Those who can

Drew Povey, the headteacher in Channel 4’s Educating Greater Manchester, has been likened to a Hollywood heartthrob, but to children and staff at his Salford school he’s more like a comic superhero

Hero image

Each day, headteacher Drew Povey tours every classroom of his school, Harrop Fold. “With nearly 900 kids, and getting round the school in one hour 50 minutes, I’m like Usain Bolt,” laughs the 39-year-old. Snaking along the modern, purple-hued corridors, he stops to talk to kids – he knows each by their first name. They clearly like and respect him.

“Don’t worry about the mud on your trousers, it’ll wash off,” he reassures one. “You’ve grown since I last saw you – or I’m shrinking,” he jokes with another. Entering a maths class, he asks the teacher: “Miss, quick question: how impressed are you with this group, 1-10 in terms of how they’ve started this week back?”

“I’d definitely give them a 9, 9.5,” she replies. “They’ve definitely impressed me.” She’s not the only one to be won over. When they left for summer, even the most popular pupils here were unknown outside of the wider school community. When they donned their grey and blue ties to return in September, a nation had taken them to its collective bosom.

“There’s a real buzz around the place. Rani’s been stopped in Tesco and asked for a selfie.”

Since it became the latest school to appear on Channel 4’s beloved fly on the chalkboard Educating… series, the Little Hulton school has won praise from the likes of Harry Potter author JK Rowling, actor Michael Sheen and presenter Eamonn Holmes. Yes, there are the characteristic funny moments – one pupil posits that the capital of Kenya is Narnia – but there are also the usual life-affirming snapshots. The first episode melted hearts with the affecting tale of a burgeoning friendship between cripplingly shy Rani, an 11-year-old Syrian refugee, and wise-beyond-his-years local lad Jack.

“The reception has been bonkers,” beams Povey, speaking to the Big Issue North two weeks into the media storm. “There’s a real buzz around the place. The kids are feeling proud. Rani’s been stopped in Tesco and asked for a selfie. Staff have been asked for autographs in the Post Office.” Articles have even appeared likening Povey to a heartthrob film actor. “Great for me,” he laughs self-deprecatingly. “But I don’t know if Tom Cruise would be flattered by the comparison.

“On a serious note, this school has had a tricky past and it’s great to showcase how fantastic our staff and students are and how far we’ve come.”

Putting the once-branded ‘forgotten area of Salford’ back on the map, Povey’s is a school with history. Thirteen years ago, Harrop Fold was deemed the worst school in the country – the result of the mismanagement of the amalgamation of two schools – and placed in special measures. Ofsted described the pupils
as ‘intimidating, rowdy and unruly’, while such was their reputation for violence that school buses refused to pick them up.

“It was bedlam,” remembers Povey, who arrived twelve years ago, rising to headteacher in 2009. “We had a full-time police officer onsite, truancy rates through the roof, a lack of discipline. But at the same time, we had some amazing kids and amazing teachers – it was a case of getting the kids on board and taking back control.”

Under his leadership the school has rapidly improved its ranking and is now deemed ‘outstanding’ in some areas. Where once it struggled to fill places, it is now regularly oversubscribed, while the dedicated efforts of the staff have helped the school slash its inherited £2.5m debt – at one point the worst in the country.

At the fulcrum of the show are three brothers. Eldest sibling Ross Povey, 41, is the assistant head, while Drew’s younger brother Ben, 33, is the ‘attitude to learning co-ordinator’. “Before anyone shouts ‘nepotism’, Ross was here first – training as a teacher, surrounded by chaos, while the school was in special measures – and I wasn’t the head when Ben was employed,” says Povey. “It’s all circumstantial.” In fact, the trio are currently writing a book about their story – with the profits aiming to help clear the school’s remaining debt – reportedly a partial legacy of the city council’s decision to recruit large numbers of high-earning staff to help improve the school.

The sons of teachers, they were born, and all three still live, in Warrington. Povey says he was hardly the model pupil at his local comp but he takes the school motto, ‘Making a difference’, to heart. “I was always on the periphery and being threatened with being kicked out on a regular basis,” he says. “But I had teachers who believed in me – and I want the kids here to experience that same transformative belief I had.”

Channel 4 researchers first contacted Harrop Fold in 2012, but filming didn’t start until September 2016. “It was a big decision,” admits Povey. A secret ballot of staff and pupils was organised – with the outcome being roughly 90 per cent in favour – while stars of the previous four Educating… series, such as Educating Essex’s Mr Drew, were brought along with production company Twofour for a staff Q&A on what to expect. With 60 cameras placed around the school, 2,000 hours of footage was recorded.

