After switching from medicine to teaching to follow his passion for education, Arthur Barzey became an award-winning headteacher and now works to encourage more people from BAME backgrounds to pursue leadership roles. He talks to Julie Nightingale.
As the child of well-to-do middle-class parents in Sierra Leone, Arthur Barzey was expected to take his rightful place among the top tier and follow a career in medicine, engineering, law or one of the other ‘professions’.
His decision to become a teacher – considered a lesser career in his home country – was, therefore, met with some surprise by his medically trained mother and engineer father.
“When I dropped out of medical school, my parents were disappointed,” he says, “but I’d seen that the joy they derived from work came from their public service.
“My mum ran a nursing practice for the community, but she was not a good business woman! It was the service that inspired her. What persuaded her finally to accept teaching as my choice was when I said, ‘Mum, who trains the doctors, the lawyers, the politicians? It’s the teachers.’ She understood then that I wanted to do exactly what she was doing, serving people and changing lives, but from a different perspective.”
Arthur, who won the 2022 TES Headteacher of the Year award (tinyurl.com/2p9nusfz), has built his career in the UK around the same principle and it’s central to the ethos of his school. Heron Hall Academy is in a challenging area of Enfield, north London, where more than a quarter of families live in poverty and the crime rate is high. When he recruits staff, his key questions at interview are, “Why education? Why this school?”
“If they can’t explain what motivates them in those terms, they don’t get a job. Sometimes during an interview, applicants can pull the wool over your eyes, but they don’t last long in my school, if so. I have a system of one month, three months and six months of probation. If they are an imposter, they will be found out.”
‘Heron Hall family’
“We talk about the Heron Hall family – even the kids do, it’s our ethos – and if you don’t feel you can go the extra mile for the family, you will be found out. You will see those around you doing extra, without pay, just for the kids. If you are not that way inclined, you will stick out like a sore thumb.”
Arthur took over at Heron Hall, part of the North Star Community Trust, in January 2018. The school was rated good at the last Ofsted short inspection in March 2019 with inspectors praising the culture of high expectations. It’s now over-subscribed, and a sixth form is due to open next year.
At the TES awards in June 2022, judges praised Arthur’s “focus on pride and aspiration in a disadvantaged multicultural community… he has a huge personal impact and stands out as a great leader”.
Beyond the school gates
One of his priorities is extending young people’s experiences beyond the school gates. Many children used to start at the school having never even been on the Tube, let alone a trip out from their surroundings, he says.
The school now heavily subsidises the cost of extra-curricular days out, with parents contributing what they can. A group of Year 7 and 8 students recently spent four days on Jamie’s Farm in Bath (jamiesfarm.org.uk), learning about teamwork and resilience while feeding the animals, mucking out, crafting and putting up fences. They also visit places like the House of Commons regularly and next year, a school group will tour the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland and Auschwitz in Poland.
“The cultural exposure, immersion and engagement is a key part of our development and I have a dedicated assistant head for it,” says Arthur.
“My school is in an area of high-level economic deprivation so it’s my job not just to provide them with a decent set of qualifications but also the exposure to other aspects of life so that they are ready to go into the world. The farm trip cost us a fortune, but it was totally worthwhile.”
Help with uniforms
The school also helps families with more daily concerns. “In my office right now, I have dozens of brand new school uniforms – ties, scarves, shirts, shoes, even underwear – should children need it in school. If they come in looking unkempt, it’s not because they are not being properly cared for; if parents can’t afford to buy a second set of uniform for children, we kit them out.”
This is how a family looks after its own, he says.
“I say the school is a family and the family will look after you. All you have to do is to come in and try your best. My favourite inspirational quote to children at the school is: ‘Your history is not your destiny’.”
Arthur’s own education brought him to the UK in the early 1990s. After growing up in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, he studied biological sciences at university before moving to Bulgaria to gain further experience.
“It was difficult navigating the language and there were some racist elements. I could deal with that, but I found I wasn’t getting the same buzz as a trainee doctor that I’d got from teaching. I began to see that what I wanted to do was not to save lives but to change lives.”
He moved to live with family in London and after another PGCE at King’s College, London, he took a job at a school in Tottenham where he rose to become acting head before moving to Heron Hall.
Beyond the school, his ambition is to help encourage more people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds to aspire not just to teaching but to leadership.
“Out of 3,600 secondary heads, only 0.7% are black or African or African-Caribbean. I don’t think that’s enough representation and if you add Asian it still becomes only 2.1% of heads who are from those minority ethnic groups (tinyurl.com/3cy5aady).
“I want more people coming into the profession so that kids can relate to them, and they can, in turn, make kids’ life chances better.”
How hopeful is he that people from BAME groups will be willing to pursue leadership in the numbers required to improve those percentages? They have been fairly static for many years, he acknowledges.
“My daughter says to me, ‘Daddy, you change the world one child at a time’. All I’m trying to do in my little corner is to make a difference, enthuse others, make them feel the profession needs them, the career needs them.
“If all the people do that in their little corners, it will gather gravity and momentum.”
Equality, Diversity and Inclusion
ASCL is committed to supporting and promoting equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) among school and college leaders, and in our own organisation. LEADERS’ NETWORKS: We have established the ASCL Ethnic Diversity Network (www.ascl.org.uk/EDINetwork), the ASCL LGBT+ Leaders’ Network (www.ascl.org.uk/LGBTLeaders) and the ASCL Women Leaders’ Network (www.ascl.org.uk/womenleaders). Please visit their individual pages via the links to find out more. To join any of our leaders’ networks and for an invitation to the next meeting, please contact CorporateAdmin@ascl.org.uk indicating the network you would like to join.
Freelance Education Writer