It is widely known that independent schools offer a first-rate learning experience for their pupils – but what about their staff?
Not only is it an amazing experience for students, but there are many varied benefits of teaching at an independent school for teachers, too!
In this blog, Johanna Urquhart, head teacher at Lomond School, explains why she loves working at a Scottish independent school and gives a first-hand account of what to expect if you decide to teach at one.
Can you describe a typical day in your role?
Ironically, there is no ‘typical’ day in my role - and, yet more ironically still, that is what I love best about it. The best day would consist of a wander around first thing to say hello to the team before pupils arrive; coffee (a very important part of the job!) and, once school was in session, a visit to the Junior School and Nursery to see what adventures our littlest Lomonders are having.
Next, a visit to as many classrooms as possible to spend time with pupils and see their work – as well as to observe the high-quality learning and teaching. I am a classroom teacher first and foremost and watching our fabulous teachers in action is incredibly inspiring. Of course, there is paperwork and correspondence and meetings but it’s the people that really make my day and make this the best job in the world.
What do you like most about working at an independent school?
In a word: freedom. In an independent school we have the freedom to make decisions based on what you know is right for the pupils in your school. I love that I can really focus on ensuring that every decision we make is in the best interests of pupils and improves their learning journey and outcomes.
Having worked in both public and independent schools, I loved the support and collective professional development that working in a Local Authority school brings. However, the downside would have to be the myriad of new initiatives, the bureaucracy, and the ever-changing government directives which can often consume a disproportionate amount of your time and detract from the real priority: the pupils’ experiences.
Working in an independent school, we can make our own decisions about the curriculum, approaches to teaching and learning, staffing, purchasing and professional development, all of which directly impact our individual learners - rather than being forced to conform to a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
What was your career journey like? Have you always worked at independent schools?
I started my teaching career as a maths teacher at Kirkland High School and Community College in Methil, Fife. From there I went on to an acting APT maths post at Lochgelly, before moving to Waid Academy, Anstruther, where I became PT curriculum. I then moved to Breadalbane Academy when I was promoted to Depute Head.
I spent seven years at George Watson’s College as Depute Head before starting as Principal of Lomond School in 2014. This varied experience – from state-maintained to independent; day to boarding; small school to large; from the rural to the urban - has definitely enhanced my skill set, given me a broad range of perspectives and been beneficial to my career.
Do you run any special initiatives for your teachers and staff, e.g. wellbeing support?
Wellbeing and the work/play balance are hugely important to me, and I try to ensure that my team feel the same by leading by example. I enjoy many outdoor pursuits such as skiing, water skiing and sailing, and am currently trying to learn Spanish. I passionately believe that the more well-rounded, stimulated and fulfilled we are as individuals, the better we can be in the classroom.
Over the past few years, we have run climbing courses, wakeboarding experiences and sailing courses for our staff; I strongly believe that getting into the outdoors and trying new things boosts wellbeing and we have had an excellent response from staff. I am a qualified Les Mills Fitness instructor and run body balance and yoga classes for staff and pupils when I have a quieter schedule. I also hosted wreath-making workshops at Christmas and - now that restrictions are lifting - we hope to offer again the many staff social events Lomond has always enjoyed.
There are a number of benefits which staff receive working in our school, from the little things, like complimentary cakes on a Friday and Christmas goody bags, to the more substantial benefits, such as discounts on pupil tuition fees at the school and use of the gymnasium and event spaces.
We have a commitment to looking after the wellbeing of our staff and myself and my senior colleagues have an open-door policy so that staff can come and talk to us should they need to.
During lockdown we created a bespoke Health and Wellbeing website for staff with tips and tricks to look after their own wellbeing. We also made sure that we tackled the issue of isolation head on and held daily virtual ‘coffee break’ meetings. These were a great success and became an important part of our daily routine during lockdown.
What is the one thing about teaching at an independent school that you wish more people knew about?
Some people think that independent schools are just for the very wealthy and that all our pupils are over-privileged. It is important that more people realise that a significant proportion of pupils in our schools receive financial support, with a large number receiving free places and bursaries.
Also, that the vast majority of parents make huge sacrifices in terms of their lifestyle choices to afford the fees. Our pupils are fortunate in the education they receive but they are not arrogant, entitled or exceptionally privileged: they are lovely, hard-working young people who overcome challenges like everyone else and deserve their success.
However, whether in receipt of a bursary or otherwise, all of our pupils have chosen to come to our school and therefore they and their parents want to make the very best of that experience. This means that they are eager to learn and throw themselves into life beyond the classroom and this makes the role of the teacher extremely rewarding and enjoyable. The relationships between the adults and young people in our school are very positive and mutually respectful and the atmosphere is much more relaxed as a result.
We know that pupils benefit from smaller class sizes at independent schools. In your view, how do teachers also benefit from this?
As a teacher it is easier to get to know your pupils better, and to tailor the teaching to each individual if the class sizes are smaller. Pupils are also more comfortable speaking out and participating which is why our lessons have a relaxed, tutorial feel about them.
Teachers can try new ideas and approaches to teaching and learning, knowing that our pupils will buy in to them. There are also significant advantages in terms of a reduction in preparation, marking and report writing as well - and what teacher doesn’t love that?!
What would you say to someone considering a career in independent education?
I would highly recommend working in the independent sector and believe there are great advantages to doing so. For those who are more sceptical I would advise approaching the prospect with an open mind.
Whenever people visit Lomond School with preconceived ideas about what to expect from an independent school, they always leave very pleasantly surprised. It is not stuffy, remote, or old-fashioned at all - it is such a warm, welcoming place which feels modern, forward thinking and fun.
Many thanks to Johanna Urquhart, head teacher at Lomond School, for her contribution to this blog.