Radio Times – ‘The Best Days of My Life’

After Essex, Yorkshire and London’s East End, the latest in Channel 4’s Educating … documentary series is set in Wales. Joy Ballard – the Head of Willows High School in Cardiff, talks to Sian Williams about why she agreed to let the cameras in and about her own, extraordinary background.

When Joy Ballard arrived at Cardiff station for her first day as head-teacher at the city’s Willows High School – it was only the second time she’d visited Wales. The first was on the ‘Gavin and Stacey Tour of Barry Island’. She was, perhaps, an unlikely choice to turn around the country’s worst performing school. When Joy left education, she had no qualifications. Her Dad was a big drinker and all her friends were those who hung around the local pubs. Like them, she had low expectations and few aspirations. ‘I was an invisible kid when I was young’ she says ‘I never had a clear plan, this was my life and I didn’t know any differently.’

After school, Joy worked as a part-time cleaner and took jobs in a local tobacco company and a hospital. In the evenings, she escaped into romantic fiction and by the age of 21, now a wife and mother of three, she’d developed an addiction to Mills and Boon. ‘On a good day, I could read twelve or fifteen of them, back to back’ she laughs. When an advert appeared in one of the books asking for new authors, Joy was inspired by the literature she loved, to put pen to paper herself. She began a creative writing course and it was only then, that she appreciated the true value of learning. ‘Initially, I wanted a better life for my own children, to get a good job and be a better role model for them’ she says. ‘But the critical moment for me, was realizing the power of getting an education, that you were someone who had a voice. People look at you differently when you’ve got your tabard on and you’re cleaning, people make assumptions about you that often aren’t true, about your capabilities and personality.’

Joy was encouraged by her course tutors to take an English GCSE. She got a good grade and passed more exams, eventually getting into University. She says she never really believed that she was clever, but her teachers recognized it and made her feel special, more confident. This, she thought, is what I want to do for other children. By 2007, she was a qualified teacher and just a few years later applied for her first role as head of a struggling school. That school was Willows High.

Willows High School is based in Tremorfa in South East Cardiff – an area once known for its docks and steel. Joy calls it ‘a warm place, full of salt-of the-earth people… but it feels like a community that’s been left behind’. She got an indication of the reputation of the place when no taxi driver dared to take her there. It was considered a no-go area, ‘just typical teenagers, getting up to mischief on the local estate’, she says, but it underlined the task she was taking on. The school’s results were terrible and the teachers were ‘worn out’ by the children. Joy’s first weeks were spent confiscating BB guns – imitation firearms – while attempting to motivate the staff and pupils alike. She thought each child had enormous potential but were perhaps, victims of their life circumstances and she believed she could help them achieve. Look at me, she told them all, I came from a place like this and I’m the living example of someone who has done it. When a child confessed that they couldn’t read very well, she understood – telling them that she couldn’t either, when she was younger. Joy wanted the school to feel safe, where children could ask for help when they were overwhelmed, where they could be stimulated and encouraged. She told the teachers to take out the chairs in uniform rows and organize the children in small groups, where they could talk and challenge each other’s ideas. Trust grew, the pupils became more confident and the teachers began to believe they could take the school forward.

The hours and days spent reading romantic novels paid off, too ‘I learned all my extended vocabulary from Mills and Boon. I was a very emotive writer but now, doing assemblies and things like that, I’m a very emotive speaker. It’s taught me to win hearts and minds’ she giggles. It’s certainly done that. Within twelve months of her joining, Willows results doubled. They were still poor but they were the best in the history of the school. Joy made little films of all the children celebrating, thanking the teachers, making the most of every success story, ‘one of our kids even went off to Oxford University’. She says that when she showed the videos that first year, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house – the children were inspired and the staff thought they could repeat their triumphs. The ethos and atmosphere changed quickly. When Joy took over, just 14% of children were getting 5 A*-C GCSEs. Now, half of them are.

Why then, when things are going so well, when there’s finally some trust between staff and students and results are continuing to improve – why let the cameras in? Joy says it took her a while to be convinced. She knows there’s a risk involved, but she wanted to shift the reputation of the school for good. There are families around the school who still don’t want their children to go there and she says ‘I want to win them back’. Schools are paid by the pupil, the fewer there are, the less the school gets and Joy says Willows High has been ‘as skint as anything’ for the last three years. She wants to change that. More children will result in more cash, which means greater resources.

The local authority wasn’t too keen to allow filming, with one member asking Joy how she thought it would ‘affect the life chances of her kids’. It’s a good question. She doesn’t think that person’s been won over yet by her arguments or those of Channel 4, but she’s confident she’s made the right decision because she says, the series will show ‘kids going through some things that actually make them super-human. There are stories we show that will be a real learning experience for others and these children will become positive role models’. Joy won’t tell me what these super-human stories are, though. ‘I’m not allowed, I’ll get sued by the production company’. She’s only seen about sixty seconds of footage anyway, who knows what’ll be in the final cut?

The production team from the independent company Twofour, earn nothing but praise. They arrived six weeks before filming began to get to know the parents, students and staff. The researchers dipped into assemblies and open days and Joy says not one child, parent or teacher raised any concerns about being part of it. Some of the kids got a bit giggly when the cameras started rolling, a few girls get ‘slightly more lippy than they would normally be’ but that faded when they stopped noticing the fixed-rig set up. Jonny Mitchell, the headmaster of Thornhill Academy, the school in ‘Educating Yorkshire’, went to see Joy to give her the ‘warts and all’. He’s made them all aware of what the impact might be afterwards, to make sure the school has policies in place to protect it once the series is screened and what happens if its teachers become famous, but says in the main, it was a positive experience, with more people coming to see his academy afterwards and wanting to join.

Joy has no reservations about being involved or how the school will be represented. This is a place she’s proud of and she wants the whole community to get behind it. ‘I want them to know this is their local school and to feel that their kids will be safe and enjoy their experience here and get great results.’ The series will, she thinks, show children overcoming hardship but will also have moments of huge celebration, too. ‘It’ll be very warm, very special and it’ll show that even in challenging schools, where things can go very wrong, even there, you can have the best days of your life’.

Joy Ballard, the little girl from the council estate, with no schooling and an uncertain future, who didn’t dare dream of anything better, is now having the best days of her life. She’s done so well at Willows, that from September she’ll be at a new school on the Isle of Wight, a place that is much closer to her family in Southampton who didn’t move with her to Wales.

The next academic year will bring fresh faces and more young minds to encourage and motivate. They, like us, will get to know someone who is warm, funny and self-deprecating; with a keen sense of wanting to provide the learning that she didn’t have herself. Joy Ballard thinks the children of Willows High School will be the new stars of the ‘Educating…’ series. I rather think this inspirational leader needs to start getting used to the spotlight herself.

Sian Williams


This article first appeared in the Radio Times on 25 August 2015.