Half term 1: Growing

‘Shit-and-sugar!’

‘That’s the nickname you’ve given yourself? You shouldn’t call yourself that. I’m not calling you that. Just Sugar, right?’

I am sitting on the stairs with Audrey, who has walked out of her lesson. We are writing a list of things that she likes about herself and she isn’t finding or making this easy. Nothing comes quickly to mind so I have to prompt her with the things that I have noticed.

‘You’re kind.’

‘You’re friendly.’

I don’t teach her year group, but that is one of the things that I have noticed about my new setting, it really doesn’t take long to get to know the entire school. This is, of course, to do with the numbers and the size of the building. It’s so much smaller than any school I have worked in before that sometimes I even bump into myself. It’s also the nature of the children and the staff.

Communication is essential here. Emails fly thick and fast, but corridor life here is a big part of our school culture and I easily get my 10,000 steps escorting students back into lessons and resolving incidents. It has not been easy. It seriously has...not...been...easy. My first week was spent ducking from a barrage of insults, rejection and the occasional pen.

‘Who does this woman think she is?’

‘Why are you here?’

‘Don’t talk to me!’

‘Don’t f***king look at me!’

I crawled into bed one day that week absolutely exhausted only to look at my phone and see it was only 8.30pm.

I questioned my choices that first weekend. What had I done? Text messages telling me that I was missed at my previous school did not help. But something clicked on the Sunday night. I didn’t feel anxious about work on Monday. I didn’t feel the same mental exhaustion I had often felt in mainstream. I was tired, yes, but the emotions drained away readily. Initially, I found this confusing. I can only think that it is because it was never been the students’ behaviour that caused my stress but rather workload, other adults and workplace practices which hampered my ability to support students appropriately.

Almost like that house plant you thought was doomed but you wake up to find is suddenly budding, I have found that each day has started to bring with it little joys and tiny successes. Whole days have passed where I haven’t heard a single insult – except for Aaron’s fixation with wanting to comb my ‘picky’ afro, and Emily’s absolute disapproval of my outfits. Students and parents are starting to share with me their dreams, their pain, and their interests.

Later in the day when Audrey was making mischief in her Art lesson, I looked at her with raised eyebrows and said ‘Sugar?’, she smiled and sat down to get back on with her work.

I am becoming, if not part of the furniture, at least a fairly healthy house plant.

I’m still an object of curiosity and as a member of SLT a target of students’ anger and issues with authority. One thing that really helped me in those first weeks was the supervision session with my compassionate coaching group with other Difference leaders. I shared my concerns about the aggression that had been directed at me and the number of lessons where nothing had been achieved except students revelling in the opportunity to ridicule me. It was really helpful just to hear people who were sharing a similar experience express empathy. What really made things click for me was the suggestion to accept this part of the journey was about relationship building and it didn’t matter at this point that evidence of progress was absent from their books. I wasn’t going to get that without some trust being gained. Colleagues have also been kind and offer advice and encouragement on those days when things aren’t going so well.

It truly is so very much about making those connections and being prepared to be vulnerable. These students don’t just want to know that you care, they want to know why. I have had to climb out of my teacher box and back into my human box. I know that many aspects of my own childhood should have made me a statistic. Sharing some of these personal experiences, has helped the children trust me just that little bit more than they did before that supervision session. I know that for many people our students are already statistics. There is a stereotype of these children that will come to mind for many. Honestly, our students do not conform to a typical profile. They are from racially and socio-economically diverse backgrounds. There are school refusers, students with diagnosed learning difficulties, students with undiagnosed learning difficulties, students in gangs, students with anxiety and depression, children in care and children who are carers. One thing that I can see clearly is that underneath the eruptions of anger is a lot of sadness, and under all the bravado are young children who really need boundaries wrapped up in a package of love and kindness.

Audrey and I are completing her list as the bell goes. I’ve written most of it but then she says ‘I never give up’ which makes me smile from ear to ear as I write it down.

That’s exactly why we’re here.

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Irene Ogunseitan is one of the first ten Difference Leaders, working across London. If you want to apply for Cohort 2 in Yorkshire & the Humber, the North West or London and the South of England, express your interest today.

A day in the life of a Difference Leader

Ellie Doyle, Maths Teacher and Associate Leader, gives an insight into what a day working in Alternative Provision (AP) as a Difference Leader really looks like.

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I was ready for a challenge when I made the move to leave my role as Head of Year 11 at a prestigious London Academy to enrol on the Difference Leaders Programme and spend two years in Alternative Provision. 

Some colleagues, friends and family thought I was crazy. I mean, there were times when I thought I was crazy... But I knew deep down that I was ready for something new. I wanted to drive change.

One half-term into the programme at my new school in Barking and Dagenham and I’ve learnt that no two days - and the emotions that come with them - are the same. 

