How to turn a school around with love: ‘People are so very grateful that we care’

Every child deserves an ice-cream. It’s a strange opening remark from a primary headteacher, but then Chris Dyson is an unusual man, a big-hearted softie with a daft sense of fun – at least, that’s how pupils describe him.

He calls himself “loud and over the top” but his exuberant nature masks a serious mission to transform the life chances of children at Parklands, the Leeds primary he took over nine years ago. At the time, children at the school on the sprawling Seacroft estate were running riot on the roof and the isolation cubicles were overflowing. Now the classes are orderly, the doors are open and his pupils get some of the best primary maths scores in the country.

Lots of headteachers have managed to turn schools around but Dyson claims to have done it through love and making the school a fun place to be, not through the sacking of staff, exclusion of troublemakers and a strict rulebook. Only one child has been permanently excluded in the nine years and he regularly takes in children that other schools don’t want.

Today is Fun Day Friday when children who have done the best work at home get to sit on the Best Seat in the House in assembly – a settee where they are waited on with pizza and lemonade. Pop music blasts in the corridor, a vending machine belches out books and children arrive singing and dancing to the hall.

“It starts with the school showing that it loves the children,” he says. “That is the most important thing to do. When that love is seen as genuine and heartfelt, then barriers come down. Things begin to change. But love is not just a lofty value; it’s strategic thinking and engaging the children and their parents who themselves often did not have a good experience of school. Love at Parklands is not flowery and tear-filled,” he says.

He loosens his tie and closes the office door to keep out the noise, and soon a group of children has formed outside. “They are used to popping in to see me,” he explains. “A headteacher who professes love and then shuts the door and relies on an appointment diary and a personal assistant is insulated from the real business of culture-building.”

So how would these children describe their headteacher? “Outstanding,” says Christine, nine. “Two words actually, silly and fun,” says Victoria, 10. “Joyous. If you are around him you are joyful,” says Joseph, 11. Another Victoria, also 10, wants to have her say: “He makes our day. If you are in a bad mood you cheer up as soon as you see his smiling face.”

Dyson believes in restorative practice, getting to the root of poor behaviour and disputes to address the causes. That leads him to an involvement with the local community, such as making sure that families have food to put on the table and the children have presents at Christmas.

“Money is a persistent hindrance for our parents,” he writes in a new book, Parklands: A School Built on Love, on what he and his staff have done to transform behaviour. “We try to take their money worries away, as best we can, when they relate to school. Money can’t buy you love, but it can buy you a jumper, a hot dinner, an amazing residential trip, small class sizes and enough adults to make sure you are always supported.” He describes how traditional teaching – such as times tables competitions and spelling bees – can be used as fun activities to provide healthy competition and give the children a success on which they can build.

But while he can get teary-eyed over his pupils, he has shown another side of his character on social media. He has used his Twitter account to wage an angry war on educationists with different approaches to discipline, such as Tom Bennett, the government’s behaviour tsar, and Brent’s super-strict headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh. It got so heated at one point that Bennett blocked Dyson from his account.

Now, as he prepares to launch his book, he thinks perhaps he overreacted, and doesn’t want to start “another Twitter war”.

Kids from year 5 at Parklands school on their trip to Whitby
Kids from year 5 at Parklands school on their trip to Whitby

“I have grown over Twitter. In the early days it was ‘my way is the only way’ but now I can see there can be other ways. I’m in the opposite, restorative practice camp from Tom [Bennett], but a lot of people love what he says and you don’t get that job unless you know what you are doing. I do like Tom now and respect him. Katharine Birbalsingh has been hugely successful in turning round a school in a disadvantaged area and, though I would not run a school that way, she has to have respect for what she has achieved,” he says.

His own experience of school was not always a positive one. Once, when he accidentally kicked his ball out of the school playground, he asked his teacher, Mr Bentley, if he could get it back. The answer was “No”. So he asked a boy on the other side of the fence to send it back.

“Mr Bentley gave me a backhander, right round my face, and you don’t forget things like that. I remember thinking: why did he do that? I only wanted to fetch my football. Why did I get punished and berated?” he asks.

It’s that sense of injustice, along with his parents’ divorce and the heartbreak of having to leave a junior football team because the £2-a-week training fee was too expensive, that drives Dyson today and, he says, helps him to understand his pupils. Nearly two-thirds of the children – 60% – attract the pupil premium, a little extra funding for the school because of their disadvantaged backgrounds. A survey in 2020 found 83% of Parklands pupils living within the 10% of most deprived areas in England.

His understanding of poverty persuaded him to raise money, food and presents for the children by making contact with key people in business and industry and inviting them to visit. After an article in the Guardian two years ago about the school opening at Christmas with lunch and presents for the children, more than £20,000 was donated by wellwishers.

“People are so very grateful that we care,” he adds. “Last week parents came to me with tears in their eyes, thanking me for buying the children an ice-cream on the Year 5 trip to Whitby. Every child deserves an ice-cream,” he says.

Even if you can threaten children into behaving in the short term, the change won’t last once they are outside the gate, he says. “When the children leave here I want them to have inner discipline and know the importance of politeness and good manners.”

Born in Intake, Sheffield, Dyson says although money was short he had a happy childhood. “My mum, my grandpa, my nan and my brother and sister were a close unit because I didn’t see my dad from when I was about six, and I never saw my other grandparents from round about being seven, so it was always just us. What we lacked in presents we got in love,” he says. As the children grew older, his mother went back into education and trained as a probation officer.

Not all children are so lucky, and it makes him angry that “academy bosses 200 miles away” decide on one-size-fits-all disciplinary codes when what is needed is a bit of kindness and understanding for the challenges children face. “I can see in these children what I saw in myself growing up and that makes it easier,” he says.

With three children of his own, he is considering a fourth as his eldest prepares to leave home for university. “Yes, I have told my wife,” he adds. He has no plans to leave Parklands, though he thinks the ethos has permeated the school and teachers could manage without him. “Yes, my own background has helped but I have the original staff and they have the same understanding. I’ve taken on three or four new teachers and they have also picked up on the love and empathy,” he says. “It’s an approach that anyone can follow.”

Parklands: A School Built on Love will be published on 26 April by Crown House