System failure – the story of one headteacher’s nightmare

July 17 2000

It is no longer shocking to hear of secondary school students becoming involved with drugs. It would be shocking but not unprecedented to find primary school students doing the same. However, this is the story of a primary school headteacher who was sacked last month for stealing from her school after becoming embroiled in paying off drug debts to a gang of armed crack dealers.

If you wanted to find a perfect symbol for the poisonous spread of poverty into Britain’s schools and for the almost equally toxic effect of government policy on education, you need look no further than the strange and terrible story of Angela Ellis, who was the dynamic and successful headteacher of Stamford Hill Primary School in Haringey, north London, until she fell foul of a group of Jamaican Yardie dealers.

For two years, staff at the school witnessed a series of increasingly bizarre incidents. In the summer of 1998, somebody who had access to school keys stole cash and cheques from the safe. Classroom computers went missing and turned up in pawn shops. The cash that the school steel band had earned disappeared, and staff started to hide other petty cash. The head teacher had ‘strange visitors’ in her office, went missing for long periods, borrowed a total of £3,500 from staff and called in to say that she could not come to work, because she was hiding in a safe house to escape Yardies who were threatening to kill her.

After her sacking last month, Angela Ellis, now aged 40, homeless and penniless, spoke to us. She talked about the night when a gun was held to her head, of a brother who was killed by dealers and a son who ran up huge debts to London Yardies, which she then tried to pay off. She says she never used drugs herself. “It’s about a drug culture that surrounds me,” she said. Her story uncovers a picture of a school invaded by the crude violence of its surroundings, of a desperate headteacher collapsing into chaos and, perhaps most significant, of the catastrophic failure of every single system that was supposed to support her:

* Ofsted visited a full year after staff first saw signs of bizarre behaviour and yet the inspection team passed the school and commended Angela Ellis’ vision;

* The school had no effective governing body – the chairman had resigned and not been replaced, there were unfilled vacancies, some governors failed to turn up for meetings and the governing body had simply ceased to run the school;

* Haringey LEA had consistently failed to support the school and then found they had been stripped of the powers they needed to deal with the crisis;

* The Department for Education were intent on privatising parts of the LEA, pushed out the director of education and tied up senior officials in lengthy political negotiations.

Those close to the school say it is an extreme example of the danger of the government’s drive to bypass LEAs, pushing funds and power down to head teachers and governors who may not have the time or the skills to handle them. They say the school had suffered a series of cuts in budget which had put enormous stress on the head.

Angela Ellis does not try to pretend she did right. “I’m not saying I was completely innocent. Perhaps I am involved deeper than I want to be in things around me, but I was still trying to pull it together and run a school and run a personal life that was all falling apart. It has been a seedy underworld, but you have to protect people around you.”

She had been a teacher for six years before she transferred to Stamford Hill in September 1995. The primary school, which has 260 pupils, stands on the edge of a notorious red-light area. “There is drugs and prostitution day and night. We get drugs stuff in the playground, coming in off the street.” In September 1997, she became headteacher. She tried to protect the school against its surroundings with extra security – a new, higher perimeter fence and a buzzer on the door to keep out unwanted intruders – but the drugs culture still reached her at home.

She says she had both friends and family who were using crack cocaine. In the winter of 1998, her brother, who was a dealer, was run off the road and killed by other dealers in New York. By then, her 24-year-old son was using heavily. She says she does not know who broke into the school safe that summer but she adds that she used to leave her keys lying around at home.

She knows it was someone in her family who pawned the school’s I-Mac computers. “I admit that I knew about the computers. People that were close to me used it as a means of paying off what can only be described as drug debts. It was an indirect thing. I didn’t realise at the time what was going on. At various times I took computers out of the school with the intention of returning them, but then it all got out of hand. I know who took them to the pawn shop. They had been in my home about two weeks before they went. I didn’t personally take them but in an indirect way, I was responsible. I should have taken action, I should have spoken out. I can understand why they think I was stealing.”

As her problems at home became worse, she began to suffer from the stress of her work. The school’s budget has been hit by annual cuts of at least £30,000. At about the time she became head, the roof fell in on two classrooms, and it was 18 months before the LEA, under pressure of publicity, finally repaired it. The chair of governors wrote 56 letters to the LEA pleading for help, received answers to only six and was given no extra funds. The school had trouble recruiting teachers and was forced to spend precious cash on expensive supply staff. According to one of those who worked with Angela Ellis, “she began to unravel”. She went to the doctor and started to take time off for stress.

In June 1999, following a two-week absence, she returned to prepare for an Ofsted inspection, working until three in the morning on paperwork until, she says, she was so exhausted she could not physically deliver the papers and had to ask the chair of governors to do it for her. In their report, the inspectors praised her vision, although they noted that she carried a considerable workload. Angela Ellis, however, drowning in stress after the Ofsted visit, simply failed to turn up to plan the new school year, and some parents brought their children to school in September without knowing what classes they were supposed to be in.

