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In conversation with Thahmina Begum, one of UK’s youngest headteachers

26th Feb 2021
In conversation with Thahmina Begum, one of UK’s youngest headteachers

(Photo courtesy of Thahmina Begum)

At just 33, Thahmina Begum is believed to be one of the youngest headteachers in the country, she heads up Forest Gate Community School, an ‘outstanding’ secondary school with GCSE results in the country’s top 50.

In 2019, her students registered a Progress 8-score of one, the highest in Newham – meaning its rate of improvement was an entire GCSE grade better than pupils with similar backgrounds nationally.

Begum has stepped up from her role as deputy headteacher to take the reins, having led the school’s English department, ranked among the best in the country, a remarkable achievement considering far more pupils than the national average speak English as an additional language.

Incredibly, Forest Gate Community School has achieved its outstanding Ofsted rating despite being large and having a higher than the national average proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals.

In an interview with The Muslim News Begum talks about the challenges of teacher retention, heading a school in an underprivileged area and maintaining excellent results and morale during a pandemic.

 

How did you come to be one of the youngest headteachers in the country?

It was a combination of lots of hard work, working alongside excellent practitioners, mentors and leaders at the Community Schools Trust, which is an organisation that values staff development. And I happened to be quite young at the time! I don’t think age should trump skill, passion and impact. I see brilliant staff members every day, of all ages, changing the lives of our young people.

 

According to the latest national survey, two-thirds of teachers are considering leaving the profession due pay concerns, how difficult is it to retain teachers?

We have done a lot, as a school and a Trust, to recognise talent and develop staff so that they feel a sense of growth, acknowledgement, and belonging. This includes introducing a four and a half-day week which allows our teachers to balance their working and personal lives. Teaching is also a job where you impact the lives of the children we teach – which brings with it its own intrinsic rewards that make you want to stay in the profession! I am personally invested in continuing to improve the quality of mentoring and coaching across the school and I know this is the case at Trust level. We believe if we improve the quality of our mentors — who have the most impact on the development and experiences of new teachers joining our schools — we will not only develop excellent teachers in our schools, but this will also mean quality staff will want to stay on in the profession and consequently — and most importantly — our students will benefit.

 

How do you maintain your passion to continue teaching during challenging times as this?

It is the other way around – I continue teaching in order to help me cope with these challenging times! Like any teacher, I came into the profession because of the passion I have for the classroom and children. It is, literally, the best thing about this job. I was reluctant to go for every leadership position I have had along my journey because I didn’t want to move away from teaching! I relish planning lessons; the interactions I have with students and the relationships I build along the way. Whilst there is a still lot that I enjoy about being a headteacher, my absolute favourite part of the week is when I am teaching my students.

 

How would you rate the Government’s handling of the education sector during the pandemic, be it in terms of clarifications over exams or communication with schools and local education authority on closures and opening?

It is not my job to pass judegment on the Government’s handling of this situation. I am focused on supporting my students, staff and community. What I can say is that this pandemic has brought us all closer together. Both inside and outside of school, our staff has gone above and beyond to help those in need of support.

 

Despite being situated in an underprivileged area, your school has topped Newham tables and has an ‘outstanding’ rating, however with the digital divide resulting in most disadvantaged pupils being less likely to be engaged in remote learning, do you fear progress made by your students will be affected during this pandemic?

Whilst you cannot replace the interaction between a skilled teacher and a student in the classroom, across the Trust we have worked tirelessly to minimise the impact of the pandemic on our students. We have access to a unique learning portal called the Dynamic Progress Report (DPR) which is especially useful during school closures as it tracks student progress in real-time to make sure they are staying up-to-date with their class and homework. During the most recent lockdown, all schools in the Community Schools Trust have had an online attendance of over 80 per cent every day, which is way, way above the national average and very likely among the best in the country.
If, students are not engaging on DPR we are calling home to find out why. We have been able to purchase laptops for every single child who needs it, not one has been left out, with some help from generous donations. On the pastoral side, we have made more than 6,000 phone calls across the trust at the time of writing this with hundreds of home visits. Our TAs personally work with our students with additional needs and our incredible family support worker keeps in touch with our most vulnerable. Because of these incredible efforts by our staff, engagement from students has been excellent. And because we can meaningfully track the impact of these efforts on the DPR, I know our students are benefiting from the education we are offering.

 

Do you think school staff should be involved in Covid-19 testing in schools, and should they get vaccination priority?

I am not sure if I am the best person to ask about this because a lot of my friends and family are teachers and so of course from a very personal point of view, I would like them to be among those getting vaccinated sooner rather than later! We want to do what we can to support the national effort. And, of course, continue to provide an education our students deserve, despite the circumstances.

 

Finally, what advice do you have for parents worried that their child’s education has been damaged irreversibly in the last year?

Teachers need your help more than ever! Children need adult support to manage their time: enforce a timetable, bedtime no later than 10 pm, no phone rule after this time. (I would say no phone rule throughout the day too if you can help it – they wouldn’t be allowed to use phones if they were at our school!). Have a checklist of subject lessons for each day that you can tick off with them. Know their timetable and make them show you the work they produce at regular intervals if you can. Manage screen time as far as possible: allow them breaks from the screen. Take up any and all opportunities their school provides to support their learning. Finally, try not to stress. Teaching is a tough profession; it takes many years to master. No one expects you to be able to do it in a few months. You are doing your best, that is enough.

Interview by Elham Asaad Buaras

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