Those who can, teach. Especially in Deptford

Kate at Brockley Central does a damn good job of demolishing some of the nonsense surrounding the Deptford primary school headteacher supposedly on an over-mighty salary. But I’d like to weigh in with a couple of points as well.

You’ll have to excuse my pedantry here, but this is for a good cause. To the BBC News website

The £200,000 pay package of a primary school head teacher in south London has sparked outrage from trade unions.

Mark Elms, of Tidemill Primary School, Lewisham, received the money in basic salary, back-dated payments and bonuses for a special project.

The GMB union called the payment “outrageous”, while the Nasuwt union said too many heads had inflated pay.

Firstly, let’s get straight where Tidemill school is. It’s in Deptford. It’s as much in Deptford as you can get – sat between Deptford High Street and Deptford Church Street. You can probably smell the high street’s fish stalls from its playground.

A minor detail, but I’d argue it’s essential to understanding this story. “Lewisham” doesn’t really conjure up much here, being a mixed area, but most Londoners know that if you’re a kid growing up in Deptford in 2010, you’ve probably been born with a wooden spoon in your mouth.

Poverty, fear of crime, the poison of gang culture… you’re not going to have an easy start if you grow up in that bit of Deptford. I’d hazard a guess that a load of the kids there come into school barely being able to speak a word of English. That’s a tough job for any teacher. If anyone can do a good job there, they deserve a king’s ransom, I’d suggest.

So how has Mark Elms done? Here’s The Times from February 2008 – in a piece comparing Greenwich and Lewisham boroughs’ primary schools:

I found it – the hidden gem that every parent hopes for. In rundown Deptford was a Lewisham primary school that last year came seventh in the country for “value added” – how much it brings its pupils on in the time they spend there – and is this year once again on the list of the nation’s top schools for pupils’ progress. Its Key Stage 2 results are better than those of any of the schools I have selected in Greenwich – amazing given that seven years ago it was in special measures and 66 per cent of its pupils have a first language other than English.

Yet no parent I’ve spoken to in my area knows of Tidemill Primary School. What’s more, last year it offered 41 places out of 60 available, despite having 91 applicants. Clearly, many parents gave it low priority on their preferences and ended up with a place in a higher-choice school.

This may be partly because middle-class parents don’t apply. They’re unlikely to come across like-minded mothers there. As one father said to me: “It may get good results, but it’s full of oiks.”

Mark Elms is the head who took over Tidemill in 2001. “It was a poisoned chalice,” he says, but he has turned it around with his entrepreneurialism (he has raised £18 million to build a new school) and uncompromising approach (he fired 80 per cent of the staff when he arrived and forces parents to attend workshops once a half term). I was impressed.

So, he’s pretty good at his job, huh? Indeed, neighbouring Charlotte Turner School was closed after years of poor results when Greenwich Council simply threw the towel in and abandoned its children. Elms’ work at Tidemill shows just how tragically wrong Greenwich Council was.

Most of those kids at Tidemill would be automatically written off by many. But if he’s giving them a decent start in life – as well as impressing upon their parents the importantce of education – then surely he needs support, not criticism? In an area where too many angry black youths are killing each other, he’s giving them the chance to escape the mental ghettos thousands of south-east London’s young people are trapped in. For a handful, his work could be the difference between life or death. It’s priceless.

Mark Elms’ work is more valuable than almost anything done by the bankers of Canary Wharf, whose towers loom over this part of riverside London, and who have helped wreck this country’s finances. So why are we picking on the easy target of a man getting a healthy reward for changing lives in Deptford?

(See also: Londonist’s take on the story, the views of Tidemill neighbours Deptford Se8ker (“Surely there must be more important events in the world to report even on a Tuesday morning?”), and Crosswhatfields, and a much more considered take on the issues involved from the BBC News website’s education team, which partly knocks down the earlier duff story and so probably won’t get noticed.)

11 comments

  1. Bill Ellson

    Perhaps the saddest aspect of this story is that it is trade unions doing the sort of slagging off that one might expect from Norman Tebbit.

  2. Darryl

    That’s the head-scratching part of it. Maybe it’s to sabotage the possibility of it becoming an academy and breaking free of its local council?

  3. BDL

    With you 100% on this.

    Unfortunately the media never seem to let the truth get in the way of a good story. The public sector is an easy target, after all we caused the mess didn’t we!?

  4. Mike

    Never mind the smell of the high street’s fish stalls, that school has some pretty pungent drains.

  5. Plone

    Actually, it sounds like you’ve got this one spot on. Nice work. Try and keep it up.

  6. John

    Um, applause.

    That’s the sort of considered, informed reason it would be nice to read everywhere …

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