The talented teachers and leaders across the Whole Education network are our greatest strength , and are making change in their schools and classrooms every day. As part of an ongoing series, we speak to Rachel Tomlinson, Headteacher at Barrowford School in Barrowford, about leading a whole education. You can discover more about the school’s vision of a whole education in their school spotlight.
What was your primary school experience like?
We were from quite a small town in the North West and the primary school I attended was the same one my parents attended, where they were taught by my grandma, as were my older brother. When she retired, my mum actually took over her job, so my middle brother had the interesting experience of having been taught by both his grandma and his mum. Mum taught me for two years so, from memory, school felt really safe and warm.
It was a catholic primary school and it’s the community aspect of a faith school that we try to replicate, albeit without the faith aspect. I can remember really feeling a part of a warm, tight-knit school community.
Are there marked differences between school then and now?
I think we look back as teachers with a different lense and I think some of the things I did at school – extended projects following our interest, involvement in our community, going on school holidays – have the potential to be squeezed out of the curriculum.
It’s interesting actually because, nobody’s ever asked me this before. When I reflect on it now I think, crikey, a lot of the things that I hold dear in education in education are because it was a really warm experience for me. We are a much bigger school and, given that it’s non-denominational, more diverse. I think ultimately though our children get a very similar experience where they feel they belong and feel safe.
Why did you pick a career in education?
Well my grandma was a teacher all of her life and stayed in the classroom all her life. She had five children- four of whom were teachers, three of whom went on to primary headship (including my mum). So I guess there must be something in the DNA there.
But funnily enough I never wanted to be a teacher. Being a teacher was never actually on the cards and right up until my second year of university I was going to go into forensic science or medicine. What happened was one year I ended up getting summer work at my mum’s school and I think being there as a colleague rather than the headteacher’s daughter, looking at school as a professional workplace, I remember going back to uni and saying yeah, this is what I want to do.
What has been the biggest change in your school since you became headteacher?
I think there’s been a massive change in ethos and philosophy. I think it’s in the philosophy around social and emotional health and wellbeing. I was here as deputy for two years before I got the headship, so I did have a very clear view of what it was like before, working with the outgoing headteacher. I think there’s a real clarity when we look back to what the school was like; it’s unrecognizable in that sense. I think, a big difference, and this is true of lots of schools, is that the school must meet the needs of the children rather than the other way around.
What has been your proudest moment as a school leader or teacher?
When I think about where we are now, I mean, there are moments of pride every day. I have a lot of job satisfaction and, in the Barrowford vernacular, bucket-filling moments. I go home and I think we’ve done a lot of good. We’ve changed the lives of a lot of children, not just in small ways, but in really significant ways- people have said You know, you’ve saved my family, you’ve saved my life and my child’s life. I think it would be unfair to pick out one moment or one child from that.
I think, given all the opposition we’ve experienced –national, wild criticism of us – we’ve stuck to our principals and we’ve stuck to what we know is right for our children. I think what I’m most proud of is we always look to meet their needs and we keep an open mind as to what that might look like.
What advice would you give a newly qualified teacher?
Always keep your children at the centre of everything that you do. When it all feels complicated, when it all feels too big or too stressful, focus on your group of children and think am I doing the right thing for them? It will all become clear.
A piece of advice I give often, be it to teachers, children or myself is, if you’re ever stuck in quandary, and you don’t know what the right course of action is – it’s a good bet that the most difficult route is the right one.
What advice do you give to children as they transfer to secondary school?
Really think on what it is about you that’s special. Know that you are of value, even when it feels like you’re not. I’ve recently experienced this with my own children, where one has transferred to high school and the other to six form college. I’ve told them, be you and enjoy this time – it only happens once.
What are your school’s top priorities this year?
Our top priority is to live up to our motto – Learn to Love, Love to Learn. We do a lot of work on social, emotional and mental health; there is a heightened focus on that. I think that sometimes there is a misconception, generally from outside our school, but also with new teachers or members of staff, that this work supersedes that of academic achievement. This is not the case and our motto shows that they are equal. Our priority is to maintain and progress this equality because you can’t have one without the other and so we must raise the profile of the academic side of things.
This year for all of our appraisals we have asked all of our staff to identify their own research projects or lines of enquiry, which will then encompass all sorts of different targets. For 3 or 4 staff members, Spirals of Enquiry will be a big part of this, while for some it will be less formal, depending on where staff are in their teaching journeys. That research-informed practice will back up our primary aim of ensuring our academic aims hold equal sway with our social and emotional work.
Another priority here is around children and families who speak English as an additional language, which is a rapidly growing cohort for us. What we know here is that often (not always, but often) these children don’t get the same experiences as our English-speaking families. We want to balance that inequality to make sure whatever your language, that final barrier is removed.
How do you define a whole education?
I think it’s about tailoring the school experience so that the children can grow and develop through experience; becoming people who are going to make a positive impact and change in this world.