The Interview - 'I wanted to be a nun years ago'

8th May 2009 at 01:00
Pat Hollinghurst heads Chilton Trinity Technology College in Bridgwater, Somerset. She hopes to haul the school out of National Challenge status this year

What made you become a teacher?

It wasn't my first choice career. I had wanted to be a train driver, like my grandad. When I told the careers officer at school he just said: "Don't be stupid." My next option was to follow an aunt to become a nun. I just liked the long black skirt - it wasn't a great reason to throw myself into that mission. So I decided to go to university to study law or, as a last resort, teaching. Teaching won. I suppose it was in my blood, and I found the familiar environment of the school so exciting when you switch sides.

Where did you start your career?

After completing my studies at Reading University, I started at the Wilmington Grammar School for Boys in Dartford, Kent, in 1977. It was formative in the sense that the school was an unusual combination of a grammar school and secondary modern side by side. I taught in both. It helped me understand the fallacies of the system and see how boys coped with the stresses brought about by failing their 11-plus.

What made you set out for headship?

I didn't really. I took my career step by step, doing one interesting job after another. While heavily pregnant with my daughter I went for a deputy headship interview at Chilton Trinity, where I am now. I loved the atmosphere of the school and the clear sense of community, so much so that it never left me, and they didn't forget me either.

I went on to be a deputy in two other Somerset schools before returning to Chilton Trinity as head. No one was more surprised than me when I got an interview, and even more so when I got the job. After 10 years, I still love every day.

What were the early priorities?

The school was at a bit of a crossroads and I had to be hands-on to make sure we established the kind of learning environment we wanted for our school. We spent two years working at the bedrock of care and support that the school had been lacking. We got there.

What special qualities did you bring to the job?

The school was always a community, but I now think our young people show real thought and care for the community that they live and work in and have a better understanding of each other's needs. They appreciate difference and are basically just kind. It's an old-fashioned virtue.

How has National Challenge status impacted the school?

It has definitely had its positives. I hate the fact that we have been labelled, and inevitably it makes us feel - and possibly others think - that we are not a good school. But I know we are.

However, it has made us focus on the rigour of assessment and its use in ensuring pupils get the results that they deserve. I worry that it makes us just look at those CD borderlines when we are an inclusive school. It is as important to move from an F to an E and a B to an A. But the result of this year's focus is that we will make outcomes better for all pupils and that has to be good.

We hit a blip last year. We are a happy school where pupils feel secure, but we have gone into the National Challenge with open minds and hearts. Every percentage point increase in A to C grades is two more children who improve their life chances of going on to further education and university. Our mission is to improve those life chances for the children of Chilton Trinity. We are sure we will rise above the National Challenge threshold this year. So it is a passing thing, I hope.

What advice would you give others in your position?

I feel like the last person who should give advice, but if I started again I would make quick changes early on to establish a strong community. That's important to me. This has been about service to others, for me, and you have to be brave to serve.

I trialled the National Professional Qualification for Headship back in the Nineties and I think it is now a much better preparation for heads than when I started out.

If you were Schools Secretary for a day, what would you do?

Free up the national curriculum: let teachers be creative, brave and bolder in teaching the whole child, not just the academic.

What's the worst excuse you have ever heard?

There have been so many. My favourite was when I was head of modern foreign languages at St Dunstan's. I took over the notorious 3PK, who I loved but they were a handful. We taught rural studies and had a little "farm". Every morning, Robert would be late. Every morning the kids would explain that he was late because he was kissing the pigs. Then one day he was really late. He'd had to go to the dentist because of a gum infection from kissing the pigs.


1999: Head of Chilton Trinity Technology College, Bridgwater, Somerset.

1995-1999: Deputy head, Heathfield Community School, Taunton, Somerset.

1990-1995: Deputy head, Buckler's Mead School, Yeovil, Somerset.

1981-1990: Head of MFL, TVEI co-ordinator and senior mistress, St Dunstan's Community School and Arts College, Glastonbury, Somerset.

1977-1981: Assistant teacher of French and English then head of French at Wilmington GrammarSecondary School, Dartford, Kent.

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