Take today for example. I’ve met with a concerned parent, attended a staff briefing and stole my first smile of the day from a pupil who I know is having a tough time at home - all before 9am. 

Don’t get me wrong, it was frustrating when only two students turned up to my first lesson. And it’s definitely difficult watching students struggling to control their behaviour, which we tell them is always their responsibility, but which we know is not always their fault.

But it’s the lightbulb moments - the times you watch pupils crack their percentages or start to believe in themselves and talk positively about their future – that stick with you.

Yes, working in AP can have its challenges. But it is ALWAYS worth it. 


As a Difference Leader, we know that high expectations and compassion for pupils are not mutually exclusive. We try to develop the same reflection and evidence-informed practice in supporting pupils’ emotional, social wellbeing and safety as the best schools currently bring to teaching and learning. We aim to create policies that are flexible for our learners’ needs, but maintain high expectations for ALL pupils – especially the most vulnerable. 

So, what do I feel when I look back at my day in school and consider what has been achieved? 

I feel undeniably proud. 

I’m proud of the work the team and I do - not just on this one day, but every time we walk through these doors.  

Today, the two students who did show up at 9am worked incredibly hard, were well-behaved, engaged and showed real progress with their mathematics. 

I enjoyed spending break time playing table tennis with the children, watching them laugh and interact, even though it meant grabbing a quick snack while ‘on duty’.

My 11.15am lesson with year 11s on percentages was incredible. Each and every one of them was focused and determined.  One student was even answering tricky grade five problem-solving questions on compound interest!

Where I once would have complained about an ‘after-lunch slump’, there’s no time for that in AP. This afternoon I was entirely energised after meeting with a year 11 pupil and discussing her plans for the future. While she enthusiastically talked about her upcoming college applications, interest in hair and beauty courses and we discussed her targets for the year, I couldn’t help but think how different her vision for the future could have been. Her progress and commitment to succeed has far exceeded the expectations others would have had for her in the past. Since getting specialist support in AP she has flourished.

As the school day drew to a close, I sat with my tutor group, listening to them talk about their days. I know that the boy who arrived to school late will be frustrated with his detention, while the girl on report has had an incredibly successful day.

Despite today’s highs and lows, I made it clear to them that we’ll all be back tomorrow for a new day, with new opportunities and positivity ahead.

While they walked through the gates and returned to their lives beyond the safety of the school walls, I headed into our daily staff debrief where we share notices on individual pupils, their progress, behaviour and any concerns or insights. 

Following this it was straight into an SLT meeting, some more lesson-planning, responding to emails and before I know it, I’m being gently ushered out of the building by Dave the caretaker at 4pm. That’s right – 4pm!  One of the perks of working in AP I must say!

And now, as I hop into the car, looking slightly more dishevelled than when I got in, I know, that whatever the day threw my way, I really have made a difference.

Ellie Doyle is a Leader at The Difference, which exists to improve the outcomes of vulnerable children by raising the status and expertise of those who educate them.

The Difference Leaders programme is a two year programme designed to train the next generation of school leaders, specialist in improving outcomes for the most vulnerable children.

Recruitment for their second cohort of Difference Leaders will be opening soon - find out more at www.the-difference.com or join us at our upcoming IncludeEd conferences.


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Summer Training 2019

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Could this be you next year? Learn more about The Difference Leaders Programme TODAY!

Earlier this month, the pioneer cohort of Difference Leaders began their two-year journey with a week of residential Summer Training!

The 10 Difference Leaders spent a week at Jamie's Farm in Lewes.  The first part of this summer training was about getting to grips with the mission of changing the story on school exclusion, as well as developing a shared identity as the very first cohort of Difference Leaders. (interested in joining the second cohort? Learn more).

Jamie’s Farm re-engages secondary school children at risk of exclusion. The perfect setting for Difference Leaders to leave the grind of everyday life and spend some time learning with one another, and The Difference team.

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Five days of intensive, challenging and engaging sessions got Difference Leaders thinking.

Topics included who gets excluded and why; a primer on the four key strands of the Difference Leaders programme: Leadership, Learning, Wellbeing and Safeguarding; and Leaders’ own beliefs about the purpose of education and the work of schools in society.

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When they weren’t making their brains hurt, Difference Leaders spent time on Jamie’s Farm, learning all it has to offer its visiting farmhands!

Difference Leaders fed chickens, chopped wood, herded cows and… did some silly things with wheelbarrows (a vital part of being a farmer!)

Summer BBQ

In the last week of the summer holidays, week two of Summer Training focuses on getting Difference Leaders day one ready, as they head into their new PRUs and AP academies.

Stay tuned for our next blog, to find out how it goes!

While you’re waiting, you could learn more about how to become a Difference Leader for 2020!

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Written by The Difference Team

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