As soon as TV Times steps through the doors at Willows High in Cardiff, the latest to take part in C4’s award-winning Educating… series, we’re immediately sent back to our own school days. We hear the chatter in the corridors blending with a choir rehearsing, and then, after sitting in lessons, we feel those awful butterflies in our stomach as we’re sent to see the head…
Thankfully, though, Joy Ballard is friendly, funny and chatty, greeting us with a huge smile. Although she’s now 48, passionate Joy has only been a teacher since 2007 and joined the school in 2011. It’s her first headship and she’s credited with turning around its fortunes from being one of the worst performing schools in Cardiff to one of the UK’s most improved…
Was it a big decision to let the cameras in to film?
“We thought about it because we wanted to make sure that every child would be shown having a happy ever after story. As a head, that is what you want for every kid under your watch.
Jonny Mitchell, the head from Educating Yorkshire, came to meet us but I refrained from asking for his autograph!”
Are your schools similar?
“Yes they are and he just said to enjoy it and we did, we never regretted it because we saw it as an opportunity of changing the reputation of this school.”
How does Willows deal with the challenges faced by being in a deprived area?
“When I first came to the school I could see talent and potential but also that the community was underperforming and had lost belief in itself. It gives you an emotional wake-up call seeing what these kids face and some of the stories might be shocking. But it will also be heart-warming and people will marvel at our kids’ determination to get through things plus, as Welsh kids, they wear their hearts on their sleeves.”
Does everyone live up to the school motto that you introduced – ‘Belong, Believe, Achieve’?”
“We operate with a family feel with a lot of fun, I’m like the mum and my deputy, Chris Norman, is like the dad. We don’t stay in our offices, we are out there with the kids, we know their academic profiles, their mum’s name, or if their aunty has been ill and that makes the difference. There is an informality to the school and we have never forgotten that school should be the best days of your life.”
Has having a tough background helped you to empathise with the challenges your pupils face?
“I was raised on a council estate in Southampton and was a buffoon at school and I didn’t get any qualifications until I was 26. So I’m a living example to the kids that, no matter your background, you can do it and that education gives you a choice.”
Educating Cardiff starts on Tuesday August 25 at 9pm on Channel 4.