“Obviously on the first day, when you arrive in the car park and people come over and say ‘let’s get you mic’ed up’, it’s a bit weird,” says Povey, of adjusting to the Big Brother-like conditions. “But after 48 hours, it was like business as usual.” For the first time, Educating… also employed cameras to film inside select pupils’ houses.

“We were part of that decision,” says Povey. “Through the non-teaching student development team, we do a lot of outside work. The home-life of kids is important to how a kid does in school, so wouldn’t it be interesting to show that dynamic as well?” Fiercely protective of his students, Povey’s one condition was that it was not exploitative, despite some of the students hailing from challenging or deprived backgrounds. “I would never let it be something like Benefits Street – we wanted to show the true, caring face of people like Kodie’s granddad [who is seen in episode two raising the Year 11 pupil following the death of her mother] – brilliant people supporting these cracking kids.”

In future episodes, Povey says he does not shy away from criticising the exam system reform brought in by Michael Gove. In September 2013, it was decided that coursework would be scrapped. School leavers could re-sit exams if they were unhappy with their results, but league tables would reflect the results of pupils’ first attempt. “I’d definitely bring back coursework,” says Povey. “The whole idea just caters to one type of child who can remember facts, figures and information, but what happens if you can’t do that? It could also be argued that the curriculum subjects we’re offering kids is narrowing too much.” That the school has a policy of not excluding difficult pupils can also play against them. “You look at some of these kids’ backgrounds and it makes it really tough for us to do well in exam league tables.”

Yet watching Educating Greater Manchester, audiences are struck by how much more a school is than simply a hothouse for academic attainment. In a leafy affluent suburb, a child can be buoyed up the system by their parents paying for a tutor, but the lessons the kids at Harrop Fold are learning about tolerance are priceless.

Witness the first episode where modern multiculturalism is dealt with – Syrian and Afghan refugees, traumatised by wars, rubbing shoulders with Polish teenagers, while Islamophobia is tackled in a sensitive and calm manner that puts your average Question Time audience to shame.

“When I arrived at this school, it was less than one per cent black, Asian, and minority ethnic, now we’re 10 per cent,” says Povey. “That’s not just happening in the school, it’s the wider community. We have to protect these kids coming in – some of them can’t speak the language, but we also have to consider kids around here who are seeing massive change, and that can be scary. We look at both sides.”

Another star of the series is GCSE student Mitchell. Rather than being beaten up, nobody bats a fake eyelash at him when he comes in regularly caked in foundation and false nails. “Why can’t a boy wear make up and cross dress at the weekend?” says Povey. “We’ve worked hard at creating a culture – or community – within a school that accepts that. When I first arrived here, it was shaved-headed lads ruling the roost, now there’s no place for prejudice here.”

So far the response to Educating Greater Manchester has been overwhelmingly positive, with negativity limited to an insignificant amount of narrow-minded opportunists and trolls cruelly criticising some of the kids’ looks.

“I’m hoping it does something brilliant for the school in terms of aspirations, and instils pride in Little Hulton as a community,” says Povey. “Whenever I’m asked what I’d do if I won the lottery, I say I’d pay the rest of the school debt off and come back to work.”

Debt hangs over Harrop Fold like a millstone. The school is working with Multi-Academy Trust, Consilium, to discuss converting to an academy – yet is prevented from doing so until the £1.5m deficit is cleared. “Simply, it means we’re underfunded, under resourced and unable to do a lot of the things we want to do,” says Povey.

The future is uncertain, and even if a philanthropic businessman in need of good PR swoops in to help matters with a chequebook pen stroke, it won’t tackle the larger problem of the underfunding of our state schools, almost 1,000 of which are reported to be in the red.

As he continues along his daily inspection, Povey concludes: “I’m extremely proud of what this school stands for. Literally every student that comes through here is going to get every single bit of us and we’re going to stand up for these kids and keep fighting.

“When we’ve been the worst school in the country and dealt with the worst debt, I’m proud we’ve come out of the other side. Lots of people say: ‘Don’t tell people you were the worst school in the country’, but that takes away from the enormity of what we’ve achieved – and what our kids have achieved.” ν

Educating Greater Manchester is on Channel 4, Thursdays at 9pm and available on demand on All 4

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Those who can

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.