Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
Image of Hilary Wilce

'No-one can claim our education system has been an overwhelming success'

Published By: The Times Educational Supplement - 02 Sep 2011

As managing director of Ark Schools, eight academies serving disadvantaged communities, Lucy Heller’s mission is to instil high expectations in both students and staff. So what are her chances in areas recently battered by riots? Hilary Wilce reports.

Lucy Heller is surprised that The TES wants to profile her. She can’t imagine why. Yet, as the head of one of the most successful groups of academies in the country, and with academies now at the very heart of national school policies, she holds a key position on the educational map.

Then there’s another thing.

In between discussing our appointment and actually meeting, London and other cities explode in flames. Young people run riot in exactly the kind of areas where her schools are working to help children unlock their potential. If she and her team can show how to root achievement and aspiration in places awash with failure, they will be a pointer for the whole of our divided society.

And so far the signs are good. As managing director of Ark Schools, she oversees a group of eight academies - aiming to be 14 by 2012 - where students’ achievements are climbing steeply and steadily. “For two years we have been the highest-performing group of academies of any size. Our schools have averaged a 10 per cent increase per annum in GCSE since opening, and we are the highest-performing group on one measure of value- added. We’ve also got our first Cambridge University offer this year.”

Ark Schools are in south and west London, Birmingham and Portsmouth. Some are all-through, others start at 11, but all serve disadvantaged communities.

“On average we have 45 per cent of children on free school meals and in some schools it’s even gone up, because we’re helping children get what they are entitled to.” And Ark values run through all these schools, she says, “like the lettering in a stick of rock. They are about everyone having very high expectations for themselves, for staff, for students and for the communities we serve.”

Yet Ms Heller originally heard about the Ark job from a friend, and does not seem a natural evangelist. Her key working skill, she says, is creating an environment where people can come together to manage change and make good things happen.

A non-educationalist, she came to Ark after working as a banker, corporate secretary, publisher and newspaper executive. “I’m a bit like the girl at the dance who dances with anyone who asks her.” She was general manager of The Observer, then joint managing director of TSL Education, publisher of The TES, before moving to Ark - but skilfully avoids answering why she left, in the same way she steers around all awkward questions with a ramble of words and some cheerful laughter. But she was more than ready to buy into the mission of working with under-achieving urban children.

“I am a product of not particularly wonderful state education myself. I was at Hampstead comprehensive and came out with extremely poor A- levels.”

Luckily, she was able to pull herself together and get into Oxford, where she read politics, philosophy and economics. “The thing is, middle-class children are likely to survive their education. I got to university thanks to my family background, not my school.”

And did she do poorly at school because she was busy partying? Apparently not. “I don’t remember much joy in my teenage years.”

Her background as one of four children of a jet-setting screenwriter father and a powerful entrepreneur mother has been well-documented by her novelist sister, Zoe, with whom she shares a good ear for drama and dialogue - with the tape recorder off, she tells terrific comic anecdotes complete with a variety of accents and well-timed punchlines.

Some of these concern the numerous confrontational meetings that have come her way as an academy executive. Academy critics see the schools as plump cuckoos being inserted into local educational nests. Such hostile encounters made her feel “quakey” at first, although she has got better at them. “And you’re always armoured by the cause. I believe in what we’re doing, and I believe in our schools.

“In this country we’re still in a position where half of our children leave school without that passport of five GCSEs including English and maths, and while it’s not fair, in our class-based system, that schools should take the whole blame for this, no one can claim that our education system has been an overwhelming success.”

Not that she is an unthinking fan of any system. “Some schools do well and some fail. Some academies will fail too. There is no panacea, no single solution, and what you want to make sure of is that you have good, intelligent commissioning of schools and then you hold people properly to account. It’s not about the right of sponsors or school operators to run schools - it’s about the right of children to have a good education.”

Yet she appears comfortable in the starry world of hedge-fund philanthropist Arpad “Arki” Busson’s charity Absolute Return for Kids (Ark), whose work spans international health, education and child- protection initiatives, and whose fundraising includes celebrity-laced dinners and auctions.

Mr Busson was once engaged to supermodel Elle Macpherson. Ms Heller was once married to Sir Charles Elton, a television producer and author, but is now the partner of Sir Adrian Smith, a maths professor known for his scathing criticisms of school maths, who is currently director-general, knowledge and innovation, at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Ark has Elton John as an honorary patron. Ms Heller is said to have plenty of top-name pals, including Nigella Lawson and Sally Morgan, who was one of Tony Blair’s right-hand women and is now Ofsted chair and adviser to Ark’s board.

Out of such a world came the bold move to commission “starchitect” Zaha Hadid to design the stunning Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, south London. “While we’ve always started from the position that a good building is neither a necessary or a sufficient condition for a good school, the experience of new buildings has made me change my mind slightly,” she says.

“What it says to the staff and pupils and community is, ‘We value you’. It doesn’t independently drive education but, boy, does it help. Look at somewhere like Walworth Academy, which was living in a mish-mash of 60s and Victorian buildings behind walls with barbed wire on top, and now you can see into the school and you can see out into the community and it’s a completely different feeling.”

Yet she’s a north London liberal at heart and her eyes bug expressively at the thought of current plans to extend the academy programme beyond disadvantaged areas. Her job is too political for her to be able to speak freely on such policy matters, but she allows herself one brief, heartfelt outburst against the “hideous narrowness of our political base at the moment, which is very depressing”.

The same with free schools. Ms Heller, personally, is clearly no fan, although Ark Schools is about to open two free primaries, in Westminster and Hammersmith. “But this is because both areas are desperately short of school places, and we are working in very, very close conjunction with the local authorities.”

Such pragmatism extends to her own family. Her daughter, now 17, went to a private school “because we then lived in Westminster and she didn’t get into anywhere we wanted”, while her 15-year-old son goes to a north London state school.

“You always have this conflict between what you believe in and wanting to do the best thing for your children, and in the end there’s no contest in my mind about which has to win. But one of the saddest things, compared to when I was at school, is that while all my contemporaries went to their local secondary school or something similar, that probably wouldn’t be the case now. And a lot of that is based on fear and misinformation. It’s so easy to fear what you don’t know. But in the end all parents want the same thing for their children - a good school where they can be happy and productive.”

And Ark parents, she feels, are starting to get exactly that. All the schools specialise in maths. (Sir Adrian has had nothing official to do with this, “although he’s been useful and there have been benefits”.) The schools foster strong musical programmes. They are also aiming for an ultimate target of 80 per cent of all pupils gaining that coveted benchmark of five good GCSEs.

Meanwhile, the network is expanding into primary education and growing new sixth-forms. “What we ultimately want is for every child to be able to make proper choices at 18, either going to the university of their choice or getting an apprenticeship or whatever. And not only in terms of qualifications, but also in the sense that this is their birthright and that they will therefore have the aspirations and motivations that will drive them.

“I don’t want to go on and on, because there’s always the danger that we’ll all come over as Moonies, but take a school like Burlington Danes Academy, which had had a great history, but had then been in special measures … We had a Shakespeare festival where all our schools came together, and Burlington Danes did a Midsummer Night’s Dream that was just fantastic. It was wonderful to see students having that sense of pride in their school and in what they can do, and what they can achieve. It was stunning. It was magic to watch it.”