Sarah with her hand on her chin looking thoughtful.

Preface by Emma Kell

Presenting to large groups of people is (and arguably, should always be) nausea-inducingly terrifying. My secret trick is to start by focusing in on a handful of key people: the one who exudes kindness and nods from the moment you introduce yourself, the one with the stubbornly straight face who you aim to win around, and the shrewd one who exudes the kind of wisdom that says, ‘I won’t take any crap, but I’m listening…’. Two years ago, in the Isle of Wight, Sarah was the latter. She’s the kind of person who exudes moral purpose and high standards – who inspires you to be the best version of yourself you can be. She’s the kind of person you want to go to the pub with and put the world to rights. I’ve since had the privilege of getting to know Sarah. She’s the kind of leader who makes me want to relocate so I can work with her; the kind of leader who eschews fads and polarities and embraces what works for her school and her community. She’s fiercely loyal to her team, wickedly funny, entirely lacking in ego and unapologetically authentic in her words and deeds.

During the months when I first got to know her, the ‘scabby pigeon’ in the corner of the ceiling (you can’t take your eyes off it because it might sh*t on you at any moment) was Ofsted. Sarah was frequently gung-ho about them – it’s our school and we know our community best and we know we’re doing a great job – but as she watched colleagues beaten down by inspections and the chant of ‘not good enough’ became louder and louder amongst fellow school leader she cared so much about, Sarah’s anxiety levels rose.

Ofsted came and went, as they eventually do, and it actually wasn’t as bad as she might have imagined.

Then, less than a month later, I received this text from Sarah

So looks like I am poorly after all. Have been in hospital since yesterday at 6pm and they want to transfer me to Queen Alexander hospital in Portsmouth as I have had a heart attack!!! I’ll have to bloody rest now won’t I? xxx

Sarah’s no longer in headship. The decision was taken out of her hands. Here’s her story.


Back in the summer of 2022, I wrote a blog for Emma Kell all about the ‘Joy of Headship’. I meant every word and I was looking forward to my 13th year of headship. It is now April 2023 and I have not been able to work since 1st December, plus I have handed in my notice for the end of the academic year. I am only 52! I often sit and wonder how I got here and if I could have done things differently. I am yet to come up with a definitive answer.

Let me talk you through the events and see if we can draw some conclusions.

Firstly, I need to make it clear that I have always loved my stressful but rewarding job, but something shifted in me this year and I was unable to switch off. Is it possible to care too much? The school is a good school; our team has worked bloody hard to ensure this and we were happy to show it off. However, stories of awful inspections were filtering down to me – through social media and then from fellow heads who had very recently been visited. I began to worry about our outcome; we were due any day and those worries became huge anxieties that I carried with me at all times. I have a history of depression and high blood pressure and I sought medical support with them both through October – but I was ‘fine!’

Ofsted called and visited us on 15th and 16th November (the same days as Caversham Primary, Ruth Perry’s school, which is not lost on me!) It was as I had been warned, a very different experience to the previous two I had led. The inspector had her views on the school before entering the building and there was a distinct lack of professional discussion. We retained our ‘good’, with a warning that they will be back in two years to check the things that weren’t ‘good enough.’ The outcome is not important though, it is the stress of the build up and the actual process that needs to be examined urgently.

A week prior to the inspection, my normally high blood pressure was even higher and I was prescribed extra medication to help bring it down. During the safeguarding ‘grilling’, my deputy and I watched my feet and ankles swell, reminiscent of Augustus Gloop! Another emergency GP phone call was made. By the end of the gruelling second day I was broken, I had barely slept and had been surviving on adrenalin only for 72 hours. The process was a constant battle, with my staff and I trying to prove how we knew the school was good and having the resilience to keep going. It was really tough – much tougher than it needed to be.

But hey Ofsted was done! I naively thought that once they had left the building I would feel joyous relief and be able to carry on where we left off. This time it was different. There were things that had been said, comments made in those two days that ate away at me. I had concerns about my brilliant staff and how they had coped; I felt like I hadn’t protected them enough. School life carried on, but it seemed to be even more stressful. We were dealing with some really challenging situations as all schools do and not enough time or money for staff to fulfil their roles effectively. For the first time in my role as headteacher, I felt that my staff were unhappy and wanted me to have all the answers – and I didn’t.

By the end of November, I was really struggling both mentally and physically. I decided to go on a school visit with my year 1 class and their wonderful, young teacher – I needed time out of my office and with some children (I barely remembered what they looked like). On the coach on the way home, I felt some mild chest pain and pins and needles in my left arm – I put it down to the fact that a little girl had fallen asleep on my arm!

The following day I had a particularly difficult meeting; I am normally really good at staying calm and seeing everyone’s perspective – this meeting left me angry and frustrated (one of those where you sit in your office afterwards and cry angry tears!)

I called my GP the next day as I was feeling increasingly unwell and was told to go to A&E for an ECG, to be on the safe side. I really wasn’t sure where I would fit it into my day but I did manage to pop up at lunchtime, really not expecting what happened next. What followed was a period of morphine foggy conversations with different medical experts. I was admitted, discharged, admitted again and then told by a Cardiologist that I had experienced a string of cardiac events and that I was leading up to a huge heart attack – I know the clues were there but I was too busy and indispensable to listen to them. Did I mention that I am only 52?

I was then blue-lighted to the hovercraft, where I was stowed in the luggage bay with my own emergency team and taken to QA hospital in Portsmouth, it would have been exciting if I wasn’t so terrified! I then had a few days of bed rest and extensive investigations. I was finally discharged with a diagnosis of Acute Coronary Syndrome and more medication than my 81-year-old father has to take daily.

I am not recovered, physically or mentally, but I am getting there. I am attending Cardiac Rehabilitation (I am the youngest there), accessing mental health services and in a few days time will be travelling to London for a specialist cardiac MRI to see the scale of any damage done to my heart.

Do you know, I think I have read the Ofsted report a handful of times; it is so insignificant to me now. We really are replaceable at work – my school has continued without my presence.

My amazing GP is helping me to claim for ill health retirement from Teachers Pensions, this has been almost as stressful as the build up to an inspection and nowhere near sorted. It is a difficult process and you need to have your wits about you. My blood pressure is now deemed to be treatment resistant hypertension (I take four different medications all with different side effects for this alone) and I have a diagnosis of acute coronary syndrome, as well as depression and anxiety. However, if an Occupational Health expert decides that I will be fit for work again before pensionable age, I will not qualify for even the first tier of ill health retirement. The first report they wrote was so factually incorrect and badly written that I had to make a complaint to get an apology and a rewritten report. The doctor who saw me over Zoom for twenty minutes described in the report that I had a physical reaction to the ‘perceived stress’ of my job. In a time when colleague heads have taken their own lives I would like to think that other professionals would acknowledge our stress as very real. In our interview I was asked; if the governors could remove Ofsted inspections, a lack of budget, challenging families and leading a team of staff, did I think I would be able to do my job? Oh the irony!

So what do you think? Can we make any connections between my health and my role as Headteacher? I don’t think it needs to be spelt out, does it?

Schools need and value a system of accountability, but the current system is toxic. Education in this country is broken, we are undervalued and our concerns are dismissed – remember we are the sector that stayed at home during the pandemic. There will be no experienced headteachers left if this continues. Sadly, despite all the amazing things I have achieved in my career, I have been left with an overwhelming feeling that I have failed. No job should put your body under so much stress that it drastically affects, not just your quality, but the length of your life.

Change must happen!

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