Dame Joan McVittie has already saved me twice by the time we are in her tiny car and zipping towards her house in Woodford, north east London.
Having met at a nearby coffee shop she insists on buying me a hot chocolate (“you look cold”) and then rightly decides that an incoming crowd of teenagers will make it difficult for my recording device to pick up her voice.
“Let’s go to my house,” she suggests. A minute later we are speeding towards quiet comfort.
In the car, the much exalted super-head who once deputised Sir Michael Wilshaw, describes why she became a teacher. “My degree was in biological sciences. I was going to become a doctor, but I wanted to save for the training, and I became a teacher to help to do that.”
Her first job was in a tough boys’ school in Manchester. One of just two female teachers, she learned how to control a crowd and instil some knowledge while at it.
“I just loved it!” she says, as we wait at a junction.
Wooshing over a roundabout she explains that after marrying and moving to Scotland, she tried to find a new job: “I got two phone calls one morning – the first telling me I had a job, the second that I was pregnant!”
Pulling up at her townhouse, she ushers me inside. It was here that she raised her two daughters after she and her husband separated. “It was great because the school was just around the corner and the girls could walk.”
Being settled in one place is important to McVittie. She was born in Glasgow but her family moved to Manchester when she was 10. Teased for her accent she spoke little at school. “If you look at any of my [school] reports they say, ‘Joan is very quiet’.”
She speedily makes tea for us both and explains that a remarkable small statue of her in the garden is a present from a teacher when she left Woodside. He commissioned an artist to make a representation of her and travelled to Africa to collect it and carry it back safely.
That someone would go to such trouble is not surprising. Being in McVittie’s presence is inspiring. She seems to move at twice the speed of a normal human, with a wit and intellect to match. When telling stories she gives everyone their full name and so many nuggets of information about them you wonder how she could remember them all. Within ten minutes I have heard the back story of her five siblings (four went to university, one didn’t, leaving her mother distraught). By the end of the afternoon I know her extended family in detail.
After taking a career break to look after her daughters, she re-entered teaching. First in further education, and then in the independent sector. Her first job back in state-funded schools was at St Bonaventure’s, east London, working under Sir Michael, or “Mike” as she calls him.
“Mike had been there for quite a while and couldn’t get the [science] results up. The brief they gave me was raising attainment in key stage 4. But I was only in about a month, and the guy that was in charge of key stage 3 broke his leg playing golf, so I ended up in charge for raising attainment for key stages 3 and 4 and whatever else Mike thought was suitable.
“Ofsted is of no consequence to a kid’s life chances”
“He was a risk-taker, and gave me a completely free rein in terms of what I did.”
Having come from the independent sector, she was shocked to find only one in 10 pupils was successful in studying double sciences. She changed that immediately. Within one cohort it went up to 65 per cent.
But after two years at the school, a fellow member of staff, unhappy at her success, began nuisance calling her.
“We lived in Wanstead, which was an old exchange, so you couldn’t do 1471. You had to go to the police to get them to put an official tap on the line, which they did, and then you had to accept four calls in the middle of the night. That’s how he was caught.
“It left me quite unnerved, because I was doing my masters at the time. I was coming home from the London School of Economics quite late at night, and I was conscious of the fact that somebody was following me. The girls were still quite little then; they were at the stage when… you know, you let them do things on their own and they tell you they’re only going to Wanstead when actually they’ve gone on a tube up to town. I got very nervous for them.”
When the headteacher at nearby Langdon school in Newham offered McVittie the role of deputy head she saw it as a way of making a fresh start: “So that’s what I did.”
Two-and-a-half years later, when Sir Michael (“Mike”) moved to Eastlea school, he contacted her to become his number two. “It was like the Wild West. Great fun. Loved it!”
In 2000, aged 48, she took her first headship at Leytonstone School, an east London secondary that
was ambling along. Focusing on “the basics “made its results soar.
“I was making sure the kids were in, there was good attendance, people were marking books, the quality of teaching was good… it’s not rocket science.”
But the role catapulted her into London’s educational elite. A chance visit from Peter Housden, then the civil service’s director general of schools, led to a professional friendship that opened doors to more opportunities, including working with the National College of Teaching and Learning and as an adviser for London Challenge.
After six years at Leytonstone, she considered leaving schools altogether. But then, a new set of phone calls came.
“People were really struggling with what was White Hart Lane [school] and they couldn’t decide whether to close it . . . everybody knew what it was like, every meeting that I went to, there was somebody there saying, ‘You’re going to have a look at that, aren’t you?’”
In the end she agreed to visit the school and found a “real air of neglect around the kids”.
In the end a “wee girl called Lena” won her round. Stood in the corridor after being sent out for bad behaviour she asked if McVittie was an inspector.
“I told her I considering applying for the headship. Lena said to me “do it”.
“I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Because I’m fed up with the man who’s here. He’s not doing a very good job’.
“And I thought, ‘Well, if you’ve got kids like that…’”
She smiles at the memory.
White Hart became Woodside and, after two outstanding Ofsted inspections, kept her busy until her retirement last August. Results were creeping up, progress 8 in the top 1 per cent, she says, but she’s firm that increasing regulation of grades has negatively affected schools, such as hers, where many pupils come from challenging backgrounds.
“The hardest thing in the job is sitting there on the day that the results come in, when the kids don’t get the five A to Cs including maths and English.
“If you’d asked me if we would swap our two Ofsted outstandings for a better set of results for the kids, yes I would. Because Ofsted is of no consequence to a kid’s life chances, where five A to Cs including maths and English is.”
As much as she loved the job she found things about it draining, especially staff disciplinaries and pupil exclusions. “I would work solidly in my office the day after. If you go around the school, you know, kind of drained, that’s when you make mistakes.”
Still, any idea that post-headship life will be more relaxed is soon diminished. She is working with Cambridgeshire schools to improve their performance. The day we arrange for her photoshoot she is visiting the Education and Employers Taskforce; the next day she’s scheduled to mentor a headteacher.
The light outside is soon fading and McVittie asks if I can give her a moment to change before driving me back to the station. She has a night out with friends planned and will go straight on to meet them after.
As we woosh back over the roundabout of confessions, Bette Davis’ famed quote comes to mind: “I’m the nicest goddam dame that ever lived.” Dame Joan McVittie might just prove her wrong on that one.
IT’S A PERSONAL THING
Who was your best friend at school?
A girl called Mary Anderson. She was great fun and the fastest runner in school
What’s the best advice you ever received?
Never do anything contentious on a Friday. Give people a chance to come back at you. Otherwise they brood over the weekend.
What do you eat for breakfast?
Bran flakes and fruit, or M&S muesli
If you could live in any historical period when would you choose, and why?
I am very happy to be in the present.
What is your favourite book?
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen