Just over 3 years ago, James Allen moved from London to take on his first Headship at Beech Hall School in Cheshire. He’s been making headlines recently after sitting GCSE exams, alongside his pupils. In this interview he tells us why he put himself through that, his vision for the future of the school and what Beech Hall are doing to continue to attract pupils.
You joined Beech Hall 3 years ago – can you tell us a little about you, your background and how you came to be Head, here at Beech Hall?
I had spent five years working for the Riverston group at their sister school in London – I was Acting Head for 6 months and by the time the Head returned, I’d decided I wanted to go for a Headship. Amazingly, at the very same time, the Riverston group owner Professor Michael Lewis wanted to buy another school and was looking for a Head. Unfortunately, the process of buying the school took longer than expected and during that transition, 50 families actually left us, understandably.
How long did it take you to settle into the role and create your vision for the school?
I think I’m still doing that – as a Head you are always doing that, and the start of term is always a good opportunity to change everything with colleagues as much as with the children. One of the first things we did was agree our 10 core values, which include the Olympic and Paralympic values plus another 3. The children have passports and earn stickers against each of the values, which they complete to move up to the next level.
Did you have a plan when you started as to what you wanted to change?
It was all about confidence – for staff and for the parents. I suppose the hardest thing is that you start the role and you inherit your staff. Those that don’t fit tend to move on, so I suppose by the end of the second year, I felt the staff I had on board were now my staff, who bought into the same philosophy and they have really taken things on. But the main objective was to grow our pupil numbers – I started with 68 pupils! We started this school year with 101 – that’s 50% growth in 3 years.
Three years on, let’s reflect – have you achieved what you wanted to and where do you go from here?
I’m really pleased with our pupil numbers. I have a really good Marketing Manager, who is also the Registrar and she’s great at getting the message out. We wanted to ensure our families knew they’d made the right choice – we were spoilt in the summer with gorgeous sunshine and we had a lovely sports day, swimming gala and prize giving with all the families. We also recently sent out a very upbeat, academically focused and sporting newsletter highlighting our achievements. For me, children have to be happy first and then they have to achieve (a little bit more than we think they can achieve). And they have to have confidence in their own ability and quirkiness. That’s really important.
What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing your school?
Since the financial crisis, attracting enough numbers. Affordability is a concern across the independent sector.
You certainly made headlines with your recent BBC news appearance, after sitting your GCSE’s – what were you looking to achieve from this?
Well I was invigilating a mock exam back in January and I looked through the paper and thought ‘I can do this’. I learnt what my pupils were going through and had the same anxieties as those I’d experienced 30 years ago. I experienced, first hand, the impact of sitting an exam. Moving on now, I feel better placed to support the pupils who are going through it. Sadly, the system advantages traditionally academic children and those who can cram. The publicity was mad. I had written to The Times about my plan and on the Monday before results were announced, they ran my article on page 4! I had lots of local radio interviews and then the BBC asked me to go to Salford for an interview in the studio. The results day was wonderful, the pupils opened and presented my results and the footage was used by the BBC, great publicity for a small school like us!
Pupil numbers have fallen amongst prep schools, what are you doing to continue to attract families?
I know a lot of schools say they are unique but I am absolutely certain I have a unique school – and it is becoming attractive to more and more families.
Finally, what are your plans for the future?
When I took this on initially I saw it as a 5 – 7 year project – I never planned to stay and always thought I’d return to London but now I love it! I have a better quality of life here – I often get in the pool at the end of the day. I’m here for a while yet – there is still much to do here and that’s great!