How Educating Cardiff’s Joy Ballard went from cleaner to high-flying head teacher

Sian Williams meets the woman who turned around the fortunes of Willows High School - and owes her career to an addiction to Mills & Boon


When Joy Ballard arrived at Cardiff station for her first day as head teacher at the city’s Willows High School it was only the second time she’d been to Wales. The first was on the Gavin & Stacey tour of Barry Island. She was, perhaps, an unlikely choice to turn around one of Wales’s worst performing schools. When Joy left education in Southampton, she had no qualifications. Her dad was a big drinker and her friends hung around the local pubs. Like them, she had low expectations. “I was an invisible kid when I was young,” she says. “I never had a clear plan.”

After school, Joy worked as a part-time cleaner in a local tobacco company and a hospital. In the evenings, she escaped into romantic fiction and by the age of 21, already a wife and mother of three, she’d developed an addiction to Mills & Boon romances. “On a good day, I could read 12 or 15, back to back,” she laughs. When an advert appeared in one of the books asking for new authors, Joy was inspired to have a go. She began a creative writing course and it was only then that she appreciated the true value of learning. “Initially, I wanted a better life for my own children, to get a good job and be a better role model,” she says. “But the critical moment for me was realising the power of getting an education, that you were someone who had a voice. People look at you differently when you’ve got your tabard on and you’re cleaning. People make assumptions about your capabilities.”

At 26, Joy was encouraged by her course tutors to take an English GCSE. She got a good grade, passed more exams and eventually got into Southampton University. She says she never really believed she was clever, but her teachers recognised it and made her feel special, more confident. This, she thought, is what I want to do for other children. By 2007, she was a qualified teacher and in 2011 was appointed to her first role as head at Willows High School.

Willows High is in Tremorfa in south-east Cardiff, once known for its docks and steelworks. Joy calls it “a warm place, full of salt-of the-earth people… but it feels like a community that’s been left behind”. She got an indication of the reputation of the place when no taxi driver dared to take her there. It was considered a no-go area. “Just typical teenagers, getting up to mischief on the local estate,” she says, but it underlined the task she was taking on. 

The school’s results were terrible and the teachers were “worn out” by the children. Joy’s first weeks were spent confiscating BB guns – imitation firearms – while attempting to motivate both staff and pupils. She thought the children had enormous potential but were perhaps victims of their circumstances. Look at me, she told them, I came from a place like this and I’m a living example of someone who’s done it.

When a child confessed that he or she couldn’t read very well, she understood – telling them that when she was younger, she couldn’t either. Joy wanted the school to feel safe, where children could ask for help when they felt overwhelmed and could be stimulated and encouraged. She told the teachers to take out the uniform rows of chairs and organise the children in small groups where they could talk and challenge each other’s ideas. Trust grew, the pupils became more confident and the teachers began to believe they could take the school forward.

The days spent reading romantic novels paid off, too. “I learnt all my extended vocabulary from Mills & Boon. I was a very emotive writer but now, doing assemblies, I’m a very emotive speaker. It’s taught me to win hearts and minds.” She’s certainly done that. Within 12 months of her joining, Willows exam results were the best in the history of the school. Joy made short films of the children celebrating, making the most of every success story. “One of our kids even went  off to Oxford University.” The ethos and atmosphere of the school changed rapidly. When Joy took over, just 14 per cent of children were getting five A* to C grade GCSEs including maths and English or Welsh. Now, half are.

Why did she let Channel 4’s Educating… cameras in? Joy says it took her a while to be convinced. She knew there was a risk, but she wanted to shift the reputation of the school for good. There are families around the school who still don’t want their children to go there and she says, “I want to win them back.” Schools receive their funding according to pupil numbers: Willows High has been “as skint as anything” for the past three years and she wants to change that. More children going to the school will result in more resources.

The production team from independent company Twofour won high praise. They arrived six weeks before filming to get to know the parents, students and staff, researchers dipped into assemblies and open days and Joy says not one child, parent or teacher raised any concerns. During the early days of filming, some kids got a bit giggly, a few girls wore “slightly more lippy”, but that faded when they stopped noticing the 70 small wall-mounted cameras. 

Jonny Mitchell, the headmaster of Thornhill Community Academy, the school in Educating Yorkshire, went to see Joy to share his experience – which he says, in the main, was positive. Though the local authority in Cardiff wasn’t too keen on the filming, Joy hopes it will show children overcoming hardship, but also having moments of huge celebration, too. “It’ll be very warm, very special and it’ll show that even in challenging schools, where things can go very wrong, you can have the best days of your life.”

Joy Ballard, the girl from the council estate with no schooling, is now having the best days of her life. She’s done so well at Willows that from September she’ll be at a new school on the Isle of Wight – closer to her family in Southampton, who didn’t move to Wales with her.

The next academic year will bring more young minds to encourage and motivate. They, like us, will get to know someone who is warm, funny and self-deprecating, with a keen sense of wanting to provide the learning she didn’t originally have herself.

Joy Ballard thinks the children of Willows High School will be the new stars of the Educating… series. I rather think she needs to start getting used to the spotlight herself.