Meet Westonbirt Prep School’s new Head Rebecca Mitchell
An in-depth interview with our new Head, by Kate Ross, Wishford Schools.
The New Year will bring a new Head to Westonbirt Prep, although Rebecca Mitchell is in fact a known quantity. First, she has just completed eleven years, including the last six as Head, at fellow Wishford school, Heywood Prep in Corsham. And secondly, before Heywood, she was at – you guessed it – Westonbirt! It’s long enough ago in the life of a prep school that the children she taught have long gone, but she already knows and has great affection for the school – a positive place from which to start.
Having worked alongside Rebecca and seen her in action over the past nine years, there are things I know you can expect. She is cheerful and approachable. She is absolutely fascinated by the theory and practice of education. She sets herself incredibly high standards and her fervour is infectious. An hour in her company, you find yourself thinking, ‘Of course we could, should be doing this!’ She is driven, with buckets of energy and enthusiasm, and clear purpose. And her attention to detail is phenomenal.
She is also a good listener, a key skill at a time when children, staff and parents might reasonably be wondering what the future holds under a new headship. And she wants to hear what everyone has to say.
‘Change should be good,’ Rebecca says. ‘A breath of fresh air, and maybe a new energy. But Westonbirt Prep is already an amazing school. You have to start by valuing what is already there. Understanding why the children love school so much, and why parents have chosen it. Whatever that is, has to remain constant.’
To this end there will be a parent survey, and focus groups, plus discussions with staff and children, to help identify the school’s strengths, where they would like to see change, what is important to them. ‘It is a process of listening, and drawing out the themes. Understanding what matters to people most. Then we can start thinking about where we go from here.’ It promises to be a collaborative future.
If parents want to talk to Rebecca more informally, she will be easy to find. At Heywood Prep she is at the gate every morning, greeting parents and children, available for a chat. At Westonbirt she intends to find a similar spot where she can make herself visible at the start and end of the day, and she welcomes visitors to her office too.
While Rebecca is keen to learn all she can from parents and staff, her own first impressions – or at least her new first impressions – are positive. She sees children who love their school and staff who love working there. ‘It’s very buoyant,’ she says. ‘I could feel the energy in the classroom and the staffroom. I was taken on a lovely tour by three Year 6 children. What struck me was how they have this 200-acre classroom, and it’s all their space. They don’t feel intimidated by the Italian gardens or the ornate buildings or the big sports hall. Despite its size, it’s a very homely and friendly space. And it’s all theirs.’
No change for change’s sake then. But once everyone has had their say, parents are likely to see the impact quickly. She wants to show people they are being listened to, and Rebecca is not one for letting the daisies grow. While any next steps will be shaped by the voices of parents and staff, we can still get a clear idea of where her own priorities lie.
You can expect Rebecca to continue developing a curriculum that is broad and creative, while adding as many co-curricular opportunities as she can cram into the week. Both of these things are about giving children the chance to try new experiences, to find whatever it is that will fire their imaginations and set them off on a lifetime of interest. Then there is her commitment to tailoring the education to the child, which led to the development of Heywood’s Individualised Learning Programme. This builds carefully focused learning sessions into every school day, giving children support where they need it, challenges in those subjects they find easy, plus a wide range of varied and fun additional experiences.
As a woman who has lost none of her own curiosity, she is also interested in enquiry-based learning.
‘Take a toddler in Nursery,’ she explains, ‘They will be completely absorbed in some activity. Then something at the next table catches their eye, so they move on, and give it a try. We need to protect that. We want to make sure our children never stop exploring and trying something new. Along the way they will fall over. They will fail, and that’s fine because we want to develop children who will dust themselves off and have another go. In a school like Westonbirt Prep, there are plenty of people to help them back up, and then cheer and congratulate them when they finally get there. It’s an amazing feeling for that child, much better than finding it easy in the first place. Those experiences will help them later. They will know it’s OK to try, even when those people are no longer there to pick them up.’
As parents, we want to feel that a school sees our children for who they are. Rebecca argues that this is vital for their learning experience too. As a first step, she will be sitting down with every form tutor, discovering what makes each child tick. Deeper understanding will come from chatting to the children, following their interests in and out of school, looking at academic data, and observation. In this way, Rebecca is able to maintain a clear picture of each child, how they best learn, their interests and stumbling blocks, the shifting patterns of their friendship groups. It means that when you talk to her about your child, she will already be engaged in their progress and their learning. ‘That’s what parents are paying for, after all. We have time to really know these children, to notice when things are working, or when they are not going right. It’s how you get the best from them.’
A mother of three, Rebecca speaks from a place of experience. With a son who will start Sixth form in September, another in senior and a daughter in prep, she is living life as a school parent at every level. She also understands that no two siblings are the same. ‘The journeys I have been on with my children have been very different. I’d never claim that I fully understand what another parent is experiencing, but I have had a range of challenges and successes and it does make it easier to empathise.’
‘And that is the beauty of school like Westonbirt,’ Rebecca continues. ‘You don’t know how your second or third child might differ from your first, so you need a school that has a breadth of opportunities and challenges, to allows everyone to achieve their best.’
It will be exciting to see how her headship shapes the future of this fabulous school. Welcome back Mrs Mitchell!