A head teacher who has dedicated her working life to helping children who can’t cope in mainstream school is retiring after 36 years in the profession.
Sue Bradley is stepping down from her role as executive headteacher of The Kingsmead School and Newtons Walk, a special school and pupil referral unit which specialises in teaching children with social, emotional and mental health issues.
Although working with some of the city’s most complex children, many of whom had been excluded from mainstream schools, Sue describes her job as a labour of love from the outset, fulfilling her duty to carry out the local authority’s obligation to ensure that everyone should be given access to education no matter what their background or circumstance.
Over the years she went well above and beyond the call of duty, picking up children and driving them to school to ensure their attendance as well reading to pupils who could barely stay awake after spending their nights out getting involved with trouble, including crime.
And, after taking the helm at Kingsmead in 2004 after Government inspectors placed the unit in special measures, she led it to regularly being rated ‘good’ with ‘outstanding’ behaviour from pupils, while she also saw its transformation from a school based over 10 sites across the city to a more manageable six.
But it is the personal stories that she says she will take away from her time at Kingsmead, including the examples of students who arrived at the school with little hope of achieving anything in the classroom but who went on to lead fulfilling lives.
She said: “I have always had a heart for working with children who find things more difficult, those that are marginalised for whatever reason or have struggled to succeed. I always felt that I could make a difference even if only for one child – and sometimes it might be many years before you realise you did make a difference.
"Children will often come to us in moments of chaos. Some of our pupils have had more things happen to them in the first 10 years of their lives, will have had more emotions to process, than most people have had to face in a lifetime.
“It’s about teaching children trying to cope with so much more than what's being presented to them in the classroom.”
The role of both Kingsmead and Newtons Walk is to accommodate the most troubled and disruptive of pupils, including those expelled from mainstream schools while it also provides education for children with physical and mental health issues that prevent them attending mainstream school.
Its aim is to put as many of them as possible back on an even keel and work towards getting them back into mainstream schools sometime in the future.
Sue is passionate about the role and went on to have a national voice when she became President of the National Association of Pupil Referral Units, working hard to represent the best interests of disadvantaged children across the UK.
She said: “We are now seeing the children of former pupils in school and we also teach several members of large families – for some there is a cycle of deprivation which is extremely hard to break through. “But we do break through it and only recently a member of staff bumped into a former pupil who was working successfully as a chef.
“We have lots of former students who have gone on to hold down good jobs and have happy lives, some have even gone on to be successful at University and it’s these success stories which keep you going even on the hardest days.”
Sue started her career teaching food and nutrition to teenagers at The Bosworth College, in Leicestershire. She realised her passion lay with supporting children with additional needs after she began working as a home tutor working in Derby with children who could not attend school for medical reasons.
Reflecting on her career, Sue said: “I don’t think children have really changed in the last 30 years. They still have the same needs and they still find themselves in the same position if their needs aren’t identified quickly enough. It leads to them being disengaged and disaffected.
“During the last 30 years things have gone round and round and each Government has tried really hard in their different ways to manage children who don’t fit into a mainstream system.
“I know that Derby City has worked very hard to support young people and compared to other cities they really have made a difference. There still isn’t enough provision, but there never is and probably never will be.”
One of the aspects of the job that Sue is most proud of is setting up Junction 16 – a service provided by the school which offers alternatives to traditional learning in schools across the city.
Today alternative providers such as Engineered Learning and Baby People work with the students to offer them experiences and qualifications in vocational subjects, such as welding and music.
And Sue has also ensured that additional support counselling and therapeutic services are also readily available for pupils.
She is leaving the role at the end of the term – she is passing over the reins to her deputy Mike Pride – and is looking forward to having more time for reading, gardening and attending the theatre.
But she will continue to work for Derby City Council on a part-time basis, helping to support the In Year Fair Access process in the city.
She said: “One thing I am passionate about is that those who work with young people have to be lifelong learners, enthusiastic and able to see every day and situation as a learning opportunity.
“No one should ever be afraid to get things wrong, how will they get it better next time? I will miss the commitment and dedication of my team.
“In my executive head role I have moved too far away from the children and it has been frustrating that I’ve not been able to work directly with them. I will miss them greatly.
“But I am absolutely confident that I am leaving the school in the right hands and that it will continue to grow and develop.”
Sue’s top five moments of her career..
There was a boy I picked up for school every day, who was in the care of the local authority and had had a difficult home life. The year after he had left school he rang me at home on Christmas morning to say Happy Christmas and to let me know how he was. I have no idea how he got my home number, but it was very touching.
The PRU has had many homes over the years and one of the most memorable, but challenging, was when we moved into Pear Tree House, many, many years ago. There were two floors we couldn’t access at all and we suspect that at times we were sharing with at least two homeless people!
Winning a national award, which was presented by Esther Rantzen, for the work we had developed through our Junction 16 programme, where we were supporting students into post 16.
I was invited to Highgrove House to meet Prince Charles…..but I let another colleague go as they had done all the hands-on work on the project.
Seeing a group of our more troubled and disengaged boys helping and supporting a group of younger children who had more significant needs and disabilities on a trip to the fair. Despite all of their issues they were just so fabulous and showed real sensitivity and care for others. I never cease to be amazed by what our pupils can achieve.
Over the last seven years staff have been part of the Derby County Community Trust ‘Rams in Kenya’ trip to support the work of schools in the slums in Nakuru. This year I joined the trip and we took our first pupil, a Y11 girl. Seeing her work with the children and support with all the building work we were involved in was wonderful. To watch a young person who has her own issues and struggles cope so well with this was amazing – and I am sure a life changing experience for her.