No limits - tackling inequality for the poorest children

From Leader Summer Term 2019 issue

Stephen Gabriel had his sights set on headship from early in his career and puts tackling inequality for the poorest children at the heart of his vision as a leader.

As a secondary school pupil growing up in 1990s England, Stephen Gabriel had first-hand experience of exactly what inequality looked like in practice, but it was income, rather than race, which created the divide.

“It was a period when there were a lot of cuts and those of us on free school meals were told that we couldn’t have a hot dinner anymore; we’d have sandwiches instead,” he remembers. “There were two canteens and those on free meals had a packed lunch and those who paid had the hot dinner. We used to be able to see all the other children eating. We used to smell the sausage and mash. At the time, you laugh about it, but you don’t really know how it affects your self-esteem and confidence.” 

Tackling inequality at its roots is what led him into teaching and drives him on now as head, since 2016, of St Peter’s RC High School in Manchester. He hopes to instil in his pupils, many of them from challenging backgrounds, a sense that they can achieve at the highest level and an understanding that the school will do everything possible to help them.

“The key strategy is raising aspiration, getting the children to believe they can achieve anything,” he stresses. “We do so many extra things and the staff don’t get paid extra for working in the evenings or at weekends. They do it because they want the children to succeed.

Sights on headship 

Stephen always had his sights set on headship. After sixth form and a gap year working in a primary school, he studied psychology at Birmingham, staying on to do a Master’s in computer science. Back home in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, he found a job in a primary school teaching parenting skills, a role, he says, for which he could hardly have been less qualified. 

“I was 21, fresh out of university and with no kids of my own, teaching parents how to parent. It was a bit of a joke really and I thought no one would come. But I was amazed by the number of parents who engaged in these lessons and you realised how desperate some of them were. You always think people have the skills to function but a lot don’t.

”The year-long project gave him a deep insight into areas of school life outside the classroom and confirmed his interest in pursuing teaching as a career.

Joining the fast-track programme, he worked first in a leafy-lane secondary in Cambridgeshire, before moving to a much tougher school in Eltham, South London.

After more postgraduate study at Cambridge and an MBA at Keele, he joined the Future Leaders initiative, attracted by its mission to tackle the same fundamental problems of inequality and disadvantage that he had identified. 

It led to a job teaching science at St Peter’s in 2008 where he has stayed, becoming head three years ago. 

St Peter’s, rated good by Ofsted, has many students who attract the Pupil Premium but make above-average progress, thanks to measures such as dedicated learning rooms for Key Stage 3 and 4 where students can receive personalised support from teachers and English and maths graduates, evening sessions and Saturday schools.

It has paid off in the shape of young people who have succeeded at the highest academic level, securing places at Oxford and Cambridge. This year, every Year 7 child will visit universities to help embed the idea that higher education is for them, not just ‘others’.

Does Stephen see himself as a role model for his students in terms of high aspiration? About 75% of the school’s students are from black/minority ethnic backgrounds, whereas just 13.6% of teachers in England are from an ethnic minority background and just 2.1% are black. The figure for black headteachers is an almost invisible 0.7%. (Source: School Teacher Workforce)

In fact, he says, it’s the other way around: his own working-class background in an African-Caribbean family with five children where there was no space to study at home and living at times on benefits, means he relates instinctively to these children, some of whom have chaotic home lives, are carers or are in families where money is a struggle, he says. 

“I don’t necessarily see myself as a role model for them, but I do know something of their experiences through my own upbringing. My mum, who came to England in the 1960s from the Caribbean, was a cleaner and from when I was 14 I used to go with her to clean the local library at five every morning, coming back at half-past six to get an hour’s sleep, then going to school. I would fall asleep in class and people would say, ‘Stephen, don’t be so lazy’ – I wasn’t lazy, I was tired because I’d been working. So when a child is yawning in class now, I know we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about why.”

Set of values

Life might have been tough in some ways, but his upbringing also instilled in him a set of values that have shaped his life, he says.

“I learned honesty, integrity and hard work from my mum. Once while we were cleaning the library, I found a whole load of money in the bin – thousands of pounds. We could have taken it – no one would ever have known – and bought so many things that we needed but my mum insisted we take it back. The woman there hugged her in tears. Apparently, it was money kept in the safe which had been taken out for counting and somehow fallen into the bin.”

Stephen, now 40, has made it to the top against the odds in many ways, so what does he think could be done within the system to level the playing field for others from a similar background? 

Naturally, more could be done not just to recruit but to support those teachers from an ethnic minority background to be successful in leadership roles, he says. But he still doesn’t want to be a role model...

“I don’t see myself as a success. Just because I’m one of a few, I don’t want to be lauded. My key reason for getting into education is to make a difference to people’s lives but also to colleagues’ lives, too. If it encourages people from very different backgrounds to enter the profession, then that’s great.” 

My Key reason for getting into education is to make a difference to people’s lives but also to colleagues’ lives, too.” Stephen Gabriel

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