- Joy Ballard, 48, is the headteacher of Cardiff’s Willow High School
- The school stars in the TV documentary Educating Cardiff
- The award-winning headteacher ‘didn’t get the point’ of school in her youth
Kathryn Knight for the Daily Mail
When Joy Ballard arrived to take up her new position at Cardiff’s Willows High School, the initial omens were not promising.
‘I came in the wrong way through the back gate and up there somebody had written, in big black letters: “It’s the other way to the **** hole,” she recalls.
‘I don’t know if it was one of the kids or one of the parents or, indeed, one of the staff.’
48-year-old Joy Ballard, who ‘didn’t see the point of school’ but is now an award-winning head teacher
She might have been forgiven for doing an about-turn. But that would be to entirely underestimate 48-year-old Joy.
She felt the same way about the school she attended as a girl. As a result, when she left at 16, she not only had no qualifications but was equally lacking in ambition.
Married young to her childhood sweetheart Colin, she made ends meet working first as a kennel assistant then as a cleaner while raising three young children.
Nowadays, the girl who ‘didn’t see the point of school’ is not only an award-winning head teacher, but one who, in four years, has overseen the impressive transformation of one of the most challenging schools in Wales, increasing the number of pupils who get five GCSE A to C grades including maths and English from 13 per cent to 48 per cent this year.
It’s a giant leap and one which perhaps made the school an obvious choice to feature in Educating Cardiff, the latest version of the fly-on-the-wall documentary TV series which has so far visited Yorkshire, Essex and London’s East End, making stars of some of its teachers and pupils.
This time they include ‘Victor Meldrew’ – maths teacher Peter Hennessey, perennial truant Leah and star pupil Jessie, who has a 100 per cent attendance record and despairs of getting any work done amidst her disruptive peers.
The star of TV documentary series Educating Cardiff was keen to show that disadvantages kids can make it
‘You’ve got the cool kids, the girl group, you’ve got a boy group, then you’ve kind of got…me,’ she tells the camera.
All this makes for compelling viewing, not least for some laugh-out-loud – if unedifying – moments: one pupil can be seen questioning his teacher about why Welsh people are known as ‘sheep-sh**gers’; another girl, asked where Switzerland is, hazards a guess at ‘New Zealand’.
Yet ask Joy if she had any doubts about the wisdom of letting the cameras in, and it’s a robust ‘no’.
‘I wanted to show how kids from communities like this can make it against the odds,’ she says.
‘When I came, we had one of the highest number of kids not in education, employment or training. Now it’s one of the lowest. That’s kids who are progressing to college and making something of their life, and to me that’s inspirational.’
Some might use the same word of Joy, given her start in life. Raised in Southampton on one of the biggest council estates in the country, her father was an alcoholic, her mum was ‘a drinker’ and a lot of her childhood memories are of hanging around outside pubs while her parents sank a few inside.
‘We weren’t neglected, but education wasn’t something that was really important,’ she recalls.
As a result, school was a ‘disaster’. ‘I was in the lower sets and no one seemed to mind. I used to be one of those who think: “What’s the point of algebra?” ’
Joy, with her grandchildren Keira, 5, middle, and Chloe, 9, right, describes her schooling as a disaster
By 14, Joy had met Colin, now a site manager at a special school and father of her three children, aged 27, 28 and 29. The couple married when Joy was 21 and remain ‘very happy’ to this day.
To make ends meet, Joy worked up to 70-hour weeks as a dog kennels assistant then as a cleaner in a hospital. It schooled her in one important lesson. ‘The second you put on your apron, people think you’re a particular type of person with a particular kind of intellect,’ she says. ‘I can remember people giving me instructions quite slowly, as if I might not understand them.’
The roots of her own long-term transformation sprouted from the most unlikely of quarters: Mills and Boon novels.
‘I used to read loads. It was escapism,’ she smiles.
Joy at Christmas with her husband Colin and her three children, their partners and her grandchildren. She was inspired to apply for a writing course after her obsession with romantic Mills Boon novels
When she was about 25 she spotted an advert on the back of one saying more writers were required.
‘It seemed a good way to get a few extra bob,’ she says. ‘I had a go, but I couldn’t think how to put it all together.’
A few months later, she spotted an advert in the local paper for a college course to improve writing skills. ‘The college teacher was incredible and the writing course turned into an English GCSE,’ she says. ‘Then I did an access course and got into Southampton University to study for an English and psychology degree. I just fell in love with learning.’
Joy is married to her childhood sweetheart Colin, left, and she made ends meet working first as a kennel assistant then as a cleaner while raising three young children
On graduation she got a job at an adult education college which also ran sessions for disaffected children from local schools. ‘I helped out and just found my niche,’ she says.
After applying for a job as a manager at a local school, she was encouraged to apply for teacher training by the headmaster.
‘He said to me: “You should be a head. Get yourself qualified as a teacher and go for it.” So I did.’
By 2008 she was deputy head of Woodlands Community College in Southampton. Then she saw the advert for a head at Willows High in Cardiff.
‘I’d barely been out of Southampton and I felt it was time for a change. So I came to the school for the interview and had a walk around, and I could just see straight away what I could do.’
She certainly had her work cut out. The 650-strong comprehensive, which caters for pupils aged 11 to 16, is not only in one of the country’s most deprived areas, but there were those terrible GCSE grades.
‘It wasn’t just the worst school in Cardiff, it was the worst school in Wales,’ says Joy. ‘There were kids all over the place, not in the classroom. It was really them and us. I know of other people who turned up for their interview and just left when they saw the job to be done.’
In her first week, one father told her he was taking his children out of the school. ‘He said: “No offence to you, but I’m moving my kids. I don’t want mine around this scum.”
Joy is head of the 650-strong comprehensive in one of the country’s most deprived areas
‘That really upset me. Sometimes these kids make bad choices, but don’t we all? It just made me more determined to do better.’
She decided to commute weekly from Southampton, initially renting a room on a local council estate. It convinced her there was work to be done before the pupils could focus on learning: ‘You need to remove the barriers to learning – the attendance and the behaviour.’
She enlisted motivational speakers and shared her own story. She also tightened up attendance, often standing at the school gates herself and calling missing pupils on their mobile phones in the morning.
Before Joy Ballard started at Willows High in 2011, 48 per cent of parents in the community chose not to send their children there
Most of all, though, she encouraged the staff to never give up on even the most unruly pupils, putting in place mentoring systems. Exam results have gone up ever since, while attendance has gone from 83 per cent to 91 per cent.
As viewers will see, mobile phones still seem to be an ever present nuisance in lessons, arguments started on Facebook over the weekend are brought into the classroom and truancy remains an issue.
Viewers will also undoubtedly be fascinated by feisty Year 11 pupil Leah. The truant’s head of year, Mr Hennessey, has resorted to calling her on her mobile at 8am to try and get her into school. This proves to be a largely pointless exercise as she just ignores the calls.
Yet it is the Leahs of this world, Joy insists, who are what the job is about. ‘Every child needs at least one person in their corner who is championing them, so they have a chance to succeed,’ she says.
‘There are kids from all kinds of backgrounds at the school, including very good ones. My job is to help everyone raise their potential.’
Joy appeared on This Morning to talk about the series, accompanied by maths teacher Paul Hennessey
Next month – so she can be closer to her own family – she takes up the headship baton at the Ryde Academy on the Isle of Wight, which Joy feels is failing to pull in the results.
‘I know people moan about working in education, but I think it’s a fantastic job.’
So much so that there’s no longer any need for escapism via those Mills and Boon novels. ‘I’m more of a Jilly Cooper fan these days,’ she says.
Share or comment on this article
Share what you think
The comments below have not been moderated.
The views expressed in the contents above are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of MailOnline.
We are no longer accepting comments on this article.
Who is this week’s top commenter?
Find out now