Wishford Schools

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Hatherop Castle - a Year of the Wishford Effect

Music Room

Ask Paul Easterbrook, Headmaster of Hatherop Castle Prep School, what his views on the Wishford group are, and he doesn’t beat about the bush.

‘12 months down the line, I can tell you categorically that our membership of Wishford has been a superb move. You can see they have a real commitment the education and the wellbeing of our children, and they have given me the opportunity to move the school forward at a much more rapid pace than was previously possible.’ 

An unequivocal thumbs up, then, from the man who has led this high-achieving school for the last 22 years, and has clearly seen some ups and downs in that time. But perhaps you would expect a positive response from someone who had been central in the decision to join the group. I am curious to find out whether this enthusiasm for such a significant move has filtered down to the more junior members of staff.

‘Of course we were wary when they made the announcement. I think we were wondering what on Earth was going to happen next. But it didn’t take long to realise it has been entirely positive.’

I am talking to Ed Parkin, Head of Middle School and IT. I have teed it up by saying that I want a warts-and-all reflection on life at Hatherop Castle since it joined Wishford Schools, but so far there haven’t been any warts. What is more, he is the third person I have asked, and the responses have all been in the same vein.

In March 2014, Hatherop Castle, a prep school and nursery set in idyllic Gloucestershire countryside, became the third school to join the Wishford Group. Housed in a hugely characterful building dating back to Tudor times and sitting in 22 acres of landscaped grounds, it was just one of a dozen schools Wishford’s Executive Chair Sam Antrobus and his advisory board had looked at in the previous six months. So why choose that one? 

‘We have a number of criteria that we look for in a school,’ says Sam ‘Clearly Hatherop Castle was already strong academically. Last year’s outstanding clutch of scholarships is testament to that. It also has a very tangible family atmosphere between the staff, children and parents. But ultimately we felt this was a school where Wishford could really help to unlock potential.’

Headmaster Paul Easterbrook and the school’s governors had not considered the possibility of Hatherop Castle joining a group until they were approached by Wishford, but while exploring this option, they went on to have meetings with four other school groups. Wishford stood out head and shoulders for one particular reason.

‘What made a huge difference was the Wishford team’s passion and belief in independent education. Sam was the only person to bring along educational experts – the Wishford Advisory Board - to view and evaluate Hatherop Castle from an academic and pastoral perspective. The other companies just brought their accountants and constantly referred to the bottom line. The children barely registered. When Wishford said they wanted us to join the group, we actually felt very proud that it had recognised what a good school Hatherop Castle was and how great it could be, as well as being a viable business opportunity.’

At the beginning, Wishford’s priority was listening to parents, teachers and the children themselves to understand what made Hatherop Castle unique, and to identify areas where investment or good business practice could make a difference. The first and most obvious change was the refurbishment of the castle. The once-beautiful building was at best shabby and in places a little on the crumbly side. A long programme of renovation has begun, and already the school is barely recognisable. But parents were concerned with more than the fabric of the building. They had also fed back that communication was poor, that promises made were unreliable, that the sport provision and the school meals were not good enough. All these things needed addressing too. 

Parent Jo Welch remembers the initial response to hearing that Hatherop Castle had been bought. ‘Obviously it came as a big shock, and to begin with there was a great deal of scepticism among the parents. In the past we had been promised all sorts of things that never materialised. But very, very quickly it became evident that the arrival of Wishford was hugely positive. At first it was the visual stuff; all the redecoration, the new loos, all the investment in the building behind the scenes. But then there were new staff, holiday clubs, the developments in sports.’

Sport had been a particular area of concern for parents, and Wishford agreed that it required significant investment. They brought in additional specialist sports coaches and more teaching resources, and negotiated use of the astroturf pitch at the Agricultural University. 

‘What is also fantastic,’ continues Mrs Welch, ‘is how involved the parents are in the plans. We are kept informed about what is going to happen and we are invited to comment and input. It has completely shifted the dynamics of the school in a positive way.’ 

Sam knows that, for the parents, the building works and investment in more staff were the most apparent changes. But he points out that maybe more important, albeit less visible, was the change in culture. ‘Improving the way in which the school is organised and run, and how it interacted and communicated with parents was key. Paul and his staff had been under a great deal of pressure. Having a vast estate to run with nagging concerns about the school’s financial position was distracting the senior management team from the most important job of all: Educating the children.’

It is this above all that Paul Easterbrook values. ‘Now I can do what I do best. Knowing we have experts on hand to manage the estate, the finances and the marketing takes a huge weight off my shoulders. It has given me the time to focus on what really matters, and to look critically at the structure within the school. We have reorganised our senior management team and the way decisions are made and implemented by staff. It has allowed us to be pro-active instead of re-active.’ 

He goes on to talk about the value of the Wishford Advisory Board (five current or retired heads of prestigious independent prep schools, with a combined experience of over 100 years). Its members are all available for advice, or to use as a sounding board. There is also the opportunity to share experiences and best practice, or just have a chat, with the other Wishford Heads. ‘This simply wouldn’t have been an option before we joined the group. You were on your own. Now I feel valued and respected, and even after 30 years in education, I am enjoying the experience of someone investing in me again.’

Ed Parkin can also see the benefits of the new structure. ‘The staff room is a much happier place, there’s no doubt about that. The way things happen here is far more efficient now. I know exactly what my responsibilities are and what is expected of me, and that is very empowering. The opportunities to work with the other schools in the group will pay dividends for us, and that feeling of worry, about what’s coming next, has gone. Whatever does come next, I will have contributed and it will be positive.’ 

It’s going to busy at Hatherop Castle for the foreseeable future. A cool £100,000 was invested in educational resources over the summer holidays, and planning permission has been granted for a state-of-the-art Performing Arts Centre, to replace the derelict studio theatre. And then there is the ongoing renovation of the castle. 

Whatever happens over the coming months, you get the strong sense that everyone is on board, with high expectations and confidence in the future. Paul Easterbrook sums up how he feels about this brave new Hatherop Castle. 

‘The beauty of it is that it is nourished by all the shareholders – staff, parents, children and Wishford. I trust the Wishford team, and I think that is key to our success. We are working together to the same end.’

Pre-Prep stable yard