St Helen’s School: Driving excellence in education

In the May issue of Independent Leader we caught up with Dr Mary Short, head of St Helen’s School, Northwood. St Helen’s was recently awarded an ‘excellent’ rating by ISI; this followed the outstanding GCSE results which the school celebrated in 2016. Here she discusses how to drive excellence in education

Dr Mary ShortFor the leader of a school, as for a leader of any institution, the most important factor contributing to the achievement of excellence is the clear statement of vision for that institution and for the people within its community. Without this clarity of purpose and direction from the leader, however much energy each member of the community expends in their personal desire for and pursuit of excellence, their achievements can lack overall cohesion, compatibility and recognition, resulting in individuals feeling exhausted and frustrated by the effort.

Time well spent

Taking the time to understand your school and its wider community – and to appreciate its strengths and its areas for development before articulating a vision for the future – is the essence of effective leadership. I was fortunate to inherit a strong and thriving school when I took on the headship of St Helen’s School in Northwood six years ago but I nevertheless spent the first two years getting under the skin of the school before launching Our Vision for the school in 2014.

I don’t regret for a minute taking this time because the clarity of the vision – ‘Outstanding academic achievement for every pupil supported by exceptional pastoral care and an expanding co-curricular programme’ – has guided us through the planning and construction of four major building projects, the development of the curriculum and the enrichment of the co-curricular programme. This vision is hardly radical but the clear statement of it, and the achievement of steps towards it, such as the opening of a beautiful new junior school building or the achievement of our best ever GCSE results in 2016, inspire all of us to continue aiming high.

It’s therefore crucial that I take seriously the responsibility for distinguishing between excellence and perfection, and between education and league table rankings

There are more than 1100 pupils at St Helen’s, aged from three to 18, and the school is situated in the most competitive and aspirational of markets. It’s therefore crucial that I take seriously the responsibility for distinguishing between excellence and perfection and between education and league table rankings. The pursuit of excellence must always be balanced by the concept of ‘good enough’ and the recognition that a healthy dialectic between these two is essential to enabling all of us, both staff and pupils, to develop resilience, confidence and balance in our daily lives. It’s not enough simply to say this; we must show by our behaviour, language and responses that we mean it and seek to embody it.

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 Experience is everything

A key part of developing these skills involves allowing our girls to experience failure and find ways of bouncing back from it. Experience is everything and the development of a more robust response to challenges cannot simply be taught through personal development programmes. For our youngest pupils this experience has come through creating opportunities for challenging, adventurous play and learning; for our older pupils it has come through engagement in sport, music, drama, the Duke of Edinburgh Award, the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) and Phab, the national charity dedicated to the integration of people with physical disabilities in the community – alongside our brother school, Merchant Taylors’ – and through nurturing ambition. These experiences enable the girls to aspire to excellence and to develop the skills and attitude required to achieve it.

What matters most in this venture is that, as individuals and as a community, we operate within a shared vision of excellence

We are delighted that our recent ISI Inspection report graded the quality of the girls’ achievement and their personal development as excellent and that our approach and provision have been recognised in this way. We are not complacent though and continue striving to provide an outstanding all-round education and preparation for adult life through our newly-established Futures Department, the development of the estate, expansion of opportunities for leadership and developments in the range of experiences available to the girls at every stage of their education. What matters most in this venture is that, as individuals and as a community, we operate within a shared vision of excellence and are committed to exploring imaginative and creative ways to achieve this at St Helen’s.

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