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Educating Cardiff's head: 'We'll turn our image around'

Before Channel 4's Educating Cardiff begins, Willows High head teacher Joy Ballard tells Emily Thornhill why she's thrilled they've made the grade

Since starting in 2011, Channel 4's fly-on-the-wall Educating... series, which started with the Bafta-winning Educating Essex, has thrown a spotlight on the everyday lives and reality of teachers and pupils in secondary schools across the UK.

All series have celebrated the daily triumphs and challenges that young teens and school staff face, from cyber harassment to the extraordinary moment in Educating Yorkshire, when a pupil overcame his stammer with the help of his maths teacher.

And in the latest instalment, Educating Cardiff, which starts later this month, the cameras are rolling in Willows High in South Wales.

The new eight-part series will follow head teacher Joy Ballard, who is determined to lift the school's wallowing academic achievements and showcase the extraordinary relationships between the pupils and staff. Once again, cameras will catch the highs, lows, laughs, tensions and tears as they happen.

Before the series begins, Ballard, along with deputy head Chris Norman and PE teacher Andy Roberts, talks about their reasons for taking part and what she hopes it will achieve ...

From the off, Channel 4 were looking for schools which served "deprived and challenging communities", says Ballard, but also ones that "were successful and currently doing well".

"I think they were inspired by the warm, family atmosphere and the close relationships the staff develop with the pupils," she explains of Willows High's selection for the programme. "I believe some of the success stories we've had will be positive role models to other young people."

When Ballard joined the school back in 2011, it had a very poor reputation, with just 14% of pupils achieving five grade A-C GCSEs.

Serving a generally challenged catchment area, generations of families had "underachieved" at the school, while many pupils have "overcome terrible hardship" to get to where they are today, she points out.

"The results weren't the worst in Cardiff; they were the worst in Wales, and probably worst in the United Kingdom," explains Ballard of the school's previous situation.

But over the past three years, however, things have steadily improved, with 50% of pupils now achieving those grades.

"There's a historically negative attitude to our school within Cardiff," adds Roberts. "Hopefully the show will turn that around and show all the good work that goes on, all the upstanding pupils that we've got and all the hard work that the teachers do."

Working in a school is so much more than turning up, delivering lessons and marking books, and a big part of the staff's job at a school like Willows High is to inspire and raise pupils' expectations for themselves.

"There are a lot of self-esteem problems in the area," explains Norman. "Building up that esteem is a major part of our role."

Like many of the pupils she teaches, Ballard had a difficult start in life and was brought up in Southampton, in one of the biggest council estates in England.

"I lived a life of disadvantage," recalls the head teacher, who also suffered from rheumatic fever as a child. "I didn't get any qualifications from school. My chance in life came at college. They really made me believe in myself and I realised then how important education was."

Her experience means that she identifies with children who have low aspirations, and sees herself as proof that anyone can become a positive role model. "It's so important that those sort of kids have positive role models in their lives," Ballard adds.

Understandably, opening up the school gates to the camera crew did initially unnerve both the staff and pupils. "I thought with cameras on (them), the kids would change their behaviour a lot, but they didn't - they were as they normally are," says Hennessey.

But PE teacher Roberts found the "biggest challenge" was the logistics.

"With the outside lessons, it was like filming Match Of The Day," he recalls, laughing. "You're trying to avoid the cables and cameras, so that was quite humorous."

For Ballard, filming this series in Wales was a no-brainer. "Wales is a very special place," she says. "As a small country, they're a little bit of the underdog, but with a great big giant spirit, the dragon spirit."

And she's hopeful the series will showcase the pupils - including the school's highest achiever and, on the flip side, a "lippy" young lady who is "really struggling".

"There'll be someone very special in every single episode," she says.

"We think our school is a family; we don't see it as a cold, professional job, it's very much part of our own lives."

  • Educating Cardiff begins on Channel 4, this Tuesday, 9pm

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