Getting a Head in Cheltenham

Before the beginning of the academic year, we met Nicola Huggett, Cheltenham College’s new Head, to discuss perceptions, partnerships and politics

“If I’m brutally honest, I haven’t given a second thought to being the first female Head,” admitted Nicola Huggett, who will be at the helm of Cheltenham College from September. Nicola was previously Head at Blundell’s School and coincidentally was also the first female Head there, so I suspect this is something she has been asked many times before. She went on to explain: “I appreciate that for a woman being in a leadership position where there hasn’t been one before is of interest, but I don’t think I’m going to be radically different from a Headmaster. In many ways, I hope I’m not. I am very open and consultative so I’m looking forward to showing people that there is nothing to worry about.” 

Nicola’s passion for her new position is unflinching. She confessed that her predecessor, Dr Alex Peterken, had left very big shoes to fill, but she is excited for the challenge. In 2017, Cheltenham College celebrated record exam results as 81% of their A-level cohort achieved A*–B grades. Nicola is quick to reference these academic results and is keen to continue this success by encouraging innovative teaching: “I see the role of the Head as a facilitator of other people’s ideas in many ways. I expect to really invest in the people that work for me and help their ideas come to fruition. I think the creative process is bottom up and I’m here to make it happen.” 

Apart from the school’s academic success, what else attracted Nicola to the headship? The community of the school is an incredibly important factor: “I wanted to run a school that is holistic and down-to-earth, and that isn’t to say we aren’t smart, go-getting and modern, but I think Cheltenham College is a school where we roll up our sleeves and have a go. I can be very hands-on here. I wouldn’t want to go to a school that’s so enormous that I don’t know the pupils’ names.” At Blundell’s, Nicola knew every pupil and their parents by name, and she is always keen to make connections in the community as a self-proclaimed ‘people person’. 

This is something Nicola hopes to continue at Cheltenham College, and she wants to focus on independent and state school partnerships. The school is already working with local schools, including an enhanced partnership with All Saints’ Academy, which means the senior leadership teams of both schools collaborate and share best practice in order to promote educational excellence. 

“I am on the HMC committee representing the South West and we talk long and hard about how we are going to make our schools more accessible. The partnership work going on at College is one of the most exciting things about the school and I’m looking forward to getting involved,” said Nicola. “This isn’t just about lending your facilities, it’s all about engaging our pupils with pupils from other schools and vice versa.” 

Partnerships are a hot topic, as the Government is keen for independent schools to make more connections with state schools, even though they have been doing so for years. This could be one of the biggest misconceptions of the independent education sector and it is encouraging that Nicola is determined to change this perception. 

“I think that if people look at the outside of Cheltenham College and see the incredible buildings and surroundings they might think it is terribly smart and entitled. But I feel that it is a very gracious place. Pupils definitely understand how lucky they are, and I do too,” she said.  

As we discussed the power of partnerships the conversation moved onto preparing young people for the future. Nicola immediately referenced apprenticeships and how it was time to broaden horizons. 

“I think the sector needs to really invest time, energy and money into gaining a good knowledge into the way apprenticeships work. The university sector has been a giant for many years and it has been the only thing we’ve been preparing our pupils for. Most parents on an open day will ask, ‘How many of your pupils go on to university?’ and they would like me to say 100%. But for me, 100% isn’t the right answer to that question, it might be 80% or 90% but it’s important that they are prepared for the workplace,” said Nicola. “I wouldn’t blame young people for looking at options other than university, in fact I really want them to. I am a great believer that school should be an adventure.” 

Mrs Huggett and Mr McNiffe sign partnership agreement with All Saints Academy 

Nicola is very attuned to young people today and feels that often people assume that they don’t look ahead and think of their future, but she has found the opposite to be the case: “The big pressure on pupils these days is to think of subjects that will lead them directly into a job. Consequently, there are lots of people now doing STEM but it is hard to encourage kids to do English and history. If I had a penny for every time a pupil asked me, ‘Well, what can I do with a history A-level?’ I think we must highlight subjects like drama, music and art, as creativity is an equally important part of the skill set pupils will require for the future.” 

Nicola teaches politics and history, so I can understand her frustrations and desire for more pupils to embrace these subjects. After all, in the current political sphere it is more important than ever to teach young people about politics. 

“I think getting pupils involved in political debate is very important,” commented Nicola. “Politicians need to listen to young people more. I think we are a global world and we need to work together to make sure everyone gets along.” 

After hearing her inspiring plans for the future, I was keen to hear what Nicola had learnt from her experiences in education so far. As someone who has been a Housemistress, Deputy Head and Headteacher, Nicola has seen school life from all angles. 

“I think you should always obey the 70/30 rule, which is you should listen for 70% of the time and talk for 30%. I have learnt that listening is so important,” said Nicola. “I suppose being a Housemistress, Deputy Head and Headteacher, you spend a lot of time with the most challenging pupils, so you learn a lot! If you always look for the best in children, young people, staff and parents, then generally you are not disappointed.” 

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