“It’s a fact, but it didn’t strike me as being something that was mould-breaking,” says Rhiannon Wilkinson when I ask her how she feels about being Ashville College’s first female head in its 144-year history. “But interestingly, a number of parents have reflected on it in a positive way and certainly a number of girls have. So, if it’s important for them, then it’s something we should be proud of.”
Rhiannon, who studied modern history at Oxford, has been a head for the past 12 years. She has taught in and led schools in the UK, Hong Kong and Brunei, and most recently was the founding head of Whittle School in Shenzhen. She joined Ashville College, a co-educational independent day and boarding school in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, in September.
Getting to know and understand the school, and the issues it faces, is important to her, whilst also being sensitive to its history. “It’s been a whirlwind joining a school after Covid has hit, but also after its former headmaster, Richard Marshall, died in post. This is a bruised community and therefore needs sensitive leadership and management, and an understanding of where they’ve come from.”
As schools across the country embark on a more ‘normal’ year, what does Rhiannon see as the most important elements of post-Covid education?
“We’ve got to remember what the impact has really been,” she says, “however, I feel quite strongly that we mustn’t be sucked into the vortex of everything now being a disaster, and that the children who’ve lived through the last 18 months are in some way damaged or a lost generation. Children are resourceful and adaptable creatures, and I think with the right attitude and care – both at home, in school and in the wider community – the majority can bounce back.
“We need to ease off a little talking about Covid damaging mental health in everyone. Sadly, in some instances that is the case – and I can’t imagine what it’s like for families where children have experienced the loss of someone dear to them through this time – but for many it has been lived through, they have managed, their parents have handled it well and their teachers have been able to do a brilliant job looking after them online. We need to play on the positives rather than the negatives.”
I want there to be high expectations and aspirations, and a belief that all can achieve
Ashville College will continue to monitor pupils’ wellbeing and provide plenty of opportunities to talk, especially in tutoring, says Rhiannon. In terms of teaching and learning, opportunities for collaboration are important, having been what pupils have missed out on. “I think children have become better at independent learning on the whole, and I think we can continue to encourage that through project work and presentations to each other, which will help with the oracy that we feel might have deteriorated.”
A key feature of this term will be using assessments to figure out what skills gaps exist and working out how they can be filled. Online learning will continue to be used, not only for identifying gaps, but also to support children with learning challenges and stretch those who are more able further. The school is recording lectures and book readings, publishing articles and starting to create podcasts to aid learning.
“I’m not a great believer that online is a substitute for direct interaction,” Rhiannon assures, “I still feel the teacher, as a human being interacting with human beings, is essential in the classroom. But I think what we’ve learned about online can enhance learning now and support things like study skills and revision techniques.”
Another way of ensuring pupils don’t fall behind, she says, is adding more intellectual pursuits to the co-curricular calendar so that pupils can learn in a more informal setting. She also wants to involve parents as much as possible, with meet-the-teacher events and opportunities to have their say. Parent-teacher meetings are staying online after positive feedback during lockdown.
Rhiannon worries, though, about the number of children who are unaccounted for. Figures published in October reveal that between 90,000 and 135,000 children may not have returned to school this term.
“I do hope that our new education secretary addresses that and that independent schools look at how they can help by reaching out to communities where extra attention is needed,” says Rhiannon. “Perhaps we can offer extra teaching from volunteer teachers. I think [the government] have to recognise nationally that for many it’s been a terrible time. Independent schools were very fortunate with the advantaged homes that our children, by and large, come from.”
Plan of action
Rhiannon is working on a provisional strategic plan for Ashville College, which she will be taking to governors this term. “You don’t set them in stone,” she explains, “they adapt as time goes on, but we do need an action plan.”
Her main goal? “I want to rebuild an academic culture. I want to focus on children being exposed to all sorts of interesting things, packing their brains again, enjoying the stimulation of the teachers and of each other, flipped classrooms, presentations and getting hands-on. I want there to be high expectations and aspirations, and a belief that all can achieve.”
Another point in her plan is building on the co-curricular and pastoral provisions at Ashville College. As mentioned before, the co-curricular calendar will be used to give pupils more social interaction and help fill skills gaps, while pastoral care will focus on nurturing every child as an individual.
The idea of young people being ‘future ready’ is also important to Rhiannon. “The pandemic has made me re-evaluate what we need to do in terms of school being a place where you’re thinking about the future. I want students to develop the skills that are going to be vitally important in higher education and in the world of work.
“I think there’s quite a lot we can do to excite and enthuse our children. For example, with enterprise and developing business awareness we can be doing all sorts – from £10 challenges with our little ones to set up their own mini businesses, to the Young Enterprise activities for the older years. I think it’s time to revisit skills and experiences outside the traditional key stage three curriculum, national curriculum, GCSE syllabus and A-level syllabus.”
Rhiannon is also passionate about ‘global capabilities’. “I have had 12 years’ international experience,” she says, “and it has really opened my eyes to the fact that children are not competing with the child next door anymore, they’re competing with children across the globe. Boarding schools have the advantage in that they have children from across the globe in their schools.
But lots of children don’t have that, and we’ve got to expose them to that somehow. We’ve got to make sure that they are ready to perhaps one day end up working in New York or Beijing. And at a moment’s notice being able to move and be adaptable, culturally sensitive and aware.
“They often talk about our island mentality and we’ve got to ensure that doesn’t happen with our students. We have a moral duty to prepare them for what will undoubtedly become a globalised planet again.”
Rhiannon’s international experience has clearly influenced her hugely, from understanding the importance of young people learning languages, to their awareness of current affairs and politics.
She explains: “One thing that I was more aware of working internationally is that, because our families came from all over the globe, they have that awareness of current affairs. For example, the politics of what is happening in China and the US, and what the challenges to democracy are. These big topics have been reserved for scholarship discussion or Oxbridge preparation here, whereas I think they can be approached in a meaningful way with children of all ages. I would like to think about how we’re going to do that.”
Although Rhiannon stopped teaching history a while ago, she says she will use assemblies to teach and encourage pupils. As she shares her plans for Ashville College, and her passion for learning, history and the way the world works, I can’t imagine her enthusiasm not rubbing off on students.
Rhiannon Wilkinson on… creating a successful school:
“Growth mindset is one that I’ve always believed is an essential element in the culture of a successful school. It’s been great to be able to revive it at this time of repair and improvement.”
On language learning:
“I’m passionate about children learning languages. I don’t think we do, by and large, as great a job nationally as we should be doing. When you’ve worked in schools where children have not only two working languages but sometimes three or four, it’s enormously humbling. I am sure this supports them in terms of the development of their brains, their ability to learn and really seize life with both hands.”
On the most interesting historical place she’s visited:
“I’d have to say Italy. For many years I taught IB history and spent many months teaching Italian unification, so I really enjoyed exploring different parts of Italy. I’m also passionate about Renaissance history. But from a social history point of view, I’ve been fascinated by American history for quite a while. Our last big trip before Covid was three weeks in the Deep South, as they call it, of the United States where we went on the civil rights trail, which was fantastic. Brilliant museums, so much to learn, so much to see.”
More interviews: Mark Mortimer, headmaster of Bryanston School