Who or what inspires you Becca?
I am a huge fan of Alan Sugar. Beneath that gruff exterior there is a really decent person, who doesn’t suffer fools but respects those who are dedicated and good at what they do.
Also, music inspires me. My dad and I are both Primary teachers with a music specialism, so it has been a big part of our family life growing up. From an early age, I was often in the recording studio singing, or playing the flute with the family – we loved it. Then there was the time that we performed on the Christmas special of the Harry Secombe show Highway, performing our Christmas single ‘Sing Song to Bethlehem.’ An experience never to be forgotten!
What has kept you going over the last 21 years?
This is an easy answer. My family. When I started Principal Teachers we didn’t have a bean to rub together. Feeding and clothing 5 young children was difficult at times, we had very little furniture, no carpets and a very very tight budget for food.
Every day, the moment I woke up, I wanted to make life better for my children. I didn’t want them to live like I did, in a family that often found it difficult to make ends meet. I wanted us to move out of rented accommodation and into our own house – with a garden. So every day, this kept me going.
We finally bought our own house 5 years ago – with a garden! It was such a huge moment for us as a family. Sadly, our children were adults by then but luckily, we now have beautiful grandchildren who can enjoy the garden.
Tell us more about Principal Teachers
We are the largest provider of supply teachers in the north of England. We are an independently owned, specialist provider of education staffing and consultancy services to schools and academy trusts across Yorkshire and the North-East.
We have earned a reputation for delivering outstanding service that is friendly and ethical. Our business success is founded on the long-lasting sustainable relationships that we have built with our clients and candidates. It also helps that I am a teacher!
An important part of what we do is PT Hub, our alternative education provision. We work closely with local schools and numerous local authorities to offer a specialist service, based on the Thrive approach, for disengaged primary and secondary aged pupils.
The Thrive approach draws on insights from recent advances in neuroscience, attachment theory and child development to provide a powerful way of working with children and young people that supports optimal social and emotional development. We work in a targeted way with children and young people who may have struggled with difficult life events to help them re-engage with life and learning.
When did you first know you wanted to run a business?
I have always had entrepreneurial aspirations. As a child, our family was very short of money and I decided that I was going to do something to improve our lives. At the age of 7, I started my first venture with a jumble sale outside my house.
I went on to run many small businesses including: selling homemade chutney, a cleaning company and running a childcare business.
My husband and I have five children between us. When they were small, we were very busy and I needed a career that fitted in with my parenting responsibilities. As a qualified teacher, I decided that supply work fitted best with our family dynamic. I worked as a supply teacher for a few years in schools across North Yorkshire, Middlesbrough and Redcar – often breastfeeding a baby before I left for work and again when I returned.
I began to notice that there was no structure to the expectations of the agency I was working for and very little value seemed to be placed on the work that I was doing. I decided that I could do it better! I started Principal Teachers and formed a very tight code of practice, so that our teachers knew what was expected of them and felt better supported than I had. I ensure that my business is run with integrity and ethics and that our teachers feel valued and are treated like a trusted member of the PT family. They are not a commodity: it’s their hard work and professionalism that has earned us our excellent reputation among schools and teachers.
How did Principal Teachers start life?
I started the company with a £1000 Prince’s Trust loan and we operated from my box room at home for the first year. We also had a small baby (Kate) who I often rocked off to sleep while I caught up with paperwork and admin. I bought a phone and a PC with the loan and juggled running the agency and teaching to pay the bills while we were starting off. The loan was a lifeline and without it, I doubt that we would be where we are today.
How has the business grown over the past 21 years?
We soon outgrew the box room and moved into a larger bedroom, then downstairs to an even bigger space – as at this point we employed 4 staff. My husband Steve joined the agency and worked with me, along with a couple of other employees. In 2006 we moved out of the home and into serviced offices in Colburn. The office team had now grown to 6. This move was very important for us and was the catalyst for our biggest growth yet. The idea of these offices were to incubate small businesses and allow them to outgrow and move on to larger premises.
Sure enough, we did outgrow that space, our reputation for providing a service that was underpinned by integrity and ethics lead to an increase in business. We moved into Number 11 Bailey Court in 2012 and last year (2020) finally purchased both Number 11 and Number 12 Bailey Court.
What are the highlights of the last 21 years?
