Ms Alison Colwell loves nothing more than a challenge and since taking over as the Principal at Baleares International College last August, she, and the rest of her colleagues, have had to confront and overcome one of the biggest hurdles they will have faced in their careers to date: the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Alison Colwell told the Bulletin this week that the teachers, parents and more importantly, the students, have responded brilliantly and can return to school for the new year in September a credit to themselves.
She arrived in Majorca last year after having spent seven years as headteacher of Ebbsfleet Academy, a special needs school, which was her specialty. And during her spell at the academy in Kent, she turned the school around and her allegedly strict regime dramatically improved the performance of its 700 pupils. But she was locked in a running battle with lawless parents whom she blamed for the pupils’ unruly behaviour, not only in her school but in a large number of state schools across the United Kingdom.
With regard to her being dubbed the strictest headteacher in the country, she sniggers. “It was a laugh really. In fact, a colleague and close friend of mine got a little upset because she thought she deserved the title.” This said, Colwell has strong principles and on deciding that she needed a change of direction in her career, took up her new post in Majorca.
“It is a completely different environment, socially and culturally. It’s the first time that I am the principal of a school which caters for all ages. I’d always been in the secondary school sector, and what is more, I’m working in a multi-lingual school. English is obviously not the mother tongue of a majority of the pupils, but the curriculum is in English.
“This does not appear to prove a major problem. I am humbled by the number of languages so many of the pupils speak, even the very young ones. And what I noticed and appreciated straightaway was the support the students receive from their parents.
“I arrived on the island after having spent most of my career working in special need schools in inner cities or dysfunctional areas and it was a challenge, but someone had to take a stance otherwise the students would not progress. I believe in achieving and maintaining high standards and that begins with strong leadership, good organisation, enforcing the rules. After all, that is what they are there for and then that transcends into the team, the teachers and other staff and, which is more important than anything, the pupils.
“I think the problem in the UK, which has been getting worse over recent years, is that teachers are expected to be responsible for everything. The pressure millions of teachers are under is immense today and more often than not it is the parents who are to blame and they don’t realise that they are letting their own children down.
“Pupils coming from broken homes lack all respect, not only for teachers but authority in general, and it’s extremely difficult to engage dysfunctional pupils who have next to no expectations whatsoever. I’ve said it time and time again that this stems from the family background and environment - not to mention society as a whole.
“Getting that message through was, and is, extremely difficult and it is putting mounting pressure on teachers and leading many to either leave the profession too early or to fewer people going into teaching. So the whole supply system has broken down in the UK not to mention society in many areas. It’s a serious problem but one teachers can’t be expected to solve.
“Fortunately, here we don’t have that problem. In fact it is the total opposite and that has really been put to the test since the State of Emergency was declared in Spain. As part of an international educational company, we were already up to speed with online teaching facilities and programmes, but as we began to see that the pandemic was getting closer, we upped our game. All of the teachers went through a crash course in online teaching and we devised a special curriculum which would work without any face-to-face teaching. So when the lockdown came, the teachers, parents and pupils were fully up to speed with how we were going to continue teaching until the order was given for schools to reopen.
“In the meantime, as all the end of year GCSEs and A Levels were cancelled, we’ve spent the past few weeks ‘virtually examining' those who were due to have sat their exams and given them grades based on their course work and other evidence. We are about to start holding all our end-of-year presentations and ceremonies, etc. online.
“So its been challenging but also hugely rewarding to see how the pupils and parents have all responded to the radical change in proceedings. It’s been a traumatic experience for everyone; it still is. But some positives have come out of this experience for all of us at the school.
“On the one hand I think parents for the first time have actually been able to see the wonderful work our teachers carry out and see how the pupils interact with them. Be it from the kitchen table, lounge or dining room, we’ve all set up home offices and classrooms and have worked to the very maximum of our capabilities to maintain course work and lessons.
“Now, we are starting to plan for September, which for the time being is when schools are due to reopen, but this is a very fluid situation so no one really knows what is going to happen should there be another sudden rise in cases.
“But while we’re preparing for our summer camps, respecting all the rules and regulations set out in the protocol, we’re also looking ahead to the start of the new year. And that too is going to involve plenty of reorganising, social distancing, smaller class numbers, etc. We know it’s going to be a big test for all of us. At least pupils have been able to see their friends again of late, but after having been locked away at home for such a long time and having had to adjust to a whole new form of teaching, we’re taking into full account that emotionally and mentally some pupils may struggle or find it a shock to be back in a classroom with face-to-face teaching. But we’re well organised and excited and that’s vital.”