Interview: Joanna Wright, King Edward’s Witley

A school rich in history dating back hundreds of years, King Edward’s Witley is shaking up its senior team this autumn with the appointment of Joanna Wright as head. She told IE about how directing a local prep school play made her realise her passion and what she hopes to achieve in her new role

Q. What is your career history?

When I left university [studying French with Theatre Studies at the University of Warwick], I was pretty determined I wasn’t going to go into teaching, having grown up in a family of teachers. Through a chance meeting at a recruitment fair, I started training as a chartered accountant with a large London firm. It was an invaluable experience that enabled me to learn a great deal about people and different types of organisations but I decided it wasn’t quite for me. 

While thinking about my next move, I was asked to help direct a play at the local prep school and this experience made me realise that working with children was absolutely what I wanted to do. My first teaching post was at a secondary modern school, which was a great foundation. From there I’ve been privileged to work at various schools including Oundle, where I taught drama and loved the busyness of boarding life. I had boarded as a child at Cranbrook School so the all-round nature of seven days a week felt familiar. I was a housemistress at St Edward’s, Oxford, which again was a fantastic experience, and then deputy principal pastoral at Queenswood School. This then led me to my current role of deputy head at St Peter’s School, York.

Pupils aged 11-13 in the lower school are housed at Queen Mary House

Q. What have been the best things about being a deputy head, and the biggest challenges?

The best thing is the people I work with – both colleagues and pupils. I love being right in the middle of things and having to adapt to any situation. There is a need to be very creative and flexible, as well as have a sense of proportion and humour.

I think that the biggest challenges lie in the pressures on the pupils. We know that at school we only see about one third of a pupil’s life; home, peers and their online world are largely unseen so the challenge is to put the pieces of the puzzle together in order to be proactive and targeted in the way we support and guide. Our goal is to provide a brilliant education for each pupil and to do that well we have to understand that we’re only seeing one part of the puzzle. 

At St Peter’s, we have the privilege of being able to see a pupil’s educational journey all the way through from age three to 18; a challenge is to make sure that everything is age-appropriate.

In 1952 King Edward’s Witley became co-educational again

Q. What issue in education are you most passionate about?

Pastorally I’d say it’s about clearing a pathway to enable pupils to grow up in a healthy, safe environment, taking care of them holistically, so they can explore and grow without fear of getting things wrong. Academically, it’s about making sure the quality of teaching and learning are the best that they can be. Education is what you hope will set up a child for life, not just in terms of knowledge gained, but in terms of skills acquired and the experiences shared. I’d love every child in the school to flourish, be happy, have a sense of belonging and feel that they know how to do well both now and in the future.

Q. Why did you decide to become King Edward’s Witley new head?

It may be unique in terms of its foundation and what it stays true to – the founding principle of giving young people the best, and often transformative, opportunities.
The opportunity to be the next head, the next link in the chain, building on everything that has gone before, is such a great privilege.

The school is truly diverse. I was adopted as a baby so my passion for wanting to give children opportunity is heartfelt. The school celebrates diversity and inclusivity. I think that this provides an enriching and exciting experience as it reflects society and serves pupils well for their future.

As well as being head of King Edward’s Witley, I will also be the principal of Bridewell Royal Hospital. The Bridewell Hospital, London was where the school was located for some time before it moved to Witley. The foundation oversees King Edward’s, Witley and the prep school Barrow Hills. We have this lovely journey through for children who come in at three at Barrow Hills and can move on to King Edward’s Witley at 11 or 13. 

A Business and Finance Centre has been recently developed

Q. What are your plans for the school going forward?

I am very excited and looking forward to getting started. I want to make sure that I can contribute to its success by leading with a clarity of vision to take the school forward, doing our absolute best for all pupils. Preparation starts now, of course, but I don’t think anything is going to be quite like actually being there. There may be changes ahead. During its long history the school has always been forward-thinking in its educational philosophy and pastoral care, so everything we do will be with the pupils’ best interests at heart. Exciting times! 

Joanna Wright will take up her new role as head of King Edward’s Witley and principal of Bridewell Royal Hospital in September 2019.


You might also like: New King Edward’s Head to preserve school ethos