This is quite a hard one to answer, there have been many. I have been very lucky to have had a career that is full of surprises, no one day is ever the same. I do remember with fondness our 5th Birthday Party at Swinton Park, Masham. The sun came out that evening, there was croquet on the lawn, along with Pimms and fish and chips. It was a breath-taking setting, with stunning scenery. We thoroughly enjoyed being able to say thank you to our loyal teachers and schools.
One of the most memorable experiences of my career was when I was invited to Highgrove by HRH Prince Charles. He hosted a seminar at his Gloucestershire estate, which highlighted the success of the Dales Action for Local Enterprise (Dale). The Dale project tackled under-employment and unemployment for 18 to 30-year-olds in the Yorkshire Dales. I was asked to speak at the seminar about the challenges facing young people in rural business and about my successes with Principal Teachers. When I met HRH after the seminar I thanked him for the opportunity that the Princes trust had given me and assured him it would be onward and upward for my business. He was very complimentary and spent some time chatting and getting to know me, something I will never forget.
One of my proudest moments as MD of PT was receiving the Quality Mark award at the HQ of the REC in London. The Quality Mark was launched in 2002 by the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) and the Department for Education (DfE) to improve standards in supply teaching.
It required agencies and local authorities to attain minimum standards in areas such as the recruitment process of supply teachers, the way they checked and managed performance and how they remained at the forefront of changes in the teaching sector. The high standards of the Quality Mark ensured that schools only received teachers employed using the strictest levels of recruitment practice and safeguarding of children.
I am so proud that we achieved 100% in each one of our annual audits and were commended by the Quality Mark Audit team for holding the best records they had ever seen! We were very disappointed when the Government scrapped the scheme a few years ago.
Christmas tree project
I also have numerous moving memories of children’s faces when their family received a real Christmas tree and food hamper from our yearly project. What started off as a very small scale Christmas tree give-away has now snowballed into a huge yearly event. We asked schools to nominate deserving families who would enjoy a real Christmas tree and the emails we received were so poignant that I used my own money to create food hampers aswell. This was never the intention but some of the stories made me feel so moved that I had to do something extra to help.
I know what it is like to be in this situation as my family were a vulnerable family when I was a child, 3 children living with a single dad, who was unemployed. I will never forget the Christmas when our local church delivered us a cardboard box containing food items, butter, cheese, milk, eggs, bread and more. Myself and my family were so excited and touched by the kindness of the people who gave the time, effort and expense to help us.
Myself and my husband Steve have spent many Winters’ nights delivering to families in need and I am so pleased that my business can now repay and perpetuate the kindness that was shown towards my family all those years ago. I will never forget where I have come from and as a community, we must remember that there are many families and children in dire need, right under our noses. The icing on the cake was when I was interviewed by BBC Radio Tees – they awarded me one of their ‘Christmas Stars’ titles for bringing a little extra joy into families’ homes across the region at Christmas.
Visiting Dunkirk refugee camp
Visiting a refugee camp in Northern France was also a huge privilege. I went to see for myself what life was like for children in the refugee camps in Northern France. I visited the Edlumino project, who are a charity providing invaluable education to the refugee children. They work in some arduous and very dangerous conditions. It was a huge eye-opener, refugee camps are rife with criminal behaviour, children often disappear in the night, usually illegally, with or without their families. Some are kidnapped and trafficked, some bundled in the back of lorries.
The families were living in recently improved accommodation, small wooden huts 8ft x 8ft, an improvement but a tiny area for an entire family. Education mainly took place outside on rickety desks and chairs, with one small tent as back-up.
I also took a look at the early years provision in the Dunkirk camp, it was desperate, no staff and no equipment. We made a pledge to Edlumino that we would help set up an early years centre for them, we would fundraise and part-fund ourselves. We put an appeal out for early years equipment/clothes/shoes and toys and delivered them down to the camp. The plan was to physically build an early years facility but while we were planning and organising, the French authorities insisted that the education programme was closed down.
The most recent exciting development for me is starting our PT Hub. The Hub is an alternative education provision, we specialise in working with children with SEMH (social emotional and mental health needs) and also cater for pupils with medical needs, or children with SEND. We work in close liaison with local schools and numerous LEA’s offering a specialist service, grounded in the Thrive approach, for disengaged pupils.
We first opened our doors 3 years ago, supporting a child in foster care, who was at risk of permanent exclusion. Since then, demand has snowballed and we now accept primary and secondary children, run morning and afternoon sessions and outreach work to accommodate all our Hubsters.
