Dame Rachel de Souza is a children’s commissioner and former chief executive of the Inspiration Trust.
Since her appointment, she has conducted The Big Ask, a national survey of 557,077 young people, to find out how they feel about schools and their communities. She also launched a new student absence survey to discern the drivers of persistent absence.
She talks to Your about her own time at school, both as a young person and then as a teacher, and how she sees the future of education moving towards a model where the school is the center of the community.
1. Who has been your most memorable teacher and why?
I had two memorable teachers. One is from my high school – it was a Catholic school and I was taught by nuns; they were real characters.
Sister Anna was my cooking teacher and she got angry with me because although I could cook, I didn’t like cleaning.
She used to tell me, “Rachel, you’ll never have a husband!” I thought at the time that actually it would be quite a good thing.
Then, in sixth grade, I had a brilliant teacher named Mr. Fitzpatrick. He opened the world to me. He taught me philosophy – and I was stepping out of my slightly chaotic teenage life into his calm classroom, and I really felt the power of education.
It was thanks to him that I continued to study philosophy at university, and I was the first person to go to university in my family. When I told him I wanted to go to college, he didn’t blink and said I should consider Oxford, and I said, ‘Okay, I’ll go there.’
I grew up in Scunthorpe during the miners’ strike and he was one of the only teachers to tell us about the strike.
Years later in my teaching career, I considered it my standard. I wanted to teach as well as him, and have the same impact.
2. What fun memories do you have from school?
When I was in 7th grade, I was a studious little girl, and Sister Louis called me and congratulated me on my work. She told me she thought I should be Head Girl one day…and that I should “think about joining us”.
It didn’t occur to me what she really meant until I left. [the room] – she told me that she thought I should become a nun! I thought about it and took the suggestion very seriously, but decided it wasn’t for me. And when I was 15, it was another Madonna that I followed.
3. Why did you choose to work in education?
When I finished university, it was in 1989 and everyone told me to train to be an accountant or a lawyer.
I landed an accounting training contract and every day, for the first 10 days, I came home unhappy. I knew it wasn’t good for me and what I really wanted to do was be a teacher.
So I changed and started training as a teacher, and the second I entered a school, I knew that was what I needed.
4. What is your proudest moment?
My first direction was in an academy sponsored by Tony Blair. It was a neighboring school which had always “failed” and then announced it was turning into an academy.
At that time, the academies were brand new and I didn’t really know what that meant, but it interested me and I wanted to know more.
I visited the school and knew it was for me. I was really determined to get it, and even though I was only in my thirties and hadn’t been a deputy head for very long, against all odds, I was appointed.
My proudest moment was the first set of results where we were the most improved school in the country. After years at the bottom of the ladder, we had climbed to the top of the table.
The whole community shared in the pride of the transformation and of course I was hooked and wanted to do it again and again.
5. What were your most difficult moments?
There were a lot of tough spots but the big tough times were when it was tough with the kids – and there are some that still give me nightmares.
One was in my first year of teaching at Stepney. It was a school with many newly arrived migrants, and there was real poverty and it was a difficult time for the community. I sensed something was wrong with a girl in my class – she was calm and well behaved but incredibly sad about her.
I suspected something was wrong – and it turned out she was basically being used as a modern day slave. She was working in such difficult conditions that she was eventually diagnosed with tuberculosis, and I often wonder if we should have acted sooner.
Another time was during my freshman year as academy principal, and there had been a lot of gun violence issues between two properties near the school. It was pick up time for the elementary school next door, and one of my 11th graders showed up at the door with a replica gun and a claw hammer. The armed police arrived and it was very traumatic for everyone involved, and there was a huge fallout.
I had to make a decision on what to do with my 11th grader, and kicked him out of an institution to continue his exams (which he was able to do and got the GCSE he needed).
I’ll never forget sitting down and talking to his mom, and wondering if I did the right thing. His mother’s face haunts me.
6. In the staff room of your dream school, who would be your colleagues?
I would have Michael Gove as story lead and Nick Gibb teaching phonetics. I would have Deanna Troi [from Star Trek: The Next Generation] in charge of pastoral care – you would absolutely want an empath in charge of this!
We would like Shakespeare to teach English. Then brilliant enrichment people for theater and sports. I would like Marcus Rashford to teach leadership and life skills.
7. In the current school system, what are the best and worst aspects?
The best things about our school system: The schools are incredibly better than when I started working in education. We don’t say “bravo” enough to teachers.
I’ve seen an incredible transformation in schools and we don’t praise teachers enough for that. I think back to when I started my first school and how low standards were acceptable, but today as a teaching profession and as a nation we find it intolerable to reject children , and it’s fantastic.
We have come a long way and come a long way, but there is still a long way to go. We need to address, in a systemic way, a number of things: mental health support, SEND (special educational needs and disability) support when their needs are not being met, and children being cared for.
Support around the child must be targeted and developed if we are to bring the education system to where it can be.
8. Who has influenced you the most in the field of education?
At different times, there have been different people. I was very influenced by Andrew Adonis at the beginning of the academic movement; the challenge that came from him – that we should pick up the most troubled and failing schools. His belief was that by using expertise from outside – from different business sectors – we could transform schools.
The transformation “education, education, education” influenced me – the idea of changing the most difficult situations possible. The idea that if we applied ourselves, we could take a failing school and we could make sure they got the best education, the same as you could get in any public or private school.
It is a golden thread that runs through my teaching career.
9. If you became secretary of education, what would you change?
I would pay attendance. I recently published an article on attendance issues. Before Covid it was bad – and it’s worse now. I am really concerned that our data systems are not up to date and this allows our most vulnerable to fall. And I don’t think in the modern world that’s acceptable.
I want to see live data every day, and I would tell my team I want this sorted – kids can’t achieve their goals if they’re not in school.
We need to talk to our children and their parents. For The great demand [the consultation organised by de Souza in her role as children’s commissioner]I asked the kids what they wanted for their future and they said “great jobs and great careers”.
I was hoping they would tell me they liked learning for the sake of learning, but they told me they wanted great careers.
I would also like more support around the child and invest in SEND support, mental health support. And I would talk to my counterpart in health and higher education to work together to create a society where a child can be supported and thrive.
10. What will schools look like in 30 years?
In 30 years, I will be 84 years old, and I hope that we will have finally ensured that all children, regardless of their background, receive an exceptional education and that the disadvantaged gap has closed.
I hope we would have cracked STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, especially for girls.
In 30 years, I would also like us to have a fantastic enrichment offer for children, with schools at the center of their communities and brilliant extracurricular activities.
To do this, I think the school building should be open all day, with activities offered for children to develop their interest. The school building will be a family hub, with services around the schools.
The schools will be the place where mums-to-be will be supported, and you can go there and get advice on finding a job, and also be able to use their fantastic facilities for sports. They will be somewhere that will support the community from birth to career.
Rachel du Souza was talking to senior analyst Grainne Hallahan