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Is Peter Read, former head of Gravesend Grammar School, the most influential figure in Kent education?


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He's influenced national policy on education, locked horns with the most senior figures within local authorities, championed hundreds of children and been a ray of light for many parents.

But, now aged 75, and more than 20 years after he bowed out as head of one of the county's top grammar schools, Peter Read has decided to bring down the curtain on one of the most informative websites on education in the country.

Peter Read pictured in 2020. Picture: Peter Read
Peter Read pictured in 2020. Picture: Peter Read

And he is quick to admit his decision to take a step back will be met "with champagne corks by many".

The head of Gravesend Grammar for 15 years - and before that a deputy head at the Harvey Grammar in Folkestone (he joined as head of maths there when he was just 25) - he is a character who doesn't suffer fools gladly. But he is steadfast in his passion to ensure current and future generations get the best possible education - whatever school they attend, and at whatever ability level.

His KentAdvice website has exposed malpractice, thrown light on injustice and provided teachers with a one-stop shop on just what to expect from a future employer - good or bad.

He is, in short, possibly the most influential single figure in Kent's educational landscape over the last 20 years.

As one former respected head teacher said of him: "Some see him as an interfering irritant while others recognised his obvious moral purpose."

Gravesend Grammar School where Peter Read was head for 15 years. Picture: Google
Gravesend Grammar School where Peter Read was head for 15 years. Picture: Google

From hard data on school allocations and performance tables, to a source of insider knowledge on the management practices and personalities of those who hold sway over generations of our school children, his site has been the source of many a front page headline - both local and national - over the years.

"I only write for one purpose," Peter Read, who was born and bred in Ashford, explains, "to improve things. So if I criticise I'll also report when they get better. And I want them to do just that."

Not that he's avoided making national headlines himself in the past - for very different reasons. More of which shortly.

In truth, he's probably become more investigative reporter over recent years than education expert. He admits to having a "large network across the county, both formal and informal" who have fed him frequently explosive material which he has pursued and published.

There are more than a few schools for whom any teacher found providing him with any information face severe disciplinary action.

Peter Read during his time The Harvey in Folkestone. Picture: Peter Read
Peter Read during his time The Harvey in Folkestone. Picture: Peter Read

His notable successes are considerable.

It was his revelations which revealed, in 2017, that a number of secondary schools were booting sixth formers out midway through their course for fear their final exam results would reflect badly on the school.

The practice, which was first highlighted at St Olave's in Bromley was also, says Read, used at Maidstone's Invicta Grammar - albeit one it always denied. The government was forced to issue a warning to all schools that the practice would not be tolerated.

"It was disgraceful," says Read, remembering the issue.

"My single proudest moment," he admits, was "when I had to fight Kent County Council officers who were trying to scrap SEN (Special Education Needs) units and replace them with what was called 'lead schools' and had started to dismantle some units.

Peter Read in 1990 - he was head at Gravesend Grammar from 1985 to 2000. Picture: Peter Read
Peter Read in 1990 - he was head at Gravesend Grammar from 1985 to 2000. Picture: Peter Read

"I remember meeting with the director of education and the cabinet member who knew nothing about it. She asked where was the evidence - part was an email from the director of education authorising it. I stopped it.

"My second proudest moment was over Kent's sky high rates of exclusion of statemented children (a child with special educational needs). Nobody knew. Kent has now got one of the lowest exclusion rates of special school/statemented children in the country."

Sat behind this was many years as an education consultant - recruited by parents to help appeal their cases to get into the school of their choice or to tackle special education needs requirements.

"I got heavily involved with children who had been unfairly treated in my view," he explains, "that was the driving force. The unfairness was created not by people being deliberately obstructive, but people who didn't seem to care they were operating systems without thought for the individual.

"It was initially word of mouth, then I set up a consultancy and offered my services for 'families who have children who have problems with schools or the education service'. It was quite a broad remit.

Peter Read in 1995 - five years away from retiring as a head teacher. Picture: Peter Read
Peter Read in 1995 - five years away from retiring as a head teacher. Picture: Peter Read

"It tended to be school appeals, school exclusions, special needs, complaints, that sort of thing.

"I set up a website whose first job was simply to advertise this. I wrote to primary school headteachers advertising it, and from that I got quite a lot of appeal work."

From the first handful, it accelerated and in his busiest year he took on 100 cases all of which he fully committed to, admitting the emotional strain at times was hard to bear.

He's also long campaigned for Kent school children to be offered places over and above those coming from outside the county - a situation most notable at grammar schools close to the borders with London and East Sussex where the selective system does not exist.

He adds: "I am passionate about Kent schools for Kent children. It's all wrong that we have children coming from Greenwich in large numbers to Kent schools so Dartford children can't get into Dartford grammar schools."