The Hub is a nurturing, supportive and calm environment. A home from home, where each child is greeted at the door in the morning with a smile and joins their peers and one to one teacher for a welcoming cup of tea and breakfast.
We offer the academic and also creative subjects such as Art, Cookery, Forest Schools, Photography, Yoga, Meditation and more.
We foster a multi-agency approach to cater to the holistic needs of students in an inclusive, positive and family environment.
The Thrive Approach draws on insights from recent advances in neuroscience, attachment theory and child development to provide a powerful way of working with children and young people that supports optimal social and emotional development. The Approach allows us to work in a targeted way with children and young people who may have struggled with difficult life events to help them re-engage with life and learning. By using our dynamic, developmental and trauma-sensitive approach, we can tailor each child’s therapeutic and educational plan to help them develop effective strategies for dealing with dysregulation.
The Hub has also been approved to offer Pearson Edexcel programmes of study and qualifications to our students and also external candidates. We currently offer :GCSEs in English and Maths; Pearson Edexcel Functional Skills qualifications in English and Maths from Entry 1 to Level 2; BTec Home Cooking skills and Functional skills ICT.
I am thrilled that both of our young people who took English, Maths, ICT and Home Cooking passed all of them. A huge credit to their tenacity and the skill of their one to one teacher.
What have been the most difficult times and how have you got through them?
Well, when I first received a call from Good Morning Britain, I hadn’t heard of the show. They asked me to appear on a feature about supply teaching agencies, I said yes without hesitation. It wasn’t until I came off the telephone that my colleagues told me it was a show hosted by Piers Morgan that I realised I could be in for a grilling!
I was asked to comment on a feature that ITV were running and to represent Supply teaching agencies in the UK. I was opposing the statement that profit is put before children’s education when schools use supply agencies.
The train ride down to London was a nervous one, I did have fleeting second thoughts at this point. I thought that I may be in the firing line and would take a bullet for the more unscrupulous agencies out there. However, when I put the point that there are bad agencies but also great agencies – as there are in any sector – their tone softened. I explained to Piers and Susanna that we held very high principles, rarely charged expensive ‘finders fees’ and genuinely cared about the safety of the children, the welfare of our teachers and the service we give to our schools. Piers finished the segment by calling PT the ‘good guys’ and the grumpy headteacher I had been pitted against even asked me to work with his school when we went off-air!
The last year has been very tough, as I am sure it has been for many businesses. School closures meant that most of our turnover disappeared overnight as of March 2020. We had a large workforce of teachers that depended on their supply teaching work as their main income, this pretty much stopped as soon as schools closed. I had to balance managing this, plus my office team’s financial security against the declining business.
Furlough has been hugely important to us. We were able to furlough our teachers, even when it became a large cost to the business, because I believe in loyalty. I would like to be able to sleep well at night and know that I have done the right thing. At times it was tempting to scale the business right back, to ensure its survival but my team in the office and the teachers are hugely important to me. I know that I couldn’t do what I do without them. So I made the decision to hang on by our finger nails and we are now finally coming out the other side.
How do you see the future of PT unfolding?
We are going to build on our success. I look forward to working with more schools and welcoming many more teachers into the PT family. I am excited to see the office team develop and grow. We now have Mel, Shauna, Ruth, Emily, Mary, Kate and Mike and are supported in all things business by Alice. It is very much a family business, we are all one big family but three of the team are also my daughters – including the one who I was rocking in the car-seat and the one who I was breastfeeding before and after school.
The latest addition to the PT family was born at the end of March this year – Lily, who is Emily’s daughter (and my granddaughter) is already one of the PT team!
Now we have gained exam centre status in the Hub and have expanded into the new building, we are able to offer more places to students who desperately need them. We have doubled our capacity for primary and secondary students and I can’t wait to meet more new young people and help make a huge difference to their lives.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Yes, a million thankyous. Thank you to the Princes Trust, for giving me a chance when no banks would lend to me. Thank you to the Headteachers who believed in me, trusted me and gave me the chance to work with their school. Thank you to Alice, you know everything that you have done for me and my family. Thank you to Steve, my husband, for everything that you have done for the business and for supporting me so I can go off on the train to London at the drop of a hat. Thank you to all teachers who have worked with us – past and present. And finally thank you to the office team, you are tremendous. You have all embraced the massive changes over the last year, it hasn’t been easy but you have come back fighting and thank you just isn’t enough.