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The Bridge Interviews

Kathy Haig

Kathy Haig

December 2019

The name of Kathy Haig may not be well known to some of our readers but will be very well known to a great many others.  For the last 12 years she has been running by far the largest organisation in our immediate area with responsibility for some 1600 people: Burford School.


Like Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the new Speaker, Kathy comes from Bolton in Lancashire.  She comes from a family of teachers: they moved to this area when Kathy was about 14.  Her father became head of technology at King Alfred’s School, Wantage and her mother became head teacher of Holy Trinity School at Chipping Norton. They still live in the area.  Kathy and her two brothers attended (where else?) Burford School.  She studied science at school and then took a degree in food science and nutrition at Leeds University.


It was by no means predestined that she would follow the path to teaching.  “I studied science and maths and then food and nutrition because I found the subjects really interesting.  Then my Dad said to me ‘You are really outgoing.  Have you considered teaching?’ He was right.  I am a bit of a show-off and I like performing.  So I did a PGCE [postgraduate teaching qualification] at Leeds.  My first job was at a school in Hull (it was very cold!) and I then moved to a school at Keighley in Yorkshire as a head of year.  I wanted to be a food teacher because we always have to eat.  There is no danger of becoming unemployed!  I became passionate about nutrition and healthy eating before people became health conscious and concerned with fighting cancer and heart disease.  One of the first things I did at Keighley was to shut the tuck shop and launch a healthy eating alternative.”


Kathy’s next move was to a school at Ellesmere Port in Cheshire as an assistant head and then deputy head.  Then came the big move.  “I was with my family at February half term and I saw that there was a vacancy for the headship at Burford.  It being such a prestigious school I didn’t have high hopes but my brother Peter insisted that I should apply so I did and got the job.”  She took up the post in January 2008, bringing with her a daughter and son who also attended the school.  They are now 22 and 20.  Her daughter has recently graduated from Birmingham University with a degree in history and her son is studying geography at Exeter.


What were your first impressions? “My first was that very little had changed in the 20 years since I had left.  The second was that everyone was very polite and friendly.  I remember that early on I went to cover for a teacher in J block.  I didn’t know the way and some girls said ‘Are you lost, miss? We’ll take you there’. When we dismiss a class at the end of a lesson they say “Thank you”.  At the end of assembly they give a round of applause.”


What changes did you make?  “My background was being a deputy head who led on teaching and learning in secondary schools.  Teachers are there to teach and children are there to learn and I insist that nothing should get in the way of that.  So I wanted to ensure that there was a consistently high standard of teaching.  Some of the teachers had embraced modern teaching methods and others had not.  Pedagogy has changed enormously in the last 15 years.  It is not enough for the teacher just to stand at the front of the class and speak.”


She explains to us that different children learn in different ways.  There are auditory learners who learn best through hearing and remember and understand new concepts when they are explained out loud.  Then there are visual learners who have an early affinity for books and can learn from diagrams, videos and handouts.  The third group is kinaesthetic learners who learn by touch, movement and motion, who would rather hold something than look at it.  All the children are profiled on joining the school and their preferred learning style is plotted on a grid.  This all goes onto a computer and teachers can run a profile for their group, enabling them to tailor their teaching approach to the needs of each individual group of students. Very eye-opening for those of us who had a traditional education!


Kathy still likes to do some teaching herself.  “The traditional curriculum is right for the most part but we introduced engineering, GCSE physical education and GCSE childcare.  Some of the staff were surprised about the childcare but I said I’ll launch it and I’ll buy you all a pint if it doesn’t come off.  It did take off and pupils have gone on to become nursery nurses, hospital nurses or midwives”.


Being a head teacher does have its lighter moments.  “Once I was doing a lesson observation in a ground floor classroom.  I was sitting quietly at the back of the room while the lesson went on.  Then a boy came in leading Pedro, one of the two school donkeys.  The teacher tried quietly to tell the boy to take Pedro away but the boy kept bringing him in. In the end I had to intervene and explain to the boy that the teacher might be embarrassed because the head teacher was there.  The boy hadn’t seen me sitting at the back.”


