Wimbledon High Junior School: Reflections on 16 years of Junior School Leadership

Ms Kate Mitchell, Head of Juniors, retires at the end of this academic year after 16 years as Head of Juniors. Here she explores some of the changes that have occurred that have enabled the WHS Junior School to go from strength to strength.

Above: From here…
Above: …to there!

Wednesday January 8th 2003: from this, my very first day, I wanted so much to get it right and be the best Head I could possibly be. Who would have predicted heavy snow? Not everyone made it into school that day and nothing could have been considered to be normal for those first few wintery days of my first term. What a very strange way indeed to begin to get to know your staff, parents and girls. I got to know them very quickly, as we played outside, built snowmen and had lots of fun together. What did I learn? The great Monty Python mantra which has stayed with me throughout, ‘always expect the unexpected’!

The very first Year 6 production I saw was ‘Bring Dad Home’. Performed at The Polka Theatre, the girls had the weekend to rehearse in the theatre and it was performed twice on the Sunday – matinee and evening. I then brought things ‘in house’ and for a few years, we used the Junior Hall for our shows, until the Rutherford Theatre was built in 2007 – hurrah for that!

In 2003, hockey, cross-country and tennis were not on the curriculum. The girls simply played netball throughout the autumn with rounders and athletics in the summer. Our only strength was in swimming. My first meeting with parents concluded with them asking me to address the perceived mediocrity that existed in sport. I’m not going to describe to you what you know exists today (take a look at our many recent triumphs detailed in High Ways) but you can see that we have come a very, very long way, in terms of variety and excellence in sport.

Referencing sport leads me to reflect on how the House system has changed. At least in the Junior School, we had a House system; it wasn’t introduced to the Senior School until 2005. Named after four famous women, the girls meet fortnightly, compete in lots of different arenas including sport, music and chess, raise funds for chosen charities and generally make inter-year friendships that last throughout their time in Juniors. A great development in recent years is the cross-fertilization with the senior school where we have the same colour house days and house captains lead house assemblies together. This has become a major part of our vision to create a truly unified school where the playground is not the metaphorical divide between seniors and juniors.

I can’t emphasise enough how important residential visits are in the lives of children. The range we offer to the girls is, as you would expect, carefully matched to the taught curriculum but more importantly, the girls are learning the skills of being away from home. From Year 3, these are stepped up age appropriately in length of nights away from home as well as distance! I included Bushcraft knowing that it is a truly formative experience for all involved – including staff. This complements the recent introduction of the Outdoor Ed programme in Year 6 which leads to national certification. In addition, for Years 5&6 we offer a biennial ski trip and we are about to launch, in the alternate years, and in response to parental demand, a sports tour open to all.

It is what goes on in the classroom that is fundamental to girls’ learning. However, when I meet ‘old girls’ who are now beyond university, it is all of the above that they recall fondly and speak about, rather than the day they learnt their 6x tables.  Why is this? I believe co-curricular activity relies on the strength of the human relationships which inspire the girls to develop and grow their confidence and creates happiness from within. Of course, none of this could be achieved without the dedicated staff who are prepared to try new ideas, give their time and support the myriad of opportunities open to the girls; and it is through the strength of these relationships that deep learning takes place.

I too have been on a learning journey which has been rewarding, fulfilling, exciting, sometimes scary and above all great fun. As I now prepare to stride out I know that I am leaving behind a Junior School which is in truly great shape. I feel privileged to have been at the helm for 16 years and am very proud of all that we in the Junior School have achieved together.