked for the naughtiest thing they ever did. She blushes.

“What I should have said, but was too ashamed, was that the worst thing I ever did was that I went and fetched in a child who was ill to do a maths paper because I knew he was a level five. I went and physically brought him into school in my car. I felt dreadful after, I felt dreadful at the time.

“He had a sick bucket next to him in the hall,” she mutters, sorrowfully.

So why do it? “Fear,” she says. “I had made predictions that he was going to get that level five.”

And that’s when she started asking herself if it was really worthwhile, and what the consequences would be if her staff made like Ghandi and politely disobeyed.

So, in September, when the local authority asked her for her predictions for this year’s SATs, she refused to take part on the grounds she wasn’t doing them. Over the year she was told by various parties she would be failed by Ofsted, the school would be turned into an academy, that she’d lose her job.

Still she said no.

Not, she is keen to point out, because she’s an anarchist or because she wants anyone else to follow in her wake. “My decision is my decision. This isn’t Jill of Arc. I’m not trying to sweep into power and get rid of the SATs. What I am saying is let’s make these tests fit for purpose.”

“So when they said ‘you’ve just got to play the game’, I said, ‘I’m not going to play the game because it’s morally not right. You know it’s not right. We all know it’s not right. So why are we doing it?’”

I’m not going to play the game, because it’s not morally right

Threatened with external monitors to enforce the test, Wood arranged for the pupils to be off-site. Pupils still sat the teacher-assessed, externally-moderated tests, which she favours.

On SATs day, the school was inspected by local officials who were shown the locked cupboards in which the papers lay. Soon after the Standards and Teaching Agency called to remind Wood she could be removed for her actions. Now, a letter has been sent to her chair of governors ordering an investigation of maladministration and a decision on referring her for disciplinary action.

Her governors – first informed of the decision last September – remain behind her. As a headteacher in a foundation school – an unusual status, meaning the school is neither maintained by the council nor under a funding contract with central government – the next move is anyone’s guess.

Neither the council, nor the education department, are in an easy position to remove her.

For Wood, however, it would not be the first time she faced barriers to employment. As a trainee bank manager, she was told she could not continue when, at 19, she was married, because they thought she would get pregnant. In her mid-20s, after rising to become a branch manager for the Yorkshire Post, she was again told she could rise no further as “we can’t be putting a woman in regional management”. She later became a teacher, age 30, after starting a honeybee museum – but that’s another story.

Each injustice burns; her dad once told her: “if you see something wrong, don’t walk past it, because then you’re part of it.”

During her own schooling, at Soubry Grammar School in Halifax, this culminated in her intervening to stop another girl being bullied, only to find the bullies turn on her. After months of intimidation, including being pushed into a road and almost knocked down, she finally confided in her father who told her what to say – and gave her permission to swear.

The next day, after her satchel was emptied and she was slammed against a wall, she shouted, with all her might, that if she or anyone else was ever bullied by them again her dad would report the traffic incident to the police. Heeding her father’s words, she dug deep and finally erupted: “So why don’t you just…. BOG OFF”.

“They left me alone after that,” she says, looking puzzled. “Isn’t that funny?”

She sighs. “And that’s the thing. We don’t know what our pupils have seen that morning before breakfast. We have had 98 children join us during this year. They speak over 77 languages.

“Being a headteacher is all I ever wanted to do. I’m not interested in being an executive head over 53 schools. I’m just supposed to do something that improves outcomes for children. And I can’t imagine retiring.”

But, Wood is clear – she will not have pupils do the SAT exams until they are fit for purpose. And if the government fight her on it they must expect to be told, as politely as possible, to “bog off” too.

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  1. Fantastic Headteacher! All schools should stand up to the unfair and pointless SATS test like this. If every school opted out, the government would be forced to think again. I work with young people with mental health issues, much of it brought about from the immense pressure of academic work. We need to take a long hard look at the way children and young people are being routinely set up to fail, rather than giving their individual talents and abilities being given room to shine.

  2. What a wonderful lady, who speaks perfect sense.
    Why are we pushing more and more children into a future full of anxiety and stress and mental health problems. Kids need happiness and stability, it’s hard enough in the outside world today, so they need a schooling that also teaches them that life can be nice, kind and fun. Not just full of pressure and worry.
    I am so glad I grew up in an education system without this utter nonsense!!
    Please let there be more people like this amazing head teacher, and make some urgent changes for the sake of all our futures.

  3. She is one in a million and I support her 100%.I sincerely hope her brave action & resolve will give other heads the confidence to follow her lead.This educational regime is doing so much damage to our children who naturally love to learn.Far too much pressure & misery is being heaped on children. Some feel like failures from an early age and may carry that for the rest of their lives. Children learn at different rates and in different ways.Look at the Scandinavian model and listen to people like Jill Wood who know what they’re talking about. Talk Truth to Power!

