Delivering excellence through a pandemic

I have fond memories of applying to become headmaster of Claremont Fan Court School back in January 2018. My three rounds of interviews and assessments were much as you might expect, but then they conducted a role play situational interview. I had to demonstrate how I might deal with an anxious pupil. On reflection, this allowed me to demonstrate empathy and kindness, even though I simply saw it as a task to be done. They didn’t ask the key question: tell me, Will, could you give me an example of how you have successfully navigated a school through a global pandemic?

So there I was, telling teachers in late March that while our primary role is in educational excellence, we do so knowing we are a business, albeit a charity, for which the customer needs to know what they are getting for their money. Never would we be under more scrutiny of what we were delivering. A term on, I find every year in the middle school (and indeed the prep school) is fuller than it was when we closed. It is only spoken about quietly, because independent schools are the last out of a recession as well as the last in, but parents appear to be of the mind that even if they can hardly afford the fees, they cannot afford to not pay the fees, if it will deliver an excellent education.

As headmaster, it is at times of crisis that you most effectively see the strength, or otherwise, of the team of staff you work with. For me, their stoic determination to do the right thing for the children we teach has been the mark of our success. I should have known from the role play interview that I was joining a school that cared. In one week, we trained every teacher to use Google Classroom (where work is set and submitted using an online platform) and Google Meet (for face to face conference lessons). We introduced a quality assurance process from day one, with senior colleagues including myself routinely calling the whole senior school parent body to help us evolve what we were doing, and not doing.

Parents’ feedback helped to underline the social contact their children were missing – the teacher seeing them in person to understand what they didn’t understand – which drove us to want to improve and evolve over a busy Easter break.

Perhaps having four children who study in four different schools (including one in Year 7 at Claremont) has given me perspective. It has certainly allowed me to recognise when we are getting it right. I do not have a wide enough vocabulary to convey how reassuring it is to know my son cannot fall behind with his learning because Claremont teachers would be rapidly on the case if he missed lessons or did not submit work, thanks to lessons simply following the timetable; he may not have been on site, but he was simply following the same 8.30am to 4pm school day model and was talking to his teachers and classmates.

I realise online lessons have enabled parents to see what does happen in the classroom like never before. I appreciate too we are just a school bus drive away from south west London, we have 100 acres of land, a beautiful learning environment and a growing reputation; stage one of the worst recessions of our lifetime is focusing minds on the importance of an education with which their children can flourish, even under a global pandemic.  We are approaching this autumn term with a confidence we can fully reopen and with a determination that we should do everything in our power to prevent schools ever needing to close again, but to have been able to recruit this term, in lockdown, more effectively than a few years ago when our doors were wide open says a great deal about the importance of a great education in this changing world.

Mr William Brierly
Headmaster, Claremont Fan Court School