December 2015


  • Influential focus
    Six months after the General Election, we have a much clearer understanding of how the political land lies. Whatever the challenges may be, there are numerous opportunities for us to influence policy makers both in government and in opposition, says Brian Lightman. More
  • Making maths add up
    When specialists are scarce, leaders need to understand the fundamentals of mathematics in order to ensure it is well taught throughout their schools, says Julia Upton. More
  • Central lines
    John Banbrook looks at the advantages of centralising services for schools in a multi-academy trust (MAT) and the issues for leaders to consider in terms of governance, staff and costs. More
  • Off the chart
    The obsession with tracking and recording data threatens to annihilate joyful learning and teaching, says Dame Alison Peacock. To make assessment truly meaningful, we need greater expertise throughout the system. More
  • No barriers
    Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson brushed aside society’s low expectations of disabled people to achieve multiple golds on the athletics track and a seat in the House of Lords, yet still faces prejudice in everyday life. She talks to Julie Nightingale. More
  • Recruitment drive
    The number of graduates entering teaching is falling and the confusing plethora of routes into the profession isn’t helping. Dorothy Lepkowska looks at how schools are tackling the problem themselves. More
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Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson brushed aside society’s low expectations of disabled people to achieve multiple golds on the athletics track and a seat in the House of Lords, yet still faces prejudice in everyday life. She talks to Julie Nightingale.

No barriers

Arriving at a train station Tanni Grey-Thompson, multi-gold medal-winning Paralympian, popular media commentator and member of the House of Lords, asked a member of staff the best way out of the building.

“He said, ‘People like you don’t get to choose which exit they use,’” she recalls, without anger. “I said, ‘What, you mean Welsh people? I can’t see a sign which says Welsh people can’t leave by using this exit.’ ”

She doesn’t think that the man was being offensive in suggesting that wheelchair users don’t have rights over basics like access , just thoughtless – “He got very embarrassed when he realised what he’d said” – but he’s not alone either. Attitudes to disability are improving all the time, she says, yet prejudice, however unconscious, persists.

“I still get it. If people recognise me as a Paralympian or Parliamentarian, they treat me one way. If they just think I’m this woman in a wheelchair, they can treat me another way which will be slightly patronising. It’s about low expectations.” Learning how to deal with it is a useful lesson in leadership, she says.

“In leadership positions you have to step back and think about what will make the most impact. Sometimes it’s not about having the row, which might make you happy at that moment in time – when the guy made the comment to me about leaving the station, making a joke about me being Welsh was absolutely not what I wanted to say to him. But it needed the right outcome at the end, not me just telling somebody what I think of them.”

As a leader, you also need to communicate well and it may mean toning down your instinctive approach, Tanni says.

“People have said I’m quite blunt, for example – as my Dad was – but in the past I have been slow to realise the impact I’m having. So on a scale of 0–10, I think I’m speaking at about a 2 – very gently – and other people think I’m speaking at about 10!

“I’ve learned to be a bit less forthright, acknowledging that people may need to be convinced of the case you’re making by more than one line of argument – however straightforward it may seem to you.”

“There are still times when being frank and forthright is the only course of action but what I would add is that you need, as a leader, to be able to back up your words with action . Whether that’s at a conference or in a meeting, you may need to be quite direct to shock people but you need to have to have lots of other things in place – hard evidence of the need for what you’re proposing and a plan to execute it – to follow it up.”

A golden career

Tanni – full title Baroness Grey-Thompson of Eaglescliffe in the County of Durham – had a golden 20-year career as a Paralympic athlete, competing in five Games and winning 11 gold medals in wheelchair racing, as well as five gold World Championships medals and breaking 30 world records on the track. It made her the first disabled UK athlete to become a household name and a powerful role-model for young people.

Since retiring from athletics in 2004, she has taken on roles including sporting ambassador for Unicef. Keen to encourage take-up of physical activity among young people she thinks schools could use a fresh approach with less initial emphasis for young children on sport and more on games in order to teach the basics.

