Twenty years a teacher - and still driven to make a difference

By Simon Hart

September brought a special anniversary for Claire Bellis-Knox, the head teacher of St Cuthbert’s Catholic Primary School. It was 20 years exactly since she first stepped into a classroom as a newly qualified teacher. A long time ago now, yet that early sense of excitement is something not forgotten.

‘As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a teacher,’ she begins. ‘I started working in St Sebastian’s Primary School in 2000 as an NQT and I remember at my interview, when asked “What are you most looking forward to about teaching?”, I replied, “I can’t wait to be called Miss”. I was so excited thinking, “I’m going to achieve my dream”. Every single day I count my lucky stars that I’ve been given the opportunity to make a difference.’

We are speaking over Zoom but her enthusiasm is palpable and that desire to make a difference undimmed as she embarks on the latest challenge of her teaching career. Her new role as outright head teacher at St Cuthbert’s in Old Swan came up after the retirement of Dennis Hardiman, the executive head of the federation of St Sebastian’s and St Cuthbert’s. She explains: ‘I was head of school for several years but as Dennis, the executive head, decided to retire, the governors made the decision to move from a hard to a soft federation with a designated head teacher in each school.’

It is a step she did not necessarily envisage taking as that young teacher two decades ago. ‘My heart has always been in the classroom, being with the children and making a difference,’ she reflects. ‘That’s always been what I got up in the morning to do. The road to assistant head, deputy head and now headship almost happened accidentally. It was never the goal but as you grow and mature and see the impact you can have on the wider school community, that’s when you take stock.

‘With teaching, I knew I always wanted to be a teacher; with leadership, it was more of an appreciation that you can actually make a difference to the wider school community. Our school is the hub of the community and having dedicated staff behind you can have such a positive impact on families in addition to the child. That was probably more the incentive.’

First steps
Claire’s own school days unfolded at Holy Trinity Catholic Primary School in Garston, her home district as a girl, and St John Almond Catholic High School. It was as a teaching graduate, fresh from the IM Marsh campus of Liverpool John Moores University, that she first turned up at St Sebastian’s in 2000. Looking back, she feels blessed for the guidance received from Day 1 from Mr Hardiman.

‘I worked alongside Dennis for 20 years and he was such an inspirational leader, a maverick in his field,’ she says. ‘I have always been surrounded by exemplary teachers or educationalists who really inspired me from the first day of teaching. I really do miss him as for 20 years I’ve always had him by my side. Now it’s about establishing a different support network but the federation has been phenomenal in that.’ Here she cites the support of her counterpart at St Sebastian’s, Jacqui Mulligan, adding: ‘We support one another, share common goals and have always been unified in our approach.’

It was early in her career that she witnessed the forging of this federation in 2006. She had a spell, as assistant head at St Sebastian’s, of working across both schools. Then, in 2012, she made the move to the school she now calls home. ‘It was a bit unnerving moving to work full-time at St Cuthbert’s and I thought my heart would always remain at St Sebastian’s. But I have to be honest, I feel like I’ve found my home coming here.’

The word home is not used lightly. Hers is a school with a rare energy. ‘It’s the team you have around you,’ she observes. ‘When you know you have a support network of exceptional staff who have the children at the heart of every decision made, it just makes life so much easier for us as a team and outcomes are so much more positive for us all.
 
‘I’m lucky in that so many staff members are “home-grown”. Some were past pupils as primary school children. Lauren Murphy, my Year 5 teacher, was in my very first class in 2000. Lauren has grown from being a conscientious eight-year-old into an outstanding teacher. She has given back tenfold to the children in her care. She along with all members of staff are beacons – our children simply gravitate towards them.’

‘Battled and blossomed’
If her staff shine brightly, Claire is the lodestar. It was she who oversaw the move to the new building into which teachers and pupils stepped for the first time in January. A special moment for a school ‘that has battled against the odds and blossomed’. It is a school, moreover, that is proudly Catholic. She smiles as she reveals how the fundraising that enabled her to afford a newly made cross for each classroom even became a family affair. ‘My parents [Kevin and Christine Knox] paid for a cross for the school so it was very much a wider school community approach in ensuring that we had our faith displayed. I brought my little boy into school and when he walked in he said, “Wow Mummy, your school is a church school!” As soon as you walk in, you know.’

Her boy, four-year-old Harry, is the focus of life away from school together with husband Steven. ‘At home our son doesn’t see us working. We make sure family time is sacrosanct.’ For the St Anthony of Padua parishioner, meanwhile, time to herself is often spent pounding the streets of south Liverpool. ‘I’ve taken up running more recently in an attempt to clear my mind in preparation for the next working day and the challenges it may bring. It’s about looking after the whole you. I run five days a week, 5K a day, Sunday to Thursday. After story time with my little one, that’s where I get my head space.’

All the more important now that she is a head teacher. Yet she would not have it any other way. She reflects: ‘When we built the school and I became aware that the headship was to be advertised it was at that point that I thought, “How can we invest so much time and energy in making our school so perfect and then give it to somebody else?”.’