Wishford Schools

Wishford Schools

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Together we stand

When a letter drops unexpectedly through your front door informing you that your children’s school has been sold, it is, to coin a favourite phrase of my sister’s, a bit of a facer. I know, because it happened to us on the last day of the summer holidays 2012. I say ‘unexpectedly’, but that’s a bit misleading. Because no one’s going to claim that it came out of a clear blue sky. Despite the school’s reputation for academic excellence, and a lovely, family atmosphere, children had been leaching out of Heywood Prep for some time, first in a steady trickle, and later in a panicky flood. For all its exam results and a strong body of staff, Heywood had received little material or developmental investment for years, and its laurels were simply not robust enough to be rested on.

With each family that left, heading for one or other of the big independent schools in Bath, those of us who stayed behind became increasingly twitchy. Nobody wanted to be the last man standing, scrabbling around for new school places for their children if the ship went under. We felt frustrated that what could have been such a fantastic school was slowly being eroded. We had already been told that a new Headmaster was arriving in September, so we were keeping our fingers crossed. And then, without prior warning, this letter, advising us that the school had been bought by something called the Wishford Group. The optimist in me thought, ‘This can only be a good thing’, the pessimist, ‘What on earth are we in for now?’

So it was with a mixture of wariness and suppressed anticipation that we arrived on the first day of that autumn term. At which point, we were properly, jaw-on-the-floor surprised. Over the course of the summer holidays, the school had been transformed. I don’t think we’d even realised how tatty the place had become. Now there was fresh paint, plush carpets, a spacious new office by the front door to welcome us in. Cosmetic changes, certainly, but they were very strong indicators of what was to follow. People talk a lot of talk, after all, but money is something else again.

Not that we were going to allow ourselves to be seduced by a lick of paint. We greeted them politely – the Headmaster Guy Barrett (a Wishford introduction as it turned out), and Sam Antrobus, Executive Chairman of the Wishford Group – then metaphorically folded our arms, sniffed, and waited to see what would happen next.

What happened was the same thing that happens immediately after the arrival of Wishford at any school. They asked us what we thought. They asked us what we liked and what we didn’t. What we wanted to keep and what we were desperate to get rid of. Why we had stayed when so many hadn’t, why we might have been thinking about leaving. They asked, and we told them. We did not hold back.

‘We had our own ideas on where the school could modernize and improve,’ remembers Sam Antrobus, ‘but we wanted to prioritise those things the parents wanted.’ He pauses, clearly remembering with some awe the response to his consultation. ‘People wrote essays.’

Once we’d put them straight, Wishford moved fast. For us, in the early days, that meant improving communication, increasing school opening hours to support working parents, transforming school lunches – that was a big one, I remember – increasing sport provision. We also told them about the things we wanted to hang onto. The ethos of the school, the sense of community, the happy, family atmosphere.

Probably the best thing they did was to give us security. Suddenly the school had a solid future. We had a backer, with funds and vision, and the intention of sticking around. At Heywood, things have gone from strength to strength. Pupil numbers have increased by 50 per cent in two years. And, as we all know, nothing sells a school like happy parents.

At the beginning, there actually was no Wishford ‘group’. Heywood was school number one. Within a couple of months, we had been joined by St Faith’s at Ash in Kent, which felt a little more groupy. But it wasn’t until March of this year when Hatherop Castle School came into the fold, that we could really claim to be a fully fledged group.

That said, when you are caught up in the day-to-day business of your child’s school life – times tables practice, cheering along at netball matches, tracking down lost uniform – the fact that there are other schools out there to which you are somehow connected barely triggers a blip on the radar. This is still our school, after all. Heywood Prep is not St Faith’s, and Hatherop Castle is different again. We are not just the Corsham branch of a Wishford franchise. But if you take time to consider, dig a little deeper, ask a couple of questions, the upsides to being part of a wider group of schools, and the Wishford Group of schools in particular, are revealed.

First off, there is the Wishford Advisory Board, five highly experienced current or retired headteachers, (plus the three school Heads, and two non-executive directors). Between them they represent a vast well of educational wisdom, a readily available resource that would never have been an option for the individual schools. Most of what Board members do happens out of the public gaze. They advise, offer suggestions, or simply act as a sounding board for Sam, the school Heads and any of the teachers, on every school-related issue you could imagine, from health and safety to class dymanics, and staff assessments.

As well as visiting and casting a weather eye over each and every prospective school, the Board also advises on staff appointments – particularly in the critical job of appointing senior members of staff for Heywood Prep and St Faith’s. In the case of Heywood Head Guy Barrett, Board member Penny Horsman plays a very specific role. She is his mentor, a valuable support to him in his first headship.

Then there are the many benefits of having sister schools. For starters, staff can interact, talk, swap experiences, something that Guy Barrett and St Faith’s Head Lawrence Groves both cite as being of value. Sharing ideas, introducing new ways of looking at things, should help keep our schools fresh and forward thinking and rule out any chance of complacency disguised as tradition – always a danger in the independent sector. There are career development opportunities between the schools too, enabling Wishford to hang onto teachers it has rigorously selected and developed.

Already the schools are sharing best practice. The IT programme at Heywood Prep, for example, is unmatched in the county. Now all the work that has been done to develop that programme will be rolled out over the other schools in the group. St Faith’s has a much-lauded public speaking programme that it too will be able to share, while at Hatherop Castle, science is a particular strength.

I ask Sam whether there are benefits on the administrative side of things. Are there, for instance, any economies of scale in owning several schools?

‘Not really. Each school needs to have a full staff, and stuff like heating, lighting. Where it really pays off is in the bureaucracy. It is hard, for example, for a small independent school to keep on top of all the shifting regulatory requirements. Now, if there is a change in the law regarding health and safety, we can update things quickly across each school in the group. It frees up the Head’s time to focus on what really matters in running the school.’

What I am really looking forward to are the events designed to get the children together. To kick things off, a Wishford Weekend will take place at Hatherop Castle in June - two days of treasure hunts and swimming, campfires and sing-a-longs, orienteering and It’s a Knockout. There are also plans for joint educational projects, inter-school competitions, a Wishford Cup, perhaps. A bit of fierce but friendly rivalry.

And the more schools that come on board, the easier it will be to exploit all these opportunities. A community of community-minded schools. That sounds good to me.

Kate Ross, March 2014