Nicole McCartney, Creative Education Trust

The director of education who knows first hand why children from challenging homes have superpowers

When you live in a house of chaos, you have empathy, strong survival and usually leadership skills. We don't recognise that

Nicole McCartney is a rare species: someone with lived experience of being permanently excluded from school who has gone on to reach senior heights in the education world.

As director of education at Creative Education Trust (CET), she tells her heads to see the challenges some pupils face at home as giving them “superpowers”, and to always have “very high expectations” of them.

“Nobody had high expectations of me,” she says.

Nicole McCartney as a little girl

The one you didn’t mess with

Growing up in Michigan, USA, McCartney was every teacher’s worst nightmare. But at home she was a devoted carer to her alcoholic parents.

Her mum was bipolar and her dad was away a lot in his job installing cable TV. She recalls a childhood home filled with “music, drinking and people”.

There were happy moments – like her dad braiding her hair in the mornings before leaving for work. But also “really scary” ones.

Her mum had “terrible depressions” and was “institutionalised from time to time”. Her dad’s irregular income spelt “feast or famine”. 

She started school assuming that she would be a “big hit” because she could already read. Her mum had passed on her love of books, contrary to the “common misconception” that alcoholics are “just lying on the ground drunk all the time”.

But her parents did not teach her oral hygiene. McCartney’s baby teeth had all rotted, so she wore an “original grill”, capped in silver.

Her silver-lined lisp meant she was immediately placed in “remedial” class, along with “two kids that all the other kids made fun of… I immediately came to understand what stigma was.”

But she did not give the other kids a chance to treat her that way and became  “the one that you didn’t mess with – ever”.

Aged five, she began smoking because “having parents who sleep well through substance abuse means their cigarettes are laying around”. By eight she was addicted, and drinking too.

Nicole McCartney as a child

Fierce tribes

But McCartney does not want sympathy. Far from it. She believes educators “too often [refer] to children, even if we don’t say it directly – the sympathetic side head-tilt – ‘you poor thing, coming from this family’.

“People are very quick to make judgments that, if a parent lets their kid’s teeth rot, it must be that that person has no redeeming qualities. But kids like me come from fierce tribes.”

McCartney’s parents “always shared food with others, no matter how little we had. No matter what a small space we had, people were living with us.”

While she has put her wild ways behind her (she enjoys dog walking and canoeing near her home on the Norfolk Broads), McCartney still lives with the “ugly little tattoos” she had done as a teen. They include one on her ankle of a caterpillar on a mushroom with a pipe, reflecting her intentions to form a rock band called Alice in One Land. McCartney grimaces.

Thankfully her first education job, as an English teacher, meant she could blame it on her appreciation of Lewis Carroll.

She has also told pupils that the reason for her tattoos is that “nobody had high expectations of me. But I won’t let you do that… because I do have high expectations of you.”

When she was 17, McCartney’s mother died from self-inflicted injuries. It was in those final moments with her that McCartney, who by this time had friends “in prison” and others “murdered”, decided to turn her life around.

She quit drinking, went to junior college and, at 19, married a “normal guy”, with “dinner at six and a clean home”.

She then applied to study secondary education, English literature and communications at university. She took to it “like a fish to water” and was crowned national debating champion.

“I didn’t have the stigma of being the disadvantaged kid. Nobody knew me. I was able to be smart.”

Although her marriage didn’t last, her love of education did.

Nicole McCartney

Faking it

After teaching at secondary level in the US, McCartney “fell in love” with Ireland on a creative writing holiday. But the requirement to speak Gaelic in schools meant she turned her attentions to England instead, teaching English and drama at Sir Frank Markham Community School (now Milton Keynes Academy) in 2002.

But she “was finding it hard to watch [the kids acting], because my cringe threshold is very low”, so she ditched the drama and was made head of English.

Her “proudest achievement” came in her first headship role at Ormiston Venture Academy, in Great Yarmouth, in 2010.

The ‘satisfactory’ school, taken over by Ormiston Academy Trust (OAT), had the highest pregnancy rates in Norfolk and the lowest attendance (around 86 per cent). McCartney was its 12th head in 10 years.

Pupils had been banned from local shops and sporting fixtures. Half the staff were unqualified instructors.

The school had become the butt of local jokes. A year before, in a “cruel” April Fool, the local newspaper pretended that the Beckhams were sending their children there.

McCartney promised her pupils upon arrival that it would be ‘outstanding’ within two and a half years. But she drove home that day with “Home Alone hands”, reproaching herself for making such a far-fetched pledge and feeling “terrified” because “in my head, I was faking it”.

