School spotlight: Worksop College

The headmaster of Worksop College takes James Higgins on a tour of this Midlands institution and reflects on the north-south divide, emotional intelligence and digital detoxes

“At this school, the whole person is the whole point,” the headmaster recounts as we wander through the corridors of Worksop College.

“I guess that view is born of my personal experience,” he continues. “I was state educated in a large comprehensive in south Wales, where I was just a number. I didn’t feel anyone was particularly interested in me.”

Dr John Price is new to this school and has brought with him a sweeping agenda of change. We’re in Bassetlaw, a north Nottinghamshire region marked by its industrial history, but how do school and town fit into the 21st century?

As I sit down with Dr Price in the headmaster’s study, the artwork on the walls catches my eye. These pieces, products of the art department, are quite a testament to the school’s alumni, but there’s one picture – the one right behind Dr Price himself – that commemorates much more. An old man, wearing an orange boiler suit and a blue hard hat, stares down at me.

worksop college
This artwork is showcased in the headmaster’s study

He is a former miner – a grandfather of this town, and its community. Worksop lies at the heart of one of England’s largest former coalfields; it is a region which is now often noted more for its past than its future. The taxi ride from the station to this glorious Victorian school is laden with contrasts.

“We open up to the community but I’m very keen to do more. I do not want to be seen as the elite school on the hill outside town,” Dr Price explains. He has come to Worksop College from a school in Grimsby, two areas not materially different in many respects.

“We want to enhance this community and give opportunities for young people in the area. I would love to get a situation where we had – and we’ve already started work on this – some very good state-independent school partnerships. We’re trying to link up with state academies, not just to share good practice and give opportunities to state school pupils, but because our pupils can learn a great deal from them, and that interaction.

“I think it breaks down barriers and helps young people to understand different viewpoints. It creates community when people understand why somebody feels the way they do. I think we produce very well-rounded young people.”

The school has recently invited pupils from a local primary school to a concert series and music workshops. The school’s sporting facilities, including its athletics track, football and hockey pitches, and swimming pool, provide accommodation for vitally needed local community clubs. During last year’s flooding, which brought carnage to the east Midlands, the school’s students pitched in with community projects to help those affected. 

I think there is a stereotype of what an independent school pupil is like. I think that’s unfair

“For some people – and, you know, I’m from a similar background too – there’s an impression that a school like this comes with an incredible amount of pretence. I think part of my role has to be inviting local residents up to the school to take part. I also have to get across to the local community that independent education can be affordable, but parents of students here are making sacrifices; but they believe, as I do, that the biggest gift you can give a child is their education.

“We have to challenge that perception because we offer a lot of bursaries and scholarships, which means that it can be affordable to people in the local community who might not expect it.”

From his time in Grimsby and a school in Somerset, Dr Price says there is a public perception of independent schools based on a certain stereotype. “I’m not even sure it’s a north-south divide, it might even be a south-east divide. Having been head of a school in the south-west, there were socio-economic challenges there too.

“I think there is a stereotype of what an independent school pupil is like. I think that’s unfair.”

Five numbers

Founding year: 1895

Number of pupils: 509 approximately

Age of pupils: 3–18 (including Ranby House)

Full boarding fees per term: £7,339 (years 7 and 8), £9,889 (years 9 to 13)

Day fees per term: £4,595 (years 7 and 8), £5,995 (years 9 to 13)

There is much about the school that feels as it probably has done for more than a century. The school is about to celebrate its 125th anniversary and many of its alumni, I’m told, still hold an “emotional attachment” to the school’s splendid chapel. The red-brick buildings are imbued with the aspiration of their Victorian founders – great arching ceilings and towering stone windows make an imposing impression as you cross the school’s quad.

The terracotta floor tiles of the corridor to the headmaster’s study have been worn uneven by thousands of school shoes and the magnificent dining hall – which is the real centrepiece of the community – seems as imposing as it did in the black and white photos of yesteryear. The school’s great grounds stretch for acres towards the National Trust’s stunning Clumber Park. To take a few steps away from the school is to step into countryside.

The school’s unrivalled grounds have produced some notable sporting stars, including cricket’s Joe Root, Samit Patel and Philip Sharpe, and Great Britain’s men’s hockey captain, Adam Dixon. 

Moving indoors, the school’s new head has ambitious plans for a revised curriculum and timetable. The school opens now from 8.30am to 5.40pm, but from September, lessons that currently run on a Saturday morning will move into the five-day week. Lessons will be shortened to 45 minutes and an hour-long activity programme will conclude every school day, with additional, optional activities on Saturday mornings for boarders and those who wish to join them.

This timetable, which adheres to a Monday to Friday working week, will balance the curriculum with non-curriculum activities and offers an opportunity for families to spend more of their weekends together.

A new sixth form timetable will incorporate valuable ‘life lessons’ into the school’s programme, like CV building, public speaking and LinkedIn training. The school invites TED speakers and offers coaching awards to develop students’ employability.

The emphasis of the new timetable, Dr Price says, is “flexibility” – for teachers to maximise the hours in the day to develop “an exciting, enticing extracurricular programme built around our core values of resilience, adaptability and emotional intelligence, which employers desperately want”.

Five facts

1. Ranby House caters to pupils aged 3–11; pupils go on to Worksop College from age 11–18

2. Worksop College has an annual digital detox

3. Worksop lies at the heart of one of England’s largest former coalfields

4. The school’s sporting facilities provide accommodation for local community clubs

5. The school is about to celebrate its 125th anniversary

Emotional intelligence is something Dr Price describes as his “absolute passion”. His education at a south Wales comprehensive left him feeling starved of extracurricular opportunities and rendered him anonymous to his teachers. Worksop College is not academically selective and focuses on “adding academically to every child,” the headmaster explains.

“That’s quantifiable, but what isn’t quantifiable is the development of the whole person; the self-esteem, the self-worth, the ‘well roundedness’. That, for me, is vital.” 

The school’s senior leadership team meet every week and challenge one another with the school’s ethos that every lesson should be bold and ambitious; supportive yet challenging; and inquisitive and thoughtful. Changing the measurements of success has become “a self-fulfilling prophecy”, Dr Price explains, as alternative approaches are valued and championed on their own terms.

The new curriculum at sixth form will include two valuable hours dedicated to life skills, including car maintenance, ironing a shirt, cooking on a budget, managing a bank account and applying for a mortgage. The school’s wider team – including the groundstaff and the domestic staff – pitch in with this education for life. 

worksop college
Worksop College switches off wifi from 10pm each night

The school wants students to understand how to use digital tools, but in balance with their mental health. It is challenging the encroaching influence of social media at the frontline. Worksop College has an annual digital detox; staff and students are expected to hand over their phones and no one – not even the headmaster – can check emails.

The result of being in such a stunningly scenic area (as I quickly found out) is no internet, other than the school’s broadband. The school switches off the wifi from 10pm each night, meaning boarders cannot access social media during the evenings. The chapel even hosts mindfulness sessions alongside its traditional Anglican services.

Worksop College is a school at ease with its history and its future; a school aware of its privilege and its responsibility.

This article was originally published in our March issue.

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