Helen Ralston, Headteacher at The Rise School
Helen Ralston
Headteacher at The Rise School
Ambassador cohort
2007, Training Programme

Teach First’s community enriches outcomes - it's an important investment

As a special needs school, the pupils at The Rise School are among the most disadvantaged in the UK. But Headteacher Helen Ralston knows that all children deserve aspirations.

The ideas and advice she and her teachers find through the Teach First community are a huge part of keeping the ambition – and the outcomes – high.

It was during my first year on the Teach First Training Programme, at Ashburton Community School (now Oasis Academy Shirley Park) in Croydon, that I first reached out to my community for support.

Things were tough and there were moments when I envied people doing different jobs! But there was another Teach First trainee – a history teacher called Paddy – in my school, who I was able to talk my experiences through with. Quite quickly, I came to love the school and the sector. And I’ve been teaching ever since.

As a rapidly improving school that was part of a multi-academy trust, opportunity was never far away. You can get promoted very early. I was a Key Stage 3 coordinator, then a curriculum leader for English, all within the first couple years.

Realising my calling in life

Having progressed more quickly than expected, I decided to head to El Salvador to teach and travel. But after two years at an international school, I realised how committed I now was to building a fair education for all children.

The kids I was teaching overseas were privileged, and the pull of working with disadvantaged children was strong. Although every kid needs a great teacher, I knew that some communities need it even more.

Rested and revitalised, I returned to Croydon, to pick up where I left off – only now in a senior leadership role.

Increasing social mobility for children with special needs

I’m now Headteacher of The Rise School, a special needs school in Feltham. We teach a mainstream curriculum alongside an explicit social curriculum, which helps pupils develop personally. Our goal is to increase social mobility, by opening up life opportunities to everyone – particularly those with special educational needs and disabilities, who often have the worst outcomes in terms of post-school destinations, employment and other quality of life indicators such as mental health.

We talk a lot about golden tickets and toolboxes. A qualification is like a golden ticket but it’s not worth having without the other skills – the toolbox. So we carve out four social curriculum lessons per week for every pupil including: personal, social, health and economic education; citizenship; yoga; and mental health wellbeing.

I often find it frustrating when people aren’t ambitious for children with special needs. Our school’s pupil outcomes are positive, and that’s down to the ambition we have for them. It’s an ambition that’s regularly fuelled by the Teach First community.

Connecting with an inspiring community

The various networks within the Teach First community expose me to what other schools are doing. That gives me lots of ideas, and forces me to ask: "what version of it would work in a special school?". If it’s what pupils are getting around the country, I want mine to have it too.

In time, I would like The Rise School to become a case study, so other schools facing the same challenges can benefit from our experience and practices. In the meantime, I’m finding the Teach First community very useful.

The network for headteachers, for example – Heads Forward – has a WhatsApp group where I can ask anything, even the silly questions. They also do conferences and there’s peer-to-peer support. I find it brilliant, stimulating, and reassuring.

It’s inspiring, because you’re connecting with people who are at the top of their game. It’s interesting to be exposed to all these different versions of schools, with people who are kind, humble and helpful.

Networking – an important investment

I understand why people sometimes don’t make the most of the networks available at Teach First. It’s easy to deprioritise things that you know are important, yet not urgent. But our community really enriches and affects outcomes. The secret is to see it as an important investment – put the time aside, because you’ll always get something out of it.

Recently, I joined a webinar, only to be pleasantly surprised when the host turned out to be a fellow ambassador – someone I had mentored six years ago!

She’s since got back in touch to see what we can do together in the future. It’s another example of a connection I’ve made through Teach First that is going to yield future knowledge and capacity.


Like Helen, if you've completed any of our programmes, that makes you a Teach First ambassador. You are now part of a community changing education for the better. Our community consists of teachers, leaders, policymakers and beyond, bringing their expertise to help unlock the potential in all children. No matter where you've chosen to go after your time with Teach First, as an ambassador, you're a critical part of the solution to ending educational inequality.

Find out more about how you can stay connected and continue to make an impact, below:

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If you're interested in developing your career with us, explore our leadership programmes:

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