How many pupils are there? She says there were 1416 at the last count compared with 1130 when she arrived.  Do you know them all? “I go outside on duty every lunchtime and walk the site.  I may not know all the names but I know their faces, which ones sit together, which ones play together and who sits alone and needs to be helped to play with others.  I go to have tea with the boarders in the boarding house every week and I meet the leadership team (head girl and boy and their deputies) every fortnight.  I absolutely believe that children have to get their qualifications but also that there should be other things to enrich the curriculum.  For example there is a lot of interest in the climate debate so we set up an environment impact group.  Thirty staff offered to take part.  We talk at assembly about what they can do - recycling, not using plastic cups, bringing their own bottles to school and so on.”


How does the boarding house work?  “There are 38 state boarding schools in England.  Anyone with a British or EU passport can apply to board.  The parents pay fees to cover the cost of boarding.  We feel that it is important that the children themselves wants to board and will be happy and thrive in dormitories of four or six.  The children and parents are interviewed separately and assessed in terms of behaviour and suitability for boarding.  There is room for about 100 boarders.  We could fill the places  three times over.  Last year all the places for September were filled by February and we already have deposits for 2021.”  In the boarding house around 30% of the children are from overseas including from Spain, France, Germany, Hong Kong and Nigeria [British passport holders in the last two cases.]  They also have pupils from the Falklands; there is no post 16 education there and they are able to travel conveniently on a military flight to Brize Norton.


What links are there between the town and the school?  “The mayor, John White, is a governor.  One staff member, Ryan Lane, is a retained firefighter.  We have strong links with the primary school and help with their after school clubs.  Some older pupils work in businesses in Burford doing washing up or cleaning or at the garden centre.  We put on monthly lunches for older people at the boarding house.  There is the community choir which put on a performance of Fauré’s Requiem in the church in 2018 and will be coming together again in March next year.  There is the alumni association, quite a few members of which live in the area.  The sports hall, the main hall and the boarding house hall are hired out for various activities.  We hold business breakfasts twice per year and the businesses in Burford are very supportive.  They provide work experience for year 10 and 12 pupils together with mock interviews.”


There are about 200 staff at the school.  “We encourage the staff to improve their academic learning.  It is good to remind them that teaching and learning are different processes and remind them what it feels like to be a bit out of their depth.  A deputy head is doing a PhD at Oxford and two other members of staff are doing master’s degrees.   I chair the education partnership at Oxford University and that opens opportunities for children and staff to improve their academic learning.  Eleanor Thomas, our head of history, co-authored a published paper with Catherine Burn of Oxford about good practice in teaching A-level history.”


Although the sixth form follows a traditional academic curriculum, there is room for other activities.  “The school is well known for art, music, technology and sport.  For a time that was not fashionable but now we are leading the field.  We do more than just the five subjects that Mr Gove thought were important.  The governors are very good.  They are very supportive and don’t give me an easy ride but I enjoy the challenge.  Some schools have difficulty finding governors but when we had a vacancy for a parent governor last month there was an election with four candidates.”


With all this going on and so many staff and pupils in her charge, how does she manage to relax?  “I love cooking.  The staff joke that I am always eating.  I have passed that on to my children.  My son must be the only person who makes pastry at university.  I am always reading.  It is very important that children acquire the habit of reading.  I also love travel and love to be busy.”  (She must be an exhausting person to go on holiday with!).


What future plans do you have?  “We need an Astroturf pitch for hockey.  Our teams are successful but are disadvantaged by not having an all-weather surface.  And we have a huge and exciting event coming up.  The school was founded in 1571 as an independent school for boys.  We still have the original charter.  The school will be 450 years old in November 2021.  We are going to have a year of celebration ending with our Charter Day in November.  We have lots of plans.”  Watch this space for details.

Kathy Haig
Kathy Haig
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