  4. Vanessa Nichols

    Well done at last that there are teachers who are saying no more to this ridiculous testing. If more teachers do this I think that we could see a positive change in our education system.

  5. Brian Banks

    I left headship in 2015 after 10 years and 2 schools. I had a similar ‘naughtiest thing’ that haunts me – I sent a level 5 writer back in to complete a test after she literally broke down during the test. I admire this head for having the strength to make such a stand, I didn’t, I walked away. I know many others who have also walked away, the overwhelming majority of whom are excellent teachers (and I modestly include myself in this number). The current regime risks losing a cohort of dedicated and valued (Dare I say appreciated) heads and teachers if things don’t change. I’m not a nimby pimby leftie but I worry about the kids who can’t achieve the expected levels. I could go on and on and on but I fear y’all would get far too bored!!! Bye!

    • Sue Lozynskyj

      Brian, this is a well considered and honest reply. It’s worth going on and on. Could you tackle an MP or Education Minister? Words like yours carry so much weight.

  6. Bec Tulloch

    Total pleasure to meet Jill last weekend at Northern Rocks. Her humility in asserting what is right for her children brought the conference to hushed reverence. The most pertinent point – not made here – is how early these summarise tests are administered and how little practice after them is helpful for real progress. She talked of feeling alone and standing resolutely alone. Surely one of the clearest indicators of strength and purpose.

  7. Jane Dyer

    We should rename this wonderful lady The Pied Piper and hope that other Head Teachers follow her example for the Sats 2018. I have had the good fortune to teach outside the UK since 1974, 21 years of which were as a Head in 3 different International Schools. We faced similar issues with differences in our children, not the least of which were the challenges of language. So, my highly professional staff worked as a team to adapt the curriculum to their specific needs. It’s not rocket science for goodness sake! Having retired and returned to the UK,I have just witnessed my grandson navigate through Sats! Need I say more! Suffice it to say I found the math examples in practice booklets a challenge. I also volunteer in the same school where his little brother is in reception. While the teaching is excellent I am horrified by the structure of the curriculum for reception children. It has to be time for a change and maybe, just maybe this wonderful lady is the catalyst that was needed to make it happen. It will be a travesty if she loses her job for standing up for what she believes. What a negative message that would send to the children whose lives she just touched in such an unforgettable manner.

  8. Bev Wetzler

    After 37 years teaching primary school students, I am due to retire this year. Jill, you have almost made me change my mind. If only I had worked under a head teacher that is truly about the students and not about the enormous, ridiculous and unnecessary pressures from above. You are a breath of fresh air, an inspiration and students need more people like you on their side. Fantastic.

  9. Nadheera Tayub

    Fantastic head teacher, I have met her and she is amazing I Came here from another country and in my past 14years of being here I haven’t seen that much courageous, humble and kind hearted person who wants to do something for our future generations she is amazing hats off to her and her efforts, seeing children working so hard and than failing is heartbreaking as a Teacher and as a parent. Why to put a child in that kind of awful situation and than start doing the counselling to bring them out of anxiety, why to begin it? Support you JILL 100%.

  10. Peter

    Don’t understand this talk of children doing SATs or Sats.
    What are those letters supposed to mean?
    Truth is they only do NCTs (national curriculum tests).
    “Sats” is just a fiction.

  11. Sue Taylor

    Come on NAHT. This is what you are for. You are a union. We all need to stand together here, Mrs Wood has shown us how. We all know the current curriculum and testing systems are not fit for purpose. Let Grenfell Tower teach us something. There are ‘broken fridges’ in every school.

  12. Onay F

    Jill, what an inspirational human being you are. To stand for what you believe in. To stand against what you know to be an unfair system, because you know your children, you know the job of a teacher – you are the expert in your field. I commend you for standing for what is right and I echo the sentiments of an earlier reply that all schools should stand against this ridiculous curriculum and the equally ridiculous testing. My 11 year old’s confidence, self belief and self worth is absolutely shattered by this year’s Yr 6 SATS and I am a furious parent. It’s too late to undo the damage done to her. She felt so pressured that she told me she wanted to kill herself! I don’t blame the schools. They are between a rock and a hard place. But I do blame the education policy makers. They have got this badly wrong and they simply aren’t listening. That’s the height of arrogance. So I applaud you for your move. You defended those children in the right way. What a hero! Tell this story, Jill. Gather momentum so that other schools will take your lead. The government won’t listen until there is a full scale rebellion.

  13. Penny Bird-Roberts

    Well done! What an inspirational lady.
    I can’t work under this current regime as a teacher I am now working as a TA/ Supply Teacher. I have seen a brilliant Year Two Teacher basically cheat when administering the Year Two SATs because of the pressure put on her. I don’t blame her because the children could not have had a fantastic Teacher. I just think this system is destroying children who frequently do not understand what they are being taught because they are not ready for this new curriculum.

