Wishford Schools

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Heywood Prep: A fresh start

NOVEMBER 2012

I am sitting in the Headmaster’s office. Not for the first time, I’m afraid, but my 10-year-old self would be delighted to hear that this time it is me asking the awkward questions. And I am asking them of the nearly brand new Head of Heywood Prep School in Corsham.

Academically speaking, Heywood Prep has long enjoyed a good reputation. Rare – very rare – is the child who doesn’t gain his or her first choice of senior school, which is an impressive claim from a non-selective school. It boasts a strong teaching staff, is listed in the Times Top 100 Prep Schools, and was found to be ‘outstanding’ in its last Independent Schools Inspection.

But somehow none of this was convincing the parents. After years with little material investment, Heywood Prep felt stale, outdated. And despite fees significantly lower than any of the Bath independents, and an oft-cited warm, family atmosphere, numbers were falling. The school was crying out for a shake up, or perhaps a shakedown. An injection of energy, fresh thinking, optimism even.

And then, suddenly, everything changed. Over the summer, the school passed into the hands of the Wishford Group, a family-run company, whose stated plan is to buy carefully selected independent prep schools and with investment (a key word, that) to deliver ‘an outstanding education in a stimulating, caring and rewarding environment.’ The first thing that Wishford did was to appoint Guy Barrett as Heywood Prep’s new Headmaster. The next thing they did was get stuck in.

For parents arriving for the new school year, the change was startling. Guy tells me of how he and Sam Antrobus, head of the Wishford Group, spent the summer holidays with sleeves rolled up, clearing out decades of school detritus, and buckling down to stints scrubbing the boys’ loos. The scent of paint and new carpet still lingers. The school office has been moved out of the poky attic room it once inhabited, into an airy and welcoming room on the ground floor. The whole place is lighter, brighter, more modern.

And then there is the new Head. Guy Barrett is young – at 35, younger than most of the parents – but he has packed a great deal of experience into his 12 professional years, wetting his feet as the reception teacher at Warminster school, and working his way up to Acting Head of Rosehill Westonbirt. Furthermore, he is supported by Wishford’s seven-strong Advisory Board of educational big hitters, which includes a former Head of Dulwich College Junior School, an ex-chairman of the Independent Association of Prep Schools, and an Independent Schools Inspector, to whom he is required to report regularly.

Guy is focused, enthusiastic, approachable, but also unquestionably a grown up. Every morning he is at the gate, greeting parents and children, expecting every child to greet him in return – a hint at the importance he places on good behaviour and discipline.

It also illustrates his determination to be a visible presence to parents.

‘I want parents to know that they can talk to me,’ he says.  ‘If I see a group of four people in a huddle in the playground, that’s the conversation I want to be in on. If something’s bothering them, I want to be the first to hear about it.’

He will have heard plenty already. Early in the term, a frank and probing survey was sent to parents, seeking honest responses to questions about the school’s strengths and weaknesses. It had been a long time since parents had been asked for their views on anything. No surprise then that the surveys came flooding back in.

And then, a miracle in this world of spin, changes actually started to happen.

The parents wanted better communication. A comprehensive newsletter now goes home every Friday; the doors to the School Office and the Head’s Office are always open; and the way each child’s targets are set has changed so both parent and pupil can see clearly where the child is doing well, and where they need to concentrate their efforts

Parents wanted more flexibility in dropping their children off at the school’s nursery. Immediately, the hours were adjusted, and from January, the main school’s doors will also open earlier to accommodate working parents.

Children can already try their hand at a huge range of extra curricular activities from street dance to earth science. But parents felt that sport provision was not as good as it should be. Hey presto! Two new sports coaches have been appointed, and Heywood Prep has joined the Corsham group of eight schools for sporting fixtures. ‘Besides the increased opportunity for sport,’ Guy explains, ‘it gets us more involved in the community.’

It is hard, in the hour I talk to him, to fit in all the plans that are swiftly unfolding: A brand new library; the appointment of a new Special Educational Needs Coordinator; enrichment days for gifted and talented pupils; a new ICT suite with enough all-singing, all-dancing computer equipment to keep 18 children busy at one time; and investment in professional development for staff, of whom Guy is an ardent fan. ’I don’t want to keep telling people what we’re going to do,’ he says, ‘I want to show them we’re doing things now.’

Is it working? Half a term in, it certainly seems so. Feedback from the parents is overwhelmingly positive, while the energy and enthusiasm in the school itself is palpable, among both children and, noticeably, staff. Already, pupil numbers are on the rise, with more coming.

Prospective parents, take note. Heywood Prep is Wishford’s flagship school. ‘We have to make this one work,’ Guy says. And, with that heady mix of vision, energy and investment, it looks to me very much like they will.