This is not a remarkable story about an extraordinary man. It’s a bog-standard story about a good man. Terry Creissen has three sons, a wife and a mortgage. He also has passion. In the stilted language of an Ofsted compliment, he runs a “very good school with many excellent features”. He’s not a “superhead”, a saviour, a rising star. He’s just a headteacher. And he’s totally in favour of the government’s white paper on education reform.
Creissen has been the head of the Colne Community School in Brightlingsea, Essex, since 1993. Almost immediately the school became grant maintained, a status it retained until it was abolished in 1998. “It was our greatest period of rising standards,” he says. And then he makes an unusual admission for a head: “After that, things went downhill a bit really.” Despite the fact that he was still in charge? “Yes.”
Actually, standards didn’t fall. But later I understood what he meant. The success was because “we had control over our destiny. The staff felt that they had autonomy.” He uses this language constantly. Words such as responsibility, influence and ownership pepper his narrative about the job. What he wants is for him and his staff to share the glory and take responsibility for the criticisms. If they can’t do that, he doesn’t see the point of running a school.
His father was a builder, one of 13 children. Creissen is one of six. “Dad never wanted any of us to be a builder,” he says. “It was a rotten hard life and he died at 56. We all went to grammar school and university.” None the less, he would abolish grammar schools. “I taught in a secondary modern. I saw the sense of failure in those children. The need of the most able can be met within the comprehensive system.” He is quite clear about that. Selection is damaging to children. Non-selective admissions should be statutory.
He says Colne’s top priority should be children whose parents have made it their first choice. “But parents hedge their bets,” he says. “They put the local grammar schools top, and if they don’t get their kids in there, we’re the back stop. But I believe that if you want a comprehensive education for your child, you should choose that. If you want a grammar school, you should choose that. I want parents who put us as first choice to get us as first choice.” He wants parents and children to invest in the school. It is central to his philosophy that they should own the school.
Very early on in his career he realised that what made a school work was not just the curriculum but understanding what motivated the senior management. “It is about more than the money,” he says. “When you have the head, governors, teachers and the children leading together, you don’t need anybody else interfering”. He means the local education authority (LEA).
His words remind me of my own stint as a school governor. It’s the only thing I’ve ever resigned from in sheer frustration. I realised it was simply not possible to influence the school while the LEA had so much control. Creissen puts all his emphasis on that capacity.
Why does he think that so many heads are resistant to the white paper’s recommendations? “I don’t think they see the psychological advantage,” he answers. “If we were a trust school we would have control over our success. We could get on with the job, without interference. We could offer help to other schools that needed it without having to use the happy broker of the LEA. I’m not just interested in the kids in my school, but in all kids. Now the attitude of most heads towards sink schools is: ‘Thank God it’s not me.’ My reaction is how can I help? If we were a trust school, we could.”
Expectations are high at Colne. And Creissen and the children, parents and staff want to take the glory for that. “In the end, it’s not to do with the white paper. It’s to do with passion.”
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