Talking to Rebecca Mitchell, Head of Heywood Prep, the first observation I make is the incredible energy you immediately feel as you enter the school, emanating from both children and staff.
‘I love it when visitors comment on the warmth and friendliness of the school,’ smiles Heywood’s headmistress, Rebecca Mitchell. ‘It is a very happy place, I think, which also strives for excellence for each of our children. And it’s busy too – when I walk around, I’ll see children rehearsing plays on stage, practising sport, playing music, immersed in art!
‘Then I’ll go into the science room, where I might find Year 5 children working on pneumatics and hydraulics. They’ll show me what they’re building, using syringes and lollipop sticks, and they’ll talk with such enthusiasm about what they are doing. It makes me so proud that they want to share their passion.’
That they are so keen to share probably has a lot to do with the approachability of their head of school. Rebecca is in the thick of day-to-day life here, available to staff, children and parents.
‘I don’t think I’m an intimidating head. I certainly don’t expect the children to sit bolt upright and fall silent when I enter a room. I prefer to stand on the gate every morning and greet every one of our children by name – they’ll often bounce onto the gravel and tell me how well they did at a sport competition, or chat about something exciting that’s happened at home. I want to really know every child, so I can be aware if someone needs celebrating, or who might need a little extra support.’
Rebecca is also quick to pass credit onto her team of brilliant teachers.
‘Our staff also add a huge injection of joy and fun into the mix. They have such strong relationships with our children – they really understand how to keep their passion for learning alive. In turn, our children know what the boundaries and expectations are, and they have a huge respect for their teachers and each other.’
It is this understanding and knowledge of each child that ensures that every pupil thrives, gains confidence and resilience, and realises their academic potential. Small class sizes mean staff can really get to grips with what makes the children tick. They continuously assess how each child is coping with their academic work, and whether they need to be stretched or perhaps have a little extra support.
‘I’m particularly proud of our Individualised Learning Programme,’ says Rebecca. ‘Five days a week, every pupil attends a 30-minute session, which has been carefully chosen to answer their specific needs. Someone who struggles with spelling, for instance, might join a spelling support group, along with perhaps a strings music group, a maths booster session, and a gifted and talented sport session. It’s a tailored approach to learning, which means nobody gets pigeon-holed. Instead, we can nurture or stretch each child in the right way for them. We promote excellence. If a child is reaching 80% of their potential, that just isn’t enough.’
A key part of ensuring each child does reach his or her potential is identifying where that potential lies.
‘Our role is to discover what each child shines at, and we do that by offering a broad range of opportunities. If we can find an academic subject, an Individualised Learning session, an after school club or specialist subject that allows them to explore an interest or talent, it really boosts their self-esteem. And when children find their strengths, it gives them the confidence to tackle the areas of life that they perhaps don’t find so easy. We all need to be able to say, ‘It’s ok, I find this hard – but I’m really good at this.’
Of course, children will only thrive if they feel safe, secure and happy. And that is why pupil wellbeing is at the centre of everything.
‘Every child will face difficulties and pressures in life, and we have a duty to develop their resilience,’ explains Rebecca. ‘The worst thing for a child is to dent their confidence. It takes so long to build, then in a quick swipe it’s gone. We have to remember that every child is on his or her own journey too – everybody will learn to spell and get to grips with their 8-times table, but it’s important we move at the right speed for that child. And if you give children confidence and resilience, then they will get there.’
As well as dedicated daily tutor time, children are encouraged to use the worry boxes in class to confide any anxieties. Then during lunch and break, the door to a dedicated calm space is always open. Here, children can chat to a member of staff about anything that’s on their mind, and the information is shared with form tutors, so they can offer support in turn.
‘Giving children somewhere to go for help is really important,’ says Rebecca. ‘They need to know that it’s ok to say that you’re struggling. We encourage the children to write our Positivity Postcards to one another too, which they pop into the school post box. It’s a great way of celebrating one another’s strengths, and it’s so special for a child to know that they are appreciated by their friends.
‘But so much of what we do is invisible to the outside world. Behind the scenes, our staff are constantly talking about who might need additional support, and who might be feeling low. And if a child is struggling with confidence, we do everything we can to nurture them. For example, we might put on a house chess competition, because we know that child is great at chess and that it will give her self-esteem a boost.’
There’s no question that everything put into place at this young age has huge impact on a child’s future. ‘If a child learns to acknowledge his feelings and seek help when he needs it, then he isn’t going to fall apart when he hits his GCSEs. It’s crucial to develop resilience and create happy, lifelong learners who love going to school.’
With three children of her own, in both prep and senior, it’s fair to say that Rebecca fully comprehends the challenges of being a parent. Logistically, she understands the need for wrap-around care, after-school clubs that children enjoy, holiday camps they actually want to go to. It all informs provision at the school. But her experience also informs parent accessibility to key information, for example feedback on a child’s development.
At weekends she’s often found cheering at the edge of a rugby or hockey pitch, or exploring Westonbirt Arboretum with the family’s Cockerpoo, Milo. And if there’s a birthday on the horizon, you’re likely to find her baking some pretty impressive cakes.
‘My children are very different to one another,’ she says. ‘I understand the challenges that come with a headstrong child and I also understand parents who need to access our learning support department. I know what it’s like to receive a specialist report and feel your heart break, when you read how your child is struggling. But ultimately, I’ve been able to experience first-hand just how much all our children – and parents – benefit from what we offer.’
Prep school is just the beginning, and yet the skills they learn here, the confidence they build, the relationships they form, will all pay dividends when they take the next step in their education.
‘Throughout their time with us, I see our children developing a real awareness of who they are,’ says Rebecca. ‘And it’s so exciting to watch their confidence grow. That child who nervously sucked his thumb throughout the nursery nativity might later take on a leading role in a performance with aplomb. It’s wonderful to see the progression, as they excel in their own hobbies and interests.
‘Ultimately, we want our children to have the confidence to seize every opportunity they are offered. We want them to think, “Yes, I’ll have a go,” and really make the most of life. It’s so important that they know they can succeed, and that they have that resilience too.’
Where might all this take them?
‘We can’t possibly know what career our children will choose as adults, but we do know what skills they’ll need. Collaboration, communication, confidence, compassion and the ability to motivate themselves are all invaluable, whatever path they take. Ultimately, that is what we are here to help them achieve. And to be able to do that is a huge privilege.’