We chatted to Catherine Openshaw to find out what inspires The Mead School’s incoming Head and why she is such a good match with our school.
If you ask Catherine Openshaw for an example of something of which she’s really proud, it is that during her current school’s last inspection, most children named Maths as their favourite subject.
‘I was absolutely delighted. In my experience, children tend to say they don’t like Maths. And you can understand why. It’s tricky.’ So what has made the difference in the Pre-Prep of King’s Rochester, where Catherine is currently Head? She has a theory.
‘When independent schools want to demonstrate their advantage over state schools,’ she says, ‘there is a temptation to rocket through the curriculum, so they can point at their children and say, “They are two years ahead of their peers”.’
Two years’ ahead they may be, but how confident are they in what they have learned? Maths, that notoriously tricky subject, only gets trickier if you are still a bit wobbly on the basics while you gallop on, ticking off new skills.
‘The focus shouldn’t be on speed,’ she says, ‘but on depth and mastery.’
This means that, under Catherine’s supervision, once the children have learnt a new skill, there’s no rushing on to the next thing.
‘We ask, how can it be applied in a different way, in a different lesson even? How can we tax the way they think about it?’ In effect, how can this skill be rooted so securely in their understanding that it’s with them for good, and the next step, the next challenge, is easier and more enjoyable because it rests on a reliable, rock-solid foundation?
Catherine, who will take up her role as Head at The Mead School in September, comes across as warm and personable, and definitely a woman with a clear purpose. She says she always knew she wanted to work with children, but not as a teacher (her mother had been one!). While doing her GCSEs, she was already planning a career as a paediatrician. A two-week work experience placement at Great Ormond Street Hospital, while fascinating, led her to rethink that idea, but she retained her interest in science, reading Molecular Cell Biology and Education at Homerton College Cambridge.
By the time she was doing her Masters with the Open University, Catherine was in her first teaching job. This was at a state school in Harlow, which she describes as both terribly challenging and terribly rewarding, citing as a key experience teaching a mother to read alongside her child. From the beginning, Catherine found she was interested, not only in classroom teaching, but in how the structure of both the school and the curriculum impacted learning. This focus on the bigger picture was recognised, and by the end of her five years there, Catherine, a relative beginner, was on the senior management team.
A brief period away from teaching followed – the only time Catherine has ever questioned her career path – but ultimately she missed the children too much and moved back into education via supply teaching. The Head told her she was the best supply teacher they’d ever had, and took her on full time. Catherine thinks it was probably because she approached this temporary stop gap as seriously as she would a permanent position. ‘I tend to throw myself into things!’ However, the opportunities to apply all she had learned, all she thought good education could be, were limited in a class of 32, and her next move was into a small independent school. Five happy years there confirmed her sense that it was much easier to make a difference in smaller classes, and she has remained in the independent sector ever since.
A break to have her two children was not really a break. She continued to provide supply support in the school where her husband was Head of Department, and also took a stint in the school office, which gave her an invaluable insight into the administrative beating heart of the school.
Since then, Catherine has been part of the leadership team at Solefield School in Sevenoaks, a small, family-focused boys’ school, and most recently Head of the Pre-Prep and Nursery at King’s Rochester, a standalone headship, where she is also the whole-school safeguarding lead for children aged 3-18. Her passion for strategy and how children learn has made her a successful and popular Head.
‘Quality,’ she says, ‘should never stand still. You have to keep looking for ways to make it better.’ As well as refocusing academic learning on depth and mastery, Catherine also looked for ways to strengthen the happy, community aspect of life at the school. Expanding the school house system allowed for events bringing together children of different ages, as well as the introduction of house points for community-minded behaviour, and simply being nice. She also introduced a school dog. Mitzi (who will be accompanying her to Tunbridge Wells) is beloved of the children, is involved in counselling and reading sessions, and has proved particularly effective in helping children cheer up after the odd playground spat.
What else? Catherine loves music, choir singing in particular, yoga (lots of) and running. She also likes to set herself a challenge every year. Already an accomplished knitter, this year she decided to do a diploma in crochet. ‘It turned out to be much more serious than I had anticipated. I had to submit 17 modules for grading, but now I have a fully fledged diploma!’
And what about the move to The Mead School?
‘I wake in the middle of the night with a ridiculous sense of excitement. I wasn’t actually looking to move, but when I saw the notice about the headship role at the Mead, something about it captured me. The family feel, what I could see on the website and the inspection reports, the way it is so much a part of the Tunbridge Wells community, all appealed. Then the conversations I had with members of the school community bore out all my first impressions.’
Catherine is at pains to reassure that she won’t be bringing in sweeping changes.
‘The Mead is already a very good school. I will be listening to the children and their parents, as well as teachers and the wider community, and then working out how to keep building on everything the Mead is.’
Quality, as Catherine points out, should never stand still, and the Mead has never been a school to rest on its laurels. ‘I think we will be very successful together.’