The Wishford Story
The man standing at the gates of Heywood Prep School in Corsham welcomed visitors to the open morning, politely greeting them, and inviting them to make their way to the school office. There, eager Year-6 children were drafted to give the grand tour – the state-of-the-art IT suite, the cheerfully decorated reception class, the dedicated science room. Next, prospective parents were introduced to Heywood’s enthusiastic and candid Headmaster Guy Barrett, and invited to grill current parents about the school.
A very busy morning, all in. Twenty-four families had booked in advance, and many more turned upon the day. A school that, just two short years ago, had seemed in danger of closure, now thriving. With a 50 per cent increase in pupil numbers, Heywood Prep is humming with children and with promise. And what completely passed the majority of those visiting parents by was the fact that this transformation had been spearheaded by the quietly spoken man who had welcomed them at the gate.
Sam Antrobus, Executive Chairman of the Wishford Group of schools, is not your textbook empire builder. Clever, certainly. Everybody told me that, usually with the qualifier ‘extremely’. But in person he comes across as modest, happy to let others take centre stage, quick to direct any credit to his team, blessed with a bone-dry sense of humour. Nothing of the self-congratulatory Lord Sugar about this one. Sam comes from several generations of teachers, including both parents. He is, as he puts it, the black sheep of the family, choosing to go into the City instead of the classroom. But you can only fight your genes for so long, and while he may not have completed the mandatory teacher training, Sam still inherited a committed and whole-hearted interest in education.
In fact, an impressive career in investments seems always to have been the means to an end. Sam had been planning his move into education long before he made the jump, and there is a distinctly un-corporate story about what happened to finally prompt the shift.
Sam’s mother had, for many years, been Head Teacher at a successful, privately-owned school. Several years after her retirement, however, the owners decided to close the school down.
‘It was such a crying shame,’ Sam says, clearly still frustrated five years on. ‘It was a lovely school, with a really good reputation. It was up against some tough competition, but there was definitely room in the market for it.’ By the time Sam realised that something had to be done, it was too late.
But this was the trigger for Sam to come out of the City and start doing something, as he puts it, ‘more adventurous’. He began looking for another school in a similar situation, and at the same time, started putting together the Wishford team. A dozen years in the city had given Sam the experience and contacts he needed from a business perspective. Now he was looking to complement that with a strong team of experienced educationalists. And he got them. The Wishford Advisory Board includes no fewer than seven current or retired head teachers (including his mother and aunt), several of them also school inspectors.
Advisory Board member Penny Horsman, ex-Head of Dulwich College Junior School, no less, was impressed by the thoroughness of Sam’s research. ‘He really did his homework. He knew he didn’t have the experience in education, so he spent a great deal of time talking to people who did. Actually, I think he spoke to everyone worth speaking to.’
After a long time searching, and countless visits to potential projects, Sam chose Heywood Prep to bethe Wishford Group’s flagship school. The announcement was to be made to parents just before the start of autumn term 2012. This gave Sam and his newly appointed Head six weeks to roll up their sleeves and blitz the school, clearing out rubbish, painting, cleaning. Guy Barrett ruefully recalls scrubbing the boys’ loos – it seems that no job was too menial. When parents and children arrived on the first day of term, it would be to a fresh, bright and welcoming school building. For us parents it augured well.
But Sam and Guy knew the real work was still ahead of them. There are no shortcuts in education. It’s too important. You are dealing in children’s lives, and your clients are their fiercely protective parents. So what followed was over six months of what Sam describes as relentless analysis of every aspect of the school. Understanding its strengths and weaknesses, identifying the areas in desperate need of improvement, safeguarding what made it special, raising standards. And then came action - in Sam’s words ‘running 10,000 volts through the school’ - and investment. Huge amounts of money were poured into the fabric of the buildings, into a new library, a new IT suite, a new science room, and in new staff too.
And at every step, the Wishford Advisory Board was on hand, offering over 100 combined years of experience - a font of wisdom on every aspect of school life, from best teaching practice to child protection, and from making new appointments to assessing and developing staff.
Soon afterwards, with his own children installed in the Nursery and Reception class at Heywood, Sam bought his second school, St Faith’s at Ash in Kent, bringing in experienced Head, Lawrence Groves to lead it. While St Faith’s shares certain characteristics with Heywood Prep, it has a distinct personality of its own. At both schools, a very early priority was to reassure parents that becoming part of the Wishford Group was not only in the long-term financial interests of the school, but also a means of protecting whatever it was the parents had bought into in the first place. That this was the opportunity for a fresh start, not a transformation into some kind of homogenised Wishford-shaped school.
Sam understands this concern. ‘What it probably helps to bear in mind is that the ethos of the school - its spirit and personality - is normally the reason we are attracted to it in the first place. We don’t want to change that. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.’
‘What we want to do,’ he goes on, ‘is exemplify the best characteristics of prep schools. That is to say, offer the children the opportunity to do well academically, on the sports field and in the creative arts, but in a nurturing, safe, happy environment. Somewhere everybody knows everybody else. And where the staff members know each child really well, and how to get the best out of them. That stays the same.’
And how far does Sam see Wishford Schools going?
‘We’re never going to be a big corporate. Our aim is for around ten or twelve schools. We want to get the group to a size where we really see the benefits of sharing best practice and collaboration, but where we can still get everyone around one table. It needs to feel comfortable and personal, because this is it for me. This is what I want to be doing for the rest of my career.’
St Faith’s Head Lawrence Groves recognises this. ‘You can tell that with Sam its personal. It’s just something he has always wanted to do. A vocation.‘
I ask Sam if he pictures himself passing Wishford on to his own children. ‘Yes, if they want it,’ he smiles. ‘Of course they might prefer to go off and do something completely different. Join the ballet? Go to space?’
Indeed they might. But they will be bucking an awful lot of history to do so.
Kate Ross, March 2014