  14. Emma Mercer

    Jill – you are a shining light demonstrating what we all should (and want to) emulate but can’t / won’t through fear and oppression. My daughter was on the SEN register through most of her school years. She couldn’t read until she was ten. She wouldn’t ‘meet the year 6 standard’ even now in Writing or Reading. But at 20 she is at a Russell Group university studying Chemical Engineering. She is happy in her own skin, reads for pleasure, is on a ‘normal spectrum’ and doing brilliantly. As a mum I was brave and knew how to support her. As a head of ten years I know what my pupils need to support them. And I know that eventually I will walk away from Headship because I am not brave like you. If you are someone out there who is bigger than me and who has the power to change things and you are brave, please go and listen to Jill. She should be applauded not hounded.

  15. Suzanne C

    I am pretty sure most teachers and many parents would agree with you Gill. Well done for standing up and saying that all this testing is not fair on the children. They are children and should not be put under so much pressure.If Gill does have issues with OFSTED etc, perhaps we should start a petition or something to show our support. Well done Gill

  16. Jill is an example to all heads. They should now have the courage to follow her lead. Remember Edmund Burke’s quote: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [and women] to do nothing.’ These tests have no educational value and cause a disproportionate amount of stress for pupils, parents and schools. It’s time teachers said so loudly and clearly.

  17. Brigitte

    Stay focused and committed, Jill – the world needs more teachers like you who will put their foot down and say enough is enough. And then, like you, be willing to call the system out, call it out for what it is…morally not right. The world needs more teachers who are willing to initiate a constructive and productive conversation as to why it is morally not right and then do something about it. And I totally agree with you – that doesn’t mean sitting on This Morning’s sofa!

  18. CS Finch

    I boycotted when the union was behind us, but never dared to go it alone. Educations should start with the children. The SATs are for government monitoring purposes and do not advance learning, in fact they hinder it.
    Well done Jill. I applaud you.

  19. J mercer

    Teachers and pupils all over the country are being bullied by the DFE, STA, OFSTED ETC. It takes a brave lady to stand up to them. Well done I have great admiration for you.

  20. Kathy Salaman

    Jill – I left teaching five years ago, but if I could work for a head like you, I’d be back like a shot.

    At last – someone with the integrity to follow through with what she knows is right.

    I salute you, Jill.

  21. Jane McColl

    Wonderful woman. I support you 100%. I’m tired of children being treated like robots with tick box tests, they should be treated as individuals.

  22. Sarah

    My children’s school is an ofsted rated excellent school which was partly why I chose to send them there. What I didn’t realise was the huge pressure which is put on the pupils and parents in order to keep this status. I sure wish their headmaster would read this article and take a leaf out of her book.

  23. Máire

    I applaud this headteacher who is obviously deeply committed to the children in her care and to doing right by them. You have a fight on your hands but with the support of your union (or have they all been done away with in the U.K.?) you might just win. If you do it will be a victory for your pupils & if they make the tests fit for purpose as a result, for all primary pupils in your jurisdiction.

  24. Mick D

    Of course the Standards and Testing Agency want her to lose her job. After all, if more Head Teachers followed her lead, then it will soon be the SATs folk losing theirs.
    More power to her elbow. SATs are not a measure of how a child will succeed in adulthood. I know this because my own son didn’t do too well in Primary School but has just graduated from university with a BA (Hons).
    Stick to your guns Jill Wood and let the rest of the teaching world follow.

  25. Rebecca Carter Dillon

    As a parent of three young children, and a University Lecturer in Education, I am so heartened to read this account and have so much respect for this lady. I wish more schools would follow suit, Heads would take a stand, teachers would support Heads and parents would support the school. I have taken my concerns re unnecessary testing to my daughters’ school a number of times and have been repeatedly told ‘this is the game we have to play’. It is so frustrating! Parents grumble in the playground but in my experience are very reluctant to rock the boat, in terms of raising concerns directly with the Head or governors. I was told that if my daughter didn’t sit the Year 2 SATs last year it would impact on the whole class, as the result are taken and the averages apply for the whole class. So she sat them, and was so stressed out it was awful. So I will stick to my guns when she gets to Year 6 and my younger ones get to SATs age… I will take them out of school and write to school and the governors to let them know why. I just hope I can encourage other parents to do the same.

  26. Will Jackson

    This is all very commendable but it is 25 years too late. Woodhead, Baker Ofsted and the rest of them should have been put back in their cages a long, long time ago, but sadly were allowed to rampage freely in the name of power and profits. A collective stand should have been made, when the threat to the dignity and autonomy of Education and all it stands for was clearly apparent way back in the 1990s. The only hope now is a new political party that takes education seriously enough to dismantle the apparatus that been privatizing, strangling and tormenting education for decades now, and build an education service based on integrity, dignity and trust.