Sarah Finch is used to going beyond the job description in her education career. The chief executive of the Marches Academy Trust, which has 11 schools in Shropshire, remembers being sent door knocking while at Frank F Harrison School in the 1990s to “sell the school to the local community”.
The school – now Bloxwich Academy – was in a deprived part of her hometown, Walsall, and had falling numbers of pupils. She described the area as having “gun battles and God knows what going on”.
But it offered a “fascinating” insight into “the conditions these families were living in”.
The walls of one home she was invited to, where a little girl who would later turn out to be in her form group lived, were awash with “dirt and grime”. She sat on the edge of the sofa to avoid dirty patches.
“There was no nice space to study, or for the family to eat together. I later understood why this girl sometimes came into school looking bedraggled, and why it was more difficult for her to do homework.”
But she believes things are now tougher in schools than ever before, as they are expected to step into the void left by other stretched services. She cites a social worker asking a teacher to go to see a child for them. One of the trust’s heads paid a taxi fare for a mother with a large cut on her arm who couldn’t afford to get to hospital.
“Those things are not on the job description,” she says. “We’re being asked to help parents – that’s been happening for some time. But for me, that’s not education.”
Finch is, however, a great believer in inclusive education, which stems from the experiences of her autistic sister Jane, who is five years her junior.
Their parents had the option for Jane to attend a mainstream or special school, but chose the latter.
Finch described the specialist provision as “like a protective cocoon”, but added she “should have gone to mainstream, because her resilience and socialization wasn’t there. She came out of there saying she was special. That was a big barrier.”
This “coloured” Finch’s “experience” of SEND schools and “changed the way I did things”. For instance, when she took on headship of the Marches School in 2009, it had a separate unit for SEND children. In the “small local community” of Oswestry in Shropshire, the children sent there were “labelled as being in the unit long after they had left”.
So, Finch “took measures to reintegrate the children”. She “changed the concept of inclusion”, something she’s also doing at a trust-wide level
The trust now has a ‘One Voice’ student body, made up of ten representatives from each school on a “mission to lead change” with wellbeing and sustainability projects.
The trust’s social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) school, Woodlands, is “very much” included in this initiative. Its pupils were “really nervous” about the prospect of seeing their former peers from other schools when they attended a recent conference of student representatives.
“But we had acceptance there of all pupils. We’re getting them to challenge in the right way, and collaborate together.”
Each school in the trust is also creating a student-led safeguarding board to “challenge poor behaviour and language”. This September, Marches took on ‘inadequate’-rated Idsall School, in Shifnal. Ofsted had found some pupils experienced “frequent sexual harassment” from their peers.
“An awful lot of work” has been done since then by Idsall’s school community, including its safeguarding board, to create “culture change”. “We’re all going to have differences. But listening to each other is important.”
Finch refined her own listening skills by taking an MA in coaching and mentoring at Birmingham University. This taught her how to “get the best out of people by deeper listening”, and has proven particularly helpful when dealing with tricky parents.
“The frustration is just seeping out of them sometimes. You might not have the answer, but it’s about that quietness of someone truly just letting them talk.”
Many years before that, she graduated in history from Birmingham before embarking on what she hoped would be a “glamorous” career in marketing in London. But the three years she spent working for a bank were a “greying experience” and the culture was “quite cutthroat”. It was a blessing in disguise when her entire street was burgled, as she spent the insurance money taking Jane on holiday to Cancun.
“That was the first time I got to spend time, just me and her, and to understand who she really was.” The pair were on the beach when Finch had the epiphany to go into teaching, and returned to Birmingham for her PGCE. She “loved it from the get-go”, enthusiastically staying up until 3am preparing lesson plans.
The innovative maverick
Finch started her teaching career at Riddlesdown High School (now Riddlesdown Collegiate) in Croydon, one of the country’s first grant-maintained schools, before moving to Frank F. Harrison School.
She got her first leadership role, assistant head at Haywood High school (now Hereford Academy), working under “innovative maverick” John Sheppard. The school was in a poorer area of town and the “community felt isolated … everything that was good in Hereford was over the bridge”.
But after getting PE status, the school applied to become one of the country’s first academies – getting the go-ahead in 2008 as then prime minister Gordon Brown restarted the academisation drive.
A year later, Finch was appointed headteacher at Marches School – where she had worked previously as a teacher. Finch describes the next few years as “phenomenal” after it gained ‘outstanding’ ratings and she became a national leader of education to help underperforming schools improve.
In 2011, Marches became a converter academy. She said the school was “massively underfunded” and making the academisation leap in the “first tranche” meant they got additional funding. It was used to hire two more teachers.
Parents frustrated their children were having to travel almost an hour to the nearest sixth form college when they finished their GCSEs, agreed to the academisation on the condition that the school opened its own sixth form.
While the school had failed in previous attempts to do so, “the planets collided” when the retirement home next door went up for sale.
The site was secured and the sixth form built for less than £1 million, which Finch says was a “massive achievement” that made pupils “more aspirational”. The sixth form is now “just shy” of the 250 pupils it requires to make it financially sustainable.
Finch moved to executive head and then chief executive of the Marches academy trust in 2014. Like many trusts, Marches is battling with teacher recruitment and retention amid “the disillusionment of all teachers”, with many “really good teachers” leaving in the last year.
Because Shropshire “isn’t funded as well as other local authorities”, she is “very prudent” and staffing ratios “aren’t as generous” as elsewhere. About 82 per cent of its budget is spent on teaching staff.
Some classes have had to be doubled up at times due to staff shortages, with teachers having to “dig deep when that’s happening”. In response to feedback over “just how tired staff were”, Finch introduced a two-week October half term holiday in 2020-21 to “make the term more manageable”, and claims pupils’ are more resilient that term as a result. It’s something other trusts and Shropshire Council is also consulting on.
Last year trust-wide collaboration days were launched on top of inset days, in which “staff work together on how to develop their learning”.
“Children are at home for the day, but with the understanding we’re going to make a difference in the classroom. It’s giving people that headspace to get on top of things.”
Finch recently covered for a staff member off on long term sickness (despite being “told off by everybody” for doing so), and discovered she hasn’t lost her love for the profession.
“If you enjoy your job, it isn’t a job. That’s how I still feel about teaching.”