Interview - 'Boys thought it was a case of surf or school'

18th December 2009 at 00:00
Helen Mathieson is headteacher at Treviglas Business and Enterprise College in Newquay. It offers a broad range of subjects, from surf science to hairdressing

What brought you to Cornwall?

I was born in Cheshire and went to college there, but my first job had to be in Cornwall because I was, by that time, engaged to a Cornishman so I started at Saltash School. Then we spent the next few years hopping around Cornwall to move towards Newquay where my fiance, who became my husband, had a hotel business.

So how did you become a headteacher?

I took six years out of teaching to have my two boys, and after that I worked as a supply teacher in secondary schools for five years. Then I took up a full-time post as a second in department before becoming head of year and then deputy head, all at schools in Cornwall. I was appointed head at Treviglas in 2003. The word Treviglas is written through me like a stick of seaside rock: I consider myself hugely privileged to work with the children, families and teachers in this community.

Can enterprise really be taught?

The problem with the title is that there's a preconception that we are raising an army of shopkeepers. Enterprise skills, like risk taking and listening, underpin our entire curriculum. We might find the next Alan Sugar, but it's more about creating a cohort of confident learners who know how to work together to gain knowledge.

How does that work in practice?

You can see it embodied in every lesson, or even our form tutor groups. Every day, pupils have 25 minutes of form time. There are vertical tutor groups with no more than 22 pupils aged 11 to 16. The pupils work together to mentor and support each other while the form tutor co-ordinates work on enterprise skills. It's had an enormous impact, not least because it makes each age group less tribal and encourages rapport between them.

How did the idea for a surf academy arise?

We live and work in a beautiful area but someone once told me: "You can't eat scenery". About 10 years ago the surf culture was having a big impact on our boys. They thought they could only do one thing - surf or school. I needed to broach that so I began to investigate what the college could offer. Surfing is one of the fastest-growing industries in western Europe, so I looked at how pupils could enjoy the surf culture and continue to study.

Is it a success?

It's been a great success. We have a cohort of about 15 people each year and a 100 per cent pass rate. Young people who were at risk of becoming disengaged all end up going on to university to study subjects such as oceanography or surf science or go straight into employment. It's an academic package wrapped around practical experience and the surf science modules are all accredited by Plymouth University.

Does it stop with the surf academy?

No, we also have a technicians' academy, a business academy and a science academy, all of which deliver university courses. The idea for the technicians' academy came to me after I was left queuing in a deli for ages, waiting for a man to arrive and fix the weighing machine and computer. I thought, there is such a need for people who know about systems and networks. We are also considering setting up a teaching academy.

What will stem Cornwall's high youth unemployment rate?

I believe in transferable skills. I don't ask pupils: "What do you want to be?" I ask them: "How do you want to live?" They need to think about what skills they will need and how they will adapt to jobs throughout their lives. They really can sit and look out at the ocean if that's what they want to do, while also tapping away working for themselves or for an international business.

What's the secret of success?

Schools have to look outwards and see what they can learn from others. Being insular is an enormous danger. Diplomas, especially, demand that schools collaborate and work with partners.

What's the best thing about your job?

I love the diversity and being with the children. The senior management team and I man the bus lines every single night. It's an opportunity to have a conversation with everyone. Every day there are huge ups, a huge sense of pride and lots of laughter. It's a wonderful job.

What has been your proudest achievement as head?

When we were judged outstanding in January it validated all our hard work. It proved to everyone that we as a community work to the very highest possible standards. I nearly burst with pride.

What is the best piece of advice you have been given?

I was once told not to waste my energy on the things I can't change, just to go out and change everything else. It's helped to keep my feet on the ground.

What is the worst excuse you have heard?

I was talking to two Year 11 boys and asked them if they had got their tickets for the leavers' ball. One said he had, but the other said: "No. I've got to look after the pigs."


2003-present: Headteacher, Treviglas College

1994: Deputy head, Treviglas College (full-time)

1991: Deputy head, Treviglas College (part-time)

1989: Head of year, Treviglas College

1987: Second in English department, Treviglas College

1984-87: Long-term supply teacher, Newquay Tretherras School

1977-84: Full-time mother of two sons

1974: English teacher, Poltair School, St Austell, Cornwall

1973: English teacher, Saltash School, Cornwall

1970-73: Cheshire College of Higher Education, read English.

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