Sue-Ellen Lamb talks to workingmums.co.uk about going from dinner lady to head teacher in just nine years and about how her unique school stands out from the crowd.
In nine years Sue-Ellen Lamb has gone from dinner lady to head teacher while bringing up her two children, aged 13 and 10, driven by a passion to make a difference and ensure every child gets a great and education in an environment that inspires learning.
Before she had children, she worked for a computer company as a key accounts manager, travelling up and down the country. She loved the job and had built up her own team which looked after large accounts. After her daughter was born she cut down her working week to three days and someone else took her position. She then had her son and decided not to return. “I had lost the love for the job,” she says.
Sue Ellen considered retraining, possibly in the caring profession, but she didn’t have family nearby and her husband had got a promotion and his role involved travel abroad. So, nine years ago, she took a job as a dinner lady at her local primary school so she could drop and pick up her children and have the school holidays with them.
She wasn’t in the role long, however, before she was asked if she wanted to do extra hours helping a child who needed one to one attention. Sue Ellen really enjoyed that and she was soon appointed a teaching assistant. Then she moved to another school and it was watching a senior teacher there dealing with children with special needs that she realised that she wanted to help children of all ages and all ability levels to thrive. Her own son struggles at school and she feels very strongly that everyone should get a good education.
From there she trained on the job as a teacher, became nursery manager then assistant head and now head. It’s been very full on, she says, with spells at university and college, but she and her husband have worked as a team and have wanted to show their children what they can achieve. “I’ve enjoyed every step and challenge,” she says. “Every time a new opportunity presents I have thought maybe I could give it a go.”
She says she has not looked for promotions and has enjoyed every role she has had, but she has been encouraged by others, including her husband, to take the next step.
It helps that Sue Ellen is also quite ambitious. She describes herself as driven – having lost a parent at the age of 13, she says she always wants to be the best she can be and has always ended up in a leadership role throughout her career. “I love inspiring and mentoring people. I always knew I wanted to get into a team leader position in education, but I never dreamt I would be the head,” she says.
Yet 18 months ago, she was appointed head of Race Leys Junior School in Bedworth, Warwickshire, having completed most of her training at her daughter’s school. She joined in January and very soon after the Covid pandemic hit the UK.
She says the school has managed due to the strength of her “phenomenal” team and close ties with the community. Sue Ellen has worked hard to establish those ties since day one, to communicate openly and to let parents see that she is a normal person and a working parent like many of them. She says the parents appreciate that she talks things through with them. Before the pandemic, for example, she invited families to meet her for tea and cake and to talk about her plans to change the school uniform and art, sports and music.
Being from an area where not all children have the privileges others do, she is worried that some of the children in her school were missing out on extracurricular activities like ballet, music and sporting opportunities because of the cost. “It’s not fair that children at state schools don’t all get access to these things,” she says, adding that she believes the arts are as important as Maths and English.
She has found money in the budget to interweave the arts into the curriculum, for instance, working with the Royal Ballet through the Chance to Dance programme which offers the possibility of a scholarship at a dance school. All the children from year 3 up learn to play different instruments with the lessons being funded by the school. Those with a special talent in a particular instrument have the opportunity to be sponsored by the school to continue their lessons.
On Friday afternoons, instead of golden time the school is transformed into Griffin University and the children, wearing special sashes, can choose from a range of seminars on everything from zoology to music and extra science. Those choosing extra science get to use the science labs of a nearby secondary school. The university has gone online during lockdown. The aim is to expand the children’s horizons and give them a taste of something different. The fact that Sue Ellen is mixed race also means she is a positive role model for diversity.
When it comes to school uniform, she has instituted changes that smarten up the look of the children – they have to wear a white shirt, rather than a polo shirt, all skirts, trousers and shorts must be black and the school has paid for every child to have a tie with the school badge on it. For year sixes, the school has paid for everyone to have a blazer, with students in leadership positions wearing a different coloured blazer. She believes making the year six students stand out helps to prepare them for secondary school.
After the initial chat with parents and getting them on side, Sue Ellen introduced the new uniform in September. “Instantly, it transformed the look of the place and the children. They felt really smart and the year 6 students looked stunning,” she says.
Other changes Sue Ellen has brought in include Spanish lessons, the use of virtual reality headsets, for instance to explore space, access to sports awards, gaming machines and a snooker table for Year six and a literary-inspired environment. The library has the yellow brick road from the Wizard of Oz running through it and the corridors leading to each year group’s class are decorated according to a particular book, for instance, the Harry Potter area includes a telephone box and a wall painting of Ollivander’s wand shop. The aim is to create a ‘wow’ factor and to bring the books to life.
So how do they afford it, given budgets are tight in the state sector?
Sue Ellen says they buy a lot of their furniture second hand and do it up. That means the school has a very different look from other schools. It has a chandelier, for instance, and the walls are covered in wallpaper. “It’s a very unique environment and feels like a home from home,” says Sue Ellen.
The school has also cut down on photocopies and most news is posted online. The staff run extracurricular clubs and teach Spanish, staying one step ahead of the children.
Sue Ellen is keen that children never lose their sense of wonder in education and she wants to inspire them for the future. She says: “I found my love and passion in teaching children and helping them grow and be leaders of tomorrow.”