That month, staff approached the chair of governors about the headteacher’s absences and about missing cash and school equipment. The LEA were given a written account of their worries. The LEA agreed to send the head to occupational health, who confirmed she was ill, but blocked the chair of governor’s request for an audit of the school’s finances and a running check on the whereabouts of computers. In November, the chair of governors resigned in protest at the LEA’s failure to act.

Angela Ellis was now alone. She belonged to no union. The chair of governors had been very active, but no one was appointed to replace him. The governing body was short of co-opted members because so few people in the community were willing to do the job. Some LEA governors failed to turn up. Months passed without a meeting. Haringey LEA were no better, distracted by a highly critical Ofsted inspection and embroiled in a struggle for survival with private consultants acting for the DFEE. Officials spent whole days in negotiations. The director of education was pushed out by ministers . Angela Ellis says the LEA link inspector was very good but his time was stretched across too many schools. “The LEA could see I needed help. They just let me work through it, no matter how many stress certificates I sent in. They just let me go on.”

She says she was too distracted by stress to see how tightly crack cocaine was gripping some of those close to her. She found out in January of this year, when three Yardies came to her house. “I was sitting doing some paperwork, somebody open the door and they burst in. One of them held a gun to my head and they made demands for money they said they were owed. They said certain members of my family around the world would die. They knew my brother had died. They wanted £5,500.”

That week, she and her son left their house and Angela Ellis started trying to find the money. She borrowed some from her family and she admits she borrowed more from teachers at the school, a total of £3,500. Staff became increasingly fearful of their head’s associates, who would turn up at the school and disappear into the head’s office or simply take her off for the day without explanation. One teacher agreed to meet the head and her boyfriend in the street to hand over £300 in cash and was so unnerved by the experience that she was scared to sleep in her house.

Kitchen staff found someone had stolen their weekly lottery money. Petty cash that had been earned by the steel band went missing, and the school secretary had to arrange for the band to be paid by cheque. Angela Ellis denies strenuously that she ever stole any money from the school. She agrees that she started to disappear for long periods. “I had a conversation with my deputy head and I said my life was at risk and I had left my home. My son had been run over, and I think it was no accident. I went to a safe house.”

She says she was in real fear of the Yardies – too scared to go to the police, too scared to identify them to anyone. It occurred to her that they might even attack the school to put pressure on her “If they want to protect themselves, they will kill – whoever gets in the way, they will just take out other people.” Her son was still running up new debts. There were more threats by phone.

On January 18, with more computers missing and the head borrowing cash in the staff room, teachers went to their union and asked for help. On February 15, a group of governors met but still could not agree on a new chair. The next day, with the NUT pushing, two LEA officials met staff, but the LEA long ago lost the power to suspend or sack the headteacher. That was the job of the chair of governors. Who did not exist. The LEA agreed to set up an audit to find out how much was missing from the school.

Two more months passed with the school struggling onwards. The existing governors still could not appoint a chair. There was a rumour that the headteacher had broken into the school at night with a man and slept there. Angela Ellis says this never happened. Finally, on April 11, a new governor was co-opted by the LEA and agreed to become chair. Nine days later, she suspended the troubled head.

The LEA audit team reported. Four computers, two lap tops and some video equipment was missing. And they had found a bag which the headteacher had left which contained cheques which had been stolen from the school safe in the summer of 1998. Some of them had been used with the forged signature of one of the governors. Angela Ellis says this was nothing to do with her. She had collected the bag from a hotel for someone and left it in the school without knowing what was in it. She denies ever seeing the stolen cheques let alone forging signatures on them. On May 11, her pay was stopped. On June 7, she was sacked for gross misconduct.

Now, she has been enveloped by the poverty which she once tried to keep outside the school fence. Paying off the drug debts, she could not afford the rent on her home and has lost it. She put some of her possessions into storage and believes she has lost them too because she failed to pay the weekly fee. “The clothes I am wearing are all I have,” she said. “I sleep at a friend’s house.”

She is angry with the LEA. “The only time they stepped in was to say that I had commited all these crimes and that was the end of my contract. I got one lousy letter to say they were going to assess my fitness to run the school. I have never taken drugs. I have never even smoked a cigarette. I don’t even drink alcohol. Thing just spiralled out of control. They think I was doing this for personal gain. I have never gained anything from what was going on around me. The LEA are almost inciting me to commit crime by witholding my wages and not speaking to me. There has been no sympathy because they say I have committed this great big crime.”

But mostly, she is angry with herself: “I feel let down by myself actually. I think that I have been a really lousy parent and really lousy to people around me that needed my support. It’s obvious I can’t teach any more because this thing is going to be round my neck for the rest of my life. I’m a head. A head is not supposed to want help. Everybody else comes to school with problems and I am supposed to sort them out.”

Additional research by Helene Mulholland