Wishford Schools

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Fear or freedom?

A Head's perspective on joining a group of schools, by Julia Foulger, Head of St David's Prep

I had been at my current school for twelve years and was in my second year of Deputy Headship when I was first given an idea that, in all probability, we were to be taken over. This was the school that I had attended as a child; the school I had sent my own children to; the school that I had begun my teaching career in and most importantly, the school I loved. Having been owned by the same family, the present Proprietor was now looking towards retirement and no one in the family was in a position to take over. It was not an easy decision for her to make, she has grandchildren she hopes will follow her own children in becoming pupils at the school.

The overriding consideration for her was for the school to maintain its ethos and family values, as well as protecting ‘her’ staff in any way she could. Thus, the decision to sell was not taken lightly and, as I understand it, was a lengthy process of negotiations.

On learning of the plans, I must admit there was an initial feeling of fear. Fear for the future of the school – would there even be one? Fear on behalf of other staff who have a whole career ahead of them and some of whom I had only recently recruited. However, I had complete trust in our Proprietor, a lady who would always put others before herself and she took great pains to reassure me that she had done her homework and done all she could to guarantee the future success of ‘our’ school.

It was imperative at this time that plans were kept under wraps. We all have all heard stories of small proprietorial schools closing almost overnight when rumours are leaked. It all became a little ‘cloak and dagger’ as a meeting was set up for me to meet the new prospective owner. It was immediately clear to me that our school would be in safe hands. Less fear…

A tense summer holiday ensued, neither staff nor parents knew anything of what was about to unfold in September. I am not sure how much of the Child Protection training I took in on the morning of our Inset day, knowing that things were about to dramatically change as announcements were made by the outgoing and incoming proprietors to the full staff. I need not have worried, it was handled brilliantly and professionally on both sides and there was almost a sense of relief as staff realised the school had in fact been future proofed.

It was not all plain sailing just yet – the parents needed to be told. They were duly invited to a meeting in school to meet the new proprietor, some of the other Heads and members of the group’s Advisory Board. Advisory board? We had never had anything like that, something else to fear? The meeting went well and whilst there were questions and small concerns expressed by staff, parents and pupils over the next few weeks, there was really nothing to fear. Once there was assurance that the fees were not about to double, the field was not going to become a housing estate and the staff would stay the same, everyone seemed happy.

As Head, I began to get dates put in the diary; Head’s meetings, Advisory Board meetings, meetings with the proprietor. Help! Yes, a certain amount of fear, fear of the unknown. But that soon disappeared; they were all rather friendly, they wanted to share things, they wanted to help, they wanted to encourage. It was only when I started attending such events that I began to realise what I didn’t know! We had been happily jogging along, running a pretty successful small school but with no one to ask advice from and, due to the very ‘hands on’ control the previous owner had, I knew nothing of budgets or spending plans and had very little say over staffing or indeed changes at all, let alone ‘strategic planning’ and the like!

Therein comes the freedom. Becoming part of a small group of schools has, in my experience, actually given me the freedom to look at ‘the big picture’ and start the process of turning our little school into something great. The freedom has come from knowing that there is always someone in the group willing to help, someone willing to run an idea past, someone willing to come in and have a coffee and talk through the latest problem!

Perhaps we are just lucky, but I am sure that it is no coincidence that all the schools in our group, (six to date) all have a commonality about them. Separated by distance, size and age-ranges, nevertheless there is something about each one that evidently caught the eye of our Chairman, who has, I believe, looked at over a hundred schools. I thank him that he chose us to be one of his growing group of schools and I thank each and every person that we have met through our group and for the support and freedom they have offered me and my school.

So if you hear the words ‘ take-over’, ‘buy-out’ or ‘we’re being sold’, forget the fear and think of Mel Gibson as Braveheart and cry, FREEDOM!