And as a parent – she and husband Ian have a 13 year-old daughter, Carys – she is all too aware that body consciousness among girls in particular means many can be turned off sport from the start.

“It now starts around seven or eight with girls thinking about what they should wear, how they behave, how their hair needs to be. They only do PE because they are made to, so they disengage from it much earlier. Plus, if you’ve got 20 girls in a half-hour lesson, sometimes the easiest thing to do is to get them to play a game but, actually, research shows that a lot of girls don’t enjoy competitive sport.

“I also think sporty boys are really cherished and praised whereas sporty girls aren’t in the same way. The Women’s Football World Cup has changed this but sporty girls are still undervalued because there’s less media coverage and less sponsorship of women’s sport.”

For disabled children, there is the extra challenge of the culture of low expectations exacerbated by the pressure on parents who are often struggling with the system, she adds.

“I still get letters from parents saying their disabled child is not allowed to do PE in school. One of the difficulties is if you have a disabled child, you might spend a lot of time fighting for help from social care, medical support, education. As a parent of a disabled child, you have to be an expert in lots of things so physical activity is sometimes a long way down on your list because it’s not going to change things right now, though it might affect your child’s health and well-being in 20 to 30 years’ time.”

“We don’t take people like Tanni”

Tanni’s own upbringing in Cardiff with “hugely supportive” parents enabled her to overcome other people’s low expectations, she says, and the fact she was using a wheelchair from the age of seven – she was born with spina bifida – was never a reason not to aim high.

When the local secondary school turned her away in 1980, her late father, Peter, took on the system, invoking the Warnock Report 1978 that asserted the right of a child with special needs to be educated in a mainstream environment.

“The head told my parents ‘We don’t take people like Tanni’ so there was a massive fight to get me into school. I was just lucky that my dad knew how to fight the system, I suppose, that he knew about Warnock and what was going through Parliament and who to write to to say what he expected.”

She eventually took up a place at a mainstream school in South Glamorgan and went on to Loughborough University, graduating with a BA in Politics and Social Administration in 1991.

‘Making things less complicated’

Tanni is one of the keynote speakers to ASCL’s Annual Conference in March 2016 – she sits on the boards of charities and organisations, including the London Marathon, the SportsAid Foundation and the London 2017 Organising Committee.

She characterises her own leadership goals as “trying to make things less complicated than they are”.

“It’s a bit rich for me to say that, seeing as I sit in Parliament making rules and laws. But I had loads of people helping me to be good at stuff when I was coming through, so now I’m here I want to do things for other people.”

Contrary to impressions, the Lords, where she sits as a cross-bench peer, is the most open and diverse place she has ever worked, she says.

“You wouldn’t think it, would you? I asked a government peer to help me with an amendment I was putting forward and as he gave it to me, he said, ‘I’m not going to vote with you but this makes your case better’ – wow!

“Some of the procedures are quite complicated at first but the Companion to Standing Orders in the Lords is the same as the 200-page book of rules you have in sport. It’s challenging for two months but once you’ve learned them and realised why they’re there, to govern how you speak to each other in the Chamber, it’s OK.”

There’s also an emphasis on aiming high, she says, which feels familiar.

“When you start looking at people’s backgrounds, you realise what they have done. Joel Joffey [the human rights lawyer] is here and he pretty much single-handedly got Nelson Mandela off the death penalty . . . right. There’s Ilora Finlay, a palliative care professor, and some of the things she’s achieved in the Chamber are really inspiring.

“There are some incredible people here and they expect you to be good, so it’s a bit like having my dad around a lot. He just had really high expectations of me and so do they.”

Julie Nightingale is a Freelance Journalist.

ASCL Annual Conference 2016

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson will share her experience of leadership and overcoming obstacles as a keynote speaker at ASCL Annual Conference, 4–5 March in Birmingham.

Book your place now to attend our flagship event for all members of the leadership team. The event is an excellent opportunity to hear from experienced and influential experts, share experiences and network with colleagues and friends. For more information and to secure your place, see