Secrets of schools chief who became a dame after transforming Norfolk schools

Dame Rachel de Souza PHOTO: TOM BARNES

Dame Rachel de Souza PHOTO: TOM BARNES - Credit: Archant

Dame Rachel de Souza is chief executive of the Inspiration Trust, she is nationally recognised for her work in transforming schools. She is a strong advocate of a knowledge rich curriculum, high standards of behaviour, and the power of quality cultural and sporting experiences. Her passion is transforming schools in disadvantaged areas and she has led two sponsored academies from failing to outstanding.

She was made a Dame in 2014 for services to education. Her Norwich-based Inspiration Trust is a family of 13 schools from nursery through to sixth form, and has twice been ranked as the top comprehensive schools group for pupil progress to GCSE. In 2019 was ranked joint-second nationally for student progress at sixth form. The Trust recently launched its initial teacher training programme to train and develop new teachers.

Dame Rachel is the founder of the Parents and Teachers for Excellence campaign group and a trustee of Ambition Institute.

What is your connection to East Anglia?

I am the chief executive of Inspiration Trust a school Trust of thirteen schools that span from Cromer to Yarmouth, Thetford, Lowestoft and Norwich. Four are free schools, brand new schools; Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form, an outstanding maths and science sixth form, Charles Darwin Primary, an outstanding new primary in Norwich and Jane Austen College, an English and Arts specialist school in the old shoe factory in Colgate, Norwich.

I came to Norwich in 2010 as an Academy Principal to turn around a failing school but then realised Norfolk needed to set up its own Trust to improve education here and Inspiration Trust was born.

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What is your East Anglian Heaven i.e. what do you love most about East Anglia?

I love the coastline - Lowestoft, Yarmouth, Cromer and especially the beach at Holkham and the great big skies which go on forever.

What is your East Anglian Hell i.e. what you hate most about living here?

When the trains get cancelled!

What's your favourite East Anglian restaurant?

I adore the earthy and superb cooking at the Gunton Arms. The Assembly House also do an amazing breakfast, I recommend the Omelette Arnold Bennett.

What's your favourite way to spend an East Anglian evening?

Great conversation and education debate with my principals in one of Norfolk's brilliant friendly restaurants.

What's your favourite East Anglian landmark?

I love Walsingham - I first visited it as a little girl and it has special memories for me.

What's the best thing that happens in East Anglia every year?

When our students get their results in August. It is a reminder of how much potential there is in East Anglia.

What your specialist Mastermind subject?

My first degree was in Theology and Philosophy and I'm still fascinated by these subjects. So at the moment it would be medieval mystics or Zoroastrianism.

What is always in your fridge?

Cheese! Especially Mrs Temples Binham Blue.

What's your simple philosophy of life?

Inspired by Julian of Norwich 'All will be well and all manner of things will be well'

What's your favourite film?

Babette's Feast - what a joyous film!

What was your first job?

I sold ladies clothes at 'Brian's Corner' on Scunthorpe market for ten pounds a day. I was fifteen.

What is your most treasured possession?

My emeralds - a wedding gift from my husband's grandmother.

Who do you admire most?

Too many to choose but my Norfolk heroes include Margery Kempe for being the first local female to write a book, and our own Admiral Lord Nelson for having many qualities I admire; determination, courage, friendship, love and for being an inspirational leader and having great skills in strategy.

What is your biggest indulgence?

Travel in Italy - I love it!

What do you like about yourself most?

I can make things happen…and keep a sense of humour when things are tough!

What's your worst character trait?

I always change my mind. I tell everyone who works with me to sleep on it and check back when I make a big decision.

Where is your favourite holiday destination?

Venice - beautiful, mysterious and the art of the Venetian Renaissance is my favourite. St Mark's Basilica is stunning too.

Best day of your life?

The birth of my son and the day my first Academy got record GCSE results and became the most improved in the country (after being one of the worst) is special too.

What's your favourite breakfast?

Good coffee and some sourdough with great cheese.

What's your favourite tipple?

The occasional vodka martini - very dry with an olive.

What's your hidden talent?

I can play the violin. Classical music is one of the great loves of my life.

When were you most embarrassed?

That would be telling!

What's your earliest memory?

Lining up my young brothers, kittens and teddy bears and trying to teach them (I was two and a half years old!)

What song would you like played at your funeral?

Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs - I'm Abendrot 'at sunset' sung by the great soprano Jessye Norman, always makes me cry.

Tell us something people don't know about you?

My mother was a refugee and came to the United Kingdom when she was six from an orphanage in Austria in the Second World War.

What's the worst thing anyone has ever said to you?

My cookery teacher told me I'd never get a husband and amount to anything because I couldn't cook and I couldn't wash up properly! Luckily I didn't listen…

Tell us why you live here.

There is a big job to do to make education great here and the children have so much potential.

What do you want to tell our readers about most?

I would like your readers to know that Inspiration Trust is working hard to make education in East Anglia great. We need good governors - do consider getting in touch and I will tell you all about it. For more information please go to

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