Case Study: Dame Nicola’s journey to make a lasting impression

When we think of Dames we don’t immediately think of a Newcastle council estate, but that’s exactly where the extraordinary story of our very own Dame Nicola Nelson begins. Raised in a working class family and the youngest of three children, Nicola recalls a loving home and a childhood filled with swimming, a passion to serve the community and playing in a jazz band. Community spirit and wanting others to excel is a recurring theme in Nicola’s celebrated career and we can trace it back to her earliest memory: being about five years old and witnessing the whole of the estate coming out to play rounders on a sunny weekend afternoon.

Her parents were committed champions of community action and instilled the importance of hard work and serving the community within their children. They had a sense of belonging and wanted their children to always demand better of themselves. Her sister Susan runs the only outstanding rated respite care centre for autistic children in Northumberland, whilst brother Colin rose through the ranks of the prestigious Household Cavalry to become the lead horseman during the wedding of Prince Andrew. Nicola also set about crafting an illustrious legacy of her own; at 14 she was the Northumberland and Durham backstroke champion and gearing up for the national team and by 18 a career in the police force beckoned.

However, it was whilst supporting a friend at a university open day that the years of volunteering and a love of children all fell into place. Instinctively, she knew that her calling was to make a lasting difference in lives of children. Nicola’s first job was in a community the local police described as the most difficult area to police, so Nicola spent the next nine years creating a beacon of hope in an area blighted by poverty and crime. Not only did her tenure mark professional milestones (Masters in Education and the National Professional Qualification for Headship), it also marked personal ones including marriage, motherhood, and fostering.

Dame Nicola Nelson
Nicola receiving her Damehood in 2014

Despite juggling so much and giving every bit of herself to improving the life chances of some of the most disadvantaged children, Nicola wanted to do more. She became the Deputy Head Teacher of a school with similar concerns: difficult behaviour and unmeasurable hardships. Nicola soon became the Head Teacher and transformed a school on the brink of collapse to a good OFSTED rating and bluntly told the Governors: “I’m going to make this school outstanding and keep it that way!”. Her hard work paid off and her school has remained outstanding for nearly a decade. In her first few years, the school went from being in the top ten of worst performing schools in the Northeast to the second most improved school in England.

A growing list of accomplishments was soon expanded when Nicola became one of the first ever National Leaders of Education, advisor to the Department for Education and one of only 25 Fellows commissioned to help resolve educational issues.

Then, of course came the Damehood for services to education. As Nicola looks back on what’s clearly been a remarkable life, she still says her proudest achievement is what she sees in her son: a zest for life, a desire to do good, and an unwavering belief in community service. Like mother like son – and the rest of the Nelson clan!

So, why did she choose NAHT? We’ll let Nicola tell you: “In times of change and uncertainty, it’s reassuring to be part of a union that keeps me abreast of policy and practice, and voices my concerns to affect change at a national level. Having the might of NAHT supporting me as a leader brings comfort and calmness to my professional life.”

Discover the benefits of joining NAHT as a member today – find out more here.