Peter Read and his class at Manchester Grammar School in 1971. Picture: Peter Read
Peter Read and his class at Manchester Grammar School in 1971. Picture: Peter Read

It was at Gravesend Grammar he served as head from 1985 to 2000 before a long term health condition forced him to retire early. Prior to that he had spent time working in Luton and Manchester before heading back to the county of his birth.

The former maths teacher then became a fully qualified, professional, genealogist, tracking family histories in the old fashioned way of trawling through archives (he's tracked his own family back to the 15th century). But education was soon to dominate his life once again.

He says the job as head teacher has changed dramatically since he first took up the role in an era now where academies outweigh schools governed by the local authorities and where staff live in fear of the call from Ofsted warning to expect them within 24 hours.

"I believe I was the last generation of what I call traditional head teachers," says Peter. "Somebody who gets on with running his own school, with limited interference.

"It was still complex - when you're appointed a head everyone assumes you know everything about everything. But the job for heads today has changed completely.

Peter Read has long championed parents' and students' causes
Peter Read has long championed parents' and students' causes

"And the last two years, due to Covid, have been immensely stressful.

"I know of heads who had death threats from anti-vaxxers, heads who were faced this month, at short notice, with half their staff missing.

"Teachers are stressed; they've been stretched to the limit over the last two years. The demands have never, ever been greater.

"Education ought to be next most cherished service in this country beneath the NHS, but the teaching profession isn't. And that's because ignoramuses just think we get long holidays.

"Even when I was head, that first week of the summer, we couldn't do anything because I was just burnt out.

The role of head teachers has 'completely changed' since he was head, the education expert says
The role of head teachers has 'completely changed' since he was head, the education expert says

"The job of a head today, is unbelievably complex.

"If you're in a grammar you tend to be quite fortunate because the pressures to deliver aren't so much.

"I write about certain schools, and I think who in their right mind would want to take on the job as head of them?

"Don't forget, that the next line of staff down are seeing what's happening to head teachers.

"In a good school, fine, but in a school with difficulties, why should you stick your head out?

'Education ought to be next most cherished service in this country beneath the NHS...'

"What's missing from league tables and Ofsted reports is support mechanisms for schools in difficulties because it doesn't exist.

"If you have a school in a poor area, why isn't the next head teacher appointed given 20% extra salary? Why aren't they allowed more teachers?"

It's hard to argue with the logic.

Phil Karnavas is the retired former executive principal of the Canterbury Academy. He says of Read's efforts: "His educational commentaries and observations were worth reading as they were always insightful, often enlightening and occasionally explosive.

"An intriguing combination of well researched investigative journalism and informed comment, with a dash of crusading zeal meant that his writings were anticipated, I suspect, by the educational establishment across Kent and Medway with a mixture of interest and trepidation.

Phil Karnavas, now retired, was executive principal at Canterbury Academy
Phil Karnavas, now retired, was executive principal at Canterbury Academy

"He was clearly exceptionally well informed to the extent that one head, in conversation, quipped that Peter Read appeared to know more about his school then he did.

"He was clearly driven by a passion for education and exposing the mismatches, as he saw them, between what should be and what was. His best stuff was exposing educationally dubious practices, correcting obvious untruths, revealing morally reprehensible actions and highlighting thinly disguised incompetence across this public service.

"He divided opinion, certainly, with some seeing him as an interfering irritant whilst others recognised his obvious moral purpose. Parents, I think, were always very appreciative of his work. Some of his observations may have been unwelcome by those affected by them but he did shine a light on issues where some in power, perhaps, would have preferred the dark. Irrespective of one’s personal view he most certainly had an impact. Some of his writings attracted national attention and influenced national policy.

"Others may not feel the same but I am sorry to hear that he is winding down to retirement. His contribution will be most conspicuous by its absence."

It's probably as good as time as any to mention one of Peter Read's most infamous moments - and one which proves even he has failed to avoid being the target of negative headlines.

Peter Read in 1991. Picture: Peter Read
Peter Read in 1991. Picture: Peter Read

In 1996, while a head at Gravesend, shortly after an Ofsted inspection he took his staff on a booze cruise to France. On an inset day.

A "disgruntled parent" tipped off a national newspaper who trailed the party and reported on their antics - and highlighted that school funds were used to finance the day.

"We discussed Ofsted on the way there and way back," the former head explains today.

"We'd hired a coach but that was it. Everyone paid their own way during the day.

"But it was rather famous at the time. The school governors were utterly supportive - but the local MP said I should resign.

"Parents at the school were so incensed at the suggestion I'd spent all the school's funds on it, they made donations and we ended up with a profit."

One wonders quite how he would have portrayed that on his own website if it had happened to someone else.

But now though, he's intending to finally relax in his retirement which will come as some relief to his wife Veronica. A former teacher herself, their marriage has lasted 53 years resulting in two children (both now grown up - one of whom, needless to say, is a teacher) and seven grandchildren.

"I could not have done any of this without Veronica's solid support," he says. "I won't say uncritical support, but I couldn't have done this without her."

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