Her childhood means she is “not comfortable or confident” in herself, and “probably never will be”. But McCartney believes she knows how to make sure that, unlike her, pupils feel they “have agency when they arrive” at their own life successes.

She was also determined to turn the school around with the same staff who had been “working their tails off” under previous heads, but whose expectations of pupils were “lower than they should have been”.

She banned “mobiles and purple hair”, put in place “very clear behavioural expectations and a sanctions ladder, and made it clear I’d be sticking to it”.

She held assemblies about the derisory newspaper articles, the shopkeepers’ views and the litter, which had been “shoulder-high up against the fences”  when she arrived.

She told them: “I’m not having it. So, let’s join together and prove to all these people that they’re wrong.”

She fed stories to the press about her students wearing the “smartest uniform in Norfolk”. Bad behaviour was dealt with away from view, and praise given “out front”.

Within a year, the proportion of students attaining at least five A* to C grades went up to 94 per cent, having been in the 40s, making it the best performing non-selective school in Norfolk and Suffolk.

In 2013, when the school got ‘outstanding’, it was celebrated by everyone with tears, hugs and ice cream vans on site. “All the kids snuck two extra ice creams. Everybody was green around the gills and it was fantastic.”

Nicole and team at Ormiston Venture Academy

Diary rooms

A unique feature to the turnaround was the “Big Brother-style diary rooms” she introduced, kitted out with similar décor and screens to the TV shows.

They enabled pupils to feed back on school life. All CET schools now have one.

McCartney was permanently excluded aged 16. While it was “absolutely deserved” for her “many crimes”, there were “ways I could have been saved”.

In third grade, a test showed her “inordinately high” IQ, demonstrating that she had “all this potential”. But nobody helped her to use it.

She recalls having a strong interest in “auto shop” [mechanics]. But, as a girl,  she was not allowed in those classes. McCartney wrote a “really well thought out” note to her vice-principal aged 13 expressing a desire to do public speaking and auto shop (and calling him a “bunch of names”).

She was “sanctioned”. But he “didn’t pick up” that there were things about school she liked.

That experience is behind her belief that educators “need to find the thing that kids are passionate about – not the things that we have to teach them. What is the activity that will give them entry into believing they can learn the rest?”

The diary rooms allow her to “get qualitative as well as the quantitative” feedback, which is “really important”.

For a year 9 with a “horrific” home situation who was “approaching permanent exclusion”, the diary room allowed him to express an interest in teaching a particular outdoor activity. He thrived in this leadership role, which led on to student council and later university.

She says children from challenging homes have “superpowers” which need to be recognised.

While McCartney was a “terrible kid at school”, at home she was “doing everything to keep my mother OK”. That included checking she had “fallen asleep [safely] on her side” and that cigarettes were put out.

“When you live in a house of chaos, you have highly honed empathy, and very strong survival and usually leadership skills. We don’t as a culture recognise that.”

She does not like the word “disadvantaged”, because it is a “mistake” to speak about such children “as if they come to us with nothing”.

And she thinks there is not enough discussion of pupils’ lived experiences – finding it “appalling” how the education world is positioned into “camps”.

“If you are taking a position, you are thinking about yourself rather than the children,” she says, pointing to the “hellscape of edu-Twitter”.

She tells the loudest voices in education to “get over themselves”, and focus on what “post-pandemic children are dealing with… It’s not the same ballgame. Let’s make schools a comfortable tribe to be a part of, so they don’t go find another one detrimental to them.

“I would dance with my sworn enemy if I thought they had a better idea how to improve the lives of children.”

Nicole McCartney

Utterly arrogant

After her Ormiston Venture turnaround – it become the first coastal teaching school in the country and McCartney was made a national leader of education – she was promoted to become OAT’s Eastern region director, but started to “believe my own hype”.

She would walk into schools with notes on her achievements “convinced I had the silver bullet … utterly arrogant”.

She soon discovered that she could not just transplant the same recipe for success and learned to “step back and harness the critical power of a MAT and its school leaders. I cleared the path so everybody else could do what they needed to in their roles.”

She joined CET as its director of education in 2020, overseeing the co-constructing of its curriculum. She brought together heads and curriculum leaders, presenting ideas around the “powerful knowledge” the curriculums should include, and seeking their “red lines”.

CET also now uses standardised assessments and is implementing a Teaching and Learning Framework and working on behaviour and SEND frameworks. McCartney believes doing this collectively means “we’re producing leaders at all levels. As far as I’m concerned, if you have a remit, you are an expert.”

There are moments when McCartney still “feels like I’m in a costume, afraid my mask is going to slip”.

But, if she could speak to her younger rebellious self now, she would tell her that “even though it’s going to be horrible, everything’s going to end up all right – and you will use your superpowers.”

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