Wishford Schools

Wishford Schools

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Meet Jenny Burrett, Wishford's Director of Strategy and Education

‘We talk a lot about building a love of learning. If that’s what we want for our children, we need to feed our own too, as their leaders. We have to constantly stretch and develop ourselves and our educational practice, challenge ourselves so that we’re moving forward, improve our skills and knowledge and that of our schools. We can’t take our foot off the pedal.’

Jenny Burrett, Director of Strategy and Education at Wishford Schools is talking to Sam Antrobus, its Executive Chairman, discussing how to ensure our schools continue to evolve, improve, be everything they can be and more. Holding ourselves to account seems to be a running theme in Wishford’s strategy. In an industry where every school trots out the same well-worn phrases around providing high-quality education in a nurturing environment, it seems particularly important that we can demonstrate we actually do it. And, as importantly, have a clear idea of why.

‘There are plenty of schools groups out there,’ Sam explains. ‘Some have fallen into the trap of being a loose collection of schools without any common soul. Others run each school like a franchise. We want something different. We want each school to have its own unique character, but feel a sense of belonging. There has to be a rationale to each school being part of Wishford, and a clear idea of how it benefits educationally and what it brings to the group.

‘Our Advisory Board was created to ask searching questions, to test our Heads’ thinking and strategy and the way they deliver education,’ he continues. ‘But as Wishford became more established, we recognised there was an opportunity to do so much more, to really pull together the benefits of being in a group, and drive schools forward at a much faster pace. Jenny was preparing to move on from Felsted after 26 hugely successful years of Headship and I could see her experience and attention to detail, and the amazing ideas she comes up with were just what we needed to give our Heads support and encouragement to be even more ambitious for their schools.’

Being a head is an all-absorbing job. Just getting through the to-do list on any one day is challenge enough, without making the time to step back and assess where they are and where they are going. This is where an outside prompt is invaluable. As a result, Jenny spends her time encouraging, supporting, holding to account and developing ideas and strategies with six Heads, each as different as the schools they lead. 

So, what is that experience like?

‘It’s exciting and productive,’ Jenny says. ‘Our Heads are very responsible, competent, and up for a challenge. Each one needs ownership in his or her own school, so it is very much a collaborative arrangement. Ultimately, we all want to discover what is best for each school and to achieve it. I agree with them what I’m going to come in and look at and it will vary enormously. They might want to talk about leadership and management, or their young leadership programme, or developing teaching to deliver a particular part of the curriculum. And I’m conscious of Wishford’s over-arching aims and what Sam wants for them. We balance the two to create a programme of development for individual schools and for the group as a whole. Often, just from spending time in the schools, I discover so much to celebrate, or I will notice that there is potential for growth in some aspect of the school.’

It turns out that one of Jenny’s favourite expressions is, ‘So what!’ It’s direct, certainly, but Jenny is always looking for the purpose and impact of what is being done.

‘You do mindfulness sessions with your children? Wonderful, but so what! I want to know why it’s on your curriculum. It’s not enough just to do these things, to tick them off some education bucket list. You need to understand why you’re doing them. First you have to decide what outcomes you want for your children. Take mindfulness. Of course it’s very important, but it is important because it develops children’s emotional and spiritual intelligence and helps them look after themselves and others. It also connects them to the world around them. Drawing these strands together, it contributes to the character growth that our schools offer and is therefore not just a current educational fad.’

If one half of Jenny’s job is to focus on the individual needs and opportunities of each school, the other is to help them reap the benefits of being part of a dynamic and exciting group. Possibly the greatest example of this is the support that Heads, subject leaders and staff can give each other, something that is impossible in stand-alone schools. Since our schools aren’t in competition with each other, they can really share ideas without any fear of negative impact. It allows them be vulnerable, to say to each other, ‘I’ve got a real challenge here, does anyone have any advice?’

‘Being a Head can be a very isolating job. To actually work with other Heads and share things, and take from as well as give to other schools is a different skill. It really does create a supportive network,’ Sam says, ‘And that has gone to a completely new level since Jenny has been getting them talking to each other in much more depth. They have regular Heads’ meetings, but with Jenny’s involvement, they are discussing things at a much more granular level.’

There is certainly no opportunity for Wishford Heads to become complacent, but this is a two-way street. There is an ongoing discussion, into which they all feed, around what makes an outstanding school, what needs to be in place, how we can ensure that our children are getting the very best outcomes. It is an energetic and vibrant conversation, which constantly re-enthuses Heads and staff with the desire to be the best they can be.

As Jenny says, you can’t